Paradigm Reference Studio 20 v.4 Speaker System
I review stuff. Manufacturers have a right to be wary of people like me. And, when I ask for a surround receiver, the first thing they ask me is, "What speakers will you be using with it?" I tell them, "Paradigm Reference Studio 20s." The sighs of relief at the other end of the phone line are almost audible. More often than not, I get what I ask for.
The Studio 20s have been the mainstay of my reference system since 2002, when I reviewed them for Audio Video Interiors, pronounced them "close to ideal as reference speakers," and thereupon adopted them. Since then, they have put countless receivers through their paces and, during off hours, have kept my soul alive with an intravenous drip of music.
So, imagine the excitement—not to mention the trepidation—I felt when I saw the Studio 20's latest iteration unveiled at a trade show last fall. It is the fourth version, and I use the second, so I've already missed a whole generation of progress. Of course, I had to try the v.4s.
Once Paradigm's top line, the Reference series has since taken second place to the Signature Series. The Studio 20 has always been the baby of the Studio family. Although it is large enough—and has enough bass response—to run without a subwoofer, it functions as a satellite in most systems.
At 15 inches tall, the v.4 has gained a half-inch over the v.2, although, at 21.5 pounds, it's also 1.5 pounds lighter. Starting with the v.3, Paradigm's sensitivity ratings improved from 86 to 87 decibels—or from 90 to 91 dB when rated as room efficiency. That might be a modest concession to greater power demands on receivers. When the first Studio 20 came out, receivers had to power only five speakers, but now they sometimes huff and puff to power up to seven.
The main changes in the v.4, versus the v.3, are in the drivers. An aluminum tweeter has always delivered high frequencies in the Studio 20, but it's been a different one in each generation. The latest one is a gold-anodized pure-aluminum dome—Paradigm calls it G-PAL—that hails from the higher-end Signature line. Perhaps more significant is the new woofer, a 7-inch satin-anodized pure-aluminum (S-PAL) cone that's thinner and stiffer—potentially meaning more pistonic—than the former mica-polymer cone. In the center of the woofer is a phase plug that looks like the nose of a gold-plated aircraft.
As a v.2 user, I was also struck by the v.4's new (to me) enclosure. The tweeter has moved 1 inch closer to the top of the enclosure (from 2.5 to 1.5 inches). The top of the former rectangular solid now has an arched curve, and there's an extra bulge behind the tweeter. The die-cast aluminum chassis that surrounds and holds the drivers is 0.125 inches thicker, and it's carefully ventilated to cool the voice coil. Also, the port has moved from the rear of the enclosure to the front, beneath the woofer.
The impact of these changes on the sound is far from subtle. I heard the differences immediately, even before the speakers had a chance to break in. The new tweeter arrangement's effect was audible as cleaner, airier highs, perhaps also due in part to a diminishment of cabinet diffraction. With the new woofer material and port placement, the v.2's aggressive upper bass took a step closer to neutrality. After years of living with the v.2s, I had plugged the ports with foam to reduce the bass bulge. The v.4s needed no such adjustment.
Five Identical Speakers and Nothing Else
I reviewed the Paradigm Reference Studio 20 v.4s in a matched set of five. Although I rarely get to review identically matched speakers, I prefer this setup because I find that it makes for a more seamless soundfield. But, if you insist on a horizontal center, the Studio CC-590 ($899) is the speaker for you. It replaces the CC-570 and has two 7-inch mineral-filled polypropylene cones, a 4.5-inch satin-anodized aluminum midrange driver, and a 1-inch gold-anodized aluminum dome tweeter. Another unusual departure was my decision to review these speakers without a sub. That wasn't my original intent, but the v.4s were so satisfying when I played them full-range that I had to go with my gut. If you choose to use a sub with the v.4s, Paradigm recommends the Seismic 10 or Servo-15.
Other members of my reference-system family were as eager to try the new Studio 20s as I was. My A/V receiver is the five-channel Rotel RSX-1065. (The more recent seven-channel equivalent is the RSX-1067.) My main signal source is Integra's DPS-10.5 disc player, which feeds a multichannel analog output of unimpeachable quality to the Rotel. I used Monster M1.4S speaker cables, biwired, for the front channels and Monster M1.2S speaker cables for the surrounds.
Recent pillaging at Tower's going-out-of-business sale turned up one of the best choral and orchestral recordings I've ever heard: René Jacobs conducting the RIAS-Kammerchor and the Freiburger Barockorchester in Haydn's The Seasons. Having finally overcome my aversion to classical vocal music, I've tried a lot of Haydn's and Bach's choral works recently, but none has the perfect clarity and balance of this Harmonia Mundi CD set. Clear but not bright, acoustically rich but not reverb heavy, it's changed my listening and buying habits. Compared with the v.2s, the v.4s seemed to bring me a row or two closer to the sopranos (but it didn't hurt a bit) and delivered the baritones more accurately (they were less chesty).