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How small can a high-end speaker be?

PSB's Imagine mini speaker is just a hair over 9 inches tall, but it sounds as refined and clear as a much larger speaker.

PSB Speakers has always been one of my favorite brands. The company gets it, and has a knack for making bona-fide high-end speakers with real-world prices. Even by PSB's high standards the Imagine mini is a standout design.

With a name like mini, you'd expect something small, and at just over 9 inches high, it's nice and compact. The mini's curvaceous cabinet is a five-layer construction of 1/8 inch thick medium-density fiberboard sheets laminated together with a special microwave activated adhesive. The top and bottom panels are also curved to enhance cabinet rigidity and minimize internal standing waves. The mini's molded, rubberized base houses all-metal connectors that accept bare wire ends or wires terminated with spades or pins. The mini is an 8 ohm design.

The Audiophiliac with the PSB Imagine mini Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The speaker features a Paul Barton designed 4-inch clay/ceramic-filled polypropylene woofer and 1-inch titanium dome tweeter. As I would expect for a high-end design, the mini has real wood veneers, and my samples' dark cherry finish was stunning. The cherry, walnut, and black ash models are $760 per pair; high-gloss black or white minis go for $830 per pair.

Now sure, there are nice-sounding self-powered speakers that sell for less, and they'll save you the money you'd have to use to buy an amplifier. That's great, but self-powered speakers' sound is limited by the quality of their built-in amps. The mini is not, and you can keep getting more and more out of it by upgrading amps. With a speaker as good as the mini you might be using it for 20 or 30 years! Few consumer products have as long a lifespan as good speakers. It's an investment that can pay dividends for years to come.

Speaking of long-lasting hi-fis, I hooked up the minis to my 30-year-old NAD 3020 amplifier. Looking at these little speakers I didn't expect they'd make much oomph, but bass was solid down to around 50 Hertz. Morphine's "The Night" CD has some of the best-sounding electric bass and big bass drums I've heard on a rock recording, and the mini's deft control and shading of the low frequencies was impressive. I can clearly hear the texture of Mark Sandman's two-string bass. Sure, a subwoofer would go a lot deeper, but I didn't feel a need to add one.

The minis sorted out the details on Gillian Welch's "The Harrow and the Harvest" CD, including her hand and foot percussion accents on "Six White Horses." The purity of Welch's vocals, every little nuance and breath were present, and the sounds of her acoustic guitar and banjo leapt from the speakers. This is an extraordinarily intimate recording; you feel like you are in the presence of the musicians.

The mini's recessed wire connectors are concealed in its base Steve Guttenberg/CNET

An extremely dynamic duet recording, "Piano Jazz," with Marian McPartland and Dave Brubeck would highlight most small speakers limitations, but there was no problem here. I've never heard such a small speaker handle dynamics effortlessly as the minis do. Are the minis a threat to mighty floor-standers or full-size bookshelf speakers? No way; the mini's forte is making audiophile-quality sound from the smallest-possible speaker. Of course, if you have a big room, or have the room for big speakers, get big speakers. The mini's clarity is something else again, and you'd need an exceptional big speaker to equal the mini's transparency.

To finish up I played the "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones" Blu-ray. These 1972 shows capture the Stones at the peak of their creative and performance powers. I listened in stereo, but the soundstage was huge, and the audience cheers appeared to come from well beyond the speakers' actual locations in my room. Hey, it's rock and roll, so I couldn't resist turning the volume up, and the little speakers didn't seem to mind. The sound quality was raw, but the band was never better. I forgot all about the minis and just enjoyed the tunes; hi-fi doesn't get better than that.