Surround Sound Speaker Systems
- Written by Brian Florian
- Published on 12 October 2009
The speaker business has got to be a challenging one.
On the one hand, unlike most other CE devices, speakers don't have any inherent rapid obsolescence to them. In fact, good speakers by definition should be viable, literally, for a lifetime. Sure speaker technology has advanced and I would be a fool to suggest they haven't gotten better over the decades, but generally speaking, on the whole you have tweeters, woofers, sometimes midranges, and crossovers, all in a cabinet of some sort. Even subwoofers which went through their (pardon the pun) paradigm shift this past decade are still generally speaking a driver or two in a box with an amp, albeit the amps are more powerful, the drivers beefed up to handle that power, and the boxes commensurately have shrunk somewhat.
- Studio 10
- Design: 2-way, Ported
- Drivers: One 1" Dome Tweeter, One 5.5" Mid/Bass
- MFR: 62 Hz - 22 kHz ± 2 dB
- Sensitivity: 89 dB
- Nominal Impedance: 8 Ohms
- Dimensions: 11.9" H x 7.9" W x 11.9" D
- Weight: 18 Pounds/each
- MSRP: $399/each USA, in Cherry, Rosenut and Black Ash; $449/ea in Piano Black
- Studio CC-490
- Design: 3-way, Ported
- Drivers: One 1" Dome Tweeter, One 3.5" Midrange, Two 5.5" Woofers
- MFR: 65 Hz - 20 kHz ± 2 dB
- Sensitivity: 90 dB
- Nominal Impedance: 8 Ohms
- Dimensions: 8.4" H x 19.25" W x 11.4" D
- Weight: 27 Pounds
- MSRP: $799 USA in Cherry, Rosenut and Black Ash; $899 in Piano Black
- SUB 12
- Design: Sealed Enclosure
- Driver: One 12"
- Amplifier: 1,700 Watts RMS
- Low-Pass: 35 Hz - 150 Hz
- Phase: 0° - 180°
- Line-Level Input: RCA (S/E) Left and Right or XLR.
- Dimensions: 17.4" H x 16" W x 21.5" D
- Weight: 88 Pounds
- MSRP: $1,999 USA in Cherry, Rosenut and Black Ash; $2,199 in Piano Black
- PBK-1 (Perfect Bass Kit)
- USB Microphone
- Microphone Stand
- Software CD
- MSRP $299 USA
On the other hand, while there will always been new consumers coming to market, the market is by any definition saturated. There are literally over a hundred brands out there (of which I personally would consider only about a 10th to be worthy of consideration though). How is a manufacturer to stay on top?
I mention these challenges at the onset for a couple of reasons.
One is that Paradigm is one of the few well entrenched speaker companies, I believe because they tackle these and other challenges head on. The story of their origins is actually quite common, that of starting small with a focus on value and growing from there, but while others with the same charming background still struggle, Paradigm has matured today into one of THE names in speakers.
The other reason is that the subject of today's review is in fact product of Paradigm meeting these challenges head on. While their reference series speakers have changed their look somewhat and the performance has gotten marginally better with each iteration, it is Paradigm's ability to diversify the line and reinvent it according to current trends which leads us to request and report on new models. Case in point, the Paradigm Reference Studio 10 and Studio CC-490, main L/R and center speakers respectively which take the establish line into a remarkably small form factor, while the Reference SUB12 is an example of several new subwoofer models from Paradigm which boast a couple features which may actually be significant enough to warrant an upgrade.
Anyone who already owns late model Paradigm Reference speakers or is even just familiar with the line will at first glance not think the Studio 10 to be a new model. It does in fact inherit the same driver technology as the slightly larger Studio 20, trickled down from the company's no holds barred Signature line by the way, but appearances, at least in photographs, can be deceiving: this is one small speaker! The tweeter is one of Paradigm's tried and true 1" pure aluminum domes in a massive, heavy chassis which we've come to recognize as a Paradigm norm (I often say if you look at these from the back they look like some companies' woofer motors, or at very least that of a midrange). The mid/bass driver on the other hand is their relatively new 5.5" interpretation of their staple 7" model featured in virtually every other model in the Reference line. It too features an aluminum cone but get this: it still has the same 1.5" voice coil and motor structure of its larger counterpart, all in the usual heavy cast basket. The only other difference other than the size here is the fact that we have a cone shaped dust cap rather than the alloy phase cone of the 7" models (which is sort of curious given the fact that Paradigm has made great effort to extol the virtues of this last). Crossover is quoted as 2 kHz, rather low for a single 1" tweeter, and the oval orifice of the bass reflex port is nestled in right under the mid bass driver on the front.
