Paradigm Reference Signature S2 loudspeaker
Paradigm has invested in research and development over the years, including the building of their own anechoic chamber, but missing from the Paradigm product lineup has been any "statement" product. Then, at the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Paradigm's Rob Sample and Mark Aling showed me production prototypes of a small two-way design, the Reference Signature S2, which, with its high-tech drive-units and impeccable finish, was intended to spearhead the company's assault on the high end of loudspeaker design. "Sign me up for a review pair," I declared, "pronto!"
It took rather longer for the review speakers to arrive than I had anticipated, and the Reference Signature S2s had to take their place in the queue. However, when I unpacked the boxes I was impressed with what I found. The contrast between the gray, diecast front plates of the tweeter, woofer, and port, the polished gold-colored metal of the tweeter dome and the woofer's stationary phase plug, and the immaculate high-gloss finish of the bird's-eye maple veneer, was stunning. It's a shame that all this has to be hidden behind the grille, which consists of dark brown cloth stretched over a plastic space frame. But as Paradigm's literature makes it clear, the grille fits flush with the drive-units to minimize edge diffraction. The enclosure itself is made from ¾" MDF and has gently curved sidewalls and top panel, to increase rigidity. With its internal vertical H-brace behind the drive-units, it feels solid as a rock.
Paradigm makes its own drivers: the 1" tweeter in the S2 has an aluminum dome anodized a gold color, and neodymium magnets. This model has a very high dynamic range, and is said to be able to stand a peak transient of 60V! A heatsink attached to the rear of the tweeter helps dissipate heat when the speaker is driven with sustained high-frequency signals. The woofer uses a 7" cone formed from mica-loaded polymer; it uses a 1.5" voice-coil and an inverted half-roll surround, and is mounted to the baffle with a compliant gasket.
The woofer is reflex-loaded with a fairly large-diameter port mounted beneath it on the baffle, this flared at both ends to minimize wind noise at high levels. Internal wiring is fairly heavy-gauge multistrand cable, with push-on clips used for the driver connections. Electrical connection is via two pairs of WBT binding posts set into the back panel, and the crossover is mounted behind these posts, with separate boards used for each section. The filters appear to be second-order for the tweeter high-pass, using a single air-cored coil and a plastic-film capacitor; and third-order for the woofer low-pass, with two laminated iron-cored coils and a nonpolarized electrolytic capacitor.
I set up the Paradigms on 24" Celestion stands, the central pillars of which were filled with a mix of sand and lead shot, in the positions where the Dynaudio Special 25 that I reviewed in June had worked well. This is a little closer to the sidewalls than I use for full-range speakers, which adds some needed boundary reinforcement to the midbass with minimonitors. Even then, the Reference Signature S2 sounded light in overall weight. However, its rich upper-bass register meant that only occasionally did I feel that I was being shortchanged on low frequencies. The Fender bass on the channel-identification tracks on my Editor's Choice CD (Stereophile STPH016-2) had a reasonably full-bodied tone, but with a slight accentuation of each note's leading edge.
Occasionally I thought I noticed a touch of "gruffness" in the S2's presentation of bass instruments, but provided the playback level was not extreme—this is a small speaker, after all—this was never a serious issue in my auditioning. But a 32Hz sinewave, even at modest volumes, produced some audible "doubling" (the addition of second-harmonic distortion). I never heard any wind noise emanating from the front-mounted port, by the way, but what I did hear from both speakers when I played the half-step–spaced toneburst track on Editor's Choice was some rattling of the grille between 90Hz and 160Hz. I fixed this with the strategic application of some Blu-Tack, but given that the grilles are so important to producing the correct treble balance, I was disappointed by this.
This track also revealed some slight problems with midrange clarity. I created this test signal, which steps a sinewave burst from 32Hz to 4kHz and back again for each channel individually, because it quickly reveals when a speaker's drive-units have problems speaking with a single voice. As the toneburst went through the upper notes in the 512–1024Hz octave, each toneburst could be heard to acquire a very slight "shadow" at a different pitch. The same thing happened an octave lower, but with the shadow at the higher-pitched tone. I wasn't sure if I could consistently hear anything like this effect when listening to music; with spectrally pure sounds, however, such as the clarinet on my Mosaic CD (Stereophile STPH015-2), the instrument occasionally sounded a little more sour in intonation than I was anticipating.
