The Canadian firm Paradigm has long been considered a go-to resource among home theater enthusiast and music lovers seeking sonic excellence at fair prices. A wise colleague once observed that, given enough cubic dollars, almost any manufacturer might be able to develop a great loudspeaker, but that the harder task is figuring out how to build nearly great speakers that can be sold profitably at comfortable, real-world prices. This, in a nutshell, is the specific area of art and science where Paradigm excels. Building upon a solid (and ever-expanding, R&D driven) base of speaker making know-how, Paradigm has become adept at juggling complex variables, weighing tradeoffs, and striking carefully calculated design compromises to yield whole families of loudspeakers that sound better than they have any right to for the money. And the newest of these families is the Special Edition series, announced at CEDIA 2009.
As many of you may know, Paradigm’s speaker products fall into two groups: the standard Paradigm range (comprising the Cinema, Monitor, and now Special Edition families), and the upscale, performance-minded Paradigm Reference range (comprising the Millennia, Studio, and Signature families). What’s interesting is that the new Special Edition ranges is—by design—very much a bridge between the Paradigm and Paradigm Reference worlds. Here’s how that bridge works. First, the Special Edition speakers leverage basic cabinet designs originally developed for Paradigm’s popular and affordable Monitor-series speakers. Thus, the Special Edition SE 3 floorstander is roughly the size and shape of a Monitor 7 floorstander, the SE 1 bookshelf speaker is patterned after the Monitor-series Mini Monitor, and the SE Center loosely corresponds to the Monitor-series CC-190 center channel speaker. Rounding out the package is a 300-watt, 10-inch SE Subwoofer that provides onboard DSP functions that enable the sub to be tuned via Paradigm’s optional PBK-1 Perfect Bass Kit. Since the Special Edition family is positioned as a higher-end alternative to (and step up) from the Monitor family, the Special Edition cabinets are treated to real wood veneers with softly rounded cabinet edges that convey and upscale look and feel.
The drivers and crossovers used in the Special Edition speakers are where a big part of the magic comes in, with Paradigm using driver frames similar to those used in its Monitor-series models (that is, frames made of die-cast aluminum and/or glass-reinforced injection-molded polymer), but fitted in most cases with sophisticated diaphragms and motors patterned after those used in the much more costly Studio-series speakers. Crossover networks, in turn, are said to use “Reference quality” parts throughout. The result is a desirable family of hybrid speakers that look like Monitor-family speakers all dressed up for a night on the town, but that sound much more like Studio models—and at about 3/5ths the price of a Studio system.
Our $3454 review system consists of two SE 3 floorstanders used as L/R mains, an SE Center center channel speaker, two SE 1 bookshelf monitors used as L/R surrounds, and an SE Subwoofer. As you’ll see in a moment, this system offers delightful sound quality at a very accessible price, while offering visually pleasing cabinetry that hits that “just right” size (as in, not too big, yet not too small) that should work well for many households.
Consider this system if: you want a roughly $3000 5.1-channel speaker system whose sound embodies many of the characteristics you’d expect of systems roughly priced $2000 - $3000 higher. Tonal balance is neutral, which I always regard as a good starting point, but the real glory of the Special Edition speakers involves their wonderfully lucid and richly nuanced midrange. This comes as no surprise once you understand that the Special Edition models draw on driver technologies borrowed directly from Paradigm’s upscale Reference Studio range. Another strength involves the Special Editions’ ability to produce very large soundstages and to create tightly focused sonic images within those stages—images that effortlessly break free from the speaker enclosures to fill the room with sound. In fact, in terms of three-dimensionality, imaging, and soundstaging, the Special Editions are one of Paradigm’s better efforts to date. Finally, the Special Editions are a great size, pleasingly compact and attractive on the outside, but capable of an astonishingly big sound.
Look further if: you’re a connoisseur of treble detail and refinement and are therefore a fan of ultra-responsive and revealing tweeters. While the Special Edition’s aluminum dome tweeter is very good, it can’t quite match the standards set by Paradigm’s higher-end Signature-series Beryllium tweeters. In practice, this means that the higher up the frequency spectrum you climb, the less sophisticated the Special Edition sounds, so that you’ll miss out on some of the very high frequency detail and the sense of “air” surrounding instruments that you would hear in Paradigm’s top-end models.
