The hunt for a great pair of speakers is one of the pleasures of being an audio enthusiast; upgrading speakers is a very effective way to improve the quality of a sound system. But there are hundreds of companies making speakers, so finding the best performers can be a challenge.
Typically, the best speakers I encounter at shows are expensive, often costing as much as a new car. As fun as it is to check out high-end audio bling, I search for speakers that offer exemplary performance at approachable prices, as opposed to cost-no-object systems.
Because I’m looking for systems that I would be happy to own, one of the first things I do upon entering a demo room at CEDIA or CES is to inquire about the retail price of the speakers. As a result, the gear coming through the door of my studio typically performs at a very high level without being excessively pricey.
One of the greatest speaker systems I have encountered at a show—at any cost—are PSB’s imagine T3 towers. The Imagine T3s ($3750 each) are by no means inexpensive, but they offer a combination of performance and aesthetics that is exceptional for their price point—these are true full-range towers. And crucially, Paul Barton’s approach to speaker design ensures that they are technically excellent when measured as well as subjectively awesome when listened to.
Read on to find out why I think the PSB Imagine T3 is one of the best tower speakers you can buy.
The Imagine T3 is a 3-way, 5-driver tower speaker that is engineered to provide reference-quality audio reproduction. The tweeter is a waveguide-mounted titanium dome that Barton uses throughout his Imagine speaker line. The reasoning here is that mass-producing a better tweeter brings the per-unit cost down. The magic behind what you hear in the treble—as compared to the lower-tier models like the Imagine X2T (reviewed here) is partly the result of a sophisticated crossover design.
The T3 is gorgeous and built to perform. Its seven-layer MDF enclosure sports sexy curves and a 2″ thick front baffle. The review unit came in a high-gloss cherry finish that’s best described as immaculate; the speaker is also available high-gloss black.
The T3 tower uses what PSB calls a transitional 5-way design. Each of the three 7″ woofers sits in an isolated, vented chamber within the enclosure. While the uppermost woofer—the one closest to the midrange—plays up to the driver’s crossover frequency of 450 Hz, the two drivers below feature lowpass filters that limit their output to lower bass frequencies. This tactic counteracts an effect called floor bounce, which creates irregularities in bass response due to cancellation caused by reflected soundwaves.
The T3 tower offers owners the option of plugging any of the three ports, which allows them to tune the deep-bass response to the room. With a low-frequency cutoff of 20 Hz (-10 dB anechoic), this provides an effective means of counteracting room gain without the need for equalization.
The T3’s 5.25″ midrange sits above the tweeter, an arrangement that—when combined with a fourth-order Linkwitz crossover—avoids lobing artifacts. The placement of the midrange above the tweeter is an approach to speaker design that PSB pioneered in 1978.
PSB specifies a frequency response from 24 Hz to 23 kHz (+/-3 dB on-axis) for the T3, with a rated sensitivity of 89 dB/W/m (anechoic). Each speaker can handle up to 300 watts of power, and the crossover points are set at 450 Hz and 1800 Hz. Nominal impedance is 8 ohms (4 ohms minimum), and each speaker weighs 71 pounds. The cabinet’s dimensions are 11.5″ (wide) by 15.125″ (deep) and 47.625″ (high).
This speaker supports bi-amplification as well as tri-amplification; there are separate speaker terminals (which accept banana plugs) on the rear of the cabinet. One is dedicated to the tweeter, another to the midrange, and the third to the woofers.
The PSB Imagine T3 tower has three sets of speaker terminals and supports bi-amplification plus tri-amplification.
A pair of Imagine T3 towers arrived in perfect condition, each one packed in an oversized box that ensured safe transit. Unpacking the speakers and attaching spiked feet to the speakers’ outrigger legs was quick and uneventful.
I placed the T3s in the same location as other 2-channel speaker systems I review, with the front baffles of the speakers 54″ from the front wall and six feet apart, with a slight toe-in. I used Monoprice 12-gauge speaker cable to connect the speakers to a Classé AMP5 amp ($5000) that can deliver 200 watts per channel into 8-ohm loads. The amp was fed by a Classé Sigma SSP pre/pro ($5000). I also used NAD’s more affordable C 368 hybrid DAC/amp ($900, 80 W/ch) to power the rig, with very similar results.
For most of my critical listening, I sat between the two speakers, forming an audiophile-style equilateral triangle. Music playback came courtesy of a Windows 10 desktop PC running iTunes, Google Play, and Tidal Hi-Fi streaming, plus numerous locally stored, ripped CDs. I also used a Chromecast Audio to stream music from a smartphone.
I did not use EQ with this speaker system, nor did the T3s need it. Furthermore, the use of a subwoofer is strictly optional, albeit somewhat advantageous if you are looking to counteract room modes at low frequencies. To that end, I used the towers to test out PSB’s latest flagship sub, the SubSeries 450—a review of that is coming soon, but you can read my first impressions of it here. I also used the towers in conjunction with my reference subwoofer system, a pair of JL Audio F112 subs.
I can’t emphasize too much that these towers offer true full-range performance and do not require a subwoofer when playing most music genres. You’ll get a chance to read about how these towers perform when combined with the subwoofer in upcoming reviews of the SubSeries 450 as well as the JL F112s, so stay tuned for that.
Aside from placement, the main decision that owners of Imagine T3 towers need to make is how to tune the deep-bass response using the port plugs. A few quick measurements taken at the listening position—using a miniDSP UMIK-1 and REW (Room EQ Wizard) led me to plug two of the three ports on each speaker. This tuning was a great match for my room, providing extension down to 20 Hz without exaggerating the bass in that region.
Performance and Listening
Let’s get right to the point: These are the best speakers I’ve ever reviewed. PSB’s Imagine T3 towers are the reference by which I will judge other speakers going forward, until something better comes along. Their ability to effortlessly render music as a seamless, silky stream of sound is simply sublime.
