PSB Image Series Speaker System
Quick, which do you think would be more difficult to do: design a cutting-edge, no-compromises speaker or design a speaker that gives the best possible performance for a very affordable price? While coming up with a mind-blowing design without any cost boundaries is undoubtedly a daunting challenge, I would argue that producing a loudspeaker that can deliver killer results for a very affordable price is much harder. Making great budget speakers involves the art of compromise, knowing where you can save money without sacrificing the sonic results you're after.
In many ways, big companies with extensive resources have a major advantage when it comes to building speakers to a price. Small, independent manufacturers often have very talented designers with great ideas; however, when trying to hit a certain price point, there's no doubt that making tens of thousands of speakers at a time is more cost-effective than making a few hundred. Small companies usually have to use off-the-shelf parts, while bigger ones can tool up to make customized parts in big-enough numbers to be very economical. This thinking, however, can be taken too far: The biggest speaker companies tend to make products that appear to be designed to maximize their profit instead of your enjoyment.
PSB occupies a perfect middle ground between these two extremes. They're big enough to make most of the components they use in-house yet small enough to still believe that performance is what really counts. Paul Barton (the P and B of PSB; the S is for his wife Sue) is a man who believes in fine-tuning his designs, relying heavily on Canada's National Research Council facilities in Ottawa. It is here—using a combination of objective testing in an anechoic chamber and double-blind listening tests—that Barton makes his final voicing decisions. The approach is clearly successful: PSB speakers have the enviable reputation of delivering exceptional performance for the money. Prior to this review, I wasn't exactly a PSB virgin, but all of my experience had been with their ridiculously affordable Alpha Series (June 2000). So, I was eager to hear what PSB could deliver for a little more money.
The Image Series lies in the middle of PSB's lineup, between the super-affordable Alpha Series and their top line, the Stratus Series. The real trick behind the Image Series is that Barton has used a modular approach, designing 10 different models using only four basic modules. Each speaker uses either 5.25- or 6.5-inch woofers and comes with or without a tweeter on a molded baffle that has been specially designed to minimize resonance and diffraction. By combining these elements in different ways, Barton has developed a full line of sonically consistent speakers, which makes it easier for the consumer to put together a system without having to worry about whether or not the speakers will sound right together.
I dove right in at the top of the Image Series line with the Image 7PT, a speaker that looks like a two-way tower with three woofers but is really much more cleverly designed than that. This tall, slim tower clearly demonstrates the Image Series' modular nature, as its three modules stack up to form an impressive-looking monolith. My review samples were black, but this speaker is also available in a decent-looking "genuine imitation" cherry. Because it's tall, heavy, and narrow (only 8 inches across), the 7PT comes with outrigger bars on the base that widen its stance, making it less susceptible to being toppled by errant toddlers or dogs.
Although the three 6.5-inch drivers look the same, the tweeter and top woofer operate as a passive two-way speaker, while the bottom two drivers form a powered subwoofer driven by an internal 130-watt amplifier. The amplifier gets its signal either from the speaker-level signal that feeds the top drivers or from a low-level RCA input on the back. Generally, I prefer to use the speaker-level hookup, since this eliminates any chance of getting things out of phase and often results in a more-harmonious blend between the passive and powered parts of the speaker. One big plus of a powered tower is that you can get terrific wallop in the bass, even if you're still using that wimpy little 50-watt receiver you got for Christmas two years ago.
Often, the first thing to be compromised on a lower-priced speaker is the rigidity of the cabinet. The Image Series speakers are quite large for the price, yet the cabinets feel impressively solid. No, it's not exactly like rapping your knuckles on a bank vault; let's say it's more like a solid-wood door. By using molded-plastic baffles for the modular drivers, PSB has reduced the resonance in the critical baffle area, and the baffle incorporates a carefully radiused curve to reduce diffraction, which improves imaging.
The Image 9C center-channel speaker uses the same metal-dome tweeter as the 7PT, flanked by two of the 6.5-inch woofers. This thing is pretty huge for a $400 center, and its size allows it to play very loud and quite deep. If your shelf space is at a premium, you might want to consider the smaller 8C model. For some reason, both center-channel models are only available in the black finish. Perhaps the company assumes that a black speaker will blend in better on top of your TV set.