Ratings (relative to comparably-priced surround speaker systems)
- Transparency and Focus: 10
- Imaging and Soundstaging: 10
- Tonal Balance: 9 Dynamics: 9
- Bass Extension: 8
- Bass Pitch Definition: 8
- Bass Dynamics: 9
- Value: 10
Special Edition SE 3, SE 1, and SE Center speaker system highlights:
- All models share 1-inch G-PAL(Gold-Anodized Pure-Aluminum) dome tweeters with ferro-fluid damping and cooling, and with GRIP (Glass-Reinforced Injection-Molded Polymer) frames that double as waveguides. Note, please, that the manuals supplied with early SE production units state that the speakers used Monitor-type titanium tweeters, which is not the case. In fact, the SE’s use higher-end Studio-type G-PAL drivers.
- The SE 3 and SE 1 models share 5 ½-inch S-PAL (Satin-Anodized Pure Aluminum) mid-bass drivers with solid, satin-anodized aluminum phase plugs, and GRIP (Glass-Reinforced Injection-Molded Polymer) frames. The SE Center uses a similarly constructed, but smaller diameter, 3 ½-inch S-PAL midrange driver with ferro-fluid damping and cooling.
- The SE 3 and SE Center models use pairs of 5 ½-inch mineral-filled polypropylene bass drivers with 1-inch voice coils, Santoprene surrounds, and GRIP (Glass-Reinforced Injection-Molded Polymer) frames.
- All three Special Edition models feature bass reflex enclosures with “Reference quality” cabinets offered in two finishes: rosenut and black gloss. Note that manuals supplied with early production SE units state that a white gloss option is available, which is not the case.
Special Edition SE Subwoofer highlights:
- 10-inch woofer with CAP (Carbon/Aramid-Fiber Polypropylene) driver cone.
- 300-watt Class D amplifier.
- Paradigm proprietary DSP circuit with USB port for connectivity to Paradigm’s optional PBK-1 Perfect Bass Kit.
- Distinctive bass reflex enclosure “converts to down- or forward-firing driver orientation” via a clever set of repositionable legs. Cabinet finishes are the same as those offered for the SE 3, SE 1, and SE Center models.
To give you a useful “character sketch” of the Special Edition system, let me highly several of its most noteworthy sonic qualities.
Neutral Tonal Balance: Paradigm speaker systems have long been characterized by their natural, neutral tonal balance—the result of accurate and well-balanced frequency response, and the Special Edition system is no exception. When a system gets rid of obvious colorations, as the Special Edition does, it conveys a certain relaxed, ready-for-anything quality that invites you to listen to whatever content your heart desires (this in contrast to more colored systems that dictate terms vis-à-vis types of material they can or cannot handle well).
One point to note, however, is that the SE 3 floorstanders, while offering surprisingly good dynamic punch, are not the last word in bass extension, so that you will definitely want to buy this system with its matching subwoofer to help and weight and depth in the lowest two octaves of the audio spectrum.
Luxury Liner-Grade Midrange: As noted above, part of the “magic” of this system is that its midrange qualities sound like those of a far more expensive speaker system, which, in fact, is precisely the case. What you get, here, is midrange performance that comes surprisingly close to that of Paradigm’s roughly twice as expensive Reference Studio v.5 system (as reviewed in Playback 18). In practice, this means that midrange frequencies (which convey most of the sonic information in music and in movie soundtracks) sound—through the Special Edition system—open, effortless, and transparent, and are chockfull of dynamic and textural nuances. There’s a pleasingly natural and almost “organic” quality about the SEs’ mids, too, so that you never have that annoying sense of listening to movies or music through the sonic equivalent of an electron-scanning microscope.
Excellent Soundstaging and Imaging: More so than many other surround sound systems I’ve reviewed, the Special Edition system does a very fine job of allowing sound to break free from the faces of the speaker enclosures to define wide, deep soundstages, and to place very precise and specific sonic images of instruments, vocalists, actors, or surround sound effects within those soundstages. This is one area where the Special Edition system can, in fact, compete on a level footing with its more expensive siblings within the Paradigm line up. One good thing that does take some getting used to is the fact that the SEs can create soundstages well to the sides of the listener, with image height that belies the short stature of the SE 3 main speakers (which stand a petite 34 inches tall!).
Limitations:The SE system does have a handful of minor sonic limitations worth noting.
