Ahh summer time. Time for pools, get togethers with friends and tearing apart walls in search of audio and aesthetic excellence for your flat screen TV. While this may not be the average summer activity for most I’ll wager more than a few Secrets readers are in the midst of their own audio-video inspired renovations. Here’s my story of an in wall audio adventure courtesy of the new Paradigm Millenia 20 Hybrids.
Paradigm is no stranger to in wall speakers – with four separate in wall speakers lines in their regular line-up and three more in their reference series you could say they have this niche covered. That being said, adding one more product to their in wall arsenal shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows.
But what if you took a successful wall-mountable speaker from their reference series and did a redesign to try and better meet a few important criteria. The speaker must still sound great but it must also better complement a wall mounted flat screen TV. What’s a speaker engineer to do? Wall mountable speakers are great products but with flat screens slimming down each year and low profile mounts becoming common having your speakers stick out a half foot past your TV starts impairing that clean aesthetic you were trying so hard for. In walls seem like a good answer but they can be troublesome to install in pre-existing construction and/or compromise on sonic performance. How to take advantage of both? Why not create a hybrid to capture the best of both worlds.
- Design 5-driver, 2-1/2 way Hybrid In-Wall
- Drivers One 1 Aluminum tweeter, Two 4.5 Midrange-Bass, Two 4.5 Bass
- MFR: 110 Hz – 22 kHz 2 dB
- Sensitivity (Anechoic): 89 dB
- Cutout Dimensions and Minimum Mounting Depth: 23-1/2 x 5-1/8
- Dimensions: 25.8″ H x 6.9″ W x 4.6″ D
- Weight 13 Pounds
- MSRP $529 USA
The Millenia 20 Hybrids are similar to the on wall / stand mountable Millenia 20’s in that they are a 5 speaker acoustic suspension design. The tweeter is a 1 inch aluminum dome and is flanked by two 4.5 inch midrange/bass drivers with aluminum phase plugs and then two further 4.5 inch bass drivers on either end. Paradigm states upfront that the Millenia series were designed to be used with a subwoofer. The single finish option is a framed black gloss panel with grey baffles around the speakers themselves.
The grill covers are also black and attach both magnetically and via friction fit around the edge of the baffle. These grills are rigid so they will resist random finger pokes or pets if the centre channel is located within their reach. (A mounting consideration which came into play in my case). While they are not so subtle that they disappear into the background or the wall itself completely, with the grills on the speakers have an elegantly simple and understated look. With the grills off the speakers have an aggressively technical bolted on look. The back portion of the enclosure (the portion that stays in the wall) is a simple black vinyl. The mounting posts are not 5 way posts but rather spring loaded clamp type so it’s bare wire only for these speaker terminations. I had some locking banana plugs ready to use and was a little concerned about the long term gripping abilities of the clamps but a few stiff tugs on the speakers wires showed no signs of loosening.
The other significant design feature is of course the pre-attached wall mount brackets themselves. Made of a glass-reinforced injection-molded polymer (aka GRIP) the acronym pretty much describes exactly what they do. The two clamps on either end are held in place by two screws each that run right through to the front of the speaker where they meld into the bolted in look of the 5 driver units.
The resulting speaker fills a standard 2×4 wall front to back and sticks out about an inch and a half into the room providing the aesthetic match to a slim flat screen TV.
This review started a little differently for me in that I went to pick up the speakers instead of waiting for the UPS guy. The benefit of this arrangement was that I (along with fellow Secrets writer Andrew Yang) had the opportunity for a tour of the Paradigm/Anthem factory. I won’t go into detail on the tour itself as the facility has been well covered previously by Colin Miller and Brian Florian.
Also, observations from Andrew on the tour can be found on the Secrets CAVE site: http://cave.hometheaterhifi.com/group/speakers/forum/topics/paradigm-factory-tour
Suffice it to say it was quite impressive with R&D, design, full manufacturing and testing all under one roof. My ears still twinge at the memory of the anechoic chamber, I apparently do not cope well with an environment with near zero reflected sound.
Having completed the tour and picked up the LCR test units along with the Paradigm recommended matching components of two Millenia ADP di-pole surrounds ($599 / speaker MSRP) , a SUB12 ($1999) and an Anthem MCA50 amp ($1999) to power everything I headed home to start the install.
