Paradigm enjoys a solid reputation for building modestly priced loudspeakers that deliver strong performance for the money, but that fact raises an important question. What would happen if a traditionally value-oriented, price-conscious firm such as Paradigm put the design-pedal to the metal, so to speak, to create a more expensive speaker? The answer would be the $5700 Reference Signature S8—by far the most ambitious and best-sounding loudspeaker the Canadian firm has yet produced.
The S8s are tall, deep, ported floorstanders that incorporate four—count ’em—7" mineralfilled polypropylene woofers, a 7" mica-filled polymer mid/bass driver with a phase plug, and a 1" waveguide-loaded, gold-anodized, aluminumdome tweeter with a phase-correction bar. Curved-wall enclosures help minimize internal reflections, while stunning veneered finishes help the S8 look the part of a serious flagship. Eager to find out if the speakers sounded as impressive as they looked, I wired the S8s into my reference system, and their sound did not disappoint. The qualities that caught my ear from the outset were their neutrality, resolving power, and killer bass.
When I say the S8s sound “neutral” I mean that they show a remarkable top-to-bottom evenness and freedom from coloration, so that I came to prize these speakers for their essential honesty. Paradigm claims the S8s maintain broad frequency response within very tight tolerances (41Hz–22kHz ±2dB) across a broad listening window that extends up to 30º off axis, which perhaps explains their well-balanced sound. Like other highly accurate loudspeakers the S8s tend to be sonic chameleons, so that they adopt as their own the sonic characteristics of whatever recordings they are fed. Put on a comparatively bright and forward-sounding LP, such as Keith Jarrett’s Solo-Concerts: Bremen, Lausanne [ECM], and the speakers exhibit a brilliant, intensely focused sound that places Jarrett at the front of the stage. But put on a relatively dark and more distant-sounding recording, such as the Schwarz/Royal Liverpool performance of Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 66 “Hymn to Glacier Peak” [Telarc], and the S8s emphasize the rich, warm sonorities of the orchestra, and gives the listener a medium-distant perspective on the very deep soundstage. The point is that listeners can trust the S8s to show how recordings actually sound, whether for better or for worse.
Next, the S8s offered high levels of resolution across the entire audio spectrum—a quality many guest listeners commented upon. After sampling a smorgasbord of well-recorded material through the S8s, Arnie Williams, Managing Editor of our sister magazine The Perfect Vision, turned to me and said, “Those Paradigms don’t miss much, do they?” And he’s right; the S8s make even the subtlest variations in textures and timbres easy to discern.
Lately, I’ve been sampling some lovely records put out on the German label Stockfisch, and one new favorite is the SACD just like love from folksinger/songwriter Steve Strauss. I thought I had a good handle on the luscious sound of this album, but when I played the disc through the S8s my jaw nearly hit the floor. The S8s immediately began telling me things I didn’t know about the recording. The song “Dead Man’s Handle” features a haunting chorus where Strauss sings:
Burning both ends of the candle
Dipping deep into the midnight oil
Leaning heavy on a dead man’s handle
Lord take me home… to my baby.
From previous listening experiences I knew something was special about the sound of the chorus, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was until I heard the song through the S8s. With unerring clarity, the S8s revealed that the producer momentarily applied a dab of reverb to emphasize the words “Lord take me home,” then backed the reverb out to restore normal voicing on the phrase “to my baby.” The S8s effortlessly unveil these kinds of fleeting details, enabling listeners to discern and then appreciate the finer points of favorite recordings.
One minor shortcoming, however, is that the S8 tweeters and mid/bass drivers occasionally carve the leading edges of transients with just slightly more force than is realistic. This isn’t a glaring fault by any means, but it sometimes creates the impression that the speakers are trying too hard to impress listeners with their transient speed and clarity. The good news, though, is that appropriate cables can essentially eliminate the problem. In particular, I discovered that Furutech Alpha Reference interconnects and speaker cables had the serendipitous effect of maximizing both the S8s’ clarity and Paradigm Reference Signature S8 Loudspeaker An all-out effort from a traditionally value-oriented, price-conscious firm Equipment Report smoothness at the same time. Because the S8s make the effects even of minor system changes apparent, prospective owners will want to choose ancillary equipment carefully. Some might find that the S8s supply more information than they bargained for, where others—like me—will find the speakers delightfully revealing.