Despite their easy-listening nature the Minis still manage to achieve an acceptable level of audiophile-approved overall performance. They image as well as most comparably sized but far more expensive speakers. Even without curved front baffles or physically time-aligned drivers the Minis create a seamless soundstage with excellent lateral image placement and reasonable depth. Only when compared to far more expensive speakers, such as the Paradigm Signature S1s, does the Minis’ recreation of depth seem somewhat shallow and their lateral imaging slightly less precise.
Timbrally, the Minis err on the warm side of neutral, which I think is preferable to the alternative, especially in a modestly priced mini-monitor. Typically, Minis will be mated with lower-cost electronics that often deliver less than optimal sound. So if the Mini can help music sound more like music, so much the better. Even if you use more expensive gear, as I did for most of the review, the Minis never give the impression that they are the weak link in the reproduction chain.
I had no trouble matching the Mini speakers with several subwoofers. However, in every case the final result was a bit on the rich side of neutral. The Minis create extra energy in their lower midrange and upper bass that gives them a thick-around-the-middle balance. When driven to higher SPLs this characteristic goes from warm and reassuring to mushy and ill-defined. Think of this change as a sort of aural governor—when the sound goes south, you’re listening at too high a level.
Rarely do I get an opportunity to go directly from a manufacturer’s top-of-the-line offering to one of its budget products. I was so impressed by the Paradigm Signature S1 speakers [winner of TAS’s 2008 Entry-Level Speaker of the Year Award] that I held onto them to compare with other small monitors. When the Mini Monitors arrived I plopped them into the same system that had been hosting the Signature S1s. The sonic similarities between the two speakers outweighed the differences. Both image beautifully with the Signatures beating the Minis in depth and lateral specificity, as previously noted. Both also have remarkably smooth upper-frequency response. The Signature speakers have a smidgen more top-end air and extension, but on most standard commercial releases this extra dollop of treble information won’t add much to your listening experience.
The Paradigm Signatures have a more neutral harmonic balance with less of a lower-midrange and upper-bass bump. The Signatures also can play much louder without signs of strain. This greater neutrality and ease also translates into greater dynamic contrasts, especially on classical recordings with large orchestral forces. Mahler works on the Signatures, but not so much with the Minis. On my own recordings the Minis did a fine job at my desktop, but in a room-based environment they couldn’t quite keep up with the wide contrasts of a live concert recording. If wide dynamic classical music is your thing I’m afraid you’ll need to ante up for the Signatures S1s.
Next I pitted the Minis against the less expensive (roughly half price) Aperion 4B speakers. The Aperions didn’t image any better than the Minis in a room-based system, but on a desktop the Aperions’ smaller size made for less cabinet diffraction and a better vanishing act. Despite their more complete sonic invisibility the 4Bs produced a smaller soundstage when used on a desktop as well as having a substantially smaller listening window. I got used to being able to move around in my chair with relative impunity while listening to the Paradigm Minis, but Aperion 4Bs placed definite limits on my mobility.
The 4Bs were “duller” with less top-end sparkle and life. The 4Bs also had a more subtractive character; they passed less musical information. Low-level details don’t quite get to your ears, so the overall effect is less involving. On the plus side, if you’re using electronics that have a really harsh edge the 4Bs will deliver more listenable results. I thought the Paradigm Minis’ top-end was a trifle less open than higher-priced speakers I’ve reviewed recently, but compared to the 4Bs the Minis seemed quite extended.