Paradigm Reference Studio/20 loudspeaker

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.

The 20 ($998/pair) is the least expensive of Paradigm's midpriced Reference Studio speakers, which include three other two-channel models and top out at the Studio/100 floorstander ($2698/pair). It had been some time since I'd seen or heard a Studio/20, but I was immediately struck by how the v.4 bore no visual resemblance to my memory of the original Studio/20. While the older speaker's size, appearance, and quality of construction clearly resembled those of other high-quality affordable speakers of the day, the v.4 is larger, looks more elegant, and seems more solidly built—more like a design trickled down from a far more expensive model.

The Reference Studio/20 is a two-way, front-ported bookshelf design with different drivers from the v.3. The 1" tweeter uses a gold-anodized aluminum dome, called a G-PAL by Paradigm, and is cooled and damped with ferrofluid. This drive-unit first appeared in Paradigm's flagship Signature Series—see JA's review of the Signature S2 in July 2005—and is designed for high rigidity and improved internal damping. The diaphragm's radius of curvature has been reduced in order to improve sound dispersion. The 7" bass/midrange driver has a satin-anodized aluminum cone, also designed for enhanced rigidity. In lieu of a dustcap, the Studio/20's woofer has a gold-anodized aluminum phase plug mounted on the end of the voice-coil former (another Signature feature). The increased air flow improves power handling.

As I usually do with the speakers I review, I set up the Studio/20s on my 24" Celestion Si stands, which are loaded with lead shot and sand. In the owner's manual, Paradigm is adamant that the speaker grille is part of the Studio/20's acoustic design and, to ensure the most natural and coherent sound, should not be removed. I listened to them briefly with the grilles off, and I agree: the highs sounded too prominent, and detached from the midrange. The grilles went back on.

The Reference Studio/20's midrange neutrality and superb detail resolution made it a glorious match for well-recorded vocal and piano tracks. Tucking into Lucinda Williams' West (CD, Lost Highway B0005938-02), I noted that on every track, the Paradigms reproduced Williams' voice in a rich, supple, holographic fashion. Carole King's wide vocal range on "So Far Away," from her Living Room Tour (CD, Rockingale RCD2-6200-2), was rendered as warm, rich, and natural, as was her solo-piano accompaniment. Moreover, it was very easy to outline the acoustic space in which the concert was recorded.

I was particularly taken with what the Studio/20 did in the lower midrange; ie, the frequency range of male vocals and the lower register of most orchestral woodwinds and brass. I was not only smitten by the neutrality, resolution of detail, and subtle dynamic contrasts the speaker revealed—and it did these in spades—there was also a sense of bloom in this region that I'd never before heard from a bookshelf speaker at any price. When there was any well-recorded work that had a lot of energy in the lower midrange, the Studio/20 seemed to be let out of its cage; I had to pinch myself that I wasn't listening to a large floorstander speaker—or even, at times, to a live performance.

I used the Studio/20s to provide background music for the champagne reception that preceded my family's annual Italian seven-course seafood feast (with matching wines), and spun some of my favorite Christmas discs. I launched into "My Favorite Things," from Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album (CD, Columbia CK 66459). This boisterous arrangement more resembles Buddy Rich than the typical Bennett chart, with fortissimo tutti blasts of brass and saxes that act as counterpoint to Bennett's lyric interpretation of the song. Even at reasonable volumes, the Studio/20s' dynamic vivacity was so captivating that what I'd intended as background music kept drawing attention away from the conversation and champagne. Not a bad thing.

I then spun my favorite CD from the audiophile Dorian label, the Solid Brass's Christmas with Solid Brass (CD, Dorian DOR-90114). These mellower arrangements of traditional classical Christmas works heavily favor the lower midrange, spotlighting the French horns, trombones, and the trumpet's lower register. Once again I was torn away from my guests and kept staring at the speakers. I had never heard the lifelike, organic, "breathing" quality of these instruments—the burnished glow of the horn, the blatty attack of the trombone—reproduced more convincingly by any speaker.

Paradigm Electronics Inc.
205 Annagem Boulevard
Mississauga, Ontario L5T 2V1
(905) 564-1994