December 2000PSB Image 2B Loudspeakers
by Doug Schneider
Who says a dollar doesnt go as far today?
Movies cost more, cars cost more, but budget-priced audio gear certainly doesnt. You may be able to spend more for high-end equipment today (a lot more!), but what you get for the equivalent dollars now (Im talking the exact same amount), compared to 20 years ago, is much better.
My first speakers, purchased in 1981, were PSB Avantès. I cant remember the exact retail price, but I do remember that they were under $400 USD for the pair. They sounded great, but their appearance was certainly nothing to write home about, and their fit n finish were only so-so. While inflation has wreaked havoc on many industries, it hasnt hurt the audio industry as much. The $399-per-pair PSB Image 2B comes from the same designer as my Avantès, the highly respected Paul Barton, and regardless of how good the Avantè was in its day (and it was very good), the Image 2B is a much better speaker -- in every way.
PSBs Image series replaces their older Century line. In creating this lineup of cost-effective speakers, the company concentrated on the looks as well as the sound. As a result, there is a more standardized appearance in the line through the use of the molded front baffle and the same drivers (this wasnt the case with the Century series), and as well, theyve given the speakers a bit more style and a "high-tech" look. The removable grille that sits about 1/2" away from the front, the rounded baffle (which obviously isnt just cosmetic because it helps with dispersion and reducing cabinet diffraction), and the silver-colored woofer all add to the Image 2Bs' appearance and make the speakers look more expensive than they are.
The $399-per-pair Image 2B is a two-way, ported design using a 6.5" woofer and a 1" ferrofluid-cooled aluminum-dome tweeter. Frequency response is rated by the company as going from 49Hz to 21kHz +/- 3dB (measured on-axis). Anechoic efficiency is rated as 89dB/W/m, and the impedance is said to be 6 ohms nominal, hitting a 4-ohm minimum. PSB recommends the use of amplifiers rated from 10 to 100Wpc. Each speaker weighs 15 pounds, measures 8"W by 15.25"H by 11.75"D, and comes finished in a black ash or cherry vinyl veneer. On the back is a single set of binding posts on a plastic plate. These are not the most heavy-duty posts youll find, but they are sufficient for the task (and beat the heck out of the clips that kept breaking on the Avantès).
For those who wish to use this speaker as part of a video system, the Image 2B comes shielded, so you can place it near your television set without the screen turning green. Since the Image 2Bs are bookshelf-sized speakers, you will need to place them on stands (which are optional; PSB sells the Image SP25i stands for $99 per pair) or on shelves to get them up off the floor. I used the outstanding Osiris Audionics stands (no longer made, but still available through some US dealers), which retail for as much as the speakers. Lower-cost options are obviously available.
Although the Image 2Bs can be used as part of a complete home-theater package, I used them on their own in a two-channel, audio-only setup. I slipped the Image 2Bs into my reference system -- yes, my $20,000+ reference system -- consisting of Blue Circle Audio BC2 mono amplifiers and BC3000 preamplifier, Theta Digital components, Nordost Quattro-Fil interconnects, and the new Nirvana Audio Royale speaker cables.
OK, before I go any further, I can almost hear some audiophiles laughing themselves silly and muttering, "Who in the world would use a pair of $400 speakers in a system that costs $20k?!" Me, thats who! And for some very good reasons. Any reviewer who gets in a budget-priced speaker and specifically sets up a budget system (with amplifier, CD player, cables, etc.) to use with that speaker has just obliterated the review process. In order to judge any component, you cannot change more than that component at a time and expect to know what you're hearing. If you go and set up a complete budget system from scratch, youve changed a multitude of components. To evaluate a speaker properly, then, you better listen to all your speakers on that system to get a reference (even the really expensive speakers!), something that will take a long time to do properly.
Case closed. The 2Bs goes in the reference system.
And just to satisfy those who still doubt, rest-assured that I also used the Image 2Bs in my second, lower-priced system consisting of a Simaudio Celeste HT-5 home-theater amplifier, Nakamichi AV-10 receiver, and Kenwood DV-S7000 DVD player. Speaker cables were DH Labs Silver Sonic T-14.
