The Canadian firm Paradigm has long been considered a go-to resource among home theater enthusiast and music lovers seeking sonic excellence at fair prices. A wise colleague once observed that, given enough cubic dollars, almost any manufacturer might be able to develop a great loudspeaker, but that the harder task is figuring out how to build nearly great speakers that can be sold profitably at comfortable, real-world prices. This, in a nutshell, is the specific area of art and science where Paradigm excels. Building upon a solid (and ever-expanding, R&D driven) base of speaker making know-how, Paradigm has become adept at juggling complex variables, weighing tradeoffs, and striking carefully calculated design compromises to yield whole families of loudspeakers that sound better than they have any right to for the money. And the newest of these families is the Special Edition series, announced at CEDIA 2009.
As many of you may know, Paradigm’s speaker products fall into two groups: the standard Paradigm range (comprising the Cinema, Monitor, and now Special Edition families), and the upscale, performance-minded Paradigm Reference range (comprising the Millennia, Studio, and Signature families). What’s interesting is that the new Special Edition ranges is—by design—very much a bridge between the Paradigm and Paradigm Reference worlds. Here’s how that bridge works. First, the Special Edition speakers leverage basic cabinet designs originally developed for Paradigm’s popular and affordable Monitor-series speakers. Thus, the Special Edition SE 3 floorstander is roughly the size and shape of a Monitor 7 floorstander, the SE 1 bookshelf speaker is patterned after the Monitor-series Mini Monitor, and the SE Center loosely corresponds to the Monitor-series CC-190 center channel speaker. Rounding out the package is a 300-watt, 10-inch SE Subwoofer that provides onboard DSP functions that enable the sub to be tuned via Paradigm’s optional PBK-1 Perfect Bass Kit. Since the Special Edition family is positioned as a higher-end alternative to (and step up) from the Monitor family, the Special Edition cabinets are treated to real wood veneers with softly rounded cabinet edges that convey and upscale look and feel.
The drivers and crossovers used in the Special Edition speakers are where a big part of the magic comes in, with Paradigm using driver frames similar to those used in its Monitor-series models (that is, frames made of die-cast aluminum and/or glass-reinforced injection-molded polymer), but fitted in most cases with sophisticated diaphragms and motors patterned after those used in the much more costly Studio-series speakers. Crossover networks, in turn, are said to use “Reference quality” parts throughout. The result is a desirable family of hybrid speakers that look like Monitor-family speakers all dressed up for a night on the town, but that sound much more like Studio models—and at about 3/5ths the price of a Studio system.
Our $3454 review system consists of two SE 3 floorstanders used as L/R mains, an SE Center center channel speaker, two SE 1 bookshelf monitors used as L/R surrounds, and an SE Subwoofer. As you’ll see in a moment, this system offers delightful sound quality at a very accessible price, while offering visually pleasing cabinetry that hits that “just right” size (as in, not too big, yet not too small) that should work well for many households.
Consider this system if: you want a roughly $3000 5.1-channel speaker system whose sound embodies many of the characteristics you’d expect of systems roughly priced $2000 - $3000 higher. Tonal balance is neutral, which I always regard as a good starting point, but the real glory of the Special Edition speakers involves their wonderfully lucid and richly nuanced midrange. This comes as no surprise once you understand that the Special Edition models draw on driver technologies borrowed directly from Paradigm’s upscale Reference Studio range. Another strength involves the Special Editions’ ability to produce very large soundstages and to create tightly focused sonic images within those stages—images that effortlessly break free from the speaker enclosures to fill the room with sound. In fact, in terms of three-dimensionality, imaging, and soundstaging, the Special Editions are one of Paradigm’s better efforts to date. Finally, the Special Editions are a great size, pleasingly compact and attractive on the outside, but capable of an astonishingly big sound.