During a conversation with CNET Audiophiliac blogger Steve Guttenberg, he was telling me about a pair loudspeakers he'd been enjoying immensely. Given the increasing popularity and interest in desktop loudspeaker audio here on Head-Fi.org, I asked Steve if he could write a review of those speakers for the community here at Head-Fi. He did, and here it is.
Expect to see other articles and coverage from Steve on Head-Fi.org, from time to time!
REVIEW: PSB Imagine mini Speakers
by Steve Guttenberg
Up Close and Personal
Desktop audio sound is halfway between headphones and a hi-fi system. Granted, a good set of headphones will let you hear more detail/resolution from a recording, mostly because there's no worries about room acoustics, and you're definitely in the sweet spot for imaging, but it's all in your head. Three feet away from a pair of desktop-friendly speakers you get a massive soundfield, one that spreads wider than the actual locations of the speakers. Nearfield listening also delivers the maximum resolution from a given set of speakers. Which brings us to the subject of this review, PSB's Imagine mini.
How mini is it? The mini is the smallest speaker in the Imagine series, each speaker measuring 9.25" x 5.75" x 8.4" (H x W x D); it weighs 6.5 pounds. The Imagine series also includes a tower speaker, center channel, bookshelf and a surround speaker.
The mini's curvaceous cabinet is a five-layer construction of 1/8 inch thick medium-density fiberboard sheets laminated together with a special microwave activated adhesive. The top and bottom panels are also curved in an effort to craft a remarkably solid cabinet and minimize internal standing waves. The mini's molded, rubberized base houses all-metal connectors that accept bare wire ends or wires terminated with spades or pins. It's an 8 ohm design.
Rear view of PSB Imagine mini (left), and underside view showing the binding posts (right).
The mini's proprietary 4-inch clay/ceramic-filled polypropylene woofer makes more and better bass than you'd normally get from a wee woofer in a small cabinet. How'd they do that? The little guy boasts an unusually long excursion capability, and its specially designed double-magnet system must have something to do with the mini's generous low-end. There's a donut shaped ceramic magnet mounted to the driver basket, and a second neodymium magnet on the top of the pole piece! PSB's founder and designer Paul Barton claims the speaker's -3 dB point is 55 Hertz. I've known Barton for years, and he's no BS-er.
The mini's 1-inch titanium dome tweeter is exactly the same driver used on the other Imagine speakers. It's an unusually efficient design and has very high power handling capability. The woofer is crossed over to the tweeter at 2.2 kHz, and for this design one of Barton's key goals was to maintain the same directivity for both drivers at the crossover point to produce not only the smoothest possible frequency response, he wanted the mini's two drivers to sound like one driver. That's crucially important in a nearfield speaker, because when you're just a few feet away, you don't want to hear the tweeter and woofer as separate sources (when you're further away from speakers that's less of a problem).
The gorgeous real dark cherry wood veneer on my mini samples lent a high-end luster to the curvy design. The dark cherry, real walnut and black ash models run $760 per pair. The mini also comes in high gloss black or white for $830 per pair.
Listening: Close to the Edge
I used my Mac Mini computer with a CEntrance DACmini digital-to-analog converter driving a Jolida JD301BRC integrated amp for all of my PSB listening tests, starting with the "Explorations in Space and Time" album. I was present for the all-percussion sessions (Jude was there too), so I have a good fix on what the music really sounded like. The resulting album is dynamically uncompressed, without equalization or other processing effects. No hi-fi (or headphone) can ever get you totally there, but the minis nailed the sound of Jamey Haddad's frame drums. The tactile slap of hand against drumhead was fully realized, and the low shudder of the band's massive bass drums was precise and "airy." No boom or bloat, just pitch accurate bass. The cymbals' shimmer and sparkle were first rate, without a hint of glare or harshness. Best of all I could hear all of the instruments within the acoustics of the session's recording site, an old Brooklyn church. The recording's dynamic contrasts were pretty awesome, but lets stay real, they were not as large as you'd get from a pair of heavyweight tower speakers. Then again, you don't listen nearly as loud when the speakers are just a few feet away. I know I can't.
Most comparably sized small speakers blunt extreme dynamics a lot more than the mini. True, the really deep bass isn't there, so if you need that sort of visceral wallop, add a PSB sub. Barton recommends his ultra-compact HD8 ($1,100), and I love his SubSeries 5i that goes for $550. I honestly didn't miss the under 50 Hz bass, and wouldn't add a sub.
(above) PSB SubSeries 1
Rocking out to Neil Young's "A Treasure" live concert CD plastered a big, fat smile on my face. Midrange tonality and transparency are exceptional, the little speaker has a very grown up sound.
DJ Krush's "Jaku" electronica was awash in synthetic reverb and spatial effects that simultaneously projected far forward and recessed back beyond the wall in front of my desk. The Asian flutes and string instruments' presence was incredible, and the louder I played the minis, the better they sounded.
Gillian Welch's new all-acoustic CD "The Harrow and the Harvest" was sounding mighty pretty. Midrange is where the music lives, and the tonal purity of her voice and banjo was spot-on.
The Big Finish
To finish up I pulled the minis and Jolida amp off the desktop and put the speakers on stands in my living room. With more "breathing room" the soundstage dimensions expanded, bass lightened up, and the sound was less detailed. Right, distance softens the sound, but that's true for all dynamic speakers.
(above) The PSB Imagine mini, available colors
Like I was saying in the beginning speakers sound fundamentally different than headphones, the minis are less intimate and their resolution can't match my Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor in-ears. But no in-ear or full-size headphone images as naturally as the Imagine mini. The mini resolves dynamic shading better than headphones, and you feel more viscerally connected to music over speakers. I like headphones and speakers for different reasons, but the best desktop systems establish a viable middle ground.
Pros: Big sound, small size, superb build quality, real wood veneers, killer soundstaging, high-definition bass
Cons: Expensive, no under 50 Hertz bass
(above) The author with the PSB Imagine mini