If there’s an overused term in the frequently hyperbolic, what-am-I-going-to-say-this-time endeavor of audio-equipment evaluation, it could be game changer. Maybe there should be a rule: A reviewer can trot out that descriptor, say, only once every five years. I’ve not used game changer myself up to this point but—spoiler alert—I’m about to do so.
Paul Barton—the P and B of PSB; the S is for Sue, his wife of 42 years—was the first audio manufacturer to utilize the research facilities developed by Dr. Floyd Toole at the Canadian National Research Council. Barton was, in fact, the only manufacturer to design speakers in the NRC’s famous anechoic chamber for eight years, the time frame during which Toole performed much of his most influential research on the correlation between loudspeaker measurements and the subjective judgments of non-expert listeners, as explored in rigorously controlled double-blind experiments. Given Barton’s adherence to the design philosophy he acquired in those early years, it’s not surprising that changes to PSB speakers over time have been evolutionary rather than radical shifts in approach. But PSB’s marketing department, and Barton himself, maintains that the new flagship Imagine T3 model, at $7498 per pair, is the company’s best and most innovative effort in more than four decades of making speakers. “I suppose everyone’s going to say that about their latest,” Paul Barton said to me by phone, “but I’ve really been able to do things in this product that set it apart from anything we’ve done before.”
The Imagine T3’s immediate forbear is the now discontinued Synchrony One, introduced in 2007. All the drivers have been redesigned by Paul Barton and manufactured to his specifications in China. The midrange and woofer are produced by Wavecor, which Barton describes as “a Danish engineering group that has set up manufacturing in China.” (The general manager and chairman, Allan Isakson, began his career at Vifa.) These new drivers incorporate a number of distortion-reducing features, most importantly a uniquely constructed magnetic yolk that generates improved symmetry within the magnetic field: “Now the voice coil sees exactly the name magnetic field whether it is moving out or in,” according to PSB’s technical description. The 1″ titanium-dome tweeter is made for PSB by another Chinese source—it’s a design that employs a phase plug said to result in better dispersion above 10kHz. Barton has long designed his speakers with crossovers with steep slopes; the T3 has fourth-order Linkwitz-Riley crossovers, and a B3 low-pass filter is utilized as well.
A key innovation of the Synchrony One was the Transitional Woofer Array, which substituted three smaller drivers, each in its own rear-ported sub-enclosure, for a single 12″ or 15″ woofer. In the T3, the size of the woofers has been increased from 6.5″ to 7.25″ (The midrange went from 4.5″ to 5.25″.) The new speaker goes about half an octave deeper in the bass and is 1.5dB higher in sensitivity than its predecessor. A very important advantage of the PSB’s woofer system is that it provides listeners with a way to deal with the uneven or excessive bass response of their rooms (see sidebar). On the T3, any or all of the three woofer ports can be plugged to attenuate output; PSB supplies the plugs as standard equipment with the T3. Additionally, and this is new to the T3, the bottom woofer has its own inputs and can be completely disconnected by removing a jumper. This results in a reduction in woofer output of around 3dB. “In some rooms, that dip below 100Hz is very welcome,” Barton notes. The feature also allows for potentially enhanced low-frequency output, as bi-amplification is possible with this design.
The cabinet is built in the same Chinese factory that produces the T3’s tweeter. The exterior panels are fabricated from seven layers of 3mm MDF. Each layer of MDF has a higher density “skin” on either side of a less dense internal material. “When you laminate seven pieces of MDF, you have 14 skins. It’s much stronger than a single layer of the same thickness,” Barton explained. In addition, the panels of the T3 are curved, which further increases the rigidity of the enclosure compared to what would be achieved with a rectangular box. The enclosure sits on a machined aluminum plinth with a user-friendly system of four adjustable spikes to level the speakers and to mechanically ground the 71-pound T3 to the floor. Each T3 sports three sets of binding posts, connected by jumpers. To connect speaker cable terminated in banana plugs you must remove the tiny plastic plugs inside each one. My review sample had a gorgeous high-gloss cherry finish; a high-gloss black is the alternative.
