Mark Henninger checks out a pair of comparatively affordable high-performance loudspeakers from legendary speaker designer Paul Barton.
I'm a sucker for a great tower speaker. If a design hits the right balance between power and precision, the result is a gratifying musical experience.
A lot of the groundbreaking work that led to understanding what makes a speaker sound good has been conducted at the National Research Council, Canada's research facilities in Ottawa, Ontario, over the last four decades. Crucially, Paul Barton—PSB's founder—was there from the start.
I talked with Paul for over an hour about the thinking that went into these speakers. It turns out there's nothing arbitrary about them—right down to the small logo in front of the dome tweeter that serves as a phase plug. The entire Imagine X line is about bringing high-end performance home at an affordable price point. Paul went into granular detail about what it takes to make a great yet affordable speaker.
This review is about the performance of the Imagine X2T when used in a music-centric 2-channel system. It sits at the top of the Imagine X line, so let's see how these towers sound.
The Imagine X2T ($1300/pair) is a 3-way tower speaker featuring a 1" titanium-dome tweeter, a 5.25" polypropylene midrange—mounted above the tweeter—and dual 6.5" polypropylene woofers.
Here's an interesting tidbit: During driver fabrication, the polypropylene is turned into long strings—like spaghetti—and covered in ceramic-clay slurry before it's injected into the cone mold. The result is a driver with a high Young's modulus, which is a measure of stiffness versus mass. Paul noted that you have to work with polypropylene to get the properties you want out of it. As a point of reference, a rubber band has a very low Young's modulus, while carbon fiber is very high on the scale.
A large, rectangular, ported, internally braced MDF cabinet holds all four drivers. Each speaker weighs 52 pounds and measures 9" (W) by 40.1" (H) and 17.6" (D). The cabinets are available only in a Black Ash finish.
Small legs that slightly protrude from the cabinet offer a stable platform. The speakers come with screw-in rubber feet as well as spikes. The rear of the speaker contains nothing but the connection terminals; the ports are located on the front of the cabinet. The X2T supports bi-amping and bi-wiring.
In this image you can see one woofer, one of the tuned ports, and the legs that keep the speaker stable—which accept either spikes or rubber feet.
PSB specifies a frequency response from 30 Hz to 23 kHz (+/-3 dB) for the Imagine X2T. The company goes further than most by also including on-axis and off-axis response specs to within +/-1.5 dB—it's 40 Hz to 20 kHz on axis and 45 Hz to 10 kHz off axis (30°). The -10 dB point for bass response is 28 Hz.
Rated sensitivity is 90 dB/W/m in a listening room, and 88 dB/W/m in an anechoic chamber, and each speaker can handle up to 200 watts of continuous power with 8 ohms nominal impedance and 4 ohms minimum impedance. The crossover frequencies are 500 Hz for the woofers-to-midrange transition and 2200 Hz from the midrange to the tweeter. Each 6.5" woofer gets a discrete chamber within the cabinet as well as its own front-firing tuned port.
Another innovation is how sound-damping material is applied within the speaker: It's in the center of the cabinet. According to Paul, this arrangement is better at reducing standing waves when compared to putting padding on the cabinet's walls.
The 1" titanium-dome tweeter is the same one used in PSB's high-end speakers. Paul noted that by engineering a tweeter for a flagship speaker but producing it in mainstream quantities, you can bring the cost per unit way down while still enjoying superior performance.
The tweeter sits within a molded waveguide. It looks like a design touch, but it is entirely functional. As I mentioned earlier, the tweeter has a phase plug that doubles as a PSB logo. It sits just in front of the tweeter to improve phase response. Furthermore, a small pocket of air between the plug and the center of the dome acts to diminish breakup modes. In other words, the logo makes the speaker sound better—that's awesome!
Here you can see the midrange driver and the tweeter including the phase plug with the PSB logo on it.
Of course, the midrange is also special. It is a 5.25" polypropylene driver with a surround that incorporates damping to counter the edge-hole effect, which occurs when energy from the surround reflects back into the driver and causes cancellation. Paul noted that the design is evolutionary; it's the result of generational improvement. The midrange sits right above the tweeter, an alignment that—when combined with a 4th-order Linkwitz crossover—avoids lobing artifacts. The placement of the midrange above the tweeter is an approach Paul pioneered in 1978.
The Imagine X2T towers arrived in flawless condition, and unpacking them was simple and easy. There was no assembly required aside from screwing in spikes or rubber feet—I went with rubber feet. As usual, I chose not to use the speaker grills—I like the looks of the X2Ts.