A few quick measurements confirmed what my ears were telling me; they correlated perfectly with the great quality sound I heard. The Imagine T3s cover the audible spectrum with commendable linearity. Here’s an average of eight clustered measurements taken with Room EQ Wizard and a UMIK-1 USB mic at the main listening position.
This average of eight clustered measurements taken at the main listening position shows how well-behaved the Imagine T3s are.
Listening to music is the fun part of reviewing great speakers. I put a couple hundred hours of listening into this pair, although I must admit that most the time I was not taking notes; there was no need to. Typically, any comments I jot down are for criticism, but I don’t have anything to criticize when it comes to the T3 towers—all I have is praise.
Let’s run down the usual parameters. Perfect imaging where the speakers completely disappear? Check. Dynamics that can re-create the feel of a live concert? Check. Ultraclean, deep bass that can put many commercial subwoofers to shame? Check. Revealing highs that never fatigue? Check. Midrange with clarity that renders vocals as if the artist was in the room with you? Check. Stylish good looks plus fit and finish that’s appropriate for $7500/pair tower speakers? Check.
None of this is a huge surprise given that these speakers represent a state-of-the-art expression of Paul Barton’s career and his four-decade search for what makes a speaker system sound good to a listener. This quest for perfection is no abstraction; I took a trip to Canada and met Paul at the NRC (National Research Council) to see exactly how he approaches speaker design. On that trip, I had the unique opportunity to hear Imagine T3 towers in an anechoic chamber with Dirac Live EQ used to simulate room gain. In other words, I have heard the platonic ideal that Paul aims for, and I can recognize that the speakers deliver it in my own room.
As far as listening goes, it hardly does justice to the system to merely mention how a few tracks sounded. As with any truly great speaker system that delivers an accurate rendition of the signal it is fed, these speakers revealed the nature of the recording itself. For most of my music collection, that translates into addictively phenomenal experiences.
I can’t get enough of Dubstep maestro Datsik’s hard-driving, depth-plumbing tracks. The Imagine T3s deliver a complete, almost psychedelic listening experience when playing music from the albums Darkstar and Vitamin D. There’s nothing missing; the samples and synth loops manifest as tangible sound objects that you can almost see, and the bass has a physicality to it that—with lesser speakers—would require at least a pair of highly competent 12″ subs to emulate properly.
“Beija Flor” by Da Lata from the Thievery Corporation DJ Kicks compilation is an interesting track; the downtempo, mellow tune features an ethereal bass line that pulls no punches when it comes to digging deep—most speaker systems will not even bother to reproduce it properly, and many that do will flub the exercise. Not so with the Imagine T3s; they peel apart all the track’s layers and present them with a degree of verisimilitude that is a rare commodity.
Howie B’s “Ganzi” is a dense track from the idiosyncratic producer’s album Down With The Dawn. His style is thick with pure synth tones—you get to hear raw triangle waves and sine waves do their thing, and if a speaker is not up to the task, the proceedings can turn into a cacophonous mess. But with great speakers (or headphones) the pleasure of listening to “Ganzi” lies in brain’s ability to deconstruct the soundfield into its component elements. The Imagine T3s handled the task as deftly as a great pair of quad-driver IEMs (in-ear monitors), which is to say with world-class fidelity. If you are into deep listening, best sure to check it out.
The Orb is one of my all-time favorite groups, and its latest album is COW/Chill Out World—a dive into disciplined electronic minimalism. Production-wise, it’s a stark masterpiece from the group that practically invented the chill-out genre. Halfway through the track “4am Exhale,” a bass drone drops in for a visit and completes the aural collage. The soundstage and imaging that these speakers conjure is as immersive as an Atmos mix—and this comes from only two speakers! That’s the essence of what The Orb is all about, and I am proud to say I’ve listened to the band’s entire collection through the Imagine T3s, multiple times.
Love and Rockets is one of my go-to bands for electric guitar, electric bass, drums, synth, and vocals. The production value of this group is very high, and “Be The Revolution” from Hot Trip To Heaven is a poster child for the band’s post-goth sound, which they developed after moving to Los Angeles from Northampton, England. You can thank Rick Rubin’s American Recordings for this transition to a studio-slick electronic sound that nevertheless reflects the band’s roots in straight goth.
In case you are wondering, the Imagine T3s can handle any track you are likely to hear at a high-end audio show with fidelity that matches or beats systems that cost quite a bit more, which is to say they are a bargain for what they bring to the table. The requisite “Keith Don’t Go” from Acoustic Live contains all the micro dynamics and exquisite detail I’m used to hearing when the track is played through some six-figure rig. Nothing’s missing.
While I have no need to hear Pink Floyd’s “Money” or “Comfortably Numb” ever again, some folks have not oversaturated on those tracks. A few weeks back I had guests in my home, and they asked to hear those tunes. The result? Tears in their eyes. Such is the power of a great speaker system like the Imagine T3 towers—it can evoke powerful emotions.
After spending lots of quality time with the Imagine T3s, the conclusion is obvious: Until another speaker comes along that ups the ante, these PSBs represent the pinnacle of audio fidelity that I’ve experienced in my home. No other speaker I’ve reviewed provides as complete a package in terms of performance and aesthetics.
The cost of the Imagine T3 towers is probably out of reach for audio enthusiasts on a limited budget. However, in my opinion, they represent a solid long-term investment; they truly are endgame speakers. If you buy a pair, it’s likely you’ll never need to upgrade again.
Classé Sigma SSP pre/pro
Classé Sigma AMP5 amplifier
NAD C 368 Hybrid DAC/amp
Windows 10 PC streaming Tidal Hi-Fi (lossless)