Surround Sound Speaker Systems
- Written by Brian Florian
- Published on 27 May 2010
It's worth jumping right into some analytics here and point out that the SE3 is decidedly efficient. We sort of expect this with large, floor standing speakers yet the SE3 is far from being described as "big" in the classic sense. It pulls off a full 90dB anechoic which, though a far cry from the legendary horns of Klipsch, is head and shoulders above any of Paradigm's bookshelves, and even betters by a dB the rough equivalent from their Reference series. This makes them a very exciting proposition for setups with more modest power amplification such as affordable AV Receivers (or the now rare tube setups). The SE1's on the other hand are the exact opposite with an 85dB anechoic efficiency (I almost cringe as I write that). It's an ironic fact of speaker engineering that the speakers which might benefit from expensive amounts of power tend to be the ones asked to work without. Nevertheless...
Voicing of both the SE3 and SE1 is exactly what we would expect from Paradigm: their signature overly neutral and responsible sound. I say "overly" because time and time again we've heard Paradigm speakers described as bright, or a little heavy handed in the treble, but we continue to confirm that that almost always stems from them being evaluated in unfortunately typical, overly reflective living spaces. Move them into a more acoustically responsible space where a speaker may be heard more for what it truly is and one immediately realizes just how tight and true the Paradigms are. Here was no exception.
I started with the SE3s in our living room which, being the province of my wife, is afforded no acoustical treatment of any kind. Here the SE3's were a most pleasant speaker with clear, unbiased midrange, crisp highs, and a surprisingly robust and fully resolved low end. Turn the volume up to "rock out" level though and the reflections from the picture window start to reach a level which one simply has to object to. Please do not take away from this the misconception that most home listening spaces would benefit from a speaker with skewed treble response. We ALWAYS want to start with a speaker true to the signal. Rather this is just further testament that true hi-fi in the classic sense requires, in addition to great equipment, good acoustics, or at very least top shelf electronic corrections such as Anthem's own ARC, or the much lauded Audyssey. Moving the SE3's to my acoustically treated theater only confirmed my suspicions: I could have Dire Straits playing at levels I judiciously only take in very sparing doses, and experienced no fatigue whatsoever. On the flip side, at responsible listening levels, in the theater the SE3's were simply awe inspiring, eliciting the sort of listening experience which sucks you into the chair and won't let you leave. At the end of a song or album you almost feel let down by the silence. Bass is something which the SE3's placement is particularly sensitive to. Get it wrong in your room and they, frankly, will sound quite hollow. Get it right and you'll think there is an articulate subwoofer in the room.
What can I now say about the SE1's which does not come intuitively? They are no miracle, yet they are an excellent choice for smaller, intimate stereo setups or of course as either satellites bound to a subwoofer, or surrounds in the rare instance dipoles don't work well. Other than their lacking bass compared to the SE3's, they extol pretty much all the other virtues in kind. Interestingly though, there is enough low end that Audessey (mis) interprets them as "full range" (they do in my theater deliver a solid 40Hz!).
The SE Center on the other hand is almost in a class by itself. I find myself sounding a little like a broken record here, but Paradigm's now tried and true configuration changes not from model to model with good reason: it just plain works. It could be argued that the SE Center is higher performance than even the SE3 in that it is a true 3 way design, and as such the "money" is going where it is needed most: even in this day of 7.1 uncompressed or lossless sound, that ONE channel, the center, is still responsible for 90% of the soundtrack. Better to have nothing but a top shelf center than a full 7.1 setup which sounds like paper cups I say. The SE Center delivers in spades in that I don't have superlatives for you. In actually using them, impressions boil down to how much I "thought" about the speaker, and less is definitely more in that only if something is wrong should I notice or even think about the speaker. Not once did I "notice" the SE Center, testament to the fact that it skews the sound not one iota, and instead just presents what is there in the soundtrack. We can ask no more of a speaker.
The SE Sub has one remarkable appeal up its sleeve: its size. Never would my wife have allowed a subwoofer into her living room, yet the SE Sub was there, in plain sight mind you..and she didn't even know it! When she asked "where did you put the subwoofer thingy they sent you?", disbelief is the only way to describe her reaction when I pointed it out. In practice the SE Sub delivers excellent, well defined bass within a very respectable window. While it might be hard to actually "hurt" the thing what with the robust build of the driver and amp, it's not beyond the realm of the possible to ask more output of it than is practical. Even so, it does not distress audibly, but rather starts to take on a bit of a one-note quality. At responsible output, useful extension reaches well down to the low 20s when the room's acoustics and SE Sub's placement therein is equal to the task.
Ironically, that is the SE Sub's ace in the hole: it is so small that dialing it in is not the usual backbreaking, and decor compromising chore. And as if that was not enough, as previously mentioned the SE Sub joins the growing list of models which support Paradigm PBK (Perfect Bass Kit) which once again shaped the subwoofer response into sweet linearity. The auto on/off works perfectly in that it powers on at the slightest signal (without any gauche "thump") and confirms it with a fairly discreet blue light. Power consumption which I now take a critical look at in all CE equipment, but subwoofers especially, comes in at a cautionary 9 watts when the Sub SE is "off" (about 15watts when on but idle). While not near as bad as the Reference Sub12 I reviewed last year (a full 30 watts when "off"), it is still a far cry from the <2 watts we expect of display devices, receivers, and disc players so the industry (Paradigm included) still has work to do here.