Tested at the famed NRC (National Research Council) in Ottawa not far from PSB’s home in Pickering, Ontario, the PSB Imagine XA Atmos enabled speaker went through the same rigorous testing as any other speaker that Paul Barton designs.

Whether you believe or question the need for the extra speaker may answer itself once you enjoy some time in a system that includes the spatially dynamic enhancement of the height channel, as I did.

PSB XA Atmos speaker

Highlights

PSB Imagine XA Dolby Atmos Enabled Speaker

  • Designed for use as an “elevation” or “height” channel
  • 2-way design, “vertically-firing driver array”
  • Surface or wall mounting options
  • Excellent Atmos reproduction
  • Quality fit and finish – ash veneer, 5-way binding post
  • Final voicing performed by Paul Barton at Canada’s famed NRC
  • Easy setup
Introduction

In reviewing the PSB Imagine XA speaker, I remember my excitement back in the early 1980s when I could watch a movie or television through my two channel receiver. For the first time I was experiencing multi-dimensional sound with Dolby Stereo. Jumping off the floor during the original Predator film, with the thunderous sound of helicopters (“Get to the chopper!”) flying across the screen from left to right, it was immersive, even in stereo and I was getting the same enjoyment from movies at home, as I was from my hifi system.

Dolby stereo

PSB SPEAKERS REVIEW SPECIFICATIONS
Frequency Response On Axis @ 0°±3dB :

100-23,000Hz

LF Cutoff -10dB:

60Hz

Dolby Atmos Certified:

Yes

Sensitivity:

Anechoic Chamber 85dB
Listening Room 87dB

Impedance Nominal :

8 Ohms

Input Power Recommended:

10-80 Watts

Tweeter (Nominal):

1” (25mm) titanium dome with ferrofluid
Neodymium magnet

Woofer (Nominal):

4” (102mm) Clay/Ceramic reinforced polypropylene cone Rubber surround Turbo magnet

Size (WxHxD):

6 1/2 x 10 1/2 x 6 3/4”

Weight:

6.5lb each

Finish:

Black ash

MSRP:

$499.00 pair

Company:

PSB Speakers

SECRETS Tags:

PSB Imagine XA, PSB, Speakers, Speaker Reivews 2017

After that, I never watched television or a movie without my receiver on, even the news sounded better.

Until…

Several years later when Dolby introduced Dolby Surround, discrete multi-channel surround sound, the home theater experience went to a completely different level. Objects came across the screen, front to back and side-to-side. A center channel gave clarity to voices and dialogue while the LFE channel added the “.1” subwoofer to your system and the bottom-end rattled your bones.

Dolby Surround

Then…

Dolby wasn’t done; in around 2012 surround sound was yet re-defined adding “3-D” sound by placing speakers over your head for what they called, Atmos®. Although first developed for public theaters, it soon became adapted for home theaters. It was hoped to provide a shot in the arm really for a stagnant speaker and audio receiver market, and continues to gain momentum to this day.

And without sounding biased to just Dolby, DTS has their version with DTS:X and Auro 3D with its multi-layered, height speakers:

PSB Imagine XA inside screen

Read Chris Eberle’s early technical review of these new formats.

Now…

Two ways to achieve the height channels in a Dolby Atmos® system include either, mounting ceiling speakers for a directly down-firing path, or what Dolby refers to as Atmos® Enabled speakers meaning the sound doesn’t fire down but rather bounces up to the ceiling and back to your ears. This illusion is considered a “phantom” sound, emulating the direct sound heard from a ceiling speaker. The obvious challenges to this concept are of course your physical space; ceiling height, sloped ceilings, etc.

PSB Imagine XA speaker with cover off

PSB makes a strong case for the “enabled” speaker in the Imagine XA module.

In a public theater, Dolby Atmos can utilize up to 128 discrete channels or “audio objects”. Effective mostly as overhead objects, sound engineers place birds, rain, helicopters, explosions at pin-point locations. The idea is to go beyond the traditional surround sound format by creating an envelope rather than a two-dimensional horizontal plain of sound.

Imagine your home theater with 2, 4, 8, or even 12 discrete overhead speakers along with the 7 or 9 normally found in a home theater setup. In fact, Blu-ray is able to place up to 34 speakers.

Read Brian Florian’s primer for more Atmos information

For most of us, just having a couple of overhead discrete channel speakers might do the trick; a better case can be made for four. However, like most of us, we simply can’t, nor want to cut holes in the ceiling. PSB and Paul Barton associated closely with Dolby Labs and the Dolby specification to develop the enabled speaker – PSB designed the XA module. I’m told that Dolby uses the PSB XA to demonstrate the Atmos technology.

Dolby writes:

“Through our knowledge of psychoacoustics and sound physics, we’ve developed technology that enables speakers to create overhead sound even though they’re only a few feet off the floor. Dolby specifies the angle of incidence in the speaker cabinet, directivity, frequency response (including height-cue filtering), and other performance characteristics to ensure that the majority of acoustic energy is directed toward the ceiling, generating audio that the listener perceives as coming from overhead. All of these speaker characteristics work together to ensure that the re-creation of overhead sound is highly accurate and produces a lifelike height image. The performance of Dolby Atmos enabled speakers, whether integrated or add-on modules, must be experienced to be believed.”

Design and Setup of the PSB Imagine XA Speaker

The PSB Imagine XA speaker is like most Atmos® Enabled speakers with a sloped top angled about 30 degrees. The angled top baffle is well-hidden below the cover grill which is unusual because it provides more than a decorative cover for the drivers. The cover is lined with foam acting as a wave-guide to provide a baffled-focus to the emanating sound.

PSB Imagine XA Speaker inside screen

The two drivers included match the Imagine X Series with a 1” Ferrofluid cooled, titanium tweeter and a 4”, clay-filled polypropylene mid-range driver.

The PSB Imagine XA speaker is designed to sit on top of a left/right front speaker, I was also sent the Imagine X Series floor standing for fronts in the X2T, the monitor XB speakers for surrounds and the XC center channel. The PSB XA module was designed to be placed on the four speakers surrounding the sitting area, providing a ceiling-reflected path from in front and behind the listening position. With matching black ash finishes, once placed on the larger speaker it does disappear or seem part of the whole. PSB does provide rubber feet to give it stability to the XA placed on a speaker, while also protecting the finish. I was definitely concerned about bumping the XB speaker with the XA on it as they aren’t technically attached. In my space I have to walk around the speakers on the stand, so that was a bit of stress. Luckily nobody ever tipped it over.

PSB Imagine X series

Also included is a wall-mounting kit in the event you’d prefer, or simply rather not place them on your speakers. If you choose this direction, PSB does recommend that the ultimate height of the XA sit as high as the main L/R speakers but not more than 18” above. Additionally, it should not be mounted lower than the seated ear height of the listener and not any closer to the ceiling than half the wall height. And lastly, it is also recommended that the XA is mounted above or nearest the front L/R speakers rather than say, surround speakers mounted to the left and right sides of the room. PSB suggests keeping it within close proximity (no more than 2 or 3 feet) of the main speaker.

PSB Imagine XA Speaker on main speaker

Using a Pioneer Elite VSX-1131 receiver I was able to dial in the PSB XA Atmos modules using the MACC automatic calibration. I did make some adjustments once I spent some time with the system. I used an Oppo BDP-103 BluRay player for source material.

Now that the hardware was setup, I was lacking in reference material, off to shop for titles with Dolby Atmos and came back with several I thought would best demonstrate the new technology. Although it should have been obvious, most if not all Atmos movies are action movies. That certainly doesn’t exclude other genres but for the most part, Atmos is for action movies, (and gamers?)

Listening

I wouldn’t say I was skeptical leading into the review, I was certain the PSB Imagine XA speaker module would perform very well based on my experience with the brand. But I was more concerned about my space, or other factors; were my speaker stands too tall for the surrounds, was I placing them too close to the ceiling in my low space, or too close to the walls, I have a dropped soffit around half my perimeter ceiling. Would toe-in for the mains conflict with the angle required for the XA? So I had many concerns, all for naught by the way.

This is no gimmick. Although each movie offered a slightly different presentation for Atmos, the extra dimension in sound was palpable, meaning I felt further enveloped into the action. I did mention that although the auto calibration set the speaker levels, I did boost the XA module about 4-5dB because I simply wanted more from that channel.

Believing also that the sound would be more ambient, as in Gravity with Sandra Bullock having music fill some space sound gaps, I did find the XA delivered some eye-brow raising pin-point accuracy when debris flew over your head. Hearing her heartbeat in space is provocative, intensifies as she comes from a distance towards the camera while she is out of sight. What’s really very pleasant is that the sound image doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s coming off the ceiling but rather as part of a whole aural experience.

Quite opposite to Gravity is Mad Max: Fury Road with yet another beautiful starlet in Charlize Theron, (is there a pattern here?) The Atmos channel is thunderous; explosions, roaring engines and warrior-like screams add dramatically to the intense experience of the movie. It was the first time I wondered if the movie would be lacking in simply just conventional surround sound, like 5.1 or 7.1? The XA performed the task, bringing clean articulate life to the soundtrack.

This is the part I tell you how the overall PSB speaker system performed and how the XA module created a special character to the experience, a perfect complement to the Imagine X Series. The X2T floorspeaker is no slouch in comparison as I come off reviewing the PSB flagship Imagine T3. I couldn’t help but spend some time listening to some stereo music with them as well. Typical from Paul, excellent timbre, open, fresh and clean-sounding, they would be excellent on their own anchoring not just a surround system, but a two channel as well.

