PSB Image 4T loudspeaker

I have a passion for great speaker designs at affordable prices, and with modern driver, crossover, and cabinet technologies making innovative strides, many serious high-end speaker designers are turning their attentions to coming up with the next great budget speaker. All audiophiles need affordable speakers, whether to recommend to friends to lure them into our hobby or to set up multiple, less costly systems in our own houses. I currently run a main reference system, a vacation-house system, a recording-studio system, a computer system, a portable system I take to parties, a car system, and an office system. I insist on having music playing constantly, wherever I am, unless my wife or son tells me to turn it off—which happens increasingly often these days.

This is the first of a series of reviews evaluating the most exciting new, affordable speaker designs. My only criteria were that any such speaker should cost no more than $750/pair, and should be capable of producing a convincing 55Hz in most rooms without the need of subwoofer reinforcement—I'm not interested in listening to $500 speakers that sound like $1000 speakers without bass. All speakers reviewed will be compared with my three affordable favorites: the Acarian Systems Alán Petite ($1000/pair, reviewed by Wes Phillips in Vol.19 No.1 and Vol.20 No.2), the Paradigm Reference Studio/20 ($700/pair, reviewed by me in Vol.21 No.2), and the Mission 731i ($299/pair, reviewed by me in Vol.19 No.11 and Vol.21 No.4).

What better place to start than with talented Canadian designer Paul Barton? For years, Barton has capitalized on the speaker-testing facilities of Canada's National Research Council in Ottawa to assist him in bringing the highest level of sophisticated speaker design to the lower price ranges. In particular, his least expensive speakers, the Alphas, have caused a big splash in the US over the years (the Alpha and its A/V successor were reviewed by Jack English and John Atkinson in Vol.15 No.7, Vol.17 No.1, and Vol.23 No.4).

During Chicago's HI-FI '99, when I talked with Barton about what was cooking in his kitchen, he was excited about the soon-to-be-released Image series, a midpriced speaker line intended to replace PSB's Century line. I asked him which speaker in the 10-model Image series ($299-$1449/pair) excited him the most. "That's easy," he said; "the Image 4T." At $649/pair, this least expensive floorstanding model in the Image line seemed like the perfect place to begin my quest!

Cosmetic appeal was very important to Barton when he developed the Image speakers, all of which feature modular curved-baffle technology with floating grilles, as well as very narrow cabinets to ensure that all models are visually striking but complement a wide variety of environments. The Image line features new proprietary polypropylene-cone woofers with rubber surrounds and aluminum-dome tweeters. By using two or three woofers in the more expensive Image speakers, Barton claims to achieve significant low-frequency extension without the need to resort to large-diameter woofer drivers, which would have been at odds with his need to keep the cabinets narrow. All Image speakers are shielded to facilitate home-theater applications.

The 4T sports one 1" tweeter and two 5¼" woofers, dual front-firing ports, and a bass-reflex cabinet. This ingenious design is, in Barton's words, a "2½-way" speaker: whereas the upper woofer extends almost to 2.5kHz, the lower woofer is rolled off above 500Hz, The upper woofer doubles as a midrange driver and is therefore located very close to the tweeter. It is designed to create a natural dispersion pattern for the midrange and high frequencies. The 4T is biwirable and biampable (I used the biwirable configuration for all listening) and sports feet/stabilizers with adjustable spikes and rubber levelers. My review samples were finished in a very elegant black stain (cherry is also available), and spent many weeks in both my reference and affordable systems. (See "Associated Equipment" Sidebar.)

In my current setup in the large family room of my new house, the PSB 4Ts flanked both sides of a short, gloss-black equipment cabinet, on which stood a 25" video monitor. I was amazed at how attractive the speakers looked as an integrated package with the TV and cabinet—they never called attention to themselves, and, from a distance, were barely noticeable. The 4T could be an excellent addition to a home entertainment system whose budget-constrained owner is feeling pressure from a spouse who doesn't want big, ugly speakers dominating the room—depending of course, on...

The Sound
One of Paul Barton's objectives for PSB's Image line was to attain a smooth and natural tonal balance throughout each speakers' frequency range. In the Image 4T, he seems to have achieved this success in spades. From the midbass through the midrange, the 4T revealed a window of extraordinary naturalness. Vocals shone—I couldn't get enough of Louis Armstrong singing duets with Ella Fitzgerald on Ella and Louis (Verve and Verve/Classic MGV-4003, LPs), a recording I've played more than any other in the last six months. Both singers' voices sounded silky and seductive, full of body, without a trace of coloration. The 4T's ability to reveal inner transient detail demonstrated the Classic reissue's superior transparent midrange when compared with my 1960s pressing of this recording.

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