Paradigm Atom v.3 loudspeaker
As a rule, I'm not impressed with $200/pair speakers that sound like $400/pair models with attenuated bass reproduction. Nor do I believe that a subwoofer is the most practical solution for bass extension in most two-channel systems—I've heard plenty of subwooferless speakers with realistic bass performance for less than $500/pair. (I define "realistic bass performance" as the convincing reproduction of 55Hz frequencies in music program.) Nevertheless, I'd been sufficiently impressed with a quick demo of Paradigm's Atom at Home Entertainment 2001 to be willing to give it a whirl.
The Atom is the second model in Paradigm's affordable Performance series, which includes five models ranging in price from $159 to $749/pair. The overall design parameters of the series are simple: to reduce manufacturing costs by using simpler crossovers, drivers with smaller magnets and coils, and less labor-intensive cabinet construction; and to include as much engineering and design effort as Paradigm puts into its medium-priced Monitor and high-priced Reference series.
The Atom is a two-way bass-reflex miniature speaker, with a 0.75" ceramic-metal dome tweeter and a 5.5" polypropylen-cone woofer. The Atom's grille and MDF baffle are integrated into a single unit that can't be removed; magnetic shielding is available as an option for $20/pair. I auditioned the Atoms on Celestion Si stands loaded with sand and lead shot.
Big sound from a small package?
My bass concerns evaporated in my first hour of listening—in fact, its bass performance turned out to be one of the Atom's greatest strengths. The entire midbass region, although a touch warm and rounded, was well-defined and uncolored. On Jim Hall's Jim Hall and Basses (Telarc CD-83506), the master guitarist is paired in duets with a serial Who's Who of the bass fiddle, and on every track the various basses sounded natural, articulate, and well-defined throughout the instrument's range, with no trace of overhang. The Atom's convincing reproduction extended down to the 50Hz region with no loss of definition, weight, or impact. In fact, when I dared to fire up John Rutter's Requiem (Reference Recordings RR-57CD), I was amazed at the Atom's reproduction of the pipe organ's nether regions. The pedal pipes sounded uncolored, with tons of air and bloom—I rubbed my eyes several times to convince myself that no larger speakers were lurking in the room. I've never heard more realistic pipe organ from a speaker under $600/pair.
On rock recordings, the bass definition kicked major butt, even at high volumes. While ostensibly a jazz recording, John Scofield's Überjam (Verve 314 586-2) is grounded in hip-hop and groove rhythms, and through the Atom, the bass lines were fast, punchy, and appropriately in my face. Überjam highlighted the Paradigm's second great strength: a level of transient articulation, clarity, and naturalness in the upper midrange and lower highs that reproduced percussion with startling realism. I found myself focusing on the drummer's tightly wound snare work and cymbal articulation, at times to the exclusion of the rest of the music. The Atom may be the affordable speaker for use by percussion students to analyze the styles of the great jazz drummers. The sense of rhythmic pacing was incredibly lifelike.
Moreover, on the Scofield recording, the speaker did not run out of steam as I cranked the volume higher still. I was playing the Atoms in excess of 95dB for background music during a recent cleanup of my listening room, and was so distracted by the pulsing groove that I couldn't stop myself from dancing around the room, thus seriously delaying the completion of my housekeeping chores. Although the Atom did compress a bit during orchestral fortissimos on classical works, I'd never heard this level of high-level dynamic realism from such a tiny speaker.
The Atom's tonal balance in other regions was quite good overall. Although the lower high frequencies were impressive, the extreme top end seemed a bit rolled-off—mallet percussion, violins, and piccolos seemed to lack that last bit of upper-end sparkle and air. The vocal region of the midrange was uncolored, detailed, and transparent. Female vocals on such well-recorded albums as Aimee Mann's Bachelor #2 or The Last Remains of the Dodo (Super Ego SE-2) and Madeline Peyroux's Dreamland (Atlantic 82916-2) were tactile, seductive, and three-dimensional. Gary Wilson's closely miked voice on "6.4 = Make Out," from the recent reissue of his masterpiece, You Think You Really Know Me (Motel MRCD007), was well-defined, with a natural sense of warmth.
The only aspect of the Atom's performance that I found problematic was in a narrow region of the lower midrange: there was a thick chestiness when I played certain recordings that have significant energy in this region. It seemed to bother me most on electric-guitar recordings, most notably when Jim Hall played his D'Aquisto archtop on the aforementioned ...and Basses. The guitar seemed overly resonant and out of proportion, but this problem disappeared when Hall switched to a Taylor acoustic 12-string flattop. Similarly, Kevin Barry's Fender Stratocaster on Mighty Sam McClain's Give It Up to Love (JVC JVCXR-0012-2) was warmer than usual, sounding more akin to a Gibson ES-335 semi-hollowbody. Finally, Marc Ribot's metal-bodied Dobro on the Peyroux disc seemed as if it had grown some wood on its lower bout.