First, on a qualitative level, the SE tweeter does not offer quite the same levels of sophistication as the terrific SE mid/bass drivers do. In practical terms, this means that as frequencies climb higher and higher there is a subtle, gradual roll-off in the level of detail and refinement that you’ll hear. Specifically, treble details seem to lose some measure of speed, focus, and definition—not to an excessive degree, but enough so that you might notice that highs don’t have quite the effortless, natural clarity that the SEs’ mids do. In movie soundtracks this means dialog and high frequency sound effects can sound just a little less crisp and well defined than they should, while in music playback delicate treble textural and transient details can sound slightly compressed or, in some cases, just a little bit “splashy.” Please understand, though, that the SE tweeters are really very good; they fall short only in comparison to the Beryllium tweeters used in Paradigm’s top-of-the-line Signature-series models.
Second, note that the SE 3 floorstander, though dynamically alive over most of its operating range, has relatively limited bass extension, meaning that a fair chunk of the bass workload must be handed off to the SE Subwoofer. This is fine, up to a point, but it means that when playing movies with blockbuster soundtracks in larger rooms you can occasionally push the compact SE Subwoofer up to—and then beyond—the point of overload. Happily, the woofer handles bass abuse gracefully (it simply sound looser and little bit ragged when it reaches its limits), but you may want to bearing the woofer’s limits in mind if you plan to use the system in a large living space—or perhaps you might consider using two SE Subwoofers rather than just one.
I mentioned above that he SE system is capable of terrific midrange nuance and is also dynamically alive over most of its operating
range. To appreciate these qualities in action, watch—or more accurately, listen to—the film Event Horizon, which is sort of a cross between a sci-fi thriller and a traditional horror film. Early in the film the character Dr. Weir (Sam Neil) is awakened from sleep in a hibernation chamber during a deep space flight to experience what turns out to be an incredibly vivid and ultimately horrific vision/hallucination. In the vision, Weir perceives himself to wake from hibernation, though the rest of the ship’s crew remains in hibernation, and so he begins to explore the quiet interior of the spacecraft, seeking to learn who (or what) has roused him from his deep sleep. Understandably, Weir is almost hyper-vigilant as he listens to and follows small, almost subliminal sounds and noises within interior of the ship, calling out to see who is there. As Weir pads across the deck, still dressed in swimsuit-like garment he wore in the hibernation chamber, an airtight door suddenly and violent snaps open with a terrific “CLAAaaankKK” that nearly makes Weir almost jump out of his skin (an experience most audience members share with him). Behind the door is a corridor that leads to the ship’s bridge, where Weir experiences the at once eerily compelling and yet chilling vision of seeing his deceased wife seated at the ship’s controls.
The SE system did a wonderful job of precisely sketching the very low-level noises and sonic details at the start of this scene, which of course sets the stage for the adrenaline-inducing rush that Weir (and we) experience when—for no good reason at all—the door suddenly blasts open. The contrast between the soft sounds and the unexpected racket of the door is fabulous—capturing through sounds a kind of fear, surprise, and shock that images alone could never have conveyed.
But the SE system does have its limits. One of my favorite test soundtracks is the one for Clint Eastwood’s classic war film Letters from Iwo Jima, where a particularly powerful scene is one where the Japanese soldiers are hunkered down in a cave and hoping to survive relentless shelling from American ships anchored offshore. The scene involves sounds of shells landing directly above and all around the Japanese bunker seen onscreen, and I felt that SE system did a very good job of capturing both the dynamics and surround-sound positioning of those shell blasts. However, one small detail that top-tier systems capture—but that the SE system only partially rendered—is the subtle, high frequency sound of tiny rock and dirt particles being jolted loose from the roof of the cave and falling to the floor below (sounds that suggest a roof collapse might be imminent). The SE system did not catch the frighteningly specific (and ominous) sounds of those falling particles as effectively as some higher priced systems do.
I listened to the SE system extensively on traditional CDs, high-resolution multichannel recordings (SACDs and DVD-Audio discs), and on Blu-ray concert films, and I was continually struck by how refined and expansive the sound of the compact SE system really is. If your reactions are anything like mine, you may find you instinctively want to compare the SE rig to competitors that cost, say, one, two, or even three thousand dollars more. Let me supply two examples to illustrate what I mean by calling the SE system’s sound “refined” and “expansive.”
