PSB Imagine W3 On-Wall Soundbar System
What do you say about a product when there’s nothing special to talk about? Let’s take, for instance, the hypothetical case of a passive LCR soundbar, a pair of matching on-wall speakers for the surrounds, and a powered subwoofer. Pretty staid and traditional stuff, that. After all, it’s a passive LCR, so there’s no extraordinary amplification technology involving cutting-edge DSP crossover and frequency manipulation in order to extract better sound out of embarrassingly small drivers than ever was possible (or desirable) before. There’s no wireless subwoofer connection to delve into, no HDMI connectivity, no onscreen display—hell, there’s not even a destined-to-disappear teeny-tiny remote control to complain about. Perhaps most disappointing from a reviewer’s perspective is the lack of any unique mess-with-your-mind faux-surround processing to wallow in the minutia of—no hyper-temporal, quasi-spatial, time-dilating series of intermodal cross-connections that takes a beautifully designed discrete multichannel soundtrack, scrambles all the elements together as if they were eggs destined for the warmed-over breakfast buffet line at Country Kitchen, but then presents it in a way that makes the end result appear (in your head) to be a delectable plate of fried eggs, sunny side up and steaming hot next to a couple of strips of crispy bacon fresh from the frying pan. Of course, it’s not the real thing, but it’s so much more fun to be able to talk about how such a home theater substitute can give you most of the multichannel flavor with almost none of the fat speakers. Not with an “old-school” LCR soundbar, though. Nope. None of that fancy stuff. Nada. Zip.
That’s the situation I find myself in with the new PSB Imagine W3 LCR soundbar ($1,199) and W1 on-wall speakers ($599/each), along with PSB’s SubSeries 200 powered subwoofer ($649). Except for the subwoofer, it’s a passive speaker system. You have to rely on an A/V receiver to do the heavy lifting of the processing, input switching, and amplification. Since there’s no space-and-time-shifting technology built in, you’re going to get a true, honest-to-goodness, meat-and-potatoes surround sound experience—but you’re also going to have actual “so real you can touch them” speakers in the back of the room. (The horror!) Then there’s that black-box subwoofer with its power cord and the wires running everywhere and…oh, really, why even bother? Why not drive to Costco (or, even easier, order it online) and get an off-brand soundbar that, if you can believe what you read, does just about everything any home theater could ever need—and has it all neatly packed into one 40-inch-wide box for under $100?
A conundrum, right?
So, You Want Some Moon Rocks With That?
The basic problem is that, true to their Canadian heritage, the folks at PSB (especially the founder, Paul Barton) are just too damn polite—reticent, even—to ultra-promote their speakers. Take, for instance, the four passive radiators that are built into the PSB Imagine W3. Each passive radiator is acoustically mated to one of the four 4-inch woofers mounted along the soundbar’s front baffle, with one combo each used for the left and right channels and two sets dedicated to the center channel. The result of the matchup, according to PSB, is an improvement of the bass output at the lowest frequencies; in this case, 90 hertz for the left/right and 100 Hz for the center. This is noteworthy because it’s difficult to get decent bass out of the small enclosure that’s typical for most soundbars. It’s tremendously important as well because getting useable amounts of bass frequencies as close as possible to the oft-quoted 80-Hz crossover point out of a soundbar makes it less likely that you’ll begin to hear where the subwoofer is located in the room.
Other companies might take the opportunity to promote this design, perhaps, as using Distributed Acoustic-Bass Output Optimization Mechanism (DA-BOOM) or Acoustically Balanced Charged Dynamically Entangled Force (ABCDEF) technology. Instead, PSB offhandedly refers to the configuration thusly: “Bass is enhanced by specialized speakers called PBRs that extend the bass reach.” While it’s not on the same scale, of course, I get the feeling that if PSB had been in charge of the Apollo space program in the 1960s and ’70s, it would have talked about its achievements like this: “Yeah, we landed a few men on the moon. There was a lot of dust. Sorry about the footprints. Oh, by the way, we brought back some rocks.”
In addition to the quadruple 4-inch clay/ceramic reinforced polypropylene cone woofers and associated PBRs, the 46-inch-wide Imagine W3 includes three 1-inch titanium-dome tweeters (one per channel) that utilize the same dome found in PSB’s top-end Synchrony series speakers. The cabinet is made from aluminum to maintain strength, minimize bulk, and provide as much room as possible inside the shallow, 3.125-inch-thick cabinet behind the non-resonant MDF front baffle. The drivers incorporate rubber trim rings that help control sound dispersion, as well as reduce unwanted vibrations; and PSB says it paid special attention to the parts selection for and the tuning of the crossover network, all the time taking into account the acoustic effects that occur when a speaker (be it a soundbar or not) is placed up against a wall. All of which, individually, are pretty much the yawn-inducing fundamentals found in the textbook for Basic Good Speaker Design 101.
More of the Same
The Imagine W1 on-wall speaker is a shorter (27.56 inches tall/wide depending on orientation), single-channel version of the W3, utilizing the same 1-inch titanium dome for the tweeter, two 4-inch woofers, and a pair of PBRs (with one PBR at each end of the W1’s cabinet). The W1 is designed to be used either vertically as a left/right set of mains or surrounds—which is the way I used it in this system—or horizontally as a center channel. The W3 and W1 are designed to be mounted on the wall and come with extremely simple and easy-to-install wall-mount brackets that are lined with felt along the outer edges. The W3 slips over a lip at the top of its bracket, and gravity does the rest, while mounting screws on the smaller speaker’s bracket slide into keyhole slots on the back of the W1. Both speakers come with L-shaped metal bracket feet that attach to the back of the speaker and lift it slightly into the air. A rubber boot on the bottom leg of the bracket can be installed in one of two orientations. This lets you position the speaker perpendicular to the table/shelf it’s on or tilt it back 15 degrees. The tops of the recessed binding posts on the back of the W3 stick out about an eighth of an inch. This isn’t an issue if you’re using the feet with the W3 on a shelf or stand. It’s not a problem for a custom installation in which the speaker wires will be hidden in the wall, either, because the binding posts fit through the opening in the wall where the wires come through behind the speaker. If, however, you want to do an installation with the wires running outside the wall using some sort of decorative surface-mount cable management, you’ll need to use spacers between the wall bracket and the wall to allow enough room for the wires and binding posts without cutting a hole in the wall.
On paper, PSB’s SubSeries 200 is a standard-issue, conventional powered subwoofer with a 10-inch forward-firing driver and a down-firing port. PSB says the SubSeries 200 can convincingly get down to 28 Hz and claims 200 watts of output for the built-in amplifier. One unusual and very welcome feature, however, is that the volume and crossover adjustment knobs, as well as the phase switch, are located behind the grille on the front baffle where they can be easily accessed when the need arises.
Once again, back to my initial problem. Gather up all the brochures and spec sheets. Sit down with a cup of coffee to peruse the info before setting up the system, and the overwhelming feeling you get is “meh.” It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the system. It’s just that it doesn’t jump off the page, grab your imagination, and demand, “Listen to me!”
Putting the Extra in Extraordinary
I know I’ve been harping on the extraordinary ordinariness of the Imagine W3 system from PSB. That’s because the process of reviewing this system has been a lot like the old Sidney Harris cartoon in which two mathematicians (I assume) are standing in front of a chalkboard filled with computations. One of the men is pointing to a crucial part in the middle of the equation where “Then a miracle occurs” is written. The cartoon’s caption is, “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.”