Setting up these speakers is a snap -- and thats no surprise. Paul Barton pays strict attention to the dispersion characteristics of the speakers he designs. In my interview with him some months back, Barton stressed the importance of on-axis and off-axis response, as well as whats called "sound power" (the way the speaker energizes the entire room). This all goes back to research done at the National Research Council of Canada, a place Barton has been a part of for some 25 years. As a result, the Image 2B is designed along these principles and possesses wide, even dispersion, making the speaker almost room-friendly. Its not that setup and placement aren't critical -- they are. But you can optimize these speakers like any others. However, initial setup to get good sound was pretty easy. I placed the Images 2Bs about three feet from the side walls, about six feet from the front wall (which does decrease bass some; you can place them closer to the front wall if you want more bass). This leaves about a seven-foot spread between them. I toed them in just a tad. Sitting in the middle resulted in good center fill with strong image placement. Walking between, around, and behind the speakers showed no glaring tonal shifts or other such anomalies.
When I first played the 2Bs in my system, I was not at all surprised by what I heard. Dont think this means there was something wrong with the speakers, though. In fact, at their price, the Image 2Bs sound exceptionally good and offer a high level of refinement. Ive heard many of Paul Bartons designs over the years, and, as a result, the astonishment of hearing what he can achieve for such little money is long gone. Rest assured, the Image 2Bs are really good speakers.
The overall balance of the Image 2B is neutral, with no obvious midrange or bass humps. Detail is good, and the Image 2B has the ability to throw a credible soundstage with good image specificity and reasonable depth of stage, something Ill expand on below. Its surprisingly quick- and nimble-sounding too.
I play a lot of recordings with vocals. I found the Image 2B to convey a natural sense of texture and warmth to voices, helping them sound very real, which is important (and not always the case) at the Image 2B's price point. With regard to overall tone and timbre, I noted how close these speakers sound to the $179 Paradigm Atom. This isnt really surprising given the involvement of both companies with the NRC. Both of these speakers have an easy, unexaggerated presentation that is surprisingly room-filling and fleshed out despite their small size. As well, they both glide through a variety of music and always sound good.
What I believe makes these two speakers sound so good for their price, and allows them to compete against much more expensive speakers, is that they are very neutral, having no frequency-response anomalies that can play tricks with listeners. For example, some low-priced speakers trip up the bass, midrange, or highs. This can cause the perception of increased bass, a fuller midrange, or more life and detail in the upper registers. However, while this can sound pleasant at first, it is also a distortion of sorts that wears thin on long-term listening. The PSB and the Paradigm speakers dont reach out and grab at first, probably due to their low coloration.
There are differences between the Image 2B and Atom, though. The Image 2B has deeper bass and seems to fill a room better. However, this should be taken with a grain of salt because the Atom is half the size and less than half the price. A more meaningful comparison would be to a comparably priced and sized Paradigm model (which I dont have on hand). The treble is a little more pronounced with the Image 2B. Its more vivid, and perhaps a little more clinical on some recordings. Frankly, its a different sound than Im used to hearing from a PSB speaker. In the past Ive noted some PSB models to sound slightly reticent and warm, and the Image 2B certainly is not like this at all. Its the kind of difference some may welcome, while others may not.
Playing a male vocal results in a clear sound largely devoid of a chesty or woolly character that plagues many speakers, even ones that are quite a bit more expensive. There is a little bit of excessive resonance through lower midrange frequencies, but nothing offensive, and this is really only noticeable when you compare the Image 2Bs to much more expensive speakers. Female vocals also have very good clarity with only a minimal amount of sibilance. The Image 2B is not quite as pure-sounding as some $1000 speakers, NSMs 10S for example, but it is not far off either. What I liked most is Image 2Bs level of refinement. Even closely miked tracks like John Prines "Jesus the Missing Year" from his The Missing Years CD [Stony Plain SPCD 1174], which Ive heard sound overly reverberant on some really expensive speakers, sounds clean and clear here. This is the type of speaker that stops people in their tracks to say, "That sounds really real."