PSB Imagine XA SUB

The other brilliant piece is the Subseries 300 subwoofer that produced such depth and force… which brings me back to the review at hand…The earthquake scenes in the movie San Andreas are thunderous through the PSB Subseries 300, it not only kept up in a tight bass response, but nailed a very plausible sound-effect.

The visual effects of San Andreas alone are worth seeing the film. The storyline plays a subservient role to the effects, no doubt. There are many scenes with action around you; driving through a building with a tunnel effect, buildings falling overhead and naturally, the preverbal helicopters flying above you.

I did keep coming back to the music however and how the audio music tracks were especially pleasant through the additional height channel. My huge pleasurable surprise in reviewing the Atmos XA module from PSB is the use of the channel for ambient music, typically during credits. I wonder about music not related to movies released on BluRay specifically for surround with Atmos?

While most audiophiles prefer straight two channel, there are those that enjoy music in surround. But the idea that music is coming off the ceiling may provide an aura of a concert hall, for example. That may be worth another editorial from me.

Conclusions

PSB Imagine XA Speaker side by side

I Highly Recommend THE PSB IMAGINE XA Regardless Of Whether You Own Psb Speakers Or Not, The Module Will Enhance Any Surround System You Already Have. At $499 For A Pair, Get Four.

Likes
  • Simple, clean styling
  • Easier to setup than I anticipated
  • Wall mounting kit included
  • Classic PSB sound
Would Like To See
  • I would like to see more than 4 XA modules.
  • A stretch but perhaps more color options?
  • A better attachment to the speaker it sits on, to prevent tipping.

Excuse the drama or hyperbole but the difference from "conventional" surround to Atmos through the highly polished sound of the PSB Imagine XA module (and Imagine Series speakers) is like comparing a painting to a piece of sculpture. Neither is a better art form, but the experience of the three-dimensional aspect, walking around a piece of art versus sitting in front adds a certain intimacy and attachment to the piece. Atmos is like staring at art versus walking in and around and through it.

I did suggest earlier that two height channel speakers might do, but having four PSB Image XA modules was that much better, regardless of room size.

Could I live without the extra channel, probably, but if you were paying attention, I couldn’t live without stereo from my video sources once I heard the difference. I will do the same with the added height channel.

I don’t mean for this to sound like a testament to Atmos more than the performance of the PSB Imagine XA but it’s the new technology that allows the XA to shine. This speaker is not merely an “add” but an integral part to the overall performance to the system. The XA performs remarkably; exacting sound, controlled, and natural. I look forward to hearing more music through Atmos and the PSB X Series with the XA module.

  • Jonathan Schwarz

    I’m curious about adding atmos to my system, however, to your initial points, there are so many questions and factors to room dimensions and setups to consider that I can’t decide if it’s worth it yet.
    For instance, if ceilings are higher than normal, would this change the angle of which the sound bounces back to the listener since the module is a set angled degree? If the seating is 2/3 towards the back, wouldn’t the rear modules bounce in front of the listener? Would the rear modules then be better suited instead to be mounted high on the rear walls firing down towards the listening position? Or is the dispersion from these enough to compensate for distance to the listener and height of the ceiling?

    I currently use a 7 speaker system with rear speakers 2 feet behind and slightly above the couch on a shelf (dispersion speakers that were my old side surrounds, but due to space put them in the back) and floor standing speakers to the back sides as my surrounds angled in towards the back center of the couch (again due to space limitations the speakers are swapped. Not ideal, but actually the sound immersion in the back is pretty great in this layout in the space). In this setup would putting these on the floor standing surrounds be too close to the listener? Should they be put on top of the rear back surrounds? Is the seating too close to the back wall for either of these to even be feasible?

  • Piero Gabucci

    Hi Johnathan, all really good concerns. Let me answer one question at a time. Atmos enabled speakers don’t work well if the ceiling is either too high or angled. I do believe they give a maximum ceiling height on their manual, located on their website. (this is probably true for any manufacturer). Your second question is positioning in the room based on your seating. Yes, it may be better to locate them towards the back on each side of the room. I can tell you I tried many different locations. It’s why I recommended 4 speakers instead of just 2. In your case if you are just using 2, try the back or move them around, including wall mounting. You will need to play with your balance settings, I did have to bump it several dB’s to get the best effect.