Setup of the T3s was pretty straightforward but, the tweeters’ dispersion pattern notwithstanding, getting these drivers symmetrically aimed at the prime listening position was critical to achieving the maximum degree of transparency, image specificity, and air. Careful adjustments of the spikes to level the speakers and minute changes to toe-in were well worth the effort. In my 15′ by 15′ room (the ceiling is 11′ in some places, 13′ in others), I ended up with the T3s placed 20″ from the front wall, with the speakers forming an equilateral triangle with the listening position—each was 8′ from the sweet spot and 8′ from the other, center-to-center. The speakers sounded better with their grilles off and Paul Barton told me that he’d voiced the T3s grille-less. I certainly had no aesthetic objections—I got to see more of that beautiful high-gloss finish. As to how your significant other will feel about the T3s without grilles, as they say on that darned Internet, YMMV.
Mostly, I drove the T3s with my usual amplification, a pair of Pass XA60.8 monoblocks, though a 200Wpc Parasound HCA-2200 II was tried as well. The pre/pro was the Anthem D2v, with DSP room correction run with the T3s in the system. CDs, SACDs, and Pure Audio Blu-rays were handled by an Oppo-93 sending digital data to the Anthem. Likewise, the Anthem’s DACs converted files read on a Baetis Reference music computer.
The Imagine T3s acquitted themselves gloriously with pretty much everything I sent their way. Large-scale or small, vocal or instrumental, synthetic studio job or the most minimally miked acoustic recording—every musical style and engineering approach was well served.
To Paul Barton, the greatest challenge for a loudspeaker is to approximate the dynamics of a live performance. This doesn’t have to involve an orchestra of Mahlerian proportions; a well-recorded solo violin will do the trick as a test. Jennifer Koh’s latest release for Cedille, Bach and Beyond, Part 2 (recorded by the dependable Adam Abeshouse) programs pieces by J.S. Bach, Béla Bartók, and the contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. The T3s allow one to detect changes to Koh’s bow pressure that subtly alter the overtone structure of the string sound, as well as the volume of that sound. There are slight variations in the way in which a violin string “speaks,” as with the final sustained note at the end of the opening Adagio of Bach’s G minor Sonata. And when the soloist plays on two or three strings at once, the increase in the amount of sound produced by a small instrument experienced close up is utterly believable. You could call this “dynamic life” in a recording or component, and the T3s have loads of it.
The T3’s rendering of instrumental detail is stunning. An excellent test of this sonic parameter is another recent Cedille release, Illuminations, which has the Chicago-based Avalon String Quartet playing works by Debussy, Britten, Garrop, and Golijov. What all these compositions demonstrate is the range of color and texture possible with a string quartet—possibilities that really were not exploited until the twentieth century. Stacy Garrop’s Quartet No. 4, inspired by “illuminated” pages from a medieval Book of Hours, involves highly inventive writing for the ensemble, a compendium of string-playing techniques beyond regular bowing. Pizzicatos, harmonics, sul ponticello, tremolos, glissandos—all these chamber music “special effects” register with gratifying clarity to produce, as they most certainly do in life, a magical evocation of the ancient illustrations that are reproduced in the CD’s liner notes.
Speed and transparency? A good piano recording will tell you what you need to know about a loudspeaker’s capabilities in these departments. A new reference piano recording of mine is Shen Lu’s Watercolor, on the Steinway & Sons label (enthusiastically reviewed in TAS). The pianist’s debut recording includes Ravel’s Miroirs, a work that demands the fleetest, gentlest, most even touch—and for the soloist to make it sound effortless. With “Une barque sur l’océan,” despite the velocity of the runs and arpeggios, each note still registers as having mass and dimensionality. Lesser speakers can fall short when faced with material like this.
