The Paradigm Reference system reviewed here is based on two full-range Studio 100 floorstanders, two near full-range Studio 20 monitors used as surrounds, and a wide-range Studio CC-470 center channel—with no powered subwoofer at all. It’s been a while since I tried a full-range system without a sub, and the results proved gratifying. The Studio system impressed me with its natural and neutral tonal balance, its effortless full-range sound, and especially with its transparency.
The system’s accurate, well-balanced voicing became obvious as I sampled a broad range of musical and cinematic materials. Rather than imposing a characteristic sound of their own, the Studios always remained faithful to the program material at hand, meaning dark recordings sounded dark, bright recordings sounded bright, and accurate recordings sounded fabulous. In particular, the Paradigms performed beautifully in the tricky transition region between upper bass and lower midrange—a region that often exposes jarring discontinuities in satellite/subwoofer systems. But with the Paradigm rig there were few discontinuities to reveal in the first place.
Did I miss having a sub? No, not one bit. On recordings such as Patricia Barber’s “Regular Pleasures” from Verse [Blue Note], which features a recurrent concert bass drum theme, the Paradigms went down low with authority, and without boominess. In fact, bass was much better integrated than in most subwoofer-equipped systems. The only caveat is that the accuracy- oriented Paradigms won’t produce the artificially souped-up bass some listeners prefer. So if you like your bass extra juicy, plan on using tone controls to fatten up the sound (or add one of Paradigm’s powered subs).
Finally, I was drawn to the Studio system’s transparency and resolution. Many otherwise good systems in this price range leave me feeling as if I have been listening through a thin layer of gauze, but not the Paradigms. They have an unexaggerated openness and clarity that make intricate passages and subtle details just plain fun to listen to. One such detail-rich passage is “The Flying Boat” sequence from The Aviator, which begins with Howard Hughes’s and the flight engineer’s tense voices and a delicious, threedimensional swirl of engine startup sounds. In that scene, the Paradigms put listeners right on the flight deck.
Two minor flaws I would mention are a slight (very slight) tendency for upper midrange and extreme highs to sound a touch dry, and imaging that, though very tightly focused, is not quite holographic—perhaps because Paradigm uses fairly large seven-inch midbass drivers that don’t disperse as well as smaller drivers do. But these very minor shortcomings pale alongside the many things this system does right.
This system is a strong performer on films, but it’s on music—especially complex and richly textured music—that the Paradigms’ broad strengths shine most brightly. What’s more, the Studios incorporate technology and design DNA from Paradigm’s flagship Signature speakers (which I had on hand for comparison), making the affordable Studios a flat out bargain.