PSB Imagine XA Dolby Atmos Speaker Review
Enjoy Dolby Atmos without putting speakers on your ceiling
What is the PSB Imagine XA?The PSB Imagine XA is a Dolby Atmos Speaker Module that uses upward-firing drivers that have been specifically designed as the height channel in a Dolby Atmos enabled system. The advent of immersive audio has probably caused more friction in the households of AV enthusiasts than any other development in recent memory. An audio system like Dolby Atmos requires a minimum of two overhead speakers in order to create a three dimensional space around which sound designers can move objects. So it's hardly surprising when a conversation between an AV enthusiast and their 'significant other' ends with the question "you want to do WHAT?" Installing overhead speakers in a dedicated home cinema might be a genuine option but the reality is that few people really want speakers on the ceiling of their lounge.
Of course Dolby realise this and have been working with companies like PSB to ensure that there is a viable alternative. The Imagine XA has been designed to fit on the top of the existing floor-standing or bookshelf speakers in your system and create a true multi-dimensional sonic environment. Working in conjunction with Dolby and using advanced acoustic research undertaken by Canada's National Research Council (NRC), PSB have developed an upward-firing speaker with a very precise frequency and directivity response that perfectly matches Dolby's own specs. The Imagine XA's driver technology and crossover design was not only developed to deliver a Dolby Atmos experience but to also integrate with almost any home cinema system. At a cost of £349 a pair as at the time of writing (December 2016) they aren't going to break the bank either, so let's see how they perform.
DesignThe Imagine XA is designed to fit on top of any existing floor-standing or bookshelf speakers in your system and has obviously been designed to perfectly match other speakers in PSB's Imagine X series of speakers. However they also fitted perfectly on top of the B&W speakers we use in our home cinema, so the size and shape is fairly generic and should match most larger speakers. There are two Imagine XA speakers in a box and each one measures 165 x 267 x 171mm (WxHxD) and weighs in at 7.26kg. The build quality is excellent and the speakers use a black ash finish with a black detachable grille. The black ash finish was perfect for our needs but might be problematic for those with speakers that aren't black.
The XA uses a dual driver layout with a 4" woofer composed of a clay/ceramic reinforced polypropylene cone, a rubber surround and a turbo magnet. There is also a 1" tweeter that uses a titanium dome with a ferrofluid neodymium magnet. The cabinet is sealed, the speaker can handle an input power of 10-80 Watts and has a nominal impedance of 8 Ohms with a minimum of 4 Ohms. The on-axis frequency response goes from 100Hz to 23,000 kHz and the sensitivity is 87dB. Although the grilles are removable they have a distinctive wave-guide foam design in them that is intended to help dial the speaker precisely into the Dolby Atmos target function specification, so you need to make sure they are always attached.At the rear of the Imagine XA speakers are the binding posts, these are a five-way gold-plated design and feel as solid and well engineered as the rest of the speaker. There are also fixtures for wall mounting and PSB include brackets if you would rather wall mount than simply place the XA on top of your existing speaker. Although if you do decide to go with the latter approach, there are also adhesive anti-slip strips of rubber for a comfortable and partially isolated fit.
The Imagine XA is well made and attractively styled, so it should match most decent speakers
Features & SpecsThe Imagine XA speakers have been specifically designed by PSB to be used as upward-firing modules in a Dolby Atmos system, however they would be equally as effective for a DTS:X setup using the same speaker configuration. As previously mentioned the speakers themselves have been designed to sit on top of an existing floor-standing or bookshelf speaker and they are angled to fire up at the ceiling. The grilles need to be attached when using the Imagine XA speakers because they contain a wave-guide foam insert that is intended to help dial the speaker precisely into the Dolby Atmos target function specification.
The speakers have been designed in conjunction with Dolby and use advanced acoustic studies conducted by the National Research Council (NRC) in Canada. PSB have designed the Imagine XA speakers with a very precise frequency and directivity response that perfectly matches Dolby specifications for Atmos. The final voicing was performed by Paul Barton at the NRC and the end result is a speaker that can recreate an object-based, multi-channel immersive audio surround format like Dolby Atmos without needing to bash holes in your ceiling or hang speakers above your head.