The cabinets of all the new version 5 Reference speakers are a genuine departure, favoring more organic sculpted curves over the square edges of yesteryear. Stop for a minute to ponder how they get this shape. Outsourced to China, the process involves laminating no less than 7 layers of the customary MDF in order to get the thickness required for the insanely solid cabinets we have come to expect from Paradigm. This in turn is wrapped in real wood veneers of either Rosenut, Black, Cherry, or the recently added high gloss "Piano" black.
On the back we have a dual set of rather beefy binding posts where I found a "fit" flaw, rare indeed for Paradigm: the curved plastic terminal plate does not mate perfectly with the back of the speaker resulting in an irregular gap at the sides. This of course in no way impacts performance but for some it might be a cosmetic disappointment given the price point. On the bottom are threaded sockets for coupling them to Paradigm's own custom speaker stands which have corresponding bolt holes.
Along the same vein as the 10, the CC-490 is Paradigm's essay at reducing the size of their already phenomenal and much lauded Reference series dedicated center channel speakers. A mere 19-1/4" wide (about the same as a typical AVR or disc player) it is remarkable that the CC-490 is still a true three was design with the same 1" tweeter, vertically aligned with a 3.5" midrange of the same construction as the 10's mid/bass, that set flanked by a pair of 5.5" woofers using a more traditional polypropylene cone material. Crossovers are quoted as 2.1 kHz and 500 Hz, this last being reasonably below any point where off axis combing would be any issue.
Having the same curved back, but in the opposite plane, the CC-490 features a couple plastic rails on the bottom to keep it from rocking back and forth. On the back is again a dual set of solid binding posts (the frame of which also is not an absolutely perfect fit against the wood) beside which is the bass reflex port.
As I mentioned at the start, subwoofers have changed somewhat over the past decade in that thanks to much more powerful amplification available at reasonable cost, we can "afford" to use smaller cabinets with longer-throw drivers to get the same output as yesteryear's massive but relatively underpowered behemoths. Well the SUB12 takes it one step further in that while it still has an insanely powerful amp and incredible long throw driver, it is decidedly not any smaller than a typical "twelve-incher" of yesteryear (and is extremely heavy!). What this means is the potential for truly prodigious output capability (or at least that is what we are here to confirm).
Specifically, the SUB 12 features a class-D amplifier quoted as being able to deliver a dynamic peak of 3400 watts and a sustained output of 1700, which when you think about it corresponds to what they can legally and safely draw from a residential wall socket (they have some models which will draw more but these come with the caveat of needing either an uncommon 20amp circuit, or in some cases one which is 240V!). Input facilities include mono/stereo unbalanced RCA and mono balanced XLR. The amp features either auto on/off or triggered power, as well as knobs for level, low-pass frequency, and phase, plus there is a USB port we'll talk about in moment.
The driver is an insanely robust 12" unit of mineral infused polypropylene and an almost ridiculously large looking surround. The cabinet features curved sides and the "outrigger" feet which feature threaded rubber capped feet. The SUB 12 is available clad in the same Rosenut, Black, Cherry, or "Piano" Black to match the mains.
Sold as an optional component for customers who do not own one of Anthem's AVM or Statement D series audio/video processors (and in some cases even for those who do), the Paradigm "PBK", or "Perfect Bass Kit", delivers all the magic of the company's ARC (Anthem Room Correction), albeit for the subwoofer only. At this time it is compatible with Paradigm's Signature SUB 25, Studio SUB 12 and 15, the X-850 Subwoofer Amp, Signature SUB 1 and 2, and SE SUB (free firmware upgrade for some models required). Look for other models to join the list in the future.
The kit includes the exact same USB mic outfit as ARC (but with a different electronic ID which makes them NOT interchangeable), plus a software CD which includes a unique calibration file for the microphone. Unlike the original add-on iteration of ARC, a PBK is not locked to a single subwoofer serial number and can be used on as many as you want.
For a detailed look at Anthem's ARC system, please see our full review of it from last year: http://www.hometheaterhifi.com/receivers/receivers-reviews/a-secrets-ssp-review.html
Difference between ARC and PBK are as follows:
Unlike the serial connection from PC to AV Processor, PBK uses a USB connection (extra long cable is included) so your PC needs two available USB ports, one for the Mic, one for the connection to the subwoofer.
There are no speakers settings or "Advanced" routines. You place the Mic and let it take readings at least 5 locations in the room. Unlike ARC you can't fuss with the settings, except to set a roll-off frequency (which you will in virtually every case want to leave at the max since your processor will provide that). It then crunches the numbers, and uploads a final filter to the subwoofer. Done. The only caveat is if you move the subwoofer you must go through the process again of course (the software also gives you the ability to erase any previously uploaded EQ and return the unit to a non-BPK state).
