PSB Imagine Mini Review
The laws of physics seem to behave differently in Canada
What is the PSB Imagine Mini?One of the standount favourite pairs of headphones I’ve tested in the last few years has been the PSB M4U1. This is notable for two reasons. The first is that the M4U1 and the similar but non noise cancelling M4U2 are not the core business of PSB. The brand is first and foremost a manufacturer of box loudspeakers and has considerable pedigree in the field. The second is that despite this pedigree, I’d never actually spent any time with a PSB speaker in terms of review, testing, competitive analysis or the like. Clearly this oversight needed to be corrected because if the company could do something as good as the M4U1 as a first attempt, it stood to reason that having had rather more practice at making speakers, they ought to be rather special.
As luck would have it, the speakers I wound up getting my hands on also appeal to another interest of mine. The Imagine Mini is - as the name gives rather a strong hint to - extremely compact at just 23cm high. In times past, small speakers were generally inexpensive ones. They were compact starter options and if you spent more money, you not only got improvements in the technology but you also got bigger speakers. Now, with space at a premium, the idea that a small speaker has to be a cheap one is starting to change. The fabulous Neat Iota has set a very high benchmark for small speakers and it is time to see if these Canadian charmers can be equally impressive.
PSB Imagine Mini DesignThe Imagine Mini is part of the Imagine range and as the name suggests, is the smallest conventional speaker in the line-up. The range also features floorstanders, larger bookshelf models, two centre speakers and a dedicated surround. The latter is important because it means that the Mini is more than a token effort to complete a 5.1 system. While I am sure that more than a few of them will be used as satellite and surround speakers, the Mini is also voiced for use as a stereo speaker although PSB adds the proviso of use in smaller spaces presumably to avoid disappointment when using it in the sort of lounge that could host a five-a-side football match.
At 23 centimetres tall, the PSB is small but the design is conventional within these compact dimensions. A 1 inch titanium tweeter shared with the rest of the range handles the high frequencies and this is partnered with a 4 inch mid bass driver. This is made of what PSB describes as polypropylene reinforced with a clay ceramic which is something I’ve not encountered before and does genuinely give the driver a vaguely pottery like feel. Importantly for a relatively small driver, it has a fairly hefty surround and a long throw which should help it generate some low end extension.
Further aiding this extension is a fairly substantial rear port. This is surrounded in a soft touch black plastic that runs down the back of the speaker like a spine and extends down to become the base of the Imagine Mini. This is in fact the only detailing on the reverse of the speaker as the more observant of you will note that it doesn’t include the speaker terminals. These have instead been fitted to the underside of the speaker. The terminals are themselves reasonably solid and well-spaced and are perfectly capable of taking a 4mm banana plug but PSB might as well have blanked them off because as they point straight down, it is pretty much impossible to use them unless you hang the speaker off the back of the stand.
I appreciate that spade connectors won’t have this issue and you can poke 4mm plugs into the space you’d normally use bare wires but the result is neither slick nor solid. In fairness this is really the only black mark against the design of the PSB as the rest of the speaker is aesthetically pleasing and well thought out. Curved cabinets generally look smart as well as helping the behaviour of the cabinet itself and the Mini uses a clever take on a curve, in that it doesn’t really have much effect on the internal volume of the cabinet and ensures that the Mini isn’t robbed of precious cubic centimetres in the pursuit of aesthetics.
In some regards they are among the best assembled and thought through speakers available at the price point.
The black front panel is the same soft touch material as the rear spine of the speaker and looks and feels smart and the dark wood finish of the review sample is attractive and understated if not the most amazing bit of veneering ever. The only thing that PSB could have conceivably done to spruce things up further would have been to use magnetic trim tabs for the grilles but this is hardly the end of the world. The overall fit and finish of the Imagine Mini is more than acceptable at £500 and in some regards they are among the best assembled and thought through speakers available at the price point.
One characteristic that the PSB shares with other small speakers is that although the speaker is small, it works best driven by an amplifier with a reasonable power output. This need not be a shrunken PA system but with a sensitivity in the mid 80’s, the Imagine Mini is going to most effective with a few watts and some reasonable current delivery behind them. At £500, the PSB should work well enough with stereo amps at the price but won’t be a quick fix to a less expensive amp as a bolt on. Equally, the large rear port is effective at giving the PSB a bit of low end heft but won’t take too kindly to being shoved right up against a wall as this will ensure it becomes audible. Like most speakers described as ‘bookshelf’ the PSB is really at its happiest when placed on a study set of speaker stands.
