Immersive audio formats like Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and Auro 3D offer listeners a new dimension of surround sound thanks to elevation channels that add height to what you hear. This review is all about the PSB Imagine XA Dolby Atmos elevation module ($500/pair).
Atmos is the most popular immersive audio format thanks to the (comparatively) large selection of movies that are available. It’s also the only format of the three that offers a dedicated solution for easily adding height channels to a surround system—Dolby-enabled speakers.
There are two ways to get a height effect in a home environment: direct sound (i.e. speakers mounted up high) or reflected sound. For many consumers, the easiest way to add height channels to their system is to take the reflected-sound approach. In response, numerous manufacturers have released Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers and modules capable of creating a three-dimensional dome of sound in a typical residential room. The primary appeal of the Dolby-enabled speaker approach is you don’t have to cut holes in your ceiling and run cables through the walls.
Late last year, I reviewed an Imagine X 5.2 speaker system that performed very well, especially for the price. Post-review, I had boxed it up and was ready to ship it back to the company when I got word the release of the Imagine XA was imminent. As a result, I held on to that speaker system to use with the XAs. This review is about how that turned out.
PSB Imagine XA modules are designed explicitly for use as height speakers in a Dolby Atmos surround system. However, they are also compatible with DTS:X (a competing immersive format) but not Auro 3D. The XA’s sealed 6.5” by 10.5” by 6.75” enclosure houses a 4” clay/ceramic-reinforced polypropylene cone mid/bass driver and a 1” titanium-dome tweeter. Size-wise, it’s a perfect fit when resting on top of an Imagine XB bookshelf speaker.
Performance specs for the XA include a frequency response of 100-23,000 Hz +/- 3 dB, 85 dB/W/m (anechoic) sensitivity, 8-ohm nominal impedance, and up to 80 watts of power handling. It turns out that is more than enough capability to deliver a robust Atmos experience.
The black-ash finish enclosure’s up-facing baffle is appropriately sloped to project sound at an angle as prescribed by Dolby’s specifications. As a rule, reflected-sound Atmos modules function well with flat, acoustically reflective ceilings. You can get it to works in a wide variety of rooms, but vaulted ceilings won’t work.
One of the more notable features of the XA module is the grill. It’s not there just for cosmetic purposes or to catch dust, as is the case with some other Atmos modules I’ve seen. Rather, it is lined with acoustically absorptive foam that controls dispersion so that listeners hear sound that’s reflected from the ceiling instead of coming directly from the speaker. I spoke to Paul Barton about the XA design. He was proud to not just have met Dolby’s specs for on and off-axis response, but to have beat them.
A Pioneer Elite SC-85 provided processing and power for the 5.2.4 Atmos speaker configuration. Up front, a pair of XAs sat atop Imagine X2T towers. Imagine XB bookshelf speakers served as surrounds and had the rear pair of XA modules resting on top of them.
The front left and right speakers were positioned seven feet apart, with a Samsung PN64F8500 TV plus an Imagine XC center channel positioned between them. The dual SubSeries 200 subs were positioned against the side walls, and I used a miniDSP DDRC-88A Dirac Live processor to handle room correction for those subs. My seat formed an equilateral triangle with the front towers and while the surrounds were situated four feet behind my seat and somewhat off to the sides, as per Dolby’s setup diagrams.
I used a Monoprice Monolith amplifier ($1500) to power the five ear-level speakers. This was not because I needed the extra power, rather it was so that I could shut the amp off and listen to just the Atmos-enabled speakers doing their thing. That being said, the Monolith provided 200 watts per channel of clean power to the speakers and allowed me to stretch the system to its limits.
The Auto MCACC setup routine on the SC-85 correctly calculated the distance of the Atmos modules as including the bounce off the ceiling, a sure sign that your ears will also hear the sound as coming from above. When the calibration routine ended, I used a miniDSP UMIK-1 and Room EQ Wizard (REW) to double-check the speaker levels chosen by the AVR and found it was accurate to within +/-0.5 dBs
I confirmed Atmos was working as it should by using clips from a Dolby demo disc. I was immediately rewarded with overhead sound effects that created a sense of 3D space.
Adding four Imagine XA modules to the Imagine X 5.2 system I reviewed transformed the listening experience it offered. Watching movies mixed in Atmos and upmixing both movies and music using Dolby Surround immediately showed the benefit height effects provide.