The result of all this research is a custom-designed driver that utilises technology from PSB's flagship speakers. The tweeters use a titanium dome with ferrofluid cooling and a neodymium magnet structure for perfect piston movement to well above audibility. The woofers use clay/ceramic reinforced injection moulded polypropylene cones with an ideal balance of stiffness and damping, coupled to an advanced motor with a high temperature voice coil and dual turbo magnet structure. Although they have been designed to sonically integrate with other Imagine X speakers, they can also be used with many other speaker brands. The speakers use gold-plated five-way binding posts and come with brackets for wall mounting and anti-slip strips.
MORE: What is immersive audio?
Designed in conjunction with Dolby, PSB utilised the acoustic research of Canada's NRC
SetupIf you're new to the world of immersive audio, a system like Dolby Atmos is designed to take surround sound to another level by adding overhead channels. This creates a three dimensional soundfield around which sound designers can move sound objects, which is why it is sometimes referred to as an object-based system. There is a two dimensional sound 'bed' which is composed of the traditional 5.1 or 7.1 floor speaker layout and an additional overhead layer that can be composed of two or four channels to create the third dimension of height. In Dolby Atmos and other formats like DTS:X, these overhead channels are fed discrete signals in order to move sound objects around the room with pinpoint accuracy. Of course not everyone wants to hang speakers above them or start cutting holes in their ceiling, which is where upward-firing speakers like the Imagine XAs come in.
In terms of running an immersive audio setup you'll need a suitably equipped AV receiver or processor and then it's a question of creating a speaker layout that suits your room and the capabilities of your AVR. As a minimum you will need a 5.1.2 speaker layout, although you could also run 5.1.4, 7.1.2 or 7.1.4 configuration. The first number is the number of ear level speakers, the second number is the subwoofer and the third number is the number of overhead speakers. Clearly the more channels that your room and AVR can handle, the better the overall effect, although even a basic 5.1.2 configuration can sound really impressive. If you have the choice between a 5.1.4 or 7.1.2 layout, we'd recommend the latter because it allows for a more effective 360 degree sound field and, according to Dolby, you can get about 85% of the effect with just two overhead channels.
Although discrete overhead speakers are what Dolby Atmos was originally designed around, that clearly wasn't going to be practical for most people. So Dolby developed the Dolby Atmos Enabled Speaker specification, from which the Imagine XA was created. A Dolby Atmos Enabled Speaker works by creating 'phantom ceiling speaker locations' by reflecting sound off the ceiling at a precise angle. To achieve this a Dolby Atmos Enabled Speaker must have a very specific frequency and directivity response. PSB used the NRC's research to create a speaker that matched this specific frequency and directivity response precisely. As a result you will need to select Dolby Atmos Enabled Speakers in the menu of your AV receiver or processor when setting up your system.
In terms of speaker setup, you should position the Imagine XAs on top of your existing speakers, although if that isn't possible you can also wall mount. Whichever approach you take you must install the XAs at least 36" from the floor and no higher than 48". If you plan on running two overhead channels then place the XAs on top of the front left and right speakers and if you plan on running four overhead channels place the other two XAs on top of your rear speakers. Then all you need to do is wire the speakers up and run through the setup procedure of your processor or receiver. There is one important caveat, for this approach to work you do need a flat reflective ceiling, so vaulted ceilings or acoustically treated ceilings are going to be an issue.
Setup is simple and depending on your system you can have 2 or 4 overhead channels
PerformanceWe initially set up the Imagine XAs in our home cinema, which already has four overhead speakers installed but the ceiling is covered in black velvet, which tended to absorb the reflections. The actual overhead speakers were also in the way, so we set up a Dolby Atmos configuration in the lounge instead. This worked perfectly because the lounge has a low, flat and reflective ceiling that is ideal for upward-firing speakers. However the home cinema still proved useful as a point of reference with its four physical overhead speakers. We started off with just two XAs at the front before switching to a 5.1.4 configuration because we had two pairs of speakers sent for review.
