First Listen: Paradigm Special Edition 5.1-Channel Speaker System

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First Listen: Paradigm Special Edition 5.1-Channel Speaker System

For most of my A/V life (which began decades ago when I was a teenager), I’ve faced an all-too-common problem; my listening tastes tend to overshoot my equipment budget—sometimes by painfully wide margins. Truth to tell, this problem has only gotten worse over time, which I suppose is the inevitable result of spending time with Robert Harley, Jonathan Valin, and the good folks over at The Absolute Sound. The good news is that they/we love to turn readers on to mind-blowingly fine audio gear, but the bad news is that one kind of needs the financial resources of the Sultan of Brunei in order to afford the top-shelf stuff.

Personally, I’ve tried to address the what-you-want vs. what-you-can-afford gulf by becoming a specialist, of sorts, in overachieving, high-value, high performance components and in that vein one of my favorite go-to resources is the Canadian speaker manufacturer Paradigm. Those guys are, in my view, experts at speaking the language of A/V value. A perfect case in point would be the Paradigm Special Edition series speakers that The Perfect Vision recently received for review.

Our review system consists of the following elements: 

·      1 pair of Special Edition SE 3, four-driver, 2 ½-way floorstanders  (estimated MSRP, $699/each).
·      1 pair of Special Edition SE 1, two-driver, 2-way stand-mount monitors (estimated MSRP, $299/each).
·      1 Special Edition SE Center, four-driver, 3-way center channel (estimated MSRP, $499/each).
·      1 Special Edition SE Subwoofer, with 10-inch carbon/aramid fiber-polypropylene woofer, a 300-watt class D amp, and onboard DSP-driven EQ that can be calibrated by Paradigm’s optional PBK-1 perfect bass kit (estimated MSRP, $699/each).

The “special sauce” that makes this speaker system, well, special involves Paradigm’s brilliant decision to combine elements of its familiar, value-oriented Monitor-series speaker family with driver technologies drawn from its upscale Reference-series Studio models to create a whole new “tweener” speaker family that promises near-Studio-grade sound at modest, middle range prices. 

In practice, this means the Special Edition models start out with clean, simple, strong enclosure designs drawn from the Monitor range, but dress them up with real wood veneers (our samples came in a sumptuous “Rosenut” finish) while treating cabinet edges to gently-radiused curves that impart an upscale look and feel. Alternatively, Special Edition models can be ordered with black or white gloss finishes. Driver housings, too, leverage key Monitor-family design concepts where driver motor structures do double-duty as waveguides (in the case of the tweeters) or as driver-mounting baffle plates (in the case of mid-bass and bass drivers). The driver housings are well-made, too, featuring high-pressure die-cast aluminum frames in most cases, or GRIP (glass-reinforced Injection-molded polymer) frames for bass or mid-bass drivers.

Driver diaphragm materials are surprisingly exotic for speakers in the Special Editions’ price range. Tweeters features H-PTD (high-efficiency pure titanium domes) diaphragms with motor structures that use ferrofluid cooling. Mid-bass drivers features Studio-type S-PAL (satin-anodized pure-aluminum) driver cones fitted with satin-anodized solid-aluminum phase plugs. Woofers, in turn, are fitted with mineral-filled polypropylene cones. Both mid-bass and bass drivers feature oversized magnets and motor structures, so that when viewed outside of the speaker cabinets the beefy motor assemblies seem almost as large in diameter as the speaker diaphragms do.

Based on brief initial listening impressions, I’d say the Special Edition models hit that desirable sweet spot where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts (and the parts, as you can see from the preceding sketches, are quite good in their own right).

It’s way too early in the game to comment on the Special Editions’ sonic character, but the net effect is that you really do enjoy sound that is more than a little reminiscent of that produced by Paradigm’s larger and more costly Reference Studio-series speakers. What’s downright weird, though, is to hear that sound pouring fourth from the SE’s compact, Monitor-sized enclosures. If first impressions are any indication, it appears that the “Studio-‘innards’-in-a-Monitor-box” approach really works.

One point worth noting is the fact that the speaker calibration system in our reference AVR (a Pioneer SC-27) immediately recognized the tiny SE 1 monitor speakers (which we are using as Left/Right surrounds) as “Large” speakers—status not all small bookshelf monitors could achieve.

Last night, after installing the Special Edition system in The Perfect Vision listening room and giving it an initial calibration, I put on the Blu-ray concert disk Return to Forever Returns—Live at Montreux 2008 so that the system could begin to break in. I then went to the back of the room to work on some other AVguide.com tasks and was listening to the system only casually when something about the sound of the surround speakers seized my attention. On Stanley Clarke’s bass solos (and on Chick Corea’s deeper left-hand keyboard runs) the tiny SE 1 monitors were putting out serious bass without any apparent distress (most surrounds get classified as “Small” speakers and so don’t have to do any serious bass work at all). I was wowed to hear (even on limited surround channel information) how full and rich the SE 1s seemed to be.  It’s purely an intuition or instinct on my part, but I can’t help but feel that when surround speakers sound impressive right out of the box, the rest of the system may be likely to follow in the same path. We shall soon see, and it will be fun to see how the Special Edition system’s sound evolves with further break-in.

Stay tuned for a full review in The Perfect Vision.

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