PSB has an enviable reputation for offering speakers of extraordinary quality at reasonable prices. They are one of the “go to” brands in any price range below the stratosphere, models that need to be checked out before purchasing in the low-to-moderate price range. And, truth to tell, they really ought to be checked out even if you have a lot of money to spend. You might be pleasantly surprised how well they stack up against things that cost a lot more. The $3500-per- pair Imagine T2 towers definitely fit right in with this picture, offering superb sound for the money. But at the same time, they represent something of a fresh departure for PSB in a few directions and something truly exceptional in sound quality, too, even by usual PSB high standards.
First of all, the T2s seem deliberately designed to get maximum bass performance out of a really small speaker (small as floorstanders go). The T2s are only 41" high and have an undersized footprint. They fade elegantly into domestic décor, but they offer solid bass to well below the effective bottom limits of the orchestra, in my rooms anyway, although not down into subterranean frequencies.
Secondly, the T2 has an unusually narrow front for PSB—the face being 6" wide compared to the Image T6 that I reviewed in Issue 200, which is 73⁄4" wide. Even the mini-speaker Alpha B1 is 7" wide. (The curved sides of the T2s widen out behind the front to a nominal 81⁄2".) These may not seem like large differences, but the narrow front seems to have significant effects sonically, in particular in the direction of more of the soundstaging— expansive stereo presentation—so beloved of most audiophiles, and a higher frequency for the “baffle step.” (More on this later.) The T2 is unusually elegant in appearance, with gracefully curvilinear surfaces. By comparison, the (less expensive) Image T6 looks quite strictly functional.
Third, while the T2s are surely neutral as speakers go and have an overall flat response, they seem somewhat shaded towards warmth and what one might call non-aggressiveness, with a slight dip in response starting around 1–2kHz and some generosity in-room in the 100Hz region. If the Canadian-school speakers influenced by the NRC (Canada’s National Research Council) have as a whole a bit of reputation for the analytic, the T2s, while finely detailed, belie this in balance—and do so all to the musical good. The T2s are accurate, indeed, as speakers go. But they are also quite often, for lack of a more precise phrase, beautiful sounding.
How It Works
The T2 is a five-driver speaker, each speaker having three small (51⁄2") woofers, with individual internal enclosures and ports (on the back), a 41⁄2" midrange driver at the top of the speaker cabinet, and a 1" titanium-dome tweeter just below. The multiple bass drivers are used to generate more bass in a narrow-front/ small-volume cabinet and also to reduce problems of interaction with the floor (like other PSB tower speakers). The crossover is what PSB calls “transitional,” which means that the bass drivers have different response contours, with the top woofer crossing over to the tweeter at 500Hz in the usual sense, while the other two bass drivers have roll-offs at two other frequencies (80Hz, 200Hz). This transitional design gives more control over radiation pattern and floor interaction, and it works very well. The usual dip somewhere between 100Hz and 300Hz is largely missing here and the speaker has surprisingly smooth in-room response in the lower mids and upper bass, where floor and room problems can be severe.
The speaker is designed to have extremely smooth and flat response on-axis, and nearly-on-axis, too. The response hardly changes over a +/-30 degree window up to around 5kHz. Above that frequency, there is a loss of a few dB at 30 degrees in the higher frequencies. The measured overall response is very flat except for a dip in the high treble followed by a peak in the really high treble.
The far-off-axis response is interesting. Because, one supposes, of the really narrow front, what appears to be the baffle step (where the radiation shifts to being primarily frontal) is quite high, around 700Hz it seems. Around that frequency, there is a fairly steep though not terribly large droop in the far-off-axis response and then on up, compared to lower down. This is only a couple of dB, and above that transition the response is again very smooth up to around 5kHz, with minimal “tweeter flare,” presumably part of the reason for the wave-guided tweeter. Paul Barton has done a good job handling the baffle-step issue of narrow-front speakers, as well as controlling the radiation pattern.
The most immediately surprising feature of the T2s is the power and extension of the bass. One really does not expect such a small, discrete speaker to get the full bass impact of the orchestra. But the T2 does the job.
In my rooms, it rolls off fairly fast below around 35Hz, but it is solid down to 40Hz, which is pretty much the bottom of the orchestra in practice though not in principle (the contrabassoon, for example, sounds a nominal 29Hz but most of the actual energy is in the harmonics, and this is true for most of the super- deep orchestral instruments—only pipe organs really pump out substantial energy in the 20Hz range). The T2 looks small but it sounds full and unconstrained in the bottom end on orchestral music and, for that matter, rock (the bottom of the Fender bass is around 40Hz, too). The bass power is obtained by reflex-loading, and the bass is thus not in principle as “tight” as is possible, but this seemed to me a non-issue in practice—definition was good in musical terms and pitch of bass lines was very well defined. Bass lines could be followed with complete ease, even in complex music. Summary: small speaker, big sound.
The T2 will also play loudly for a small speaker. With a hefty amplifier—I was using a Sanders Magtech—the T2s will offer satisfying levels on loud music with headroom to spare in rooms of ordinary domestic size. Any speaker can be troubled by trying to fill a sufficiently enormous room, but the dynamic capacity of the T2s belies its small size.
I got a certain amount of resistance on-line for asserting in my earlier review (Issue 200) of the PSB Image T6 that it sounded remarkably like an orchestra—assertions to the effect that this was impossible and that I must not know what an orchestra sounds like (odd idea that, since I have been playing in orchestras since I was eight years old and still do). Of course, the subtext here should have been obvious: that implicit in the statement was “compared to other speakers.” No stereo presentation in a small room is literally going to sound like an orchestra in an auditorium. But as speakers go, the T6s did sound a lot like one, and the T2s do as well, and in many respects even more so.
The sense of discontinuity coming back from a rehearsal or concert and listening to the T2s in a good room is minimal in the context of stereo speakers. One really is getting something very like the gestalt of the orchestra. Full frequency range (for all practical purposes), good dynamic range, rather less than the usual sense of sound coming out of speakers, and, most important of all, natural timbre.
I am writing this not long after the Newport Show. This intriguing show included a considerable number of really impressive exhibits. And one has to cut some slack for show conditions. But to my ears, surprisingly many of the exhibits sounded, however fine in other respects, like speakers making sound in rooms. The T2s in a suitable setup in a good room are surprisingly free of this effect. An audiophile friend of mine stopped by after the show and I played him the T2s in my (rather heavily damped) downstairs audio room. He was stunned by the sense of the music materializing in space without any apparent sound from the speakers at all. (This was on the Harnoy/Dussek recording of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, RCA).
With the speakers quite far apart, the two instruments and the space of the recording venue were effortlessly there in front of you, and with your eyes closed, it would have been impossible, I think, to point at the speaker positions at all. Soundstage indeed, if you will! Is this related to the narrow front baffle? Past experience suggests that it is, and as such perhaps it is to some extent an artifact of the narrow front itself—or not, who knows? But in any case, the T2s do the “disappearing act” that all audiophiles seem to love to a fare-thee-well.
Similar things happened with larger-scaled music. John Eargle’s recording of the Shchedrin arrangement for percussion and strings of music from Bizet’s Carmen [Delos] presented the percussion in particular as totally detached from the speakers and indeed from the listening room. Of course, all well-set-up stereo speakers do this to some extent. But the T2s do it rather better than almost all others I’ve reviewed.
And on this Delos recording, the dynamic power of the T2s came to the fore. There is a good deal of banging around in this percussion tour de force—along with, in other spots, many delicate subtleties. Everything came through remarkably well, the banging and the subtleties both, with the speaker maintaining a relaxed, clean, apparently distortion-less sound even at the more extreme moments, and an unforced clarity in the quiet spots.
I mentioned above how smooth the speaker was off-axis. Now what all that techno stuff is likely to add up in listening terms is that the speaker will be quite neutral in almost any reasonable room environment. Of course any speaker will change sound in rooms of different liveliness, in a hard room versus a soft room. As it happened, I tried the T2s at length in both my living room—an ordinary domestic room of medium liveliness—and my audio room, which is heavily damped and less lively in the top end than an ordinary room. The T2s did well in both. But it was in the less live room that the T2s really came into their own. The sense of sound-from-no-speaker was intensified, and the tonal truthfulness was extraordinary.
A Few Limitations
No speaker is perfect and all have certain limitations. The T2’s list of negatives is short and not very emphatic but here are a few points: First of all, the bass and mid/treble do not entirely coalesce at very close listening positions. The bass drivers are spread out and contoured for a purpose—the arrangement minimizes floor interaction problems as already discussed. But the physical separation and transitional crossover mean that the T2s do not work well as “nearfield monitors”—at extremely close range they sound like a small mid/treble speakers with bass attached separately. At normal listening distances, this ceases to be an issue at all and things become remarkably integrated.
