May 1, 2009
Paradigm Reference Studio 60 v.5 Loudspeakers
It was the summer of 1989, and Id scored a summer job with the Canadian government at a cool $11 an hour. That was serious money for a youngster, and while some kids might have saved for a car or clothes, I planned to spend every penny on audio gear. I wasnt really an audiophile back then, but I knew that the sound quality of my all-Electrohome stereo wasnt as good as it got. Besides, Id be the first kid on the block to own a CD player -- and you couldnt put one of those in a car!
Two weeks went by. I was ready to spend my first paycheck on a Yamaha CD player, but no check appeared. Perhaps Id signed on in the middle of a pay period, my superlazy supervisor told me, and Id get a check for three weeks work on the next payday. But I didnt, so no CD player. Another payday went by, and still no paycheck. Enough was enough. My riled boss picked up the phone, made a call, and found out that hed never told the pay section that I was working there. Oops. Fear not, he said, theyre cutting you an emergency check -- Id have it next week. Some emergency.
At 4 p.m. on a hot July day, I left work with a check for no less than $1373, an amount I was sure exceeded the gross national product of Australia. A quick stop at the bank converted it to cash, and my wad and I were on our way. First was the Yamaha CD player. Then it was over to Sound Advice to pick up a JVC receiver and the coolest speakers ever seen by my young eyes: Paradigms Mini 3SE.
If they hadnt been destroyed in a fire, I might still have those 3SEs. They were amazing speakers, and an unbelievable value at about $300 per pair. They were far ahead of my Electrohome speakers in build quality, appearance, and technology, and when it came to sound, there was just no comparison. The Paradigms were the real deal, and I loved every second I spent with them.
Ive heard many Paradigm speakers in the 20 years since, and Ive even been to the companys factory and Advanced Research Center. But, amazingly, with one exception, every Paradigm Ive ever heard has been from the companys value line. So when I got wind of an all-new Reference Studio series, I asked -- nay, demanded -- that I be given a pair to review. Like many audio-savvy people, I knew that Paradigm could do great cheap speakers with its corporate eyes closed. What I wanted to know was if they could cut the mustard in the critical category of Music Enthusiast/Audiophile on a Budget. In my opinion, this $1000-$3000/pair range of the speaker spectrum is where companies are made or broken. My recent experience with the Focus Audio FC 7 proved that the Paradigm Reference Studio 60 v.5s ($1998 USD per pair) coming my way faced an uphill battle and stiff competition.
In keeping with Paradigm tradition, the latest Studio series incorporates some of the cosmetics and technological advances of the Signature line -- Paradigms best -- but at lower prices. The Studio Series v.5 cabinets now feature curved sides that narrow toward the back of the speaker, à la Signature; and, in a major step up from the Studio v.4, Paradigm finishes the v.5s in real-wood veneers. Finishes available are rosewood, cherry, and black, and each comes sealed in seven hand-sanded coats of "highest-quality" lacquer. The rosewood finish of the demo pair of Studio 60 v.5s sitting before me now is gorgeous, and has left more than one visitor to comment that these speakers are more expensive than they are.
The 60 v.5 is an entirely new iteration of Studio speaker, replacing both the stand-mounted Studio 40 and the Studio 60 v.4. In size, the 2.5-way v.5 sits between the two older models. Its a floorstanding speaker like the old Studio 60, but its cabinet, measuring 40 1/8"H x 7 7/8"W x 11 7/8"D, is more compact. Paradigm says the Studio 60 v.5 has heavy internal bracing and a "high-tech damping compound" to reduce vibration. There are four drivers. On top is a 1" G-PAL gold/aluminum-dome tweeter with ferrofluid damping and cooling and a diecast chassis heatsink. Below that is a 5.5" S-PAL (Satin-Anodized Pure Aluminum) midrange fitted with a gold-anodized phase plug and an impressive 1.5" voice-coil, all assembled on an AVS die-cast basket/heatsink, which is mounted on the cabinet using Paradigms proprietary IMS-ShockMount system. The end result of these enhancements, says Paradigm, is very low distortion.