When we first heard about Dolby's plans to use upward-firing speakers as an alternative to actual overhead speakers we were sceptical. However we can say from first hand experience that they really do work and although you know there are no actual speakers above you, that's clearly from where the sound is emanating. There is a particularly useful test on Dolby's Atmos demo disc that consists purely of a helicopter flying overhead. The only sounds are emanating from above, so it's a great way of seeing how effective the upward-firing speakers are without any of the other speakers confusing the issue. There was no doubt that even with just two XAs the sounds were hovering above our heads but the effect was even better with four speakers, as a helicopter moved around our ceiling.
We then moved on to a number of Dolby trailers and again the XAs were impressive as thunder rumbled over our heads, rain poured down, wind blew around the room and leaves flew past. It was an incredibly immersive experience and almost as good as our home cinema with its four actual overhead speakers. In fact in some respects it was even slightly better because the XAs tended to disperse the audio across the ceiling more, which worked better for ambience and atmospheric effects. The actual overhead speakers were easier to localise, however this did mean that they were better when it came to pinpointing specific effects as they moved around the three dimensional sound field. Although the XAs were designed by PSB in conjunction with Dolby, they can be just as effective with DTS:X as well as Dolby Atmos.
It is also worth pointing out that you don't want to be sat too close to the XAs or you might hear the speaker directly and thus ruin the overhead effect. This won't be a problem for the front speakers but people often sit quite close to their rear speakers, so bear that in mind. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack for Mad Max: Fury Road has a particularly complex and sophisticated mix which can sort the men out from the boys. The XAs managed to handle the ambient effects well and the more localised effects and music were also rendered effectively, even if the overhead speakers in the home cinema had the edge in terms of the multi-layered audio. Another area where the actual overhead speakers had an advantage was in terms of lower frequencies because you can't bounce the low frequencies the way you can the mid-range and higher frequencies.
As a result in certain scenes the actual overhead speakers had a bit more impact when compared to the upward-firing XAs. So for example in San Andreas there is a scene where a character is stuck in a car that is being crushed and the sound design puts you right inside that car. Whilst the effect was excellent with the XAs, when it came to the overheads it definitely felt as though the weight of an entire parking structure was above you. It was the same in a scene in Independence Day: Resurgence where a spaceship flies through the debris field created by the destruction of the mothership in the previous film. There are loud bangs as debris hits the outside of the spaceship and often these come from above. Once again the XAs delivered the impacts very effectively but with the actual overhead speakers the sounds felt more solid and we were ducking when the debris hit. Ultimately though we found the PSB Imagine XAs to be a highly effective solution to the problem of not wanting to physically put speakers on your ceiling.
The Imagine XAs were highly effective and precise in creating overhead channels
PSB Imagine XA Dolby Atmos Speaker ReviewThe PSB Imagine XA upward-firing speakers are designed to deliver an immersive audio experience without resorting to hanging speakers over your head or cutting holes in your ceiling. The XAs are well made with an attractive black ash finish, they use gold-plated five-way binders and include brackets for wall mounting. The woofer and tweeters use technology ported over from PSB's Imagine X range of speakers and they have been designed to meet the specifications laid down for Dolby Atmos Enabled Speakers. PSB have also used research conducted by Canada's NRC to create a speaker that delivers a very precise frequency and directivity response that perfectly matches Dolby specifications for Atmos.
In testing the Imagine XAs delivered an impressively immersive audio experience with both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X soundtracks. The speakers were able to reflect sounds off the ceiling with admirable precision, so that the audio genuinely emanated from above. The XAs were able to handle complex soundtracks and were particularly good at atmospheric and ambient effects because the sounds were dispersed widely across the ceiling. The XAs weren't quite as good as actual overhead speakers in terms of locality, which meant they weren't quite as precise in terms of moving objects around a three dimensional space. They also weren't able to handle lower frequencies as well but overall the XAs created a decent multi-layered sound field, they integrated well with other speakers and they're competitively priced. As such the PSB Imagine XA upward-firing speakers come highly recommended.
Value For Money9
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