I found the Image 2Bs to play loud enough to fill small- to medium-sized rooms, and could even fill my large room where my second, less-expensive system resides. "Passion and Pride" from the Inakustic demo disc I grabbed at the Frankfurt audio show (this track is also available on Friedman: Passion and Price [Biber 76671]) demonstrates the dynamic agility and good transparency the Image 2Bs are capable of. No, the speakers don't quite leap to attention and render the complex array of instruments on this recording with machine-gun precision, like JMlab's $8200 Mini Utopia (with stands) can, but the Image 2Bs give a credible presentation nonetheless. They sound slightly muted in comparison and do not have the overall power, but at their price point they perform astonishingly well. On the same disc, I queued up "Danse Macabre" (also available on Mephisto & Co [Reference Recordings RR-82]). This large-scale orchestral piece has macrodynamics to spare. It can test whether your full-range speakers and subwoofer can really deliver high-level sound. The Image 2Bs compress things a tad, but they do a remarkable job of holding things together, even during complex passages when the music gets very loud.
For a bit of nostalgia and to test whether the Image 2Bs could party, I played The Clashs London Calling [Epic EGK-36328] -- I visited many a get-together during which Ive seen similar speakers called upon for the same duty. The LP version of this GREAT album saw more airtime on my Avantès than any other recording. I used to play it three or four times every day (yes, all four sides of the double-LP set). The Image 2Bs proved quite capable of handling aggressive rock at very decent SPLs. Vocals remained clean and easily discernible, guitars had good bite and attack, and drums were rendered with the necessary tightness and control. For an apartment (or dorm room), these speakers should play plenty loud on their own (and I dont doubt that given the price theyll see use in such surroundings).
For a test of imaging precision I like to play "Everest" from Ani DiFrancos Up Up Up Up Up Up [Righteous Babe Records RBR-013-D]. Its a unique and simple recording that places DiFranco's voice distinctly left, just shy of the left speaker and a little back. The Image 2B does a remarkably good job of positioning the voice. It is not as tightly focused as I've heard, and the sibilance is ever so slightly heightened, but the Image 2Bs do a remarkable job given the price. Sonic images dont quite leap from the box the way they do with some speakers, and depth is apparent, but foreshortened a tad; however, you would likely have to pay considerably more to get something better in this regard and maintain all the strengths of the Image 2B.
Additionally, although the Image 2B can be mated to one of PSBs subwoofers, I elected to use them on their own. I got good, solid bass response to 50Hz (in room), which is satisfying for me for most types of music. Im not one to favor subwoofers just to hear my system grunt, but for those who do, admittedly, the 2B may not go deep enough, particularly if you have a largish room. You may wish to consider one of the Image floorstanding models, or try mating this speaker with a sub. However, what bass the speaker does produce offers good tightness and control. In the world of low-priced speakers, poorly damped, woolly bass usually reins supreme. The Image 2B's bass is taut and articulate, perhaps not the ultimate in control, but full and without excessive overhang.
The Image 2B isnt going to make audiophiles whove spent a whole lot more for speakers put em up for sale. After all, PSB also make very good speakers that cost much more, as do other companies. What the Image 2Bs do so well is allow people with a budget to get a really good-sounding set of speakers for a little-more-than-nothing price. You can spend much more on "rack"-type speakers from "box-mover" stores and get far less value for the money. The inexpensive 2Bs have it all over products like those.
I also see another market for speakers like these -- the same one I was in when I was 15 years old. The quality of sound that these speakers offer will likely open some eyes and get potential audiophiles to think more seriously about this hobby. Im sure there are a lot of people who havent heard a $400 speaker sound this good, and once they do they might get hooked on the audiophile bug. I built a complete system around my Avantè speakers, lived with them for years, taught myself and my friends what good sound was about, and only sold them when I could substantially improve their sound. I would wager that any budding audiophile who picks the Image 2Bs up today would be satisfied with their sound for years to come. At $399, these speakers are an extremely good value and represent entry-level high-end audio at its finest.
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