When Robert Harley, editor of our sister magazine The Absolute Sound, reviewed an early version of Paradigm’s Atom Monitor surround system back in 2001 (The Perfect Vision, issue 38), he came away impressed by the system’s performance, not just because it was good “for the money,” but because it was good in a broader sense. Fast forward to 2008 and to the fourth-generation version of the Atom Monitor system, and history repeats itself. Now as in 2001, the Atom Monitor rig stands as one of the best-sounding and most well rounded surround systems in its class—a system that in many ways performs “beyond its pay grade.”
The $1474 system consists of a pair of two-way Atom Monitor bookshelf main speakers, a three-way/ four-driver CC-190 center channel (one of the few three-way center-channel speakers in our survey), a set of two-way/four-driver ADP-190 dipole surround speakers, and a 100-watt PDR-8 subwoofer.
What sets the “v.4” version of the Atom Monitor system apart from its predecessors is its advanced, high-technology drive units. The system features Paradigm Atom Monitor System Highs Mids Bass Imaging & Soundstaging Dynamics Versatility Value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 poor excellent drivers whose cones and domes are made of specialized (low mass, high stiffness, low resonance) materials, and larger drivers are fitted with ultra-rigid frames (or “baskets”) made of cast composites. Paradigm is famous for finding clever ways to apply what were once exotic and expensive technologies in budget-minded products—technology “trickle down” that pays big sonic dividends in the case of the Atom Monitor package.
If you spend much time evaluating speaker systems, you may wind up drawing, as I sometimes do, distinctions between systems that are good (even very good) performers vs. those that go beyond basic “goodness” to achieve a touch of sonic “magic.” Paradigm’s Atom Monitor system combines several key performance characteristics in order to make magic. First, the system offers one of the most essential of ingredients of greatness—smooth, neutral tonal balance. Then, it augments and leverages that core strength by adding heaping helpings of three-dimensionality, resolution, and transparency. Put these qualities together and you get a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts—in other words, a sub-$1500 system that can go toe-to-toe with systems costing $2000 or more.
Credit goes, in part, to the Atom Monitors, which are good enough to serve as fine standalone minimonitors, but also to the extremely capable CC-190 center channel speaker. The CC-190, as I mentioned above, is a three-way design whose dedicated midrange driver gives the speaker exceptional resolving power and the ability to reproduce nuances that other center speakers miss. The only catch is that the CC- 190 may be too large to fit in some A/V racks. Finally, the ADP-190 surround speakers offer a dipolar design I found ideal for their intended application; the speakers make you aware of surround channel information but without drawing undue attention to themselves.
The PDR-8 sub is a good bass performer, long on transient speed and textural nuance but whose dynamic limits are a little lower than other elements of the system. But except on the very loudest low-frequency effects in action sequences (for example, the cannon fire in Master and Commander, which can cause the woofer to “bottom out” momentarily), you aren’t likely to notice this.
One of the nicest things about the Atom Monitor system is its ability to convey power, tension, and subtleties in movie soundtracks, all at the same time. To appreciate what I mean, watch the “Warrior’s Death” sequence from Apocalypto, where Jaguar Paw is transformed from the role of the hunted victim back into that of a fierce and crafty hunter setting an ambush for his pursuers. As Jaguar Paw prepares his weapon (a blowgun made of a rolled-up leaf with homemade poison darts) and sets his trap, the musical score becomes more and more complex and urgent as layers of jungle noises are added to heighten tension. Then, once Jaguar Paw has fired his darts, the music suddenly stops, so that we’re left to focus on the sounds of the terrified victim’s labored breathing and the crackle of underbrush as he collapses on the ground. The Atom Monitor system waded into this thicket of complicated sounds and handled them all with levels of power, detail, and finesse that frankly would have done justice to a much more costly system.
But if the Atom Monitor system is good for movie playback (and it is), then it is even more in its element when playing music. More so than most systems in our survey, this Paradigm system conveys much of the vibe or “feel” I typically associate with listening to costly, high-end two-channel systems. It’s a matter of the system getting all (or nearly all) of the basics right, and then adding heightened levels of purity and refinement that take the listening experience to a higher level. On the Carl Saunders Sextet’s performance of “Calming Notion” [Blueport Jazz Sampler/Blueport-NuForce], for example, the system sounded just spooky good, partly because it so perfectly captured the voices of Saunders’ flugelhorn, Jerry Pinter’s tenor sax, and Santo Savino’s suave cymbal work, but also because it just nailed the ambience of the Union Square recording venue in San Francisco. The result was one of those rare and beautiful moments where the walls of your listening space seem to melt, and you find yourself transported to a musical event where performers appear before you with a kind of reach-out-and-touch-them realism. Not many sub-$1500 system can pull off that trick.