PSB Image 4T loudspeaker Page 3

Party Speakers!
Dynamics were another strong suit of the Image 4T—the aforementioned Stravinsky, Wuorinen, Peer, and Sonic Youth recordings kicked major butt at higher volume levels. In fact, the 4T's high-level dynamic performance exceeded that of any speaker I'd previously heard costing anywhere up to $1000/pair.

The 4T's combination of bass and dynamic capabilities made it a great rock speaker. Unfortunately, I got a bit carried away demonstrating these strengths: When I cranked up Hole's Celebrity Skin (Geffen DGCD-25164, CD) and King Crimson's Thrak (Virgin 8 40313 2, CD) to marginally ridiculous volume levels (in excess of 100dB) using the ARC VT100 Mk.II power amplifier, I damaged a voice-coil in one of the upper woofers (footnote 2). A replacement woofer from PSB took three minutes to install with a screwdriver, and I was back in business.

Soundstaging was wide, deep, and natural, but didn't call attention to itself in an obsessive audiophile way. On the Previn recording of Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony (EMI SLS 5117, LP), the 4Ts seemed to disappear and leave the instruments themselves playing there before me. Ditto on live jazz recordings. New York guitar star Mark Elf has finally released a concert recording, Live at Smalls (Jen Bay Jazz JBR 0007, CD). Forget Jazz at the Pawnshop—if you want realistic club jazz, this is the CD to buy. The PSB transported me to the club with a sense of air and vibe—Elf plays primarily in the guitar's middle register, right in the middle of the 4T's transparency window.

Last year it was Doris Day and the Ramones, but right now I'm going through a Louis Armstrong phase. Less than five minutes after I cued up Armstrong's Satchmo Plays King Oliver (Audio Fidelity/Classic ST 91058, LP), I grabbed my wife in the kitchen, made her put down her frying pan and apron, and began dancing across the listening room—which caused some chagrin on the part of my four-year-old son but made my 80-year-old mother-in-law smile. The combination of the natural-sounding clarinet, coherent drums, and tuneful bass just swept me away. Just try to do that with The Sheffield Drum Record.

When I pitted the Image 4T against the three speakers I already own and love, the comparison was interesting—any speaker costing $1000/pair or less demands sonic tradeoffs whose acceptability depends on personal taste. My reference Alán Petites were more delicate, articulate, and extended in the highs than the 4Ts, and significantly more transparent through the midrange and highs, revealing more layers of inner detail (as they should, given their 50% higher price). The Petites' microdynamic performance was also more natural and realistic.

However, their high-level dynamic performance and bass extension paled in comparison to the PSBs' (as one would expect, given the Aláns' much smaller cabinets). In my new, large listening room, the Aláns' bass response extended to only 60Hz. (In this room, I use the Petites with their companion PW-1 woofer, although in most smaller rooms I've tried, the Aláns have produced a convincing 55Hz. In my opinion, the subjective difference between 55 and 60Hz is the difference between a speaker that's bass-shy and one that isn't.)

The Paradigm Reference/20s exhibited airy, natural, and detailed high frequencies similar to the Aláns' but not as extended, with the lower high frequencies being more prominent than those of either of the two aforementioned speakers. Bass and high-level dynamic performance were also excellent, but not quite as extended or open at the upper end of the dynamic spectrum as the PSBs'. Overall, the Paradigms sounded more open and transparent than the PSBs and were much closer to the Aláns in this regard, but were not as delicate as the Aláns in their rendition of subtle low-level transient information (footnote 3).

The Mission 731i's, my favorite low-cost speaker—I own three pairs—were in a different performance league altogether. They weren't as detailed as any of the other three speakers overall, or as dynamic. Their high frequencies were less extended than the PSBs' and Aláns', but seemed more delicate and detailed than the PSBs' in the lower high-frequency region. Both the Missions and the PSBs seemed equally transparent, but less so than the Aláns and the Paradigms. Bass extension of the Missions was down to 60Hz—about equal to the Aláns and inferior to the remaining speakers—but, overall, the Mission's tonal character was very well balanced.

All four speakers excelled in midrange naturalness, dynamic transient articulation, soundstaging, and bass definition within their relevant ranges.

At the end of the day...
These last few months I've had a blast living with these gorgeous, unobtrusive, and spouse-friendly speakers—Paul Barton has another winner on his hands. The PSB Image 4T did very little wrong, and should appeal to a large number of music lovers with a wide range of audio and home-theater configurations. Although the speaker's midrange character and high-frequency articulation combine to give it a unique personality that might not appeal to all, its bass extension and high-level dynamic performance set new standards in the under-$1000 price range. Congratulations, PSB!

This speaker project is gonna be fun.

Footnote 2: This was the first volume-induced speaker casualty in my 17-year reviewing history. I'm surprised it took this long—one of the first phrases my son learned to say was "Turn that down!"

Footnote 3: The Paradigm Reference/20s have been upgraded since my original review in Vol.20 No.2. As well as a thicker front baffle, the updated version has much more cosmetically appealing softened edges on its cabinet that, Paradigm claims, improves tweeter dispersion. New damping material on the tweeter and a larger midrange magnet have been added since my 1997 review samples, as well as upgraded resistor inductors and minor crossover adjustments. It's been a while since I heard the original Reference/20s, but aside from the overly prominent high-frequency presentation I noted in my review, which seems to have been tamed in the revised version, the upgraded samples seem very similar to my memory of the originals.

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