As for soundstage creation and imaging, again, these PSBs get it right. I was convinced of this listening to a pair of favorite recordings of a favorite work—Eiji Oue’s and David Zinman’s versions of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, as recorded by Reference Recordings and Telarc, respectively. With Zinman/Baltimore, the recorded perspective is fairly close and, as a result, layered depth in the presentation of the orchestra is apparent. In Minneapolis, Prof. Johnson made his recording with a mid-hall perspective, providing much more of a sense of the room but less image specificity. The twinkling bells, flute, pianos, and harp near the end of the first movement produce a much more subtle effect on the RR disc. You wouldn’t want these two performances to sound the same interpretively or sonically, and the T3s see to it that they don’t.
The Imagine T3s are great rock speakers. They excel in the mid-to-upper bass range, 40Hz to 250Hz, where electric bass, kickdrum, and the “fat” part of the snare sound live, reproducing that part of the frequency spectrum with power and tonal evenness. (Plus the speakers have a treble range that doesn’t accentuate the top-end peakiness of too many pop recordings.) I generated a playlist on the Baetis of favorite well-recorded tracks, old and new. From (among others) Little Feat, Steely Dan, Bonnie Raitt, Dire Straits, and Stevie Ray Vaughan to Beck, El Ten Eleven, Daft Punk, and Florence & The Machine, it was soul-satisfying to listen to my impromptu “mix tape” at enthusiastic levels through the PSBs. The most recent selection on the playlist was nominally jazz, a new recording from trumpeter Terence Blanchard entitled Breathless. This funk-saturated album leads off with a blazing version of “Compared to What,” which was first recorded by Roberta Flack in 1969; here PJ Morton of Maroon 5 handles the lead vocal. Bass and drums roar out of the T3s to anchor a remarkably kinetic arrangement that had me clicking “repeat” several times.
It should be noted that the T3’s deepest bass, unnecessary for good rock n’ roll playback, isn’t as commanding as what you’ll get with a subwoofer or full-range speaker system in a bigger and heavier enclosure (and generally costing a good deal more than $7500 a pair). PSB recommends an input power range of 20 to 300Wpc; the Pass amps I use put out sixty, and I wasn’t disappointed. I did drive the T3s briefly with the 200Wpc Parasound and was surprised at how little difference the more robustly rated amp made in bass power and dynamic coherence at high volume. Of course, there’s a lot more to amplifiers than their power rating, and I’d not complain if someone left a pair of XA160.8s at my door…but the bottom line is that the Imagine T3s are a fairly easy load for moderately powered, real-world amplifiers.
So the PSB Imagine T3 really is a game changer. Let’s say you’re looking to replace the respectable “entry-level” floorstanders with which you started your high-end journey. Your financial circumstances have changed, but you’re not sure you can spend—or want to spend—the coin for…well, you know the brands I’m thinking of. I suggest that you visit a dealer that sells one or more of those expensive high-performance speakers as well as the T3s. Audition the PSBs first, with a range of familiar and sonically challenging source material, and then the high-priced spread. Listening with your heart and brain, the latter will likely sound better. They probably are better. But how much better? An assumption exists that there’s a steady continuum of improvement as one progresses from a loudspeaker like the Imagine T3 incrementally towards the state-of-the-art, cost-is-no-object designs that we must report on in The Absolute Sound. That assumption may be wrong. And that’s the game changer. The clock is running: I can’t use the term again for just under five years. Damn.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Transitional five-way triple-port bass-reflex
Driver complement: 1″ titanium-dome tweeter, 5.25″ compressed felt/fiberglass cone midrange, three 7.25″ compressed felt/fiberglass cone woofers
Frequency response: 24Hz–23kHz (+/-3dB, on-axis, anechoic chamber)
Impedance: 8 ohms
Recommended amplifier power: 20–300 watts
Dimensions: 11.5″ x 47.625″ x 15.125″
Weight: 71 lbs.
633 Granite Court
Pickering, Ontario L1W 3K1
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