Unlike the single-woofer Studio 60 v.4, the v.5 has two bass drivers: 5.5" mineral-filled polypropylene woofers, also with 1.5" voice-coils and the same heatsink and chassis-isolation technology as the midrange. All three 5.5" drivers have a new, elliptical surround made of Santoprene, which, Paradigm claims, further reduces distortion and increases the drivers linearity.
Combined, these four drivers provide a claimed on-axis frequency response of 45Hz-22kHz, ±2dB; and, at 30 degrees off-axis, 45Hz-20kHz, ±2dB. The bass extension, aided by two ports, one each on front and rear, is a claimed 29Hz. A pair of second-order electroacoustic crossovers share out the work among the drivers: at 2kHz for the midrange, and 500Hz for the bass drivers. The Studio 60 v.5s in-room sensitivity is a reported 92dB, and its recommended amplification is 15-220W.
The Studio 60 v.5s smaller size made them easy to integrate into my listening room, a task also greatly aided by the fact that this speaker proved not particularly sensitive to positioning. Following Paradigms instructions, I toed-in the Studio 60s so that a laser beam shot from each speakers tweeter would meet about 1m behind my head. With the Studio 60s equipped with a rear port, it will come as no surprise that the closer I moved them to the front wall, the more the bass was boosted. If placement close to a wall is unavoidable, the rear port can be stuffed with socks or a port plug to effectively tame excess bass. The Studio 60s bass balanced out nicely with just 3 of space between them and the front wall, giving a tight, quick response and deep extension.
The new-tech 60 v.5s seemed ideally suited to my new-tech audio setup of a computer audio server connected via a Synergistic Research Tricon USB cable (review forthcoming on "Digital Domain") to Benchmarks sublime DAC1 Pre. My irreplaceable Simaudio Moon i5.3 integrated amplifier rounded out the ensemble, communicating with one of each Studio 60s two pairs of binding posts via Supra Cables oh-so-neutral Ply 3.4/S shielded speaker cable. AC cables for amp and DAC were Synergistics T3 and T2, respectively, while the computer made do with an older Cardas Twinlink.
Immediately before the Studio 60 v.5, Id reviewed Focus Audios excellent FC 7 speaker on GoodSound!, which I said was a Great Buy. I was particularly taken with the ability of the FC 7s wide-dispersion, soft-dome tweeter to envelop me in a cloud of wondrous but not overdone treble. The FC 7s were still around, so the Studio 60 v.5s tweeters were destined for a head-to-head battle with the FC 7s tweeters, all the way to the limits of human hearing.
I admit that I looked on the Studio 60s metal dome with some trepidation. I am, by and large, no fan of metal tweeters -- I usually find them at least a little bit bright, sometimes painfully so, and theyre usually more apt to beam their output than a soft dome. Those are broad generalizations, but thats often what I hear -- and I heard nothing of the sort from the Studios G-PAL dome. I have more to say about that confrontation below; here, Ill just say that the Studio 60 v.5 comes equipped with the only non-beryllium metal-dome tweeter Ive heard that I think I could live with forever.
The Studio 60 v.5 didnt have the Focus FC 7s sweetness and ultrawide dispersion, but it did have a very honest high-frequency transducer. The treble it reproduced was clean and crisp, never varying from neutrality by more than a hair. It excelled in the two attributes -- attack and decay -- where metal domes have the edge over their softer counterparts, and this gave the Studio 60 v.5 a fast, edge-of-my-seat sound that worked especially well with film soundtracks and rock.
But just below the G-PAL tweeter sits the similarly monikered S-PAL metal-cone midrange. Call me anti-metal, but I dont like metal-cone drivers either. To me they sound like, well, metal-coned drivers -- they can add an edge to the human voice that just rubs me the wrong way. Some companies do metal cones well (Axiom comes to mind), but if I had the power to determine which materials speaker companies would be permitted to make their cones from, thered be some unhappy aluminum smelters out there. Well, darn it all to heck if Paradigm hasnt proven to me that at least some aluminum cones can do the midrange really well.
