When reviewing affordable speakers, it's critical to have benchmarks and comparisons for various price points. Inexpensive speaker designs are exercises in tradeoffs and compromises, especially for the least costly products. In all of my reviews, I try to compare the speaker in question with other designs close to the review sample's price, chosen from my list of previously reviewed speakers. From time to time, if a speaker particularly impresses me, I ask the manufacturer if I can keep the speakers around a while longer, so that it can serve as a comparison reference for a certain price point. That's not to say that any speaker I don't keep around is less desirable—there's just not enough room in my house to keep a sample of every speaker I like. An audio reviewer's wife puts up with enough as it is.
I first met NHT co-founder Ken Kantor in 1975 when we were both undergraduates at MIT. Kantor was sponsoring an extracurricular class entitled "Musical Ideas." The concept was to stick a dozen or so musicians in a classroom for free improvisation and hope to create music à la Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. The result was a mess; although talented guitarist Kantor meant well, there was no common vision or consistency of musical talent. Nevertheless, I had a blast trying to simulate a tamboura drone with a Hohner Clavinet, phase shifter, and volume pedal.
What makes someone a good hi-fi reviewer? A fine critical sensibility? A good technical background? Ears? Eyes? Nose? Throat? So many different people are reviewing audio gear these days that it's downright impossible to characterize a good reviewer. But I do know that Beavis and Butt-head would make killer hi-fi reviewers!
NHT's Xd system is what audiophiles have been saying they want: a matched loudspeaker system that optimizes the performance of its components for a real-world domestic listening environment. But with their dollars they've voted against just such systems for years. If we put our money where our mouths are, active speaker systems such as Meridian's DSP or those used in recording studios would dominate the High End.
When folks visit from out of town, they frequently remark that my Brooklyn neighborhood reminds them of "a real neighborhood" from their neck of the woods. "Except that we know all our neighbors and talk to them when we're cutting the grass, watering the lawn, and walking the dog. You probably don't even know the names of any of yours."
I had mixed feelings about reviewing the $189/pair Paradigm Atom loudspeaker. Although in the past I've been favorably impressed with Paradigm's speakers—the $600/pair Reference Studio/20 remains one of my favorite affordables—Budget Bob tends to get a bit nervous when a speaker's price drops below $250/pair. In my experience, even when the most talented speaker designers attempt to make a speaker to sell at such a low price, the result is often a very small cabinet with limited bass extension and inferior high-level dynamics.
There are many benefits accruing to a loudspeaker when its designer goes the active or powered route. The usual losses and distortions associated with passive crossovers can be circumvented, while the fact that the amplifiers and drive-units can be designed as a package enables the designer to squeeze more performance from each than would otherwise be the case. And the savings gained from the absence of a separate amplifier chassis can be passed on to the consumer.
Canadian company Paradigm has made a name for itself over the past 20 years with affordably priced, high-performance loudspeakers. Its Reference Series designs have garnered much praise from this magazine—I was well impressed by the floorstanding Series 3 Reference Studio/100 ($2300/pair) last January, my review following hard on the heels of Kalman Rubinson's enthusiastic recommendation of the smaller Studio/60 v.3 ($1600/pair) in December 2004, while the bookshelf Reference Studio/20 ($800/pair) has been a resident of Stereophile's "Recommended Components" listing ever since Bob Reina's original review in February 1998.
I have fond memories of the Paradigm Reference Studio 20. When I reviewed the original version for the February 1998 issue of Stereophile, it was the model that started me on my quest to seek out the best affordable loudspeakers. I believe that of all the speakers I've reviewed, the original Studio 20 remained in the magazine's "Recommended Components" longest. When I checked out the speaker's fourth generation, in May 2008, I felt it had significantly progressed in terms of sound quality and value for money. This didn't surprise me, however, as pushing the envelopes of sound quality and value has long been Paradigm's trademark. They've done with this with every one of their speakers I've heard, including the third and fifth iterations of the Atom (which I reviewed in September 2002 and February 2008, respectively), and the more expensive models I've heard at audio shows. So when I was given the opportunity to review the Studio 20's fifth generation, I jumped.