A note on cascading filters. If you have and Anthem processor with ARC you of course would let ARC manage the subwoofer and not need PBK. If you have something like Odyssey, especially the embedded AVR variety, it may or may not be of benefit to first apply PBK locally at the sub (at very least it shouldn't hurt). More interestingly though, even if you have an Anthem with ARC, in the case of multiple subwoofers (I am a BIG fan of multiple subwoofers), academically speaking it should well be to your advantage to apply PBK locally and independently at each subwoofer first (that is very important), then afterward putting them all on the single subwoofer channel and let ARC do its thing.
What can I say which has not already been said about Paradigm's reference speakers. The 10s and CC-490 surely do not disappoint, exhibiting Paradigm's well known definition and neutrality. The size of the 10s, and they lack of the phase cone, unfortunately do not go unnoticed though. When using them as a stereo pair they do struggle to produce wholly satisfactory bass while the 'oh so critical' midrange I believe is just ever so slightly behind the larger Studio 20s. It's just as if someone barely touched the perfectly focused lens of a camera. I don't want to overstate this though. The 10s hold up well and excel compared to other speakers their size. You just can't do miracles, even if you are Paradigm.
The CC-490, on the other hand, boarders on exactly that. Similar to the Signature series C1 it seemed to give up nothing compared to the larger models (except perhaps absolute output level). Testament perhaps to the proverbial virtues of a 3-way speaker (done right of course) the CC-490 just disappeared. Midrange transparency was such that I could enjoy my Blu-rays without being preoccupied with system performance, which is perhaps the highest compliment I can give any component.
Depending on your acoustics, both the 10s and CC-490 may be challenged in the extreme top end where if your room is somewhat 'live' they can come across as a little, shall we say, too enthusiastic as evidence by my sessions in our living room. Moving the set to the dryer signature of our acoustically treated theater, focus and balance became excellent and only got better with ARC as is now our expectation with any speaker.
Though generally not an issue for anyone in the market for speakers at this price point, it must be noted that they are most decidedly on the inefficient side of things, 86 and 87dB anechoic. While Paradigm does make effort to keep the impedance from dipping too far below 8ohm, making them a less current hungry speaker, the bottom line is if you want significant output you are going to need lots of juice, an honest 100watts at least would not go amiss here, especially if running the 10s full range. When suitably high passed better AVRs should have no problem though.
Both models crossed over fairly well using the ubiquitous THX 2nd order high pass, anywhere between 70 and 90 depending on your room and subwoofer. Speaking of which....
The SUB 12 first impressed me before the first note came through: The auto on-off is perfectly silent. No thump or snap when it kicks on, which it does promptly as the very first sign of anything other than dead air on its input (confirmed by a delightfully faint illumination of the logo on the front of the unit). Standby power consumption though is a rather disappointing 30watts, which in my locale amounts to about $2.50/month. I'm not saying that anyone in the market for a SUB12 can't afford that, but it's the principal of the thing: if a BD player, AVR, or even a massive display draws more than 2 watts in standby these days, people get up in arms. Why subwoofers are exempt from this is beyond me. Nevertheless...
"Powerful" doesn't quite cut it when describing this sub in that its output seemed unlimited for the relative small space of our theater. It never audibly distressed, even on the most profound tracks. I can only imagine that if it fell short in a cavernous space a second unit would propel you beyond your wildest dreams (and would likely be my preference over switching to a single SUB 15 or 25). SUB 12 is capable of truly visceral impact. More to the point it is one of the most articulate subwoofers I've heard in a while, certainly better than Paradigm's older less expensive ported designs which I found could get a little "fat" sounding if the stars were not aligned. The SUB 12 has that delicious, latent quality we've come to expect from sealed alignments. Implementing PBK just ices the cake, in our case principally nulling out a nasty node at about 52Hz we have which, if left unchecked, gives any sub a bloated, unfocused feel through that much used range of the spectrum. With PBK applied we witness a response which was in all practicality down by a scant 3dB at that holiest of audio grails: 20Hz.
With these latest offerings from Paradigm's now most extensive line, they solidify the confidence I and scores of others have in them. With precious few qualifiers I've yet to be disappointed with Paradigm speakers. Not every speaker is right for every roll, but I can't think of one of theirs which I couldn't put to work somewhere in the house.
A special nod to the CC-490, with its remarkable neutrality and ability to plainly resolve dialogue from today's HD audio formats, it is proof positive that Paradigm is still on the leading edge of multichannel sound.
Other that requiring two people to maneuver it, no fault could I find with the exquisite SUB 12 except to say that it is not exactly inexpensive, but if the sticker price doesn't scare you then by all means go the final mile and add the PBK-1!