In its quest for continuous quality improvement a couple of decades ago, the U.S. business community fell in love with a cobbled-together phrase known as paradigm shifting. The phrase comes from Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and describes how a sea change can force us to rearrange the way in which we view the world. An example would be moving from Ptolemy’s notion that all planets revolve around the earth to the modern view, credited to Copernicus, that all of the planets in our solar system revolve around the sun. In a parallel notion applied to the home theater universe, when it comes to budget-friendly and admirably-performing surround sound speakers, the aptly named Paradigm Electronics has shifted the paradigm of what to expect when you have only a couple thousand dollars to spend on a set of speakers.
A look under the grille of the Cinema 330 speakers, which we chose for the front left, center, and right positions, makes you want to break out the calculator and try to figure out how Paradigm can give you all this for such a reasonable price ($299/ each). These versatile speakers can be mounted on the wall or placed on a stand or shelf. You get five drivers. That’s right, the 330’s mineral-filled polymer enclosure houses five magnetically shielded drivers. The smaller Cinema ADP surround speakers, which occupy the rear surround positions, boast four drivers apiece: a dome tweeter and cone driver grace each side of the cabinet in an effort to create a diffuse sound field. Rounding out this system is the impressive UltraCube 10 subwoofer, replete with its own 650- watt class-D amplifier. Whew. Just describing all of the Cinema 330 components makes a bloke winded.
As impressive as the collection of drivers appears to be, the question remains: how does the Cinema 330 system sound? But that’s not a question that remains for long. This is one of the most natural sounding surround speaker systems in our sub $2k roundup. In the “Echo Game” chapter of the DVD House of Flying Daggers, the Paradigms picked up many of the subtle sounds—such as the rippling of silk dresses or the tinkling of beaded curtains—that other speakers miss. And during the climax of the scene in which the garrison officer scatters a bowl of beans in all directions to strike multiple circulararrayed drums, the echoes of the beans hitting the stone floor and the reverberation of the drum heads sounded completely natural, continuing much longer and with greater clarity than is typical of most sub-$2k systems.
That special ability to capture both the attack and decay of sounds in full detail was also quite noticeable in the Kodály String Quartet’s rendition of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden [Naxos], especially in the cello’s magnificent runs beneath the haunting harmonies played by the violins and viola. Exquisite and expensive string instruments, such as those owned by the Kodály Quartet, have a characteristic that becomes apparent when you hear the instruments live. The aged bodies of the instruments cause sounds to resonate with rich harmonics that decay slowly, giving the instruments a cathedral-like voicing. Few speaker systems in this price range have the resolution to capture this quality, resulting in an unnaturally fast decay of the sound. The Paradigms, however, did an excellent job conveying this ringing tone and had us once again double-checking that we were indeed evaluating a system that costs less than $2000. We were likewise impressed by the speakers’ extended frequency response—from the highest notes of the first violin to the lowest register of the cello with nary a bump.
To offset the highbrow demands of the Kodáy Quartet, we also listened to several cuts from Neil Young’s delightful Prairie Wind CD [Reprise]. On the album’s title track, Young’s signature voice is accompanied by a light and lyrical guitar on a deep soundstage that resembles a live hall. The Paradigm speakers faithfully conveyed the acoustics of the recording space. In Damien Rice’s eerie “Cold Water” from O [Vector Recordings], which brings to mind the heartbreaking scene from Titanic when the two lovers part hands, Rice’s voice had an aching clarity that intensified the poignancy of the song’s lyrics. And the “underwater” choir possessed a moving melancholy that would cause even the most stoic among us to become misty-eyed.
If you’re in the market for a surround sound speaker system and have two grand to invest wisely, run, don’t walk, to the nearest Paradigm dealer and buy the Cinema 330 system. It will satisfy your most challenging DVD needs and double as a music system that you can be proud of. You could spend as much as $20k on a higherend Paradigm system if the spirit so moved you, but this system is proof that you don’t need to dig that deeply into your savings to own first-rate speakers for all-around home theater and music listening pleasure. TPV