The downside, as I hinted above, is that the Monitor 11s may provide more low-frequency clout than is appropriate for smaller listening rooms. For this reason, I would like to see Paradigm offer the sort of compromise solution that Monitor Audio provides for some of its floorstanding speakers, which is to supply foam rubber port-damping plugs (Monitor Audio calls them “bungs”) to give listeners the option of trimming back low bass output from the reflex ports, where necessary.
I’ve mentioned that the Monitor system offers expressive, free-breathing dynamics and nowhere is this more apparent than in certain action film sequences, where soundtracks suddenly seem to have more drama, impact, and visceral power than they do with other systems. A great example can be found in Inception, where Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) introduces his protégé-to-be Ariadne (Ellen Page) to the phenomenon of shared/guided dreams. The dream sequence seems normal enough at first—as dreams so often do—until Cobb and Ariadne find themselves at an outdoor café and Cobb asks, “How did we get here?” Realizing that she really can’t answer the question, Ariadne experiences a flash of insight and then, suddenly wide-eyed, asks, “We’re dreaming?” And then, of course, all hell breaks loose.
For no apparent reason at all, storefront and upper-floor apartment windows explode outward, manhole covers burst upward from their mounting flanges, vehicles crash in the street outside, and the scene is brought to an abrupt and thunderous conclusion as a pile of rubble falls from above, crushing Ariadne and Cobb at their once peaceful café table. The racket of the dream collapsing gives way immediately to the comparative silence of Cobb’s sleep lab, where Ariadne awakes—disoriented and very frightened, but glad to be alive. What the Monitor system taught me, at least relative to many of the affordably-priced systems I’ve heard, is that freedom from apparent compression or overload is a reward unto itself, because it gives the speaker system the freedom to simply throw back its head, figuratively speaker, and to howl at the moon if that’s what the soundtrack demands. Once you hear big cinematic moments unfold through the Monitors, you realize that—to a greater extent than you might have imagined—other systems are quashing dynamics, perhaps as a necessary survival mechanism. But the Monitors, in contrast, are willing to play louder than most homeowners would probably think wise, meaning they offer noticeably greater dynamic headroom than some of their competitors.
I’ve also mentioned that the Monitors offer a smooth sound with good, spacious imaging. To hear what I mean, try listening to the sequence “Behind the Moving Curtain” from The Rundown. In this scene the rogue archaeologist Travis (Seann William Scott) attempts to steal a priceless artifact from a cavern whose stone ceiling is held up by rickety beams, as Beck (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and Mariana (Rosario Dawson) look on. As Travis, perhaps ill-advisedly, shifts some beams to gain access to the treasure, the beams begin to creak, groan, and in some cases to shatter—indicating the ceiling is about to collapse. The Monitors did a fine job with surround sound imaging, here, revealing sounds of imminent collapse from all around the listening area. However, the Monitors did not have quite enough upper midrange or treble resolution to convey the full-spectrum of low-level details I know are part of this soundtrack—details that can, on today’s best surround speaker systems, make the sequence sound unnervingly realistic and frightening. Still, the Monitors did very well on this scene, especially in terms of conveying the powerful rumble of the massive ceiling stones grinding against one another.
Good though the Monitor system is for movie playback, I think it does even better with music material, as I hope to show you by sharing some of my notes from listening sessions.
One favorite test disk I enjoy using in surround system reviews is the Gerard Schwarz/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra recording of mountain-themed compositions by Alan Hovhaness: a compilation simply called Mysterious Mountains [Telarc, multichannel SACD]. One of the most revealing passages came from the first movement of Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountains” (from which the compilation takes its name). In this movement, the orchestra has a dark, lush-sounding presentation, which the Monitor system captured faithfully with, as I jotted in my notes, “very good stage depth.” I was particularly struck by the Monitor system’s handling of string tones, where upper string sections had a “sweet, plaintive tone,” while lower strings had “appropriate weight and sonority.” In this movement and at many other points in his compositions, Hovhaness is fond of adding delicate touches of high percussion commentary, which—through the Monitor system, seemed to “float high above the orchestral floor.” Overall, I found that the Monitor’s presentation “not as crisply delineated as some systems might be from one orchestral section to another, but very smooth and pleasingly organic-sounding.” In this last set of notes, you can see how some of the Monitor-series design tradeoffs play out; the system typically does not reach for the very highest levels of definition or detail, but as a result it achieves a sweetly natural and organic sound that makes the system satisfying to listen to—even when powered by modest electronics.