Paradigm Atom Monitor v.5 loudspeaker Page 2

If The Sultan's Picnic impressed me, vocal recordings absolutely slayed me. Tierney Sutton's On the Other Side (SACD, Telarc SACD-63650) gave me goose bumps. Added to the Atom's midrange clarity was a top-end sparkle and a tonal balance that were completely relaxed. Vocals, whether male or female, were compelling through the Atom.

Ray Brinker's trapset and the sound of bassists Trey Henry and Kevin Axt weren't quite as slammin' as I would have wished, however. There was quite a bit of bass—certainly enough to let me hear the unstopped 41Hz E, but not as forcefully as notes about an octave higher.

Some of this loss of impact was, as I said earlier, a result of my placement tradeoff, but you could place the Atoms on the wall and you'd still lose slam below 50Hz. I don't see this as a problem, because the rolloff was gradual and the speaker's overall balance was full-bodied. But if you listen to a lot of dance music or hip-hop, the Atom might sound a bit light in the woofer for you.

But the Atom probably wouldn't be the ideal speaker for dance or hip-hop for another reason: It's best suited for sane volume levels and small to mid-size rooms. Pair it with a 50Wpc amplifier and put it in a listening room of "normal" size and you'll have the backbone of a truly first-rate hi-fi. And it's not that more power will fry the Atom (indeed, most tweeters are cooked by not enough power), it's simply that the little guy reaches a point of dynamic saturation above which it cannot rise.

That doesn't mean the Atom couldn't rock'n'roll, as I discovered when I pulled out the Heartless Bastards' Stairs and Elevators (CD, Fat Possum FFP-1019). Erika Wennerstrom's Janis-Joplin-meets-Robert-Plant wail scored about a force 10 as it soared over the rock-solid riddum of Mike Lamping and Kevin Vaughan. It rocked the room—even if it didn't quite rock the house.

Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you
After I'd had the Atoms for a week or so, JA mentioned that Stereophile still had the $279/pair PSB Alpha B1 loudspeakers he'd reviewed in May. "Might be a good point of comparison," the boss suggested. What a good idea—especially as I've always had a soft spot for the original Alpha.

I used the same Foundation stands with Blu-Tak interface for the B1s, although I did listen with their grilles on, finding that otherwise they had too much top-end sparkle. What immediately impressed me about the B1 was how different it sounded from the Atom. Both had surprisingly flat response through the midrange, but for all their similarities, they were quite obviously different critters.

The PSBs presented the saxes, trumpet, and harmonica of The Sultan's Picnic with a more forward perspective—in front of the plane of the loudspeakers—while the Atoms put all of the musicians behind that plane. However, the PSBs delivered more weight through the drums and tuba and serpent, especially in one mighty blast from Michel Godard during "The Happy Sheik." That was about as close to a squarewave as I've ever heard an affordable loudspeaker come—I flashed on the famous Fritz Reiner quote about Walter Jacobs' enormous BBb York tuba: "Don't point that thing at me!"

The Atoms had more brassy shimmer and sustain on the cymbals and bells. I removed the B1s' grilles to see if I was gaming the comparison by leaving them on the PSBs, but while I did hear some extension of the high frequencies, it wasn't in balance with the rest of the tonal spectrum. I left the B1s' grilles in place.

With On the Other Side, Tierney Sutton was more up-front through the PSBs, which was far from unappealing. I preferred the balanced—and slightly more relaxed—vocal sound of the Atoms, but that would not be a universal opinion. The bass and drums had just a touch more slam through the PSBs, which was quite welcome. Neither difference was immense, but both were noticeable.

Stairs and Elevators is not a polished-sounding recording. In fact, it's quite raw, in keeping with the sound of a power trio just beginning its recording odyssey, which is what the Heartless Bastards were when this album was recorded. Heck, when it was released, drummer Kevin Vaughan was still driving a pizza-delivery route. Fat Possum's, um, unvarnished sound was more powerful (and a touch more strident) through the PSBs. That's a good thing—I saw the band at the Bowery Ballroom the night before I wrote this—and they're all about power and immediacy.

What repeatedly impressed me as I listened to the PSB Alpha B1 and the Paradigm Atom was that I could contentedly live with either. Both were far more right than wrong, and if I preferred the low end of one and the top end of the other, I was happy as a pig in clover with the broad middle of both speakers.

Why on earth does crappy-sounding hi-fi still exist when you can get this much goodness for under $300?

The intense atom glows
The Paradigm Atom Monitor v.5 is one heck of a loudspeaker. Of course, no speaker is perfect. If you have a large room, listen at crippling volumes, or favor the bottom octave above all else, you'll need to look elsewhere. No problem—there are a lot of other choices out there.

And if you don't have a huge room, don't need to turn your amp up to 11, and listen to a wide variety of music? There are still a lot of choices.

I suggest, however, that you put the Paradigm Atom Monitor v.5 near the top of that list. It looks good, it's built well, and it sounds good enough that this hard-core music junkie hasn't listened to his $10,000 loudspeakers for a month. Oh sure, the big guys can do things the Atoms can't—but what the Atoms do well, they do well enough that I'm not even thinking about what I might be missing.

I'm thinking about what to listen to next.

Paradigm Electronics Inc.
11-919 Fraser Drive
Burlington, Ontario L7L 4X8
(905) 632-0180