  • VonMagnum

    I already have a 6.1 PSB system using 4 identical PSB Image B15 bookshelf speakers with 3 across the front in-between two equipment racks that all sit just under a drop-down 93″ screen and the 4th in the back center of the room (the layout won’t easily allow 7.1 since there’s a sliding door to an addition back there and most PSB speakers are sold in pairs making it difficult to get an identical center channel to the left/right which is ideal instead of those horizontally aligned “center channel” speakers that are designed to sit on top of or under TVs and still have stereo in the rear surrounds). My side-surrounds are wall mounted bi-pole matching driver surrounds (forget the model number offhand) mounted 2/3 up the wall to either side of the listening couch that have a driver set facing forward and backward (compromise between 6.1 and Dolby Pro Logic) set to bipolar output (forget if that model had a switch to do dipole instead). I have a Definitive Technology Powerfield 1500 (15″ 250 watt) subwoofer for the bass and .1 channel from an earlier system.

    I just upgraded my projector from a Panasonic PTAX-100u (720p) I bought about ten years ago to an Epson 3100 1080p 3D unit and now I’m looking at the receiver end of things (currently an older Yamaha unit using an external HDMI switch box since it was a component unit) and wondering what kind of layout I could use in this room without necessarily having to replace all my speakers. I’m not entirely sure if the tonal image would even match up well from the old Image series to the Imagine series (or whether their name are coincidentally similar). I haven’t shopped for speakers in some time.

    This PSB ImagineXA could sit on top of the current B15s to give me the front area ceiling simulations and I suppose I could use another pair on the floor or stands behind the couch for the back of the room (the couch is more or less in the middle of the room; just a hair towards the front about 11 feet from the screen). That would give me a 5.1.4 (or technically a 6.1.4 if the rear center could still be wired for 6.1 mode separately on a given receiver) configuration.

    I noticed the Imagine S Surround can be set to use the forward and backward speakers separately (i.e. if I replaced my Image ones I could have a “7.1” setup using the existing wall mount (they at least appear to be the same general shape/design) without having to worry about the layout in the back of the room. I have no idea how that would actually sound in practice, though. The old Dolby Pro Logic advice was typically to have a null to the side so they would be as non-directional as possible (dipoles facing front back or angled would be ideal; bipolar would be a good trade-off for directional 5.1 type sound). Of course, many older movies are STILL in Dolby Stereo or Dolby Pro Logic (and if one wanted to be truly accurate to their original theater presentation at the time, would still use those modes even if newer mixes are available). So, it seems like there’s still some tradeoff and not every room is ideally suited for some of the perfectly even/symmetrical configurations. I did the best I could at the time and it sounds pretty snazzy (sadly very very few movies use DTS-ES 6.1 and not a whole lot use Dolby Digital EX that wold make use of the rear middle speaker, but I’ve got a couple dozen BDs that use 7.1 that would downmix to 6.1 reasonably.

    I’ve only got a couple of Dolby Atmos Blu-Rays at the moment (they just don’t seem to want to make them even for releases that were in Atmos at the theater for some bizarre reason. What’s the point in having a home Atmos setup if Hollywood won’t release most BDs in Atmos sound (i.e. particularly perplexing if they were released in the theater with Atmos but not on BD)? I think maybe they were saving it for 4K Blu-Rays, but seeing as projectors with 4K are still priced out of the stratosphere, it might be a LONG time before I go 4K since I just bought a 1080p 3D model (sick of waiting for a reasonable priced solution with lens shift). Frankly given most people don’t sit 3-5 feet from the 50-65 inch 4K sets, I doubt very few get anything out of the resolution increase anyway right now yet giant projector setups are ideal for 4K and they get no love (even if I wanted to spend $8k on a Sony 4K projector, my room isn’t set up for it as I have to have the projector a couple of feet to the right of center to accomodate the aisle way through the room past the recliner and sofa so I must have a reasonable amount of LENS SHIFT (which Sony 4k doesn’t do the last time I looked). I suppose HDR + wide color is still plenty noticeable, but they didn’t bake that option into semi-affordable 1080p projector units either ($2500+ “kind of sorta 4k-ish units only that weigh 25lbs or more and would probably test my current ceiling mount’s integrity).

    All of that begs whether I should even bother with Dolby Atmos, at least for the time being. I’m maxed out with my external HDMI switch (Universal remote integrates it fairly well with the old receiver, but I only get Dolby Digital to DTS-ES at most for the time being (no TrueHD or DTS-HD MA). But then I see no point spending $1500 on a higher-end receiver to get 7.1.4 capable output if I’m never even going to set up for Dolby Atmos (the 6.1 existing setup would be fine for everything else) and some of the mid-range models will do 5.1.4 (easiest for me to add to my existing PSB setup as described above).

    I also wonder why PSB hasn’t created a hybrid speaker with the XA Atmos drivers built into the top of it instead of expecting you to set this on top of an existing speaker (hey speakers vibrate; I wouldn’t want it vibrate its way right off the top even with rubber feet whether from the nearby sub that can shake my walls and ceiling or a given tower speaker’s own bass drivers).