Paradigm Reference Studio/100 v.3 loudspeaker

Like the Reference Studio/60, which was enthusiastically reviewed in the December 2004 issue by Kalman Rubinson, Paradigm's floorstanding Reference Studio/100 is now available in a v.3 version. The '100 is the flagship model in the Canadian manufacturer's Reference line. Its earlier incarnations, the original Studio/100 and the Studio/100 v.2, were reviewed by Tom Norton and Robert Deutsch in the August 1997 and June 2000 issues of Stereophile, respectively, and both writers were well impressed at how much sound quality could be wrought from this competitively priced speaker design. Bob Deutsch, in particular, referred to the v.2 as a "a serious high-end contender, and a formidable one for just about any speaker in its price range and even well above."

Not surprisingly, following its first review, the Studio/100 took up long-term residence in Stereophile's "Recommended Components" listing. When I heard that Paradigm had introduced a v.3, I asked for review samples.

Like the earlier version, the v.3 is a reflex-loaded, three-way design, though it features three 7" woofers compared with the v.2's twin 8.5" units, which allows a narrower cabinet to be used (8.25" vs 11"), with all the benefits that confers on both enclosure rigidity and upper-midrange radiation pattern. The midrange unit still uses a mica-filled polymer cone, but this is now a 7" unit rather than a 6.5", with a stationary metal phase plug rather than a dustcap. The 1" aluminum-dome tweeter looks very similar, but its housing now protrudes slightly above the top of the enclosure—a nice styling feature, in combination with its rubber-covered top. All of the drive-units are manufactured by Paradigm.

The Studio/100 v.3 looks very attractive with its drivers exposed, but, as with all Paradigm designs, the black cloth-over-plastic-frame grille provides the necessary smooth baffle profile in the vicinity of the diaphragms to optimize the speaker's dispersion. The '100 is therefore intended to be listened to with its grille on; omitting it results in both a less-even off-axis response and some dips and peaks appearing in the treble response.

I used the Studio/100s for six weeks or so of serious listening, first in a system comprising Ayre CX-7 and Simaudio Moon Equinox CD players driving a Mark Levinson No.380S preamplifier and No.33H monoblocks, with AudioQuest and Madrigal cables, then with a fully loaded dCS digital front-end—Verdi SACD/CD transport, Purcell upsampler, Elgar Plus DAC, Verona master clock—driving the No.33Hs directly.

First disc played was the CD layer of last September's "Recording of the Month," the Nikolaus Harnoncourt performance of Mozart's Requiem with the Concentus Musicus Wien (SACD, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 82876 58705 2). The choir and orchestra were presented in a big sweep of sound, with rich depth apparent in the double basses. The top couple of octaves were perhaps a bit larger than life, but the overall sound was laid-back rather than bright, smooth and clean rather than grainy. Stereo imaging was tightly controlled, with an excellent sense of looking through a stable, clear window into the recorded acoustic.

Turning to the CD layer of the recent reissue of the classic Byron Janis performances of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concertos 2 and 3 (SACD, Mercury Living Presence 470 639-2), nothing happened to change my initial positive impression of the Paradigms. The presentation was both bighearted and clean, with a very real-sounding, dynamically presented piano hanging in the space between the speakers. Analog tape hiss from this almost half-century-old recording was more in evidence than I was expecting—Paradigm has never been noted for dull, mellow-sounding speakers—but the top treble octaves were not bright, just a bit tilted-up.

And when I hooked up the dCS player and listened to the two-channel DSD layers of this and the Mozart SACDs, the Paradigms excelled at conveying the dynamic sweep of the freshly renovated music. I am not convinced of the need for higher resolution with much of the overcooked, degraded mixes that seem to be de rigueur in rock music. But with well-recorded classical music, a well-mastered SACD is about as good a source as I can imagine anyone wanting.

Turning to well-recorded rock—which often means reaching back in time—the Paradigms coped well with the demands of the side 2 suite on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (SACD, Capital CDP 5 82136 2), taking me back to my early audiophile days in the 1970s, when the original LP version occupied pride of place in my collection. The Studio/100s coped equally as well with Brian Wilson's re-creation of Smile (CD, Nonesuch 79846-2), the speakers' rich but clean low frequencies underpinning the complex mixes. (Though as transparent as the Paradigms' high frequencies were, I still couldn't make out the words of the answering phrases in the verse of "Surf's Up"—I have been singing "wipe out, wipe out" for the past 30 years, but the new recording only goes as far as revealing that I have been wrong to do that.)

I haven't said anything about coloration. That's because, despite the variety of program material I auditioned on the Studio/100s, I was never made aware of any persistent problem in this area. This is one neutral speaker.

Summing up
At $2300/pair, the Paradigm Reference Studio/100 v.3 offers superb performance with a clean, neutrally balanced presentation and powerful low frequencies. Its lowish impedance will require some care taken with choosing an amplifier or receiver, but set against that will be its above-average sensitivity. This is a true full-range audiophile loudspeaker at a much lower price than you'd expect to pay for a similar design from a boutique brand. Highly recommended.

101 Hanlan Road
Woodbridge, Ontario L4L 3P5
(905) 850-2889