PSB Imagine Mini SetupThe PSB’s were used with my standard Naim SUPERNAIT 2 and ND5XS and XP5XS streamer and offboard power supply. I also used my Michell Gyrodec turntable. The PSB’s were placed on a pair of Soundstyle Z60 stands and connected via Tchernov Audio Special XS speaker cable. Material used included lossless and high res FLAC as well as vinyl. The PSB’s were also used with internet radio and compressed services such as Spotify and Grooveshark which were streamed via a Lenovo T530 ThinkPad.
PSB Imagine Mini Sound QualityThe Mini’s seem to have been run before they arrived as they did not alter their presentation at any time during the time that they were plugged in and being used. This however is a good thing as from the outset, there is much to like about the PSB. First and most importantly, the way that the Imagine Mini sounds is neither small nor compact. Indeed the first time that that they reproduced the first electronic pulse of Leftfield’s Melt there was a literal double take moment. It is one thing to make a small driver give a sense of impact with the ‘thwack’ of a struck drum but the more sustained depth of a bass note is a much trickier undertaking and the PSB manages to convince in a way that something with a four inch driver might not normally do.
In a wider sense, the PSB conveys an air of size and scale that can initially seem to be at odds with such a small cabinet. As well as the impressive low end, the PSB has a dispersion that means that is manages to fill rooms - even ones that are far from compact - with a well-defined and believable soundstage. This is aided by putting a bit of toe-in on the speakers and with this in place, the PSB manages to knit performers and the space where they are performing into something that sounds believable. Even with a large scale orchestral piece, they never come across as sounding small or thin and this really does represent a real achievement.
Some of this cohesiveness stems from the relationship between the two drivers. Although they differ considerably in terms of the materials used, their crossover is seamless and tonality is extremely consistent from top to bottom. The beauty of any two way speaker is that getting two drivers to work together is rather simpler than three or four and done with any degree of skill, a two way can sound like a single full range driver while avoiding the issues that an actual single driver speaker can suffer from. In this, the PSB is nearly perfect and this further aids a presentation that doesn’t feel constrained by the cabinet and the drivers within.
In fact by many standards, the PSB is able to take the fight to the more expensive (and arguably less pretty) Neat IOTA which is now £200 more expensive. I would judge the Imagine Mini to actually be superior in bass extension and possibly edges the contest in terms of soundstage too. Where the Neat hits back and shows at least some weakness in the PSB is in terms of the tonality on offer. With Tori Amos’s Me and a gun, the entire recording is literally Amos’s voice. There is nowhere for a speaker to hide in terms of establishing whether it sounds real or not. The PSB does a fine job with the piece and once again, constructs a real sense of the space the recording was made in, it has to give ground to the incredible presence that the ribbon tweeter of the Neat has with voices and instruments.
The PSB conveys a sense of size and scale that can initially seem to be at odds with such a small cabinet.
This very slightly cold tonality is hardly the end of the world and the simple act of substituting a Cambridge Audio 851A for the Naim managed to bring a little of the emotion that was lacking back into the mix (at the expense of some of the bass response that the Naim is effortlessly capable of). You never completely shake the slightly sterile presentation that the PSB can produce with certain pieces. It would be wrong to describe it as inaccurate but it lacks the involvement that some speakers at the price can bring to a recording.
The counter to this is that going right back to the beginning and returning to Leftfield, this very slight coolness gives the PSB an advantage with electronic music that is subtle but effective. The performance stays clean and spacious and the PSB follows this with commendable agility and power behind the performance. As you might imagine, the inertia behind a four inch driver is not going to be too significant but if a speaker is generating a lot of the low end energy from the bass port, it can still sound a little slow or constrained. The PSB’s bass port is almost imperceptible in operation- it simply augments the low end and leaves nothing of itself in the wider performance and this makes for a fast and entertaining speaker. It would be wrong to write the PSB off as a ‘dance’ speaker but it does show huge ability in this area.
- Potent and lively sound
- Excellent soundstage
- Handsome design and good build
- Can sound very slightly sterile
- Odd terminal placement
- No shortage of competition
PSB Imagine Mini ReviewAny small speaker at any price point above bargain basement has to be judged at two levels. The first is one that makes some allowance for the size - is it a good small speaker? In the case of the PSB Imagine Mini, this is a very good small speaker indeed. It has depth and power that is far beyond what you might expect from such a compact cabinet and it can produce a truly excellent soundstage that is almost unfailingly convincing.
The second question - is the Imagine Mini good enough to be on a shortlist of £500 speakers, even if you have the space for something bigger? The answer is still yes. If you have a larger cabinet, you might get a little more bass and there are speakers that can be a little tonally sweeter but the PSB is still a class act. It has the performance, build and aesthetics to be competitive with most rivals and provided you have the amplifier power to make them sing, they are unlikely to disappoint. It might not be quite the same demolition job as the M4U headphones but this is still a class act.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £500.00
Value For Money8
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