This review took place in my new 2-channel listening room. A Pioneer Elite SC-55 receiver served as the pre/pro and DAC—I used it in Pure Direct mode—while a Rotel RB-1590 stereo amplifier provided more than enough power—350 watts per channel into 8 ohms—to drive the X2Ts to their limit.
Here's the Rotel RB-1590 and Pioneer Elite SC-55 combo that brought the PSB Imagine X2T towers to life.
I connected the towers using a pair of 12-gauge Monoprice speaker cables. My source was a Sony Vaio Windows 8 laptop running iTunes and Tidal, connected to the SC-55 via HDMI. I used no EQ or processing of any kind with the Imagine X2Ts—I'll save that for the 5.2 surround-system review.
For all my 2-channel listening, I placed the speakers 20 inches from the front wall, which meant the front baffle was three feet from that wall. The speakers were spaced six feet apart, so each one was three feet from a side wall. I sat between six and seven feet away from the speakers in the center sweet spot.
I appreciate the simplicity of setting up a two-speaker, zero-subwoofer system.
My first thought upon hearing the Imagine X2Ts was that they sounded slightly subdued. However, it quickly dawned on me that it's the sound of an accurate, well-designed speaker. Nothing was missing detail-wise, they just sounded smoother than a lot of other speakers.
Interestingly, the X2Ts are the second least-expensive tower speakers I've reviewed this year. However, in terms of refinement, they punch above their price class. While they lack the high sensitivity of the Klipsch RP-280Fs I recently reviewed
, if you sacrifice a few decibels of peak output, the X2T provides similar dynamic thrills while offering imaging that is more precise—with a deeper 3D soundfield—than the Klipsch could manage.
When I measured the frequency response at the listening position, I was surprised by how close the graphs came to an ideal room-response curve. The 8-10 dB spread between peak bass output and the lowest treble measurement is textbook perfection. Furthermore, in the midrange and treble regions, the speakers' measurements were impressively linear. Indeed, the tighter +/-1.5 dB on- and off-axis frequency-response specs for the X2Ts appear to bear fruit in real-life measurements, as you can see in the following graph.
While a bit of EQ could have eliminated the dip in the bass response, it was so minor I decided to skip DSP processing altogether.
The in-room measurements of the X2Ts were so encouraging, I decided to completely eschew EQ and room correction for this review. It could be that I just got lucky, and the speakers happened to work with my room, but I suspect good design has a lot to do with the impressive performance of the PSBs. The X2Ts work with my room, not against it—it'll be interesting to see if I get similar results when I measure the X2Ts in my home-theater studio for the 5.2-channel review.
In terms of bass, I was especially impressed with the depths it plumbed; its dual 6.5" ported woofers play down to 30 Hz at respectable output levels. Unless you listen to electronic music or pipe-organ recordings, these speakers probably don't need a subwoofer's help to provide completely satisfying bass.
With a rated sensitivity of 90 dB/W/m (in-room), the Imagine X2T requires a fair amount of amplifier power to get it going full steam. The SC-55 handled amp duties without complaining, but I found that the extra watts provided by the Rotel RB-1590 allowed the X2Ts to shine when I turned the volume up. If you've got power to spare, these speakers will turn those extra electrons into bracing, impactful music.
Thanks to the Rotel's 380 watts/channel output, I had no problem rocking the house. The X2Ts did not reach the same output levels as the Klipsch RP-280Fs, which have 8 dB greater sensitivity. Nevertheless, while listening to music at moderate to high volume levels, I experienced a great deal of aural satisfaction with the PSBs. There is something smooth, silky, and almost liquid about the X2T's sound that made music eminently listenable.
For all my critical listening, I sat precisely centered in the MLP to get the best imaging. These speakers merit—indeed, they encourage—an attentive approach to listening. When you find the exact spot where the sound arrives at your ears with true symmetry in timing, a full-on holographic 3D soundfield emerges, one that can place sounds anywhere around you as adeptly as a multichannel system. There's a certain thrill to hearing immersive sound when you know there are only two speakers in the room.
Some producers manipulate phase and timing to take the 2-channel surround effect to the extreme. DJ Shadow's "Monosylabik, Pts 1 & 2" is one of my favorite such songs; near the end of the track, it's almost like being in an Atmos theater. Within the swirling mass of sound, there's still a very distinct and detailed front stage. While the effect only works for one listener at a time, it achieves what is essentially the audiophile holy grail: total transparency and immersion with dynamic impact and a sense of ease, even when pushed hard. I clocked 100 dB (and higher) with a C-weighted measurement taken while I was listening to the track. Even with the deep, gripping bass found in the track, the X2Ts didn't falter; instead they stunned, surprised, and excited me.
