PSB Imagine home theater speaker system Page 2

The Imagine T speaker's response curve is basically flat across a 20º listening window, with superb off-axis response. The Imagine C is exceptionally flat averaged across the same 20º window, although its response dips about 7 dB at 20º off-axis in the range between about 1 and 2.3 kHz. Response of the Imagine S surround speaker, measured on-axis from one side in its 7.1 configuration, is a little rougher but still impressive given its cabinet shape; it's also surprisingly smooth in bipolar mode. The Imagine T's peak bass output is 106.8 dB at 63 Hz; average output at 10% distortion or lower between 45 and 80 Hz is 104 dB.

MUSIC & MOVIE PERFORMANCE

The Imagine T isn't the kind of speaker that impresses upon first listen. There's nothing dazzling or showy about the sound. But after a few hours, you start to realize that even if the Imagine T seldom inspires a "wow!" reaction, it also never inspires the thought that something's amiss.

I especially loved the way it presents simple material, such as Herbie Hancock's solo rendition of "On Green Dolphin Street" from his CD The Piano. This is as pure a presentation of the piano as you'll ever find - a straightforward recording of a beautiful-sounding Steinway at CBS Studios in Tokyo - and the Imagine T presents it faithfully, in a manner similar to what I expect the recording engineers heard through the studio monitors.

In fact, the studio-monitor analogy seems perfect. Few of the dozens of studio monitoring systems I've heard deliver the spectacular, broad soundstaging that many audiophile speakers produce. They just tell you what's on the recording, and that's what the Imagine T does, too. I started to think of it as being more like an amplifier or cable than like most speakers. When I then added the Imagine C center speaker and two Imagine S surround speakers to the system, I assumed I'd react with the same quiet respect. But as Peter Cetera himself once sang, "Baby, what a big surprise!"

Every time I played a DVD or a Blu-ray Disc, I got the feeling that this was how the disc was supposed to sound. The Imagine speakers' superb tonal accuracy and nearly perfect speaker-to-speaker match made hyperactive surround-sound mixes seem especially realistic. Even "heard 'em a million times before" standbys like The Fifth Element took on new excitement.

The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack on the Iron Man Blu-ray Disc told me just about everything I needed to know about the Imagine speakers. Every one of the myriad voices - from the growls of the stereotypically swarthy terrorists to Gwyneth Paltrow's lilt - sounded lifelike and natural. The bullets that whizzed around Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in the scene where he escapes from the terrorists' cave seemed to fill my room, not merely emanate from speakers.

The escape scene also revealed these speakers' one real weakness: The Imagine T plays deep, and it plays loud, but it can't play deep and loud at the same time. The pounding of Stark's metal-encased feet as he emerged from the cave pushed the Imagine T's little woofers well beyond their limits. I had to lunge for the volume control for fear I might damage the speakers. Few music tracks reveal this limitation, but the low-frequency effects (LFE) tracks in many action movies are just too much for the Imagine T. Adding a subwoofer and setting my receiver to deliver only the LFE track to the sub solved the problem.

I figured the split-sided surround speakers couldn't deliver enough separation to make 7.1 worth the bother. But comparing the Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack of The Nightmare Before Christmas with the speakers wired in 7.1 and in 5.1 revealed a significantly more enveloping sound from the 7.1 rig - as long as you're sitting with your head right between the two surround speakers. It's not like having rear surrounds, but it's better than having just the normal side surrounds.

BOTTOM LINE

The Imagine speakers' slick design and studio-quality sound are sure to please the masses, even if those same masses might consider $2,000 per pair an awful lot to spend for a small pair of tower speakers. I can't recall another speaker system of this size and configuration that I like so much. Some audio enthusiasts might think that by making his speakers look as good as they sound, Paul Barton is selling out. But even if he is, I'm buying in.

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