Paradigm Studio Monitor loudspeaker

692.parapromo.jpgParadigm is not a new name to US audiophiles, but the Canadian loudspeaker company hopes to increase awareness of its products with their Monitor series, all members of which incorporate a similar design philosophy and drive-units. Heavy and apparently massively constructed, the top-of-the-line Paradigm Studio Monitors ($1899/pair) are the first commercial loudspeakers to pass my way with provision for tri-wiring: three sets of terminals on the back of the enclosures provide direct links to the crossover segments feeding each separate driver (or drivers, in the case of the low end).

Those crossovers use quasi-Butterworth filters, but there is, by design, little attempt to correct for driver aberrations in the crossover, a technique which Paradigm does not believe produces the best results. The wood-veneered cabinet is solidly constructed, making use of a combination of high-density composite hardboard and MDF—a technique claimed to reduce uncontrolled resonances. MDF cross-bracing is provided, and four heavy-duty spikes are furnished per speaker. (I used Tonecones in my listening for the simple reason that three spikes are self-leveling, four are not.)

The Paradigm's cone drivers are filled-polypropylene with cast aluminum chassis. Long voice-coils are used for linearity. The newly developed metal-dome tweeter, which did not appear in earlier generations of the Studio Monitor, uses a textile suspension aluminum dome to push the driver's breakup modes above the audible range. The dual woofers are loaded by a conventional ducted port; internal damping material is a fibrous material called CO-SPUN®, which Paradigm says they have developed specifically for use in loudspeakers.

My listening to the Paradigms turned up news both good and not-so-good. From the midrange through the upper treble reaches, the news was better than good. The upper octaves, in particular, were gorgeous. My first reaction was that this just might be the best metal-dome tweeter I'd ever heard—maybe the best dome tweeter period. While further listening kept my enthusiasm within reasonable bounds, I continued to find the response at the top of the Paradigm's range to be a delight: smooth, silky, airy, and extended without spit, sizzle, graininess, or etching.

Certainly the choice of amplifier went a long way here, as it often does. The highs were at their best with the Threshold SA/550e. The explosive sibilants at the start of the Swingle Singers' Around the World (Virgin Classics 91207-2) had the appropriate attack, yet still sounded as if they originated with human voices and not percussion instruments. The reed-like "solo" organ pipe in "The Ancient Castle," from Jean Guillou's organ version of Pictures at an Exhibition (Dorian DOR-90117), was suspended in air in a three-dimensional space. A Chesky promotional sampler CD I picked up at the January CES in Las Vegas was a delight throughout. Here, the rich, musically textured upper end of male vocals (Kenny Rankin) almost equaled the astonishing, limpid sweetness of female vocal reproduction (Sara K.). The jazz selections on the same disc, if not quite as gripping as the vocals, clearly did no injustice to the Paradigm's treble response.

Not all recordings came off as well. This should be expected. The Paradigm's top octaves did not soften overly hyped recordings, but neither did it exaggerate them in ways which indicated loudspeaker-related flaws. Specifically, bad recordings sounded bad in different ways, usually (though not always) an indication that the problem does not lie with the system.

The midrange of the Studio Monitors, while not quite up to the level of the top end, nevertheless did not embarrass itself in any obvious, or not so obvious, way. Commonly encountered colorations—nasality, boxiness—were low to the point of irrelevance. I have already mentioned the effective, natural vocal reproduction; it had that rich, palpable, musical character which is always a positive sign. The Paradigm's midrange could also be, combined with the loudspeakers' upper-range prowess, remarkably revealing. On Steven Sondheim's quirky but strangely absorbing Assassins (BMG 60737-2-RC), there is a distinctive quality to the voice of the actor playing Oswald—a sort-of but not-quite lispy twang—which had not been evident on several other loudspeakers. It was clearly demonstrated over the Paradigms.

