Paradigm Reference Active/20 loudspeaker Page 2
Tom Norton's recent acquisition of the Purple Rain DVD reminded me that the movie's soundtrack CD (Warner Bros. 25110-2) hadn't been played chez Atkinson for a long time. Not counting a long car trip with classical pianist Hyperion Knight last January, when we found we both loved The Artist Formerly Known As...'s music, I hadn't listened to the recording since I destroyed a Mission integrated amplifier with the LP version back in '87. Of course, I'm 10 years older now, and it doesn't become a middle-aged boomer to rock out in quite the same way as he did in his relative youth. Nevertheless, into my hands went my favorite air guitar, onto the CD player went "When Doves Cry," and with a look at the spl meter to ensure I wasn't endangering my hearing too much, off I boogied. Prince and I did five minutes at about 97dB, with the green Paradigm logos occasionally flashing red. Then all went quiet. The speaker's heatsinks were hot—it took about 30 minutes for the speakers to reactivate.
This was obviously unfair and unusual treatment, so I followed Purple Rain with the Ashkenazy-conducted Rachmaninoff Symphony 1 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra from the early '80s (London 411 657-2). And about 30 minutes later, in the last movement's big tune, one of the speakers went quiet again. Okay, I was playing the music loud. But this time the red lights weren't flashing, and I wasn't aware of any obviously audible strain on the speakers' part. Santa Fe's 7000' altitude knocks 3-4dB off a speaker's sensitivity, so it's possible that I wouldn't have had any music-loss problems at sea level. But it does underline the fact that Paradigm is squeezing all they can from the Active/20's drive-units.
And maybe I'm making too much of this. After the review was written, I dug out Don Henley's Building the Perfect Beast (Geffen 24026-2)—I wanted to take advantage of the Paradigm's bass extension to dig the intermodulation-induced octave doubling on Danny Kortchmar's nasty-guitar intro to "All She Wants To Do Is Dance." The spl meter was peaking at 97dB, the red lights were flashing in time to the music, but the speakers kept on playing to the end of the track. I suspect that the protection is program-dependent; some kinds of music hit just the right spectra to push the Paradigms over the edge.
When I kept within the speed limit, the Paradigms continued to impress me with how well they reproduced music's broad sweep, something that was reinforced by their excellent stereo imaging. Excellent, that is, both in terms of image stability and in the way the speakers defined spatial positions in both the width and depth planes. I was editing and mixing Stereophile's live recordings from the 1997 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival during the review period, and was continually impressed with how easily I could hear slight differences in soundstaging resulting from the choices I was making. And on commercial recordings, the Paradigms' ability to present fine detail without blending it into a generic sound was refreshing.
A cut that has been spending a lot of time in the Levinson CD player is Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Southern Cross" from 1982, as reissued on the 1991 CSN boxed set (Atlantic 82319-2). The song's verse rocks from A to G to D, Stills' arrangement making the most of the open-string sharp keys that work so well on the guitar. Via the powered Paradigms, the stage on which the song was presented was enormous, yet all the sonic objects were solidly presented within that stage, and could be easily differentiated. There was no spotlighting of detail; just the feeling that nothing was getting in the way of anything else. Not the least the speakers, of course!
About the only overt character I noticed in the Active/20's presentation was a slight dryness in the mid-treble. Others who heard them in my listening room commented on a degree of high-frequency grain—it was obvious we were talking about the same phenomenon. But this was minor in degree and didn't get in the way of the music. I didn't fool around much with the tone controls, by the way, the center positions offering the best balance between bass weight and definition, and between HF air and detail.
At the end of the auditioning I went back to my long-term references, the B&W Silver Signatures driven by Mark Levinson No.33H monoblocks. As good as I felt the Paradigms to be, it was no contest. The B&Ws sounded more refined, more detailed, with a considerably greater sense of ease. Only in bass extension and stereo imaging accuracy and stability did the Canadian speakers rival the British. But wait a second—the Paradigms, which include amplification, cost under $2000 with stands; the $8000/pair B&Ws were being driven by $20,000 worth of Levinson. You'd better expect $28,000 to buy better sound quality than $2000! With speakers like the Paradigm Active/20 around, the Law of Diminishing Returns kicks in in a big way.
Even if you have to spend a couple of hundred dollars on a pair of appropriate stands—and the supplied AudioStreams are a good choice—Paradigm's Reference Active/20 is a superb-sounding, well-engineered bargain when you consider that, for your $1600, you get everything you need to make sound other than a preamplifier and source components. Enthusiastically recommended as the affordable reference for minimonitor sound quality. Maybe I'll borrow another pair to experiment with surround sound...