PSB Image surround speaker system

When Paul Barton was a youngster, he showed great promise as a violinist—so much promise that his father spent an entire year building him a violin based on one of Antonio Stradivari's most thoroughly studied instruments. Barton still has that violin, and still plays music regularly, but he long ago decided that the musician's life was not for him as a primary vocation. Instead, Barton decided to design speakers.

Thirty-two years later, the company that bears Barton's and his wife, Sue's initials is famous for producing high-quality speakers that offer a lot of value at affordable prices. A perfect case in point is PSB's latest effort, an update of the Image line. For this review, I got a pair of T65 towers, a C60 center-channel, a pair of S50 surround speakers, and a SubSonic 6i powered subwoofer.

All of the Image models in the review system share several characteristics, such as 1-inch aluminum-dome, ferrofluid-cooled tweeters and injection molded metalized-polypropylene cone woofers in ported enclosures. The woofers in the T65 and C60 are 6.5 inches in diameter, while the S50's woofers are 5.25 inches across. All Image models are also magnetically shielded, so they can be placed near a CRT-based display without inducing visible distortion.

The Image T65 is relatively slim in the width department, and it's not particularly tall, but it is unusually deep, which could pose some placement challenges. I put them in my theater room with the front baffles at the normal positions, 1/6 of the room's width from the side walls and 1/6 of the room's length from the front wall. With only two seats in the theater, I toed-in the speakers only slightly. Speaking of baffles, the T65's is rounded to minimize diffraction.

Unlike many tower models, the entire front face of the T65 is used to hold drivers, almost all the ay down to the floor. (The smaller Image towers have their drivers in the upper portion of the cabinet only.) I was initially concerned that the placement of drivers so close to the floor might have some sort of negative impact on the sound, but that didn't seem to be the case. The single tweeter is located at the top of the front baffle, which puts it at a good height for seated listening. On the back, two pairs of 5-way gold-plated binding posts allow biwiring or biamping; I used the supplied conductive bridges and drove each T65 with a single cable.

The Image C60 center-channel speaker has a central tweeter flanked by two 6.5-inch ported woofers. Like the T65, the C60 has a curved front baffle. A single pair of binding posts bring the signal into the speaker. I placed the C60 on a shelf above the direct-view TV that serves as the main display in my theater.

The surround duties were handled by a pair of Image S50s, each of which has two driver arrays that include a 1-inch tweeter and a 5.25-inch ported woofer firing from curved baffles at roughly 90° to each other (that is, 45° to the center of the cabinet and 45° to the wall). Mounting brackets allow the S50s to be hung from the wall, but I placed them on ear-height stands to the sides of the listening area.

The Image SubSonic 6i uses a single, front-firing 12-inch driver with twin front-facing ports, and, like the other models, its front baffle is curved. Also on the front are the Volume and Crossover Frequency controls. On the back are the line- and speaker-level inputs and outputs and the Power, Phase (0° or 180°), and LFE Input/Crossover Bypass switches. That last control is a bit confusing—its two positions are labeled Active and Off. Which position do you think bypasses the crossover? The answer is Active, which the Owner's Guide clarifies. I was feeding the sub from the LFE output of my receiver, so I bypassed the internal lowpass filter. I placed the SubSonic 6i in my normal subwoofer location: on a side wall a quarter of the room's length from the front.

All in all, I found the build quality of the Image speakers to be excellent. They all have a solid feel to them, with plenty of heft and weight to instill confidence in their sturdiness and resistance to undue resonances.

I don't listen critically to CDs very often; when sitting down to enjoy music, I generally prefer multichannel music on DVD-Audio or SACD. For this review, however, I did listen to some tracks from the new CD by my avant-garde trio, Many Axes (pfMentum CD-020), which I mixed and mastered, so I know it very well. The first track begins with a low end-blown flute called a suling and a deep, soft bass drum. The T65s and SubSonic 6i reproduced the instruments extremely well, rendering the expansive bass drum and woody tone of the suling with equal aplomb. Other tracks include tinkly wind chimes, high and low ocarinas, and a wide variety of percussion, all of which sounded true to the master.

Moving on to multichannel music, I began with an SACD of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, as performed by Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (Telarc SACD-60578). The opening movement, Dreams, Passions, begins delicately in the strings, which were clearly delineated by the Images, as were the woodwinds. I was immediately struck by the wonderful imaging (no pun intended) of these speakers, which placed each section—indeed, each instrument—exactly where it was supposed to be. This continued to be the case throughout the rest of the piece.

In the fourth movement, March to the Scaffold, the sudden brass stabs were rendered quite cleanly, and the bass trombone pedal blasts, which I've played in concert myself, were beautifully rude with lots of buzz, just as they should be. The bass drum and timpani packed quite a wallop, but it was always well-controlled and never loose or flabby. The same can be said of the huge crescendos in the last movement, Dream of the Witches' Sabbath, which raised the hairs on the back of my neck without becoming overblown, even at high levels. In fact, I reached my tolerance for volume long before the Images ever showed any sign of stress or strain.

Next up was Blue Man Group's new DVD-Audio release, The Complex (DTS 69286 01120-9-4). These guys know how to bang drums (and tubes, and anything else within reach), and their music also includes plenty of electric guitar and bass. The 5.1-channel mix puts lots of material in the surrounds, and the S50s didn't disappoint, even on some fairly low drums. Again, the imaging was excellent, many instruments seeming to float between the speakers.

Focusing on vocals, I turned to the exquisite Voices Unbound (AIX 80012), a disc of mostly renaissance madrigals performed by Zephyr, a 12-piece a cappella choir. It's a superbly recorded and produced DVD-Audio from AIX Records, a label that releases some of the very best-sounding multichannel music available. The voices were clearly understandable, with a relaxed quality that was perhaps a bit laid-back; consonants were never overemphasized, and the entire sound was open and airy. Some of the low-voice men were mixed to the left surround channel, and the S50 had no trouble with them. Once again, I was impressed with the imaging, easily pinpointing each individual voice arrayed around me.

Turning to soundtracks, I was curious to see how the Images would handle the problematic dialog on the Farscape DVDs. These discs exhibit some of the best picture quality of any TV show on DVD, but the dialog intelligibility leaves something to be desired because it was mixed too low in relation to all the other stuff that's going on (music, sound effects, etc.). As expected, the C60 center-channel did nothing to improve the situation; in fact, I thought some of the consonants got a bit lost in the shuffle.

But on all the other DVDs I tried, this was not a problem—which just goes to show that you can't pull more from a disc than what's there. In most cases, the dialog sounded fine—perhaps a tad recessed, but nothing to complain about. And if it's explosions and rocket engines you want, the Images delivered them in spades. The takeoff in Apollo 13 shook the house so much that I turned the SubSonic 6i down a couple of notches.

Overall, the Images blended exceedingly well, making a seamless transition from the mains to the subwoofer. Highs were clear and airy without being overly bright, mids were relaxed and open (if a bit recessed in the center channel), and the bass was surprisingly tight and tuneful, especially from a sub at this price. And the imaging was amazing. Perhaps that's why Paul Barton named this line of speakers as he did.

Whatever the reason, Barton's musical background is clearly evident in his Image line. The T65, C60, S50, and SubSonic 6i offer loads of sonic satisfaction from both music and soundtracks, and for surprisingly little do-re-mi. I'm sure his father would be proud of his son's speaker-design skills, which aren't so different from those required to build a fine violin.