Many of the new speaker designs I've seen recently look more like a wing, an orb, or an obelisk than a speaker, so it was reassuring to unpack this latest system from Paradigm Reference, the high-end division of Paradigm. The Studio 40 v.3 front left/right speakers are solidly conventional, quadrilateral boxes. But they're not rectangular - slightly arched tops give them a sort of raised-eyebrow expression. They are solid, though, in more ways than one, and heavy for their size as well as meticulously finished and expertly put together. The same applies to the similarly conventional-looking CC-570 v.3 center speaker. Completing the set, the ADP-470 v.3 surrounds are small, trapezoidal quasi-dipoles with four drivers apiece.
Our mix-and-match system came with the front trio finished in a light-toned woodgrain Paradigm calls sycamore that's very nice indeed. You'd have to examine them closely to decide if it was wood or vinyl - and you might just guess wrong.
Setup required no more than the usual wire connecting and level balancing. However, the Studio 40s are an in-between size that I found too short for floor-standing placement but too tall for my usual speaker stands. (Paradigm, of course, sells optional stands that are the perfect height.) I used a pair of semi-homemade adjustable stands that put the Studios 40s just an inch or so higher than ideal. As usual, the center speaker went atop my 30-inch widescreen TV. The CC-570 is big and heavy, so I'd hesitate before putting it on a shaky stand or on any TV with a very shallow or nonflat top. I put the surrounds on high shelves to the sides and toward the rear of the listening area in my studio.
I began my listening session in subwoofer-less stereo with Natalie Merchant Live in Concert on CD to see what the front left/right Paradigm Studio 40s could do on their own. In a word, they were outstanding. For example, on "San Andreas Fault," Merchant's clarion alto voice was superbly clear, demonstrating the Paradigms' utterly uncolored midrange, while their slightly relaxed but extended treble kept the tune's subtle drum work sounding natural and present. The Studio 40s had plenty of tight, ample bass down to well below 50 Hz, all with great dynamic ease and clarity of attack. Even in simple, two-speaker stereo the Paradigm duo's wide soundstage, fullness, and transparency really drew me into a first-rows perspective on the live event.
Nonetheless, surround is really what this is about. A close tonal match between the center speaker and the front left/right pair is critical to the success of any surround system, and here the Paradigms scored very high. I heard only the slightest of differences between the CC-570 and its flanking mates in A/B comparisons using mono TV and radio announcers. With baritone and lower male voices, the center speaker was a tad weaker in the deeper chest tones, but from the tenor range on up, it matched the stereo pair very closely.
A good center speaker should also sound the same whether you're sitting right in front of it or off to the side. The CC-570 was exceptionally good in this respect. It will deliver the same natural sound to a whole sofa-load of movie viewers - even those sprawled right over the far ends of the widest sofa.
I prefer to use dipolar speakers for the surround channels because a good pair tends to spread sound more evenly and subtly through the rear half of the listening space. The ADP-470s turned in a flawless performance in this regard. My tried-and-true ambience tests - including the distant, circling helicopters in Clear and Present Danger - all produced extremely natural-sounding ambience and effects. The effects were so realistic that I found myself flinching at gunshots in scenes I've heard a hundred times before. Put all these elements together, and you have a top-flight surround speaker system.
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