A screen grab of the SPL meter during a listening session. Behind it are frequency response measurements from various locations in the listening area.
A highlight among recent album releases is Bill Laswell's In Dub. It features the prolific and talented bassist doing his thing on a tremendously well-recorded album. Laswell is also a producer; his predilection for using reverb and echo effects results in a spacious ambiance that is his signature sound.
From beginning to end, In Dub showed how well the X2Ts handle dynamic, well-recorded music. I certainly was not thinking about how I wish I had a subwoofer, or how sometimes tower speakers sacrifice a bit of imaging for the sake of a wider frequency response and higher output.
I'm still digging Snoop Dogg's new album Bush, which was produced by Pharrell Williams. The sublime production and chill groove has become the soundtrack to my summer. The first track, "California Roll," has entered my reference rotation, meaning I plan to use it in every review. The song features Stevie Wonder and Pharrell in a laid-back groove that I find supremely funky. The X2Ts rendered the track sublimely, with the exact amount of bass the groove needs without being overwhelming. Unless I were participating in a thread about how flat you can get your room response using EQ, I wouldn’t change a thing about the total balance—it was spot-on.
When it comes to recordings with acoustic instruments, the X2Ts revealed the subtle nuances appreciated by fans of jazz, classical, folk, blues, opera, and other genres where the voices and instruments are the focus. If you crave a speaker that can offer a clear view into a recording, these PSBs will do it without breaking the bank.
To test the Imagine X2T's prowess at reproducing delicate, complicated orchestral and choral music, I selected a 1991 recording of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana featuring the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus. It's my favorite version of the seminal work, which features the well-known "O Fortuna." The album is one of the first CDs I ever bought, back in 1992. I've listened to it on every stereo I've owned and gained a deep familiarity with the album. That's why I can unequivocally say that the Imagine X2Ts are the real deal for classical music lovers.
Jazz fans will rejoice at how the PSBs manage to have a dynamic impact yet remain smooth and composed. With the excellent imaging and a good recording, you can genuinely imagine a band on a stage. Duke Ellington sounded great when I played Duke's Big 4. AVS member JWhip can take credit for introducing me to that masterful jazz recording. If a pair of speakers gets the drums right—which the PSBs did—those speakers get a thumbs up from me. Make that two thumbs up for the Imagine X2Ts!
The Imagine X2T towers strike me as music-first speakers. Yes, they arrived as part of a surround system. However, all signs point to Paul Barton's long career designing speakers for music listening as the primary influence in how they are voiced. We're talking about virtuoso 2-channel performance in a $1300/pair tower. The only concession is that it lags behind some pricier speakers in terms of peak output and low-frequency extension.
These tower speakers are a superb choice for a 2-channel system. They offer a balance of qualities that ought to appeal to the audio aficionado who wants to hear precise, holographic stereo sound that never fatigues.
Unlike some other speakers I've tested, the Imagine X2Ts worked perfectly in my listening room without the need for EQ or room correction. That's just incredible. Furthermore, I didn't miss having a subwoofer—that alone is quite an accomplishment. What it lacked at the very bottom—which only becomes apparent on some tracks—it made up for with bass that stayed tight and behaved well in my room.
Of course, there's more to discuss regarding the Imagine X2T—namely, what happens when you put a pair in a surround system with twin PSB SubSeries 300 subwoofers, an Imagine XC center, and a pair of Imagine XB bookshelf speakers. I'll post a full review of that system in a few weeks.
For now, I'm going to leave the Imagine X2Ts hooked up to the 2-channel rig. They'll be in the same configuration featured in this review for at least another week, and I'm taking requests! Suggest tracks that are available on either Tidal Hi-Fi (preferred) or Apple Music and I'll give some of them a listen. Plus, I'll comment on some of them before I move these excellent speakers into the surround system.
Anyhow, I've almost run out of ways to say these are great speakers. The specs and Paul Barton's decades of experience offered a strong hint that the Imagine X2Ts would outperform their price point, and they did. If you love music, you should definitely give them a listen.
DIY PC (Windows 8) running Tidal and iTunes
Amplification and Processing
Pioneer Elite SC-85 AVR
Rotel RB-1590 stereo amplifier
Monoprice 12-gauge OFC speaker cables
Mediabridge Ultra Series HDMI cable
Mediabridge Ultra Series RCA cables
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