There was, however, one aspect of the Paradigm's performance which could not be ignored: its bottom end. On the positive side, only the best subwoofers generate more sheer power, extension, and impact. The overall weight generated by four not-very-large woofers was continually amazing. The aforementioned Pictures has such a potent low end that it can sound powerful even with small loudspeakers; there was no question at all with the Paradigms, however, that these were not small loudspeakers. They moved air! The specified low-frequency extension does not seem out of line; below 30Hz I can easily believe.

But the quality of the bottom end was the Studio Monitors' Achilles heel. That extreme bottom was not well defined. That alone would not bother me much. The power and sheer ease of the Paradigms' bottom end would do justice to many far more expensive loudspeakers (and a fair number of subwoofers as well), and to get both definition and extension in the bottom octave is rare. But further up into the mid- and upper bass, the sound could only be described as distinctly overripe. Boomy would be too strong a term—the lows had some sense of pitch differentiation—but tight and punchy this loudspeaker is not. While the body and heft of the Paradigm's lower octaves added to the overall feeling of power (and, for that reason, were not entirely unpleasant on some types of music), they also obscured inner detail and transparency up through the lower midrange. Double bass was less obviously flawed than, say, heavily scored organ, but individual notes stuck out even there—a sign of unevenness. The problem was not always present; program material tending to leanness or lacking strong output in the bottom octaves fared better. Some male vocals would be affected, others would not. Female vocals were generally fine.

Some amplifiers were able to get a tighter grip on the bass than others. An old Perreaux PMF 5150B, before it was recently sold, was noticeably more successful in reining-in the Paradigm's bass rambunctiousness than any other amplifier tried—and seemed to elicit more bottom-end extension to boot. Not surprising, in light of its 500Wpc output capability (into 8 ohms). And it did so with less compromise to the Studio Monitor's superb top end than I expected. Still, it could not completely cure the situation.

This is not the first time I've noticed low-end problems with loudspeakers which rely on two closely coupled drivers to cover the bass region. It can sometimes be done successfully by rolling off one of the drivers below the midbass. The problem is one of mutual reinforcement, a phenomenon in which two drivers, mounted in close proximity to each other, mutually reinforce each other's output across a limited frequency band. This may well be the cause of the problem here.

Since room modes can never be discounted in the bottom octaves, some of the blame may rest there as well. My listening room does, as I've noted before, shade to warmth. But it is not an atypical environment, and the problem with the Paradigms was more severe than with any other loudspeaker I've auditioned there, save perhaps for the Snell B. The latter loudspeaker did dig a bit deeper into the low end, had a slightly less pronounced (but still problematical) mid- and upper bass, and was less transparent than the Paradigms in the regions above the bass.

It was a true frustration to bump up against this problem. In all other respects the Studio Monitors were first-rate—not only in the areas already discussed, but in other important ways as well. The spaciousness and sense of inner transparency (when there was little bottom end present to interfere with it) were outstanding, prompting my involvement. The dynamics and lack of strain were similarly first-class. This is a big, gutsy-sounding loudspeaker, without the unstated subtext of a raw, unrefined quality which such a description can often imply. But its subjective balance is schizoid. If it were a dance team, it would be Ginger Rogers and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Finally, I listened to the loudspeakers with the Audio Research Classic 120 monoblocks. Not unexpectedly, the latter did not control the low end of the Paradigms all that well—certainly not as well as the larger, solid-state amplifiers. I also tried a less expensive but promising amplifier which only recently arrived, the PS Audio 100 Delta. While noticeably crisper than the Audio Research, the PS Audio also seemed a bit sweeter on top than the Levinson No.23.5—though the jury is still very much out on this. The PS Audio could not, however, control the low end quite as well as the Levinson, a noticeable loss on the Paradigms.

I have to say that I was very favorably impressed by the Paradigm's mid/treble range. The Paradigms may possibly come into their own in larger listening rooms; such environments might temper their overly enthusiastic bottom end. They do appear to have the capacity to fill a rather large space. The bottom line, however, is that While I found these loudspeakers to be fun dates, I would hesitate to bring any of them home to Mother.

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