To make a long story short the room I thought I would use or more specifically the wall I wanted to use was otherwise occupied by an unexpected air return duct. Why they routed it there I have no idea but there are two lessons here. First you never really know what’s behind your walls until you open them up and second, if you are thinking of in wall speakers make darn sure you have a good place to install them first. That being said there was a suitable substitute room available at my brother’s house and he was more than happy to take the speakers off my hands for installation at his place.
The Millenia Hybrids come with a helpful cutout template right in the box. I used these templates quite liberally to assess potential speaker positions and for determining visual appeal. This is a highly recommended step as what you think might look good in terms of placement often doesn’t quite measure up and moving a template around takes a lot less effort than cutting and patching drywall repeatedly. Another item to stay aware of is the location of your wall studs before you start positioning and cutting.
One final major decision is the vertical location of the center speaker relative to the screen. For practical reasons and due to the placement of the screen itself relative to the seating position we elected to place the center speaker over the screen. Placing the speaker below the screen would just have been too low and I hoped the directionality drawbacks of placing the centre speaker above the screen would not be too severe.
After a final blessing from the aesthetic coordinator (aka my sister in law) the fun part began cutting into walls. Being a little more certain what was in the wall this time we were still dreading the surprise factor you get any time you open up a wall. Luckily there were next to no surprises and the template cutouts went very smoothly. The one issue we did encounter leads to another recommendation: make sure you look on both sides of the wall you are mounting the speakers onto. We realized after cutting the opening for the right channel that there was a light switch behind it. These speakers take up every bit of room front to back in a standard 2*4 wall so we had to relocate the switch.
Another item that could be an issue in some installations is that the Millenia 20 Hybrids are 23.5 inches long. This means that installing the center channel requires cutting a stud no matter how you position it. The Millenia 10’s are shorter but unless you get lucky this may still be required. The manual recommends professional installation in this case and you should really frame a box around the speaker to transfer the load around your cutout and speaker.
However this is difficult in pre-existing construction without opening up a LOT more wall. So we cut this step as we knew the wall was not load bearing. Here another benefit of positioning the centre speaker above the flat panel became evident. The weight of the screen and its mount were not going to be hanging on the stud we had to cut. Having the 3 cutouts open at the same time made threading the speaker cables in wall a snap. You could reach across to each stud and pull through the wires.
With the speakers wired up now came the moment of truth, would they fit and how well would the GRIP system work? Very well as it turns out. The first two speakers slid into place with no problems. Just loosen the clamps and slide one end into the wall then the other, center the speaker and tighten the screws
The third speaker just would not fit. I thought we must have cut wrong but how do you cut incorrectly from a template? It turns out the speaker’s grips are different from one end to the other. One side is longer than the other and this is the side that needs to be put in first. We had lucked out on the first two without noticing this. Once the long grip is in place the unit slides in fine with clearance for the shorter clamp.
The grips clamp the drywall surface itself so there are no mounting brackets or tie ins to the studs to worry about and this really does make it a simple installation. Once in place they speakers hide any rough edges you may have left during your wall opening process so there is no further cleanup and repainting required either. Extended play testing and playing at reference level has shown no signs of slippage in this system so it looks like Paradigm has a design success.
The speakers were all connected to the Anthem MCA50 amp via 12ga Belden 5T00UP cables with a Yamaha receiver acting as preamp. All source material was driven by an Oppo BDP-83 over HDMI or lossless files via a digital connection from a Home Theater PC. Unless noted all listening was done in a direct mode with further equalization or sound processing (other than bass management) turned off.
Since this system is designed more as a TV or movie listening environment than for 2 channel music I had intended to only spend a brief amount of time listening to music and to use a few revealing tracks to run the speakers through their paces before throwing the movies at them. This was not necessarily going to be the case. After calibrating levels and setting positions for delay in the receiver it was time to start listening.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo SACD – Raise Your Spirit Higher
Ever since first hearing them with Paul Simon on his Graceland album this group has been a favorite. A capella vocals but with complex sounds and intonations outside of the standard Western languages gives great opportunity to hear any weakness or variations in the midrange.
I was immediately impressed not so much by the speakers but by the MCA50 amp. The noise floor combination of the SACD and the amp was so low that I was nearly startled out of my chair when I Don’t waste his time began. Being a smaller speaker I had assumed there had been some design tradeoffs that might limit the range and response on the speakers but there was nothing lacking through the full range of vocals. The benefits of not only matched components but identical speakers across left, center and right channels became immediately apparent. There was perfect balance and almost identical timbre across the front channels something I normally only get with extensive EQ fiddling if at all even with matched components and receiver Auto-EQ. After fiddling with the Yamaha’s Auto-EQ for a while I found it to flatten and deaden the sound more than I liked without other noticeable improvements so for most of the listening I left it off.