Many audiophiles revere RCA’s Living Stereo recordings from the mid-to-late 1950s, which were—perhaps somewhat ironically—originally captured in three-channel, not stereo, format. Happily, these recordings have been reissued in SACD format where the original three-channel presentation has been preserved, and one of my favorites is the Reiner/Chicago performance of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. I am particularly fond of the third, or Adagio, movement of the piece because it exposes the composer’s angular and at times dissonant musical ideas while letting you savor not only the voices of the various string and percussion instruments at play, but also the way sounds interact with and reverberate within the recording space.
Now frankly the Bartók recording works well on most systems, but it really comes alive on those that have the midrange moxie and nuance necessary to probe deeply into the inner details at hand, pressing closer and closer toward musical realism. From the instant the movement opened with its exposed percussion pattern, then is expanded by a distinctive tympani phrase, where notes and bend and plunge way down low, and finally is stretched further still by a darkly evocative string passage, the SE system was in its element, showing off levels of midrange subtlety few mid-priced systems could hope to equal. Several things stood out for me. First, I was struck by how true the voices of the individual instruments sounded. The SE system serves up purity of timbre that is quite simply way beyond its pay grade. Next, I was impressed by the way the system let me hear the reverberations of sounds within the recording space, in a very real sense defining the size and shape of the space for the listener, and in the process upping the “realism quotient” quite a bit. Finally, I was struck by the way the SE system placed the instruments at specific locations onstage, so that there was less a sense of listening to a speaker system and more the sense of listening the music unfold in the context in which it was originally recorded.
While the SE system may not be the last word in treble speed and detail, its midrange is shockingly good—a compelling factor that means this system consistently serves most of the music, most of the time. For a system at this price point, who could reasonably ask more than that?
Paradigm’s Special Edition system fills an interesting gap in the home theater speaker system market, because it is pitched to appeal to enthusiasts who want more performance than entry-level (say, sub-$2000) systems can provide, yet are not ready to step all the way up to systems in the $4000, $5000, or $6000 range. At its $3494 price, the Special Edition system hits that “just right” price point in the middle, yet offers sound quality that comes very close to equaling what the higher priced rigs can do. Whether you view the Special Edition system as a wonderful destination in its own right, or as a step up the performance ladder toward even bigger and better things in the future, there’s no denying that it offers killer value for money.
Many homeowners will also appreciate the fact that this system—unlike some of Paradigm’s higher-end offerings—is surprisingly compact, though that certainly doesn’t stop the Special Edition rig from delivering a very big, room-filling sound.
SPECS & PRICING
Paradigm Special Edition SE 3 2 ½-way, four-driver, bass reflex floorstanding speaker
- Driver complement: One 1-inch G-PAL aluminum dome tweeter, one 5 ½-inch S-PAL mid/bass driver, two 5 ½-inch mineral-filled polypropylene bass drivers
- Frequency response: 40Hz – 20 kHz
- Sensitivity: 93 dB
- Impedance: 8 ohms
- Dimensions (HxWxD): 34” x 6.5” x 10”
- Weight: 36.9 lbs. each
- Warranty: 5 years, parts and labor
- Price: $1498/pair
Paradigm Special Edition SE Center 3-way four-driver, center-channel speaker
- Driver complement: One 1-inch G-PAL aluminum dome tweeter, one 5 ½-inch S-PAL mid/bass driver
- Frequency response: 50Hz – 20 kHz
- Sensitivity: 91 dB
- Impedance: 8 ohms
- Dimensions (HxWxD): 7” x 17.5” x 9.5”
- Weight: 20.7 lbs. each
- Warranty: 5 years, parts and labor
- Price: $549/each
Paradigm Special Edition SE 1 2-way, two-driver, bookshelf speaker
- Driver complement: One 1-inch G-PAL aluminum dome tweeter, one 5 ½-inch S-PAL mid/bass driver
- Frequency response: 45Hz – 20 kHz
- Sensitivity: 88 dB
- Impedance: 6 ohms
- Dimensions (HxWxD): 11.5” x 6.5” x 8.5”
- Weight: 12.9 lbs. each
- Warranty: 5 years, parts and labor
- Price: $658/pair
Paradigm Special Edition SE Subwoofer powered subwoofer
- Driver complement: One 10-inch CAP carbon/aramid fiber polypropylene woofer with 2-inch voice coil
- Integrated amplifier power: 300W RMS (900W peak), Class D
- Dimensions (HxWxD): 10” x 11” x 11”
- Weight: 14.1 lbs. each
- Warranty: 3 year, parts and labor
- Price: $749/each
System Price: $3454 as tested
PARADIGM ELECTRONICS INC.