Paradigm Atom Monitor v.5 loudspeaker
I may not know all of their names, but we sweep the sidewalk, put out the trash, and jockey for alternate-side-of-the-street parking together, so we do tend to know each other—and each other's business—pretty intimately. That explains why my neighbor Charles, who has seen me manhandle many a huge crate between my curb and my front stoop, generally greets me with, "So what are you listening to now?"
Charles, who loves music, for the moment lives the high-end life vicariously through me—he loves to hear tales of kilobuck components, not that he's ever heard of most of them. He usually continues on his way to the corner bodega shaking his head and smiling.
Last week, though, he stopped at my answer. "I'm reviewing some $250/pair speakers."
"Is that all? That must be disappointing."
"Actually, I'm having a ball with them. They're the Paradigm Atoms."
"Paradigm? Those are supposed to be good."
Charles has been bemused by my tales of $10,000/pair Vandersteens, $20,000/pair Dynaudios, and $28,000/pair Wilson Audio WATT/Puppys. But $250/pair Atoms? That impressed him—and me too, when you get right down to it.
Leave the atom alone
The Atom has been a mainstay of Paradigm's line since the mid-1990s, and has long been among the standard-setters of sub-$200 high-fidelity loudspeakers. Bob Reina reviewed the Atom v.3 in 2002, and concluded that "the Atom smashes the low-price barrier."
The v.5 is similar in that it's still a stand-mounted, two-way speaker with a rear-ported, bass-reflex design, but its cabinet, drivers, and crossover are all improved—and the price has risen to $250/pair. The v.5 weighs almost twice as much as the v.3—11.5 lbs rather than 6.5 lbs—and is almost 2" deeper. The v.5's baffle and rear plate are cast from glass-reinforced polymer, and the two "shells" are tightly clamped to the MDF top, sides, and bottom to create a light yet surprisingly rigid box. The two drivers are set into a mounting plate that stands proud of the baffle's surface but fits flush into the grille, to reduce baffle diffraction. Paradigm recommends leaving the grilles in place.
The 1" high-purity titanium dome (H-PTD) is manufactured in-house by Paradigm, as is the 5.5" bass/midrange cone, which is made of minimal-mass, injected-molded copolymer (MICP). The mid/woofer is molded in two stages: first the cone is made; then, in the second stage, the surround is added. A dustcap of the same material is molded separately and glued in place.
Fit'n'finish are impressive for speakers at their price point—the Atom Monitor v.5 doesn't look luxe, but it sure doesn't look cheap.
Desire, like the atom, is explosive
I auditioned the Atoms in my smaller (9' by 15' by 8'), acoustically treated listening room. Using Blu-Tak, I secured the speakers on my 24" Foundation stands, which cost about as much as the speakers back in 1994.
Initially, I mounted the Atoms well into the room, approximately where I'd auditioned the Sonics by Joachim Gerhard Animas (see my review in the July issue). But after John Atkinson had made his in-room measurements, he suggested I move the Atoms closer to the room boundaries to increase their bass presence. I experimented with this, and sure enough, I got more slam. However, this came at the price of some smearing of the Atoms' glorious midrange, so I moved 'em back into the room. This will be a matter of taste—finding the perfect tradeoff between low-end impact and midrange clarity will vary from room to room and from listener to listener.
One other performance note: With all due respect to Paradigm, I preferred the Atom v.5s with their grilles off. Listen both ways—it's not as if the experiment costs you any money.
Armed with the secret powers of the atom
When I first played the Atoms, Rabih Abou-Khalil's The Sultan's Picnic (CD, Enja ENJ-8078) leapt into existence between them—and a huge grin spread across my face. The nonet was completely three-dimensional and tonally vivid—what I was hearing wasn't simply good sound for the money, it was what the High End is all about.
Abou-Khalil's oud was earthy and warm, while Mark Nauseef's amazing tambourine figures added sparkle and shimmer to the sound. Nabil Khaiat's frame drum added a delightfully hollow thrum—an effect that emphasized the recording's sense of space. And then—and then—all the way up the neck of his fretless bass, Steve Swallow enters, smooth as silk and fast as flowing water. And "Sunrise in Montreal" just kept building.v
Next, Howard Levy's harmonica joined the band, and Charlie Mariano's alto sax, and finally Kenny Wheeler's flugelhorn. And here's the amazing thing: as each instrument entered, the sound got bigger, but the space remained the same. The disc's acoustic filled but didn't swell.
Okay, that's just straight reportage—but you don't necessarily expect "Just the facts, man" precision from cheap'n'cheerful hi-fi.
The Atoms sorted out instrumental dynamics and acoustic interactions about as well as any loudspeaker I've heard. Yes, that grin on my face was huge. Everybody likes good sound, but what everybody really loves is a bargain. The Atom is a steal.