The 5.1 track was awesome but I was trying to concentrate on the character of the Millenias Hybrids specifically so to take the surround aspect out of the equation I went back to the 2 channel mix. Here the need for the sub became apparent. In a straight 2.0 speaker configuration even when sending full range sound to the Millenias the lowest end of the male vocals was flat. Adding the sub and bass management back in for a 2.1 config resolved this issue and the transition from the SUB12 to the Millenias was surprisingly well balanced after very little adjustment. The specs state a -2db at 110Hz and a DIN typical in room performance of -3db at 75Hz but after some experimentation I had crossed the speakers over a little higher than normal at 100Hz and found this to be a good match.
Dire Straits Brothers In Arms SACD
The steel guitar stood out beautifully and came in clean and clear on so far away and running through the tracks I stopped listening critically and just started enjoying listening. The speakers were neutral enough in character and response that I could simply enjoy the music. I found the treble on the high-hat to be, if anything – a little soft as it was very smooth but it did not draw untoward attention to itself through a lack of crispness leaving the music as a whole still feeling detailed and open.
Listening to Stings’ background vocals on Money for Nothing the imaging and soundstage was so good I literally had to open my eyes and check the receiver to make sure the 5.1 mix wasn’t on. It wasn’t. Even in 2.1 mode these speakers were delivering. I had to laugh 10 minutes later when my brother came in for a listen and said go back to the 2 channel mix for a sec. My response: I am in the 2 channel mix
With Movie and TV content I found the high crossover point for the sub resulted in a bit more directionality to the bass than I was used to as my home system is mostly crossed over at 60Hz. Again having identical speakers across LCR proved a benefit as sound and dialogue transition across the front soundstage was seamless. The Millenia ADP surrounds were also a very smooth and great sonic match for the Millenia Hybrids and front to surround effects and transitions were clean. The center speaker being mounted above the TV was occasionally noticeable during quiet dialogue scenes and could have benefited from a little down tilt to bring the dialogue from overhead to directly at you. Neither the mounting system or the speakers themselves have a built-in way to provide a downtilt (center) or toe in (L/R) but adding a spacer to one side of the mount may give you a few degrees of tilt you won’t get a lot of tilt though as the body of the speaker in the wall itself will limit any tilt. The lack of any toe in capability on the L/R speakers was not noticeable from the primary listening position and off axis response was reasonable if not as wide as my freestanding tower speakers in my home theater.
LOTR- The Two Towers
I found the soundstage somewhat narrow during the helm’s deep battle scenes in surround for this movie which was a surprise after the Dire Straits 2 channel experience. Dialogue was again clear and clean while still being well detailed. The damn bursting and Ent footsteps were handled well by the SUB12 without drawing too much attention to itself. Here the dynamic range of the Hybrids showed through as well. Transitions from battle scenes to quiet even at reference levels were handled cleanly and the character of the speakers did not seem to vary significantly across the range. Again the speakers did not call attention to themselves. Somewhat surprisingly to me given the simplicity of the attachment system the speakers (and walls) showed no rattles during the heavy bass sequences. It will be interesting to see how the Grip system holds up (and holds on) to the drywall over time.
The Fifth Element
Still probably my favorite space opera (literally), I was happy to get this one remastered on Bluray and eager to try it out. Without getting into a review of the transfer itself I was actually a little disappointed. The background noise level on this transfer needs some cleaning up something my earlier audio listening clearly showed was not coming form the source components or speaker and amp setup. The Diva was still able to send a chill down my spine and the interspersed action sequences and dialogue were solid.
I have to admit I actually spent more time listening to music on this system than movies or TV. I’m normally about 90/10 movies & TV to music but I was enjoying the listening experience so much with the Hybrids that I kept coming back to some favorite audio pieces. I also spent less time critically listening and evaluating as I often became absorbed in the experience and just enjoyed the music. The Millenia Hybrids usually faded into the background and did not draw much attention to themselves. They had enough resolution in fact to occasionally draw my attention to details in the source content that might otherwise have stayed hidden. But I’ll take quality reproduction in my system and find appropriate source material any day over systems that mask poor sources.
There was one moment during the testing that to me sums it up well for the Paradigm Millenias and one that I am happy to claim as a victory for the fans of quality audio everywhere. It was my brother’s lament as I finished an evening of detailed listening – I think you’ve spoiled MP3’s for me forever now.