Second, the speakers are very smooth but not totally flat, having a slightly contoured sound in the upper mids. (There is, as noted, the high treble peak, but this is too high to affect timbre in the usual sense, though removing it by EQ smoothes the sound subtlety.) The T2s are in measured and listening terms slightly pulled back around 1–2kHz, relative to the frequencies just below. This does not affect perceived neutrality so much as cause a slight “backing off” of the image, an effect much to the good on a great many recordings. Musically, this is a desirable choice to my mind.
With its near perfection of pattern, an ongoing PSB design criterion especially well done here, the T2 is one speaker that is definitely DSP-correction-ready—not that it needs very much if any correction, you understand. And one could argue in this case that it really did not need any or benefit much from any that was tried, depending on the room. In the bass, only a rare, fortuitous room/speaker combination does not benefit from a bit of DSP touch-up. But in the midrange broadly conceived I did not really want to change anything.
Few speakers get to that point on their own, but here is one. Being as I am, I did experiment with EQ settings, but flattening the speaker out literally across the 1–6kHz region was not clearly an improvement in listening terms: slightly more accurate tonal character, but only slightly, and rather less natural imaging behavior. Overall, I tended to skip the EQ of anything in the midrange. And even the slight bass emphasis from the room seemed musically to the good, though of course the bass would have needed correction to be measurably perfect.
I seldom say this, being inclined to meddle and in most cases finding things I think I can improve, but in this case, letting well enough alone seemed the way to go, except perhaps for getting rid of the high-treble peak if you are so inclined.
In the live room, close to the walls of necessity (the room is fairly narrow), with no corrections, one heard a little midrange coloration, whether from the slight 400–500Hz prominence or the baffle step or something else it would be hard to say for sure. But in the larger and deader room, this went away.
One could really just revel in the realism of the sound on good recordings. My old stand-by, the Dallas Symphony/Mata recording of the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances on ProArte sounded remarkably convincing and rather more spacious than with most speakers—really (dare I say it) like an orchestra.
The Big Picture
Like their PSB predecessors, the T2s are exceptionally well- designed and represent extraordinary value at the price. Their performance in terms of their fundamental design criteria— in particular, neutral smooth response on- and off-axis—is so extraordinarily good that there is not that much obvious competition near the price range, if these are the things that count for you (as they are for me!). But, whereas the PSB T6s I reviewed earlier were so inexpensive that there was really essentially nothing I could think of at the price that would be competitive in a full-range speaker, the T2s cost enough that there is actually is some competition in the same price range: the Gradient Evidence and various BBC-related box monitors (e.g., Harbeth M30.1, Stirling Broadcast LS3/6, etc.) come immediately to my mind, but there are quite a few others. Once speakers reach a certain level of neutrality, then one begins to have to listen for one’s self as to which exact choices please the most.
Can the T2s really be all that good? Well, what can I say? In many fundamental ways—ways which often escape other speakers, even those at very high prices—the T2s get things right. Paul Barton has been designing speakers for a long time. But he just keeps getting better. The T2 is a speaker to listen to carefully before you buy anything else—even things that cost a lot more. Or you could wait for Paul Barton to produce a big statement speaker, price-no-object and domestic compatibility ignored (I am waiting for this myself). But what you already have in hand with the T2 is one remarkable transducer. PSB has a lot of dealers. A stop-in at one is definitely recommended, with open ears and open mind and forgetting about the modest price. I think you will be not only impressed in audio terms but also deeply attracted to their sound in musical ones.
SPECS & PRICING
Product type: Three-way, five- driver, ported floorstanding loudspeaker with internal sealed midrange and separate woofer enclosures
Driver complement: Three 5 1/2" woofers, one 4" midrange, one 1" titanium- dome tweeter
Crossover: 500hz to midrange, 1.8khz to tweeter, fourth-order Linkwitz-Riley
Frequency response: 36hz– 20khz , +/-1.5db
Sensitivity: 90db (in-room)
Impedance: 6 ohms nominal, 4 ohms minimum
Power handling: 300 watts program maximum, 20 watts minimum recommended
Dimensions: 6 1/2–8 1/2" x 41" x 13 1/2"
Weight: 42 1/2 lbs.
Price: $3500 (wood veneers); $3850 high-gloss black or white
PSB SPEAKERS INTERNATIONAL
633 Granite Court
L1W 3K1, Canada