Not long ago , there was a huge difference between trul y high -end audio products and their mass -market counterparts .While there’s still an enormous chasm in price, in my experience the performance gap between exotic brands and high-quality mainstream electronics has shrunk. Over the past decade there’s been an almost invisible revolution in design and manufacturing, putting performance that was once available only to the few within reach of the many. A case in point is the system reviewed here—Paradigm’s Studio 20 v.3 loudspeaker and Onkyo’s A-9555 integrated amp and DX-7555 CD player—an affordable combo that can hold its own against many similarly configured but much more costly rigs.
Studio 20 v.3 is the latest edition of a loudspeaker that’s won nearly universal praise for its neutrality, openness, and dynamics— not to mention its contemporary styling and tremendous build-quality. Featuring a 1" aluminum-dome tweeter and 7" wovenmica- polymer woofer, the front-ported Paradigm has a curved, black, composite top surface, wood-veneered side panels, and an unusually robust grille that the manufacturer suggests leaving in place during use. Rear input terminals are two pairs of very heavyduty gold-plated binding posts, for biamping or bi-wiring.
In evolving from the original Studio 20, the v.3’s crossover network went from third-order (18dB/octave, or “quasi-Butterworth”) to second-order (12dB/ octave). The port moved from back to front, allowing closer placement to walls without inducing boominess. The current woofer has a “phase plug” (the conical piece in the center) not used in the original. The contemporary Studio 20 retains the overall look and highly praised sonic neutrality of the original loudspeaker, with improved dynamics and better bass.
Using sturdy 26"-tall Ensemble stands, I substituted the Paradigms for the Montana EPS2 (reviewed in Issue 153) as the left/right pair in my combined music/home-theater system, which let me try them as a standalone stereo pair, stereo pair with subwoofer, and as part of a 5.1-channel surround system. I also used them as a stereo pair with the Onkyo components, with several different interconnects and speaker cables.
In every configuration the Paradigms were superb performers, casting a wide, deep soundstage populated by well-defined instruments and vocals. This was not a complete surprise—I once worked at a Paradigm dealership and owned a pair of the company’s larger monitors, and am familiar with the brand’s sonic potential. What I didn’t expect was how far the v.3 can carry you into high-end territory on a discount ticket. With a frequency response that to my ears sounds flat from the lower midrange right on out into the super-sonic stratosphere, the Studio 20 unmasks the essential character of every voice and instrument it reproduces. From the raw, rough edginess of Patti Smith’s Land [Arista] to the cultured honey-tones of soprano Renée Fleming’s By Request [Decca], I was as taken by Smith’s apparent threedimensionality as I was by Fleming’s power and emotional impact.
Loudspeakers that can maintain both the sonic apparition of a singer in space and her unique vocal signature are rare—and often expensive. That the Paradigms can do this for $800 is both encouraging—musical realism at an affordable price benefits both artists and music lovers—and baffling: Why do some other loudspeakers costing much more perform no better?
Instrumentals of all varieties were as compelling as vocals. The Paradigms revealed every nuance in “Coracol,” the high-intensity opening cut on Strunz & Farah’s Americas [Mesa], a recording that few loudspeakers can deliver i n all its rhythmic and melodic complexity. Agile and articulate, the Paradigms offered all of the dynamic interplay between the two guitarists and their percussionists. Likewise revealed was the soundtrack album from the classic musical West Side Story [Columbia]. In “America,” several similar voices were clearly differentiated, both individually and in chorus. The loudspeakers delivered the song’s quiet introduction with absolute clarity and its big-bang crescendo without distortion.
The Studio 20 v.3 is rated down to 54Hz by the manufacturer, and offers satisfying, well-defined bass at all but the lowermost octave. For that, you really need a subwoofer. My James 10 SG added just the right amount of bottom-end reinforcement to bass-heavy cuts such as “You Did,” from Chuck Prophet’s Age of Miracles [New West]. But jazz, opera, and chamber music fans will probably find this loudspeaker more than adequate in the bass department. It doesn’t have the anemic, lightweight balance of classic British mini-monitors, nor does it have the fake bass of many American speakers of similar size, whose prominent midbass “hump” is intended to compensate for an inability to go really low.