A great midrange test track is "Mustang Sally," from the soundtrack album of The Commitments (CD, Geffen 914102). This recording features tight mid and upper bass, crisply recorded snare drum, a strong male vocal, some tenor sax, and female backup singers. Thats a lot of audio information for a driver to deal with, so a speaker can perhaps be forgiven for losing some of the saxophones energy where it blends with the lead vocal. Paradigms S-PAL cone was having none of that. Like its tweeter cousin, this metal driver was fantastically honest in its representation of midrange frequencies. It could have, for example, added some chestiness or congestion to the lead vocal of Andrew Strong (only 16 when he recorded this!), but . . . it didnt.
A remarkable piece of music is "Antiphone Blues," a duet for saxophone and pipe organ found on Passion, a sampler from First Impression Music (XRCD2, FIM K2HD 026). As the track was necessarily recorded in a church, the saxophone has a massive space to fill, and does so remarkably well. With this track, smaller speakers can throw out the baby with the bathwater: either they get the fine, close details right and lose the volume of the space, or they do the reverse -- the saxophone is snuffed out by its own reverberations. The Studio 60s managed a finely balanced performance, reproducing the fine details -- the vibration of the reed, the muted clattering of keys, the players breaths -- while making it abundantly clear that the recording venue was far from the usual for this instrument.
Also not run-of-the-mill was the Studio 60 v.5s kick-buttedness. With my Simaudio amp at about one-third power, the heavy bottom end of Holly Coles cover of the Beatles "Ive Just Seen a Face," from her Dark Dear Heart (CD, Blue Note 57365), came charging from the Studio 60s with the energy of a calf bolting away from a hot branding iron. The v.5s mid- and low-bass responses were as tight as a one-size-too-small leather glove, and had the punch of a hockey enforcer. This was most certainly true of Van Halens "Aint Talkin Bout Love," from Van Halen (CD, Warner Bros. 47737), one of my all-time favorite crunchy-guitar tracks. Ive long admired Ted Templemans ability to keep the bass guitar and drums as separate entities on many of Van Halens earlier recordings, rather than melding them into a mush that makes you wonder if theres a bass guitar in there at all. That said, just because a proper bass section is apparent on a recording doesnt mean thats what every speaker can reproduce. I certainly heard that through the Studio 60 v.5s, which conveyed Templemans message that while Van Halen might have an astonishingly good guitar player, hes not on stage by himself.
The Paradigm Reference Studio 60 v.5 and the Focus Audio FC 7 ($1400/pr.) are very different speakers. The Paradigm adhered to neutrality like the Swiss, and was honest without being bland. The Focus pushed the treble a bit, but did so in a way that few could really fault. Unlike the Paradigm, the Focus isnt the speaker presently under oath, but where they fudged a little, it was just little white lies intended to make the listener feel good.
In a bass-to-bass comparison, the trophy went to the Paradigm Studio 60 v.5, whose twin 5.5" drivers were tighter and faster than the FC 7s single 7" driver. Both speakers went satisfyingly deep, but the Focus could be a bit overblown in comparison to the Studio 60; the latter were easier to position in my room, too.
The Focus FC 7 would probably be happier in a system that played a lot of classical music, or recordings in which the venue is almost as important to the sound as the music. The FC 7s sounded huge and imaged like nobodys business. The Studio 60 v.5s had a smaller sound, but didnt artificially constrict the soundfield either. In everything they did, the Studio 60s were truth-tellers. To steal from another products marketing line: with the Studio 60 v.5, "nothings added, nothings taken away."
A great loudspeaker
I predict that the Paradigm Reference Studio 60 v.5 will be a hit. Its the kind of speaker everyone can like and many will love. It is the speaker to get in the $2000/pair area if you want to get the best out of inexpensive electronics, or to hear what more expensive gear can really do. With its new Studio 60 v.5, Paradigm Reference has not only made me reevaluate what I thought I knew about metal drivers, it has also reaffirmed my long-held belief that Paradigm is one company that always seems to be at the top of its game. Absolutely recommended.
. . . Colin Smith
Paradigm Reference Studio 60 v.5 Loudspeakers
Paradigm Electronics Inc.