But the SE system does have its limits. One of my favorite test soundtracks is the one for Clint Eastwood’s classic war film Letters from Iwo Jima, where a particularly powerful scene is one where the Japanese soldiers are hunkered down in a cave and hoping to survive relentless shelling from American ships anchored offshore. The scene involves sounds of shells landing directly above and all around the Japanese bunker seen onscreen, and I felt that SE system did a very good job of capturing both the dynamics and surround-sound positioning of those shell blasts. However, one small detail that top-tier systems capture—but that the SE system only partially rendered—is the subtle, high frequency sound of tiny rock and dirt particles being jolted loose from the roof of the cave and falling to the floor below (sounds that suggest a roof collapse might be imminent). The SE system did not catch the frighteningly specific (and ominous) sounds of those falling particles as effectively as some higher priced systems do.
I listened to the SE system extensively on traditional CDs, high-resolution multichannel recordings (SACDs and DVD-Audio discs), and on Blu-ray concert films, and I was continually struck by how refined and expansive the sound of the compact SE system really is. If your reactions are anything like mine, you may find you instinctively want to compare the SE rig to competitors that cost, say, one, two, or even three thousand dollars more. Let me supply two examples to illustrate what I mean by calling the SE system’s sound “refined” and “expansive.”
Many audiophiles revere RCA’s Living Stereo recordings from the mid-to-late 1950s, which were—perhaps somewhat ironically—originally captured in three-channel, not stereo, format. Happily, these recordings have been reissued in SACD format where the original three-channel presentation has been preserved, and one of my favorites is the Reiner/Chicago performance of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. I am particularly fond of the third, or Adagio, movement of the piece because it exposes the composer’s angular and at times dissonant musical ideas while letting you savor not only the voices of the various string and percussion instruments at play, but also the way sounds interact with and reverberate within the recording space.
Now frankly the Bartók recording works well on most systems, but it really comes alive on those that have the midrange moxie and nuance necessary to probe deeply into the inner details at hand, pressing closer and closer toward musical realism. From the instant the movement opened with its exposed percussion pattern, then is expanded by a distinctive tympani phrase, where notes and bend and plunge way down low, and finally is stretched further still by a darkly evocative string passage, the SE system was in its element, showing off levels of midrange subtlety few mid-priced systems could hope to equal. Several things stood out for me. First, I was struck by how true the voices of the individual instruments sounded. The SE system serves up purity of timbre that is quite simply way beyond its pay grade. Next, I was impressed by the way the system let me hear the reverberations of sounds within the recording space, in a very real sense defining the size and shape of the space for the listener, and in the process upping the “realism quotient” quite a bit. Finally, I was struck by the way the SE system placed the instruments at specific locations onstage, so that there was less a sense of listening to a speaker system and more the sense of listening the music unfold in the context in which it was originally recorded.
While the SE system may not be the last word in treble speed and detail, its midrange is shockingly good—a compelling factor that means this system consistently serves most of the music, most of the time. For a system at this price point, who could reasonably ask more than that?
Paradigm’s Special Edition system fills an interesting gap in the home theater speaker system market, because it is pitched to appeal to enthusiasts who want more performance than entry-level (say, sub-$2000) systems can provide, yet are not ready to step all the way up to systems in the $4000, $5000, or $6000 range. At its $3494 price, the Special Edition system hits that “just right” price point in the middle, yet offers sound quality that comes very close to equaling what the higher priced rigs can do. Whether you view the Special Edition system as a wonderful destination in its own right, or as a step up the performance ladder toward even bigger and better things in the future, there’s no denying that it offers killer value for money.