Unlike the elusive improvements offered by some upgrades—going from a 100-watt to a 130-watt per channel AVR might buy you an extra decibel of output—the effect of adding Atmos is unmistakable. With the right demo material, there’s no chance someone would not be able to hear the difference between 5.2 surround and 5.2.4 Atmos audio, even in a blind test.
There are three things I listen for in an 3D immersive speaker system, regardless of whether it uses reflected-sound or in-ceiling speakers. The first is object tracking, for example a fly or a helicopter buzzing around overhead. The second is how well the system can reproduce ambient sounds like wind, rain, sirens, thunder—any sound that should appear to come from above, but not be localizable. The third involves listening for dimensional cues such as echoes and reverb—can the system convincingly put you in a jazz club one minute, the confines of a car the next, and into a cathedral or cave right after that?
Atmos-enabled reflected-sound speakers are quite good at handling ambient effects, indeed they are arguably better at the task than in-ceiling speakers (which tend to be easier to localize). On the flip-side, in-ceiling speakers tend to be better at reproducing discrete sounds—the fly buzzing around over your head will appear to be in sharper focus.
To test how well the XA modules handle discrete height effects, I spent some time listening Dolby Atmos demo clips (Leaf, Amaze, Santeria), clips from movies (Mad Max: Fury Road, Terminator Genisys, Transformers: Age of Extinction), as well as gameplay in Star Wars: Battlefront. I spend a fair amount of time listening to the XA modules with all with the ear-level speakers disconnected. It’s a subjective judgement, but to my ears the height channels consistently sounded like they were coming from above, and not directly from the modules. More importantly, I was able to hear discrete sound objects as well as diffuse ambience.
While I was watching movie clips with Atmos sound, I was occasionally struck by how sparingly the overhead effects were used. Whole scenes would go by without a single sound coming out of the Atmos speakers. In Terminator Genysis, overhead effects were notably sparse and typically used like a gimmick, similar to when something jumps out of the screen in a 3D movie—that’s an awful lot of unfulfilled potential.
Even on Dolby’s own demo disc, the paucity of overhead effects used in movies was apparent. The Transformers clip on the Dolby demo disc contained a mere five Atmos sound effects—each lasting about a second. Among the movies I checked, Mad Max: Fury Road had the most sophisticated mix with height effects used to create a sense of space, discrete sound effects that matched up to the scene, and even the score was an integral part of the height effect mix.
Ultimately, the best test of the Imagine XA modules came from the PC edition of the Star Wars: Battlefront video game, which was the first gaming title to feature Atmos. Unlike the movies I demoed, the game was full of height effects including lots of discrete sounds like fighters flying around and the sound of blasters. Plus, because it’s a video game I was able to rotate the entire soundfield by simply moving the character. Until something better comes along, Star Wars: Battlefront is my gold standard for testing Atmos speaker systems.
One aspect of the system’s performance I highly appreciated was the seamless way the XA modules blended in with the other Imagine X speakers. There was no telltale difference in timbre, and the dome of sound the system created was seamless. Using the Dolby Surround upmixer to listen to music with lots of ambience in it—Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi and Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session— I was struck by the enhanced sense of space Atmos added to the mix. Listening to 2-channel music upmixed with Dolby Surround is my favorite use for an Atmos-capable system.
Rudimentary measurements indicated the Imagine XAs meet or beat their published frequency response specs. For what it’s worth, in less than two weeks I am headed to the NRC facilities in Ottawa where I will learn about how to take more sophisticated measurements that may be used in reviews.
PSB’s Imagine XA modules work as advertised and then some. As long as you have the right kind of ceiling, you can add high-performance elevation channels to a surround system at a reasonable price and without the need for in-ceiling or ceiling-mounted speakers. Furthermore, they are more than capable of keeping up with a system that is playing at obscenely high levels without distorting.
PSB’s Atmos modules are a close timbre match to the Imagine X speakers they compliment. Additionally, they work well with speakers from other manufacturers that don’t offer Atmos enabled modules. When paired with an Imagine X speaker system, everything comes together seamlessly. To my ears, a pair of XAs represent a worthwhile upgrade for a 5.1 or 5.2-channel Imagine X surround system.
Processing and Amplification
Pioneer Elite SC-85 AVR
Monoprice Monolith 7-channel amplifier
miniDSP DDRC-88A Dirac Live processor
Windows 10 PC (DIY) with NVIDIA GTX980
Samsung UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray player