- Written by Brian Florian
- Published on 06 December 2011
Introduction to the Paradigm Shift A2 Powered Bookshelf Speakers
The Active Atom, or A2 to be hip, is part of a new sub-brand dubbed Paradigm Shift. Back in 1997 Paradigm had a line of powered speakers derived from their then recently launched Reference brand but despite being in the opinion of many, myself included, some of the best speakers period, they didn't sell well, mainly due to a persistent (and utterly incorrect) notion held by most audiophiles that properly designed and executed powered speakers can't possibly be as good or better than ones accompanied by giant boxes. I mention this at the onset only because when Paradigm announced a new powered speaker earlier this year many, again myself included, hoped it would be the second coming of the Active Studios. It isn't. Wait, don't hit the back button in your browser just yet. They may not be Active Studio/20s, but they don't cost $2000 a pair either. I've been bugging Paradigm nonstop for 10 years to make something like this: a set of small, powered speakers, something I could use at the PC.
PARADIGM SHIFT A2 POWERED BOOKSHELF SPEAKER SPECIFICATIONS
- Design: Bookshelf Speaker, Sealed Enclosure, Powered
- Drivers: One 1" Aluminum Dome Tweeter, One 5.5" Aluminum Cone Woofer
- MFR: 55 Hz – 20 kHz (± 2 dB)
- Amplifier Power: 2 x 50 Watts RMS, 2 x 80 Watts Peak
- Dimensions: 11" H x 6.6" W x 8.9" D
- Weight: 11.6 Pounds/each
- MSRP: $600/pair in Black Ash, $700/pair in Red Gloss, White Gloss, Gray Gloss, or Black Satin
- SECRETS Tags: Paradigm, Bookshelf Speakers, Self Powered
Paradigm Shift A2 Powered Bookshelf Speakers - Breaking it down
At first glance the A2seems little more than the proverbial 2-way, 5 ¼ incher. The name Active Atom suggests that it would be an Atom Series 7 with an amp bolted to the back, yet while they are cut from the same cloth, the design is unique enough that it might have been named differently. The tweeter is indeed the same 1" aluminum dome set in a critically flared baffle (a sort of quasi-horn) with a unique dot of fabric covering the center of the protective steel mesh, both of which are said to shape and optimize the dispersion characteristics. The mid/bass driver looks to be the same aluminum cone as the ones in the passive Monitor Series 7s, but it features a longer voice coil and larger magnet, primarily to address the fact that these are sealed alignment speakers as oppose to the ported design Paradigm usually favours. The cabinet is of course the very solid MDF construction we have come to expect with Paradigm, our review sample being wrapped in the ubiquitous vinyl black wood grain. Several gloss color coatings are also available at a price premium including red, white, grey, and black. A plastic frame cloth grill is supplied and is held in place by magnets, not snaps. These thankfully obscure at least partially the blue power light which is much too bright otherwise for my taste. Rubber half-sphere feet are provided and a desktop stand is available as a separate option which angles them up just a bit.
For connectivity Paradigm has come up with a fairly unique "daisy chain" topology. Rather than splitting the output of your source to two speakers, or feeding it to one of a dedicated left/right pair as is more common, the A2s are androgynous: the stereo signal is feed to one of the speakers (doesn't matter which one) and is passed along in its entirety to the second. It is a switch on each unit which determines whether it voices the left or right signal, or even a mix (so you could daisy chain 3 and have a quasi-center channel). While both 3.5mm and dual-RCA connections are given for both input and output, only one type can be used at a time (i.e. the two types are not bridged). At the top of the back plate is a gain control which feels solid but I wish there was some sort of gradation or detents to it so as to make matching gain level on the pair a little easier. Under it is a 120v ground-less receptacle, the intention being to power something like an Apple AirPort Express. A receptacle for the detachable power cord and a power switch round out the back panel. The units feature an auto-on/off not unlike what is common in powered subwoofers: after about 20 minutes of no signal they go into standby and as soon as signal is detected they turn on. The back panel boasts "Designed by Paradigm Electronics" which is to say that the A2s are among the growing number of Paradigm SKUs not manufactured in Canada.