Once I had done the measurements, I did wonder if the high-Q resonance present in the port's output just above 800Hz was responsible for this behavior. However, I could not hear anything untoward coming from the port itself. Other than that slight bit of "character" noticeable on specific recordings, the Paradigm's midrange was as pure and uncolored as I have heard. The voices on the new Hyperion CD of Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna (CDA67449), which John Marks has recently enthused over, were reproduced with a lack of unnatural color and a delightful delicacy. The individual images of the singers were unambiguously positioned in the space between and behind the speakers, with almost no tendency for objects in the soundstage to "splash out" to the positions of the speakers.
Compared with the Dynaudio Special 25, the Signature S2's treble balance was a little on the forward side, though not quite to the same degree as the Danish speaker. The voices on Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music (with the Corydon Singers and the ECO directed by Matthew Best, Hyperion CDA66420) were presented slightly in front of the speaker plane, and the work's climaxes sounded edgier than I was anticipating, even given this CD's fairly early digital provenance (it was recorded in 1990). In general, the Signature S2s were better suited to good modern classical CDs, such as Keith Johnson's recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade with the London Philharmonic under José Serebrier (Reference RR-89CD), than to aged ones suffering from analog tape distortion and noise modulation, such as the 1962 performance of Delius' La Calinda from the Philharmonia under George Weldon (EMI Studio 7 69534 2)—much as I love the latter on musical grounds.
On the other hand, this 43-year-old recording is nowhere near as sonically compromised as the CD side of Bruce Springsteen's new Devils & Dust DualDisc (Columbia CN 93900), which sounds overcompressed and plain distorted much of the time. (The DVD side sounds better in these respects; perhaps the mastering engineer—the A-list Bob Ludwig, according to the booklet—was not under as much pressure from the record-company suits to "make it louder.") It is fair to point out that the cuts in which Springsteen accompanies himself on acoustic guitar (eg, the title track) are better in this respect than those with a full rock band—for example, "All the Way Home," with its peak/mean ratio of just 4–5dB. As much as I wanted it to, the Signature S2 did nothing to smooth over the cracks in this piece of sonic dreck.
The S2's top octaves sounded very delicate, allowing subtle treble detail to be clearly resolved. At the start of Duke Ellington's "The Mooche," from the Jerome Harris Quintet's Rendezvous (Stereophile STPH013-2), drummer Billy Drummond gently and continually brushes his cymbals to provide a wash of HF that on speakers with poor tweeters resembles white noise. Played back on the Paradigms, the slight inflections in how Billy brushes the cymbals were clearly evident as changes in texture. Similarly, all the sonic subtleties in the two-channel remixes on Play, Peter Gabriel's collection of his sometimes disturbing videos on DVD-V (Warner R2 970396)—ranging, for example, from Kate Bush's delicately reassuring voicings and Tony Levin's bass chord foundation in "Don't Give Up" to the thunderous drums in "Biko"—emerged from the Paradigms unscathed.
Thunderous? Well, up to a point, given the Signature S2's relatively diminutive size. No one who rates dynamic range as a major priority will be looking for a minimonitor as a first choice. In the tradition of the BBC LS3/5a, this Canadian speaker is not about loudness but about the ability to preserve subtleties and to maximize the purity of instrumental colors. Even so, I found a hardness that developed in the mid-treble to be the ultimate speed limit on loudness, rather than the fuzz and blurring that resulted from low-frequency overdrive.
To put this in perspective, the Paradigm played about as loud without strain as the MartinLogan Montage, which Kal Rubinson and I reviewed in the May and June 2005 issues. And on the superb Alison Krauss + Union Station Live DVD-V (Rounder 11661-0535-9; thanks for the PCM soundtrack, Rounder), the music fit nicely within the Signature's dynamic limits.
If you value ultimate loudness and bass extension, then you should check out Paradigm's similarly priced, more utilitarian-styled Reference Studio/100 v.3. But if you're willing to sacrifice those attributes in favor of nuanced higher-frequency purity and the ability to develop a stable, detailed soundstage, Paradigm's Reference Signature S2 might well be for you, particularly if you have a smallish room. Drop-dead gorgeous at an equally attractive price, with faults that are minor and strengths that are major, the S2 comes highly recommended.