The least expensive model in Paradigm's Reference series, the Studio/20 loudspeaker is a rear-ported two-way dynamic bookshelf/satellite design, superficially identical to the powered Active/20 that JA reviewed last November. It features Paradigm's 25mm PAL pure-aluminum dome tweeter in a die-cast heatsink chassis, and a 170mm MLP mica-polymer cone in an AVS die-cast heatsink chassis with a 38mm voice coil. The crossover is third-order, quasi-Butterworth, said to be "phase-coherent." It features high-power ceramic resistors, film capacitors in all signal paths, and both air-core and steel-core inductors.
One of the first affordable loudspeakers I reviewed for Stereophile was the original Paradigm Reference Studio/20 bookshelf model, in the February 1998 issue (Vol.21 No.2). At the time, I felt that the $650/pair speaker was a breakthrough—although not completely devoid of colorations, its ratio of price to performance set a benchmark a decade ago. I kept the Studio/20s around for several years to compare with other bookshelf speakers I reviewed, and they remained listed in Stereophile's "Recommended Components" for several years after that. The Studio/20 is now in its fourth (v.4) iteration, so I thought I'd grab a pair to hear how they compared with current affordable bookshelf designs.
Ten seconds to ignition. Relax, buckle in, and welcome to Stereophile's Good Times time machine. Flux capacitors fully energized. Ignition. Not to worry, that slight tingling sensation is perfectly normal. Roll back your calendar to...June 28, 1933. We're at the Eighth Annual convention of the Institute of Radio Engineers in Chicago. Harry Olsen is on the podium, describing a new wide-range cone loudspeaker for high-fidelity sound reproduction.
Quiet, please, Mr. Olsen is about to describe the disadvantages of multipledrive-unit systems. "The radiating surfaces must be separated by a finite distance, with the result that this system will exhibit peculiar directional characteristics in the overlap region where the sound radiation issues from both sources. To reduce this effect to a minimum, the overlap region must be confined to a very small range which requires an elaborate electric filter system for allocating the frequency bands of the units. The greater space required for the two loudspeakers is another important factor. The cost of two separate field structures and vibrating systems will be considerably greater than that of a single unit."
In some ways, building an inexpensive yet musical two-way loudspeaker is a greater design challenge than creating a cost-no-object reference product. Although the latter is a much more complex endeavor, the venerable two-way box seems to bring out the creativity and resources of the designer. Rather than throw money at the product in the form of more expensive drivers, enclosures, or components, the designer of a low-cost two-way is forced to go back to the basics, rethink closely-held tenets, and rely on ingenuity and sheer talent to squeeze the most music from a given cost. Consequently, the inexpensive two-way is the perfect vehicle for designers to develop their skills. If one has mastered this art form, one is much more likely to achieve success when more ambitious designs are attempted.
The buzz was all over the audiophile 'net. "Pioneer has a new bookshelf speaker that's killer for the money!"
Hmm, I thought. Pioneer. Speakers?
To be fair, I've had the Pioneer brand on my mind for well over 30 years. The company was my brand of choice for car-stereo electronics in the 1970s, for Dolby S cassette decks in the '80s, for DVD players in the '90s, and for plasma TVs in the '00s and '10s. I felt a bit guilty that I hadn't focused on the fact that Andrew Jones, the very same design guru who came up with Pioneer's TAD Reference One loudspeaker ($70,000/pair), had had a hand in designing a few two-channel speaker models starting at $99.99/pair. The audio gossip was all about the second model from the bottom of Pioneer's speaker line, the SP-BS41-LR ($149.99/pair). I thought I'd better get a pair and review them.
The loudspeaker coming under the microscope this month emanates from north of the border. The Canadian loudspeaker industry has benefited enormously in the last few years from having the measurement, testing, and listening facilities of Canada's National Research Council in Ottawa made available to it on a commercial basis. Unlike the US or even the UK, where a new speaker designer has pretty much to rely on his own resources, having to invent his own test procedure as well as design the product, the Canadian equivalent can have his loudspeaker tested under standard conditions, quickly indicating whether he is on the right track or not. (He still, of course, has to rely on his own talent to get on the right track in the first place or to get back on it if it appears that something is amiss.)