So we've talked about the front and back, but inside is where the juice is at. Paradigm employs a 2-channel class D amp in each speaker, one channel for the tweeter and the other for the woofer, with 50 watts available between them. Bi-amped powered speakers usually have asymmetrical amp power, more for the woofer, less for the tweeter, but in this instance the topology of Paradigm's amp is such that the it can divert more (or less) of its total available power to either of its two channels (so as an example it could at a given moment deliver 40 watts to the woofer and 10 to the tweeter). Paradigm quotes a "dynamic" power rating of 100 watts total between the two drivers which is to say that momentarily it can dump as much current but in our opinion this is far less meaningful a figure. The analogue input is converted to digital at a 24bit depth and DSP (digital signal processing) applied with between 48 and 76 bit precision, at both the system level and separate tweeter/woofer level. Beyond the requisite high and low passes, Paradigm is principally using sundry DRC (dynamic range control) algorithms to reduce distortion at higher output levels. We are told that the woofer in particular gets a proprietary dual band DRC which extends the low end at modest output and limits it at high output so that it remains clean, albeit compressed, which although a sacrilege to hardened purists, is I suppose better (and safer) than a cone flying across the room. Paradigm's intention here is quite literally to make the most of the modest power available in a way which never allows it to sound "broken". We'll see how all this plays out in the listening.
The Paradigm Shift A2 Powered Bookshelf Speakers In Use
I had occasion to try the A2s in several different acoustic spaces with all sorts of sources from various portable audio players, to PC, to my reference system's CD, DVD, and blu-ray players. In practice the A2s have the sound which Paradigm is known world over for: for the most part well balanced, neutral, able to articulate complex music through the difficult midrange and exhibit pinpoint accuracy in terms of spatial imaging. The treble, while detailed and crisp, struck me as forward in direct comparison to the brand new passive Mini Monitor I happen to have on hand for review at the time (essentially the same tweeter). Bass performance of any speaker is something which is so very much room dependent, but taking an aggregate of the various spaces I tried them in I have to say Paradigm has done an admirable job milking as much as they can from a 5.25" driver with only 50 watts behind it. The best results in this regard were achieved in my home theater where at modest listening levels the useable output reached down to the mid 30s. As the listening level increases though, they morph into something very different, no doubt at the hand of the embedded signal processing. The A2s do their best to maintain a clean output at high levels but rather than let you test the physical limits of the motors, the A2s instead (by design mind you) shed fullness and dynamic range. Push things even further and the harshness of clipping will set in (which is your cue that the amp has run out of steam altogether) yet even as the cones appear to thrash right out of the enclosures, they never broke up or bottomed out. The A2s seem quite resistant to abuse as such and I think that Paradigm has succeeded in their goal: at modest, near field output they sound like a true hifi speaker, but if someone wants to crank them for a patio party to decibel levels which would destroy most ordinary compact powered speakers, they can do that, albeit with compromised fidelity (but at a patio party, who's critically listening anyway?).
In extreme near field applications, such as at a typical computer setup, the inherent hiss of a digital amplifier was noted, but it turns out our review samples came from an initial run which did not meet Paradigm's performance spec and they have since been reworked such that hiss is practically inaudible even at unusually close distances. In a couple source configurations I ran into ground loops with the A2, though in cases where the usual remedies wouldn't work (such as making sure everything is plugged into the same outlet, etc) the hum could be minimized or even mitigated by artificially lowering the speakers' gain as long as the source had enough headroom to compensate. However if you do get the slightest, even practically inaudible, ground loop, the auto-off will never work forcing you to reach behind both speakers to turn them off and on, (or put them both on a switched power bar). That might not be such a bad habit to get into: looking at power consumption the pair together draw just 22 watts at idle but no less than 10 watts when in auto-off (definitely not "green" by any current metric). I should note that Paradigm's latest PDR series subwoofers are boasting a 0.5 watt consumption in standby which is a HUGE improvement over existing or older models I've measured so Paradigm is getting the hang of green, just not in time for the A2.
Conclusions About the Paradigm Shift A2 Powered Bookshelf Speakers
Reinforced by the fact that these fall under a new brand, the A2 was created with a different and new focus for Paradigm: "Fun". There are plenty of situations where good sound may be appreciated but where there is no need to go for broke and simplicity takes a front seat. Even we eccentric audiophiles aren't always listening for whether the flute player has changed chewing gum flavors between the symphony's 2nd and 3rd movement. $559 for a pair of powered speakers may strike those new to hifi as a little steep but considering a pair of passive Atoms will run you $399, the "amp" portion here is only about $160. While they are not likely to supplant entrenched passives in any high performance setups, as a powered speaker for an MP3 player, smartphone, or tablet, the A2 makes for a fantastic "bookshelf" system. They also would make a very decent upgrade to a TV's built in sound and do so without adding another box to the equipment stack (or remote to the side table). And as far as PC speakers go, I couldn't ask for a better outfit.