PSB Launches "Imagine" Loudspeakers

PSB came to New York in late July to debut its new line of loudspeakers, giving journos an advance peek at them before the official launch at the CEDIA Conference in early September. Paul Barton, showing a lot of emotion for a normally reserved Canadian, was frankly in love with the four new loudspeakers.

"People simply don't imagine how much loudspeaker $2000/pair can buy now. Yes, I'd like to think people expect to get solid engineering from our loudspeakers, but our designs have always been not so stylish. Last year, we changed that with the Synchrony line, but with Imagine, we started with a blank sheet of paper and got [industrial designer] David Farrage to guide the speakers' appearance from that point on."

I cocked an eyebrow at Barton and said, "After all these years, you surely don't start with a blank sheet of paper?"

"No," Barton conceded, "I have a certain way of designing speakers based upon what I've learned over the years and my measurements at the NRC in Ottawa—and I knew I wanted to use our new high-output 5.5" mid/woofer and the 1" titanium-dome tweeter. But how the speakers would be shaped, all of that developed as an on-going dialog between David and myself. I'd tell him what the audio requirements were and he'd come back with sheets of paper covered with different ideas. I'd pick a few, or sometimes just elements from different ones, and he'd come back with different ideas, based on that.

"Here are some of those early 'conversations,'" Barton pointed to a PDF on his laptop. "As you see, certain ideas began showing up in many of the designs—most importantly, the use of curves and complicated multiple-radius forms."

We walked over to the production samples he'd brought with him and they were gorgeous hunks of furniture. The veneering showed no seams, the caps of the Imagine T (three-driver tower) and Imagine B (two-way "bookshelf" monitor) flowed like liquid. As an one-time woodbutcher myself, I was impressed by the woodwork.

"We can have this quality of construction at this price point because we make them in China, of course. Our manufacturing facility is vertically integrated, so all of our toolmaking and cabinetmaking are done on site—and they use a combination of old-school woodworking and modern CNC milling to produce very high quality cabinets."

I asked him about "specification creep," the process whereby plant managers would sometimes substitute components that were "just as good," but off-spec, if companies didn't have on-site quality control managers.

"That happens, yes, but not to us. Lenbrook (PSB's owner) has a Hong Kong office and we have five QC monitors, who go to the plant every time we do a production run. They examine one product out of every 10 made and determine whether or not the run is kosher. They have the ability to cancel production runs, so they have a lot of power."

What about the drivers?

"That's one of the things I love about operating in China! All of the driver manufacturers set up these bazaars where they display their wares and a speaker designer like me can just stroll through and order this magnet system, that diaphragm, this basket, and so on. Of course, that's just for making a prototype, we very carefully specced ceramic-filled polypropylene for its low mass and inherent damping. We 'tuned' the magnet structures to give them greater sensitivity at 'declining frequencies,' which extends response without penalty in terms of cabinet volume. And this aluminum phase plug actually reduces distortion by enhancing HF linearity."

Barton grinned. "Imagine that. I seem to say that word a lot, but it's such an optimistic word. Imagine." He seemed to savor the taste of the word.

"What haven't I talked about? Oh yes, the crossover. Just the usual stuff I like to work with. It's a fourth-order acoustic Linkwitz-Reilly topology, which just really has about the least time- and frequency-domain consequences. I've learned to design them pretty well over the last 35 years."

Barton then had me sit in the sweet spot and played the Imagine T towers using NAD electronics and a CD-R of music he uses in assessing his loudspeakers. A George Duke jazz track impressed me with its speed and effortless power. The Tchaikovsky violin concerto had bass response that had me eying the subwoofer suspiciously. "See, no lights on—it's not even plugged in," Barton said.

James Taylor's "Line 'Em Up" nearly had me convinced that there was an acoustic guitar in the room. Wynton Marsalis' "Big Butter and Egg Man" just about killed me. It all sounded so there. Finally, Barton played Belafonte's "Cotton Fields," which pretty much convinced me that the Imagine Ts might be one of the best $2000/pair loudspeakers I've ever heard.

Imagine that.

The PSB Imagine line consists of four speakers: the three-driver Imagine T tower ($2000/pair), the two-way stand-mounted Imagine B ($1000/pair), the Imagine C two-way Imagine C center channel, and an impressive Imagine S tri-mode surround speaker ($1200/pair).