The third characteristic that impressed veteran and neophyte listeners alike was the S8s’ superb bass. What made the S8s’ bass so good was the way the speakers pulled together the four pillars of great low-frequency reproduction: speed, power, extension, and control. Play a recording with loud low-frequency content—a personal favorite is the plunging synth-bass glissando from “Root Beer” in Thomas Newman’s American Beauty soundtrack [Dreamworks]— and the S8s can be downright scary (the mind reels at hearing low frequencies rendered so powerfully and so cleanly). Yet the S8s also do bass finesse with the best of them. I listened to Stanley Clarke’s inspired acoustic bass solo on “The Hilltop” from Chick Corea’s My Spanish Heart LP [Polydor], and savored the way the S8s let me hear not only Clarke’s blinding fingering speed, but also his dead-on intonation and confident, sure-handed touch on the fingerboard. Paradigm says the S8s’ bass extends solidly to 28Hz (-3dB), though I found the speaker offered at least some usable output below that frequency. Nevertheless, extreme low-frequency aficionados might want a sub to extend bass response to 20Hz or lower. Paradigm offers a Signature subwoofer for that purpose, but I think most listeners would be satisfied if not thrilled by what the S8s do on their own.
The only area where I felt the S8s did not live up to their full potential was imaging. Specifically, I heard occasional small midrange and treble discontinuities that drew my attention to the faces of the speakers, temporarily disrupting their otherwise three-imensional sound. What caused these discontinuities? I speculate that they result from low-level interactions between the S8’s drivers and grilles—grilles Paradigm says should always be kept in place. Paradigm uses an unusual isolation mounting system for its drivers, one upshot of which is that thick metal driver-frames protrude about ¼" forward from the baffle surface. To compensate, Paradigm provides “anti-edge-diffraction” grille frames that fill the gaps between and around the drivers, presenting a gently curved front surface free of sharp edges that could cause diffraction. On paper the frames seem like a good idea, but I can’t help but wonder whether, in practice, they might be holding the S8s back from realizing even greater potential.
The Reference Signature S8s are beautifully made, big-hearted loudspeakers whose sophisticated, high-resolution sound makes
them unequivocal performance leaders in their class. More than that, the S8s are so good in so many different areas that they put significant pressure on many speakers in the $6k–10k/ pair price range. But most of all the S8s make listening to music a rich feast for both the heart and mind, which is precisely what fine high-end loudspeakers ought to do. TAS