Paradigm Signature surround speaker system
Paradigm speakers have always been an easy recommendation, a short-list "gotta listen," particularly for friends with limited budgets. A decade ago, my brother-in-law was quickly sold on an entry-level Paradigm surround setup that, to this day, graces his great room.
Paradigm went successfully upmarket with their Studio line of speakers, but their new Signature is definitely the piece de résistance. Besides the aural improvements demanded of the new line, aesthetic considerations were given a high priority as well. The new Signature series offers exemplary woodwork and cabinet designs that are far from the boxy dimensions of Paradigm's previous designs.
Paradigm makes three models that can be used as front left and right speakers. Two of them— the two-driver, 2-way S2 and the three-driver, 21/2-way S4— are intended to be mounted on Paradigm's matching stands: the J-29 for the S2, and the J-23 for the S4. The third model, the six-driver, 3-way S8, is a floorstander that offers more bass extension than the S2 or S4. Since I'd be using the speakers in a home-theater setup, with a subwoofer normally engaged, I was most interested in the middle-of-the-line S4, which, at $2600/pair, is less than half the cost of the S8. A quartet of S4s was assembled to fill out the front mains and rear surrounds of my home theater.
For the center channel, Paradigm offers the four-driver, 3-way C3 ($1500) and the six-driver, 31/2-way C5 ($2500). As the C5 would be overkill in a system employing a subwoofer, I stuck with the C3. The subwoofer, the Signature Servo, replaced my Velodyne FSR-18 during the review period. At $3200, the Signature Servo is the most expensive subwoofer I've ever used.
The S4 has two pairs of binding posts, shorted by metal bars for wiring with single runs of cable. Remove the bars and the speakers can be biamped or biwired. Unfortunately, once again, a manufacturer has chosen a nonstandard binding post, this time one that lacks the hexagonal profile required for a binding-post wrench. Instead, these posts are round, and the outer surface is a clear plastic that looks as if it would like nothing better than to crack under the influence of a pair of heavy-duty pliers. I kept the gold-plated jumpers in place for my listening sessions and used single runs of AudioQuest Mont Blanc speaker cable. This medium-girth cable is still thicker and heavier than what many people will use with the Signatures, and the posts responded well enough to tightening by hand, provided I washed my greasy little fingers.
I left the grilles off most of the time, thinking the Signature line's exposed woodwork and drivers far more attractive than the black grilles, but Paradigm makes much of their antidiffraction grillework. Rather than risk hearing them under less than ideal conditions, I reattached the grilles near the end of the review period, before my most critical listening sessions. I'm hard-pressed to say I heard any difference, but I sure saw one: Grilles off, the Paradigms are things of beauty. Of course, the grilles do provide a modicum of protection from prying young fingers.
One driver in the S4, a rather standard 7-inch polypropylene cone, handles the bass below 250Hz. The other 7-inch driver in this 21/2-way design is an unusual gold-toned, mica-embedded polypropylene cone with a gold-anodized phase plug (read: pointy dustcap). Since the crossover forgoes a high-pass filter, this second driver must be able to reproduce the midrange while withstanding, if not fully reproducing, whatever bass exists in the music or soundtrack. To further reinforce the S4's low frequencies, a front-firing, die-cast aluminum port extends and evens the speaker's bass performance. Both the S4 and the 3-way C3 center channel use a gold-anodized 1-inch dome tweeter with a neodymium magnet.
The C3 has two of the black, 7-inch polypropylene drivers, of which the S4 has one, these bookending the vertically aligned tweeter-midrange array. This vertical orientation eliminates most of the comb filtering (at least in the critical midrange and treble) inherent in horizontally aligned center-channel speakers. The C3's midrange driver is a 4-inch, mica-embedded polypropylene cone similar to the more exotic 7-incher used in the S4. Obviously, due to its smaller size, it requires the use of a highpass filter to protect it from low-frequency damage, hence the C3's "3-way" designation. There are two rear-firing bass ports, although unlike those in the S4, these don't appear to be lined with die-cast aluminum. Doubling the number of bass drivers and ports, coupled with a slightly larger cabinet, means the C3 actually has better low-frequency performance specifications than the S4—a rarity for a center-channel speaker.
The Servo subwoofer uses a single, forward-firing, 15-inch cone driven by a 1200W amplifier capable of 4500W peaks. The magnet structure alone weighs more than 28 pounds, so it's surprising that the Servo's overall dimensions are so manageable and domestically agreeable. The Servo will accept single-ended RCA or balanced XLR connections. In addition to the usual controls for level, frequency cutoff (turned all the way up when connected to a processor with its own crossover), and variable phase (0–180), the Servo also has a Contour control, which varies from flat to a +6dB boost at 60Hz, and is designed to compensate for a room's partial null. If your null happens to be at 60Hz, you're all set. For $3200, I'd like to see at least a single-band parametric equalizer.
The Signature speakers are available in cherry, rosewood, piano black, or a stunning bird's-eye maple. In a home theater where front projection will be employed, however, you should carefully consider how much light the maple veneer will reflect back onto your screen and into your eyes in a darkened room.
Listening to Santana's second album, Abraxas (CD, Columbia/Legacy SBM 65490), I could not help but conjecture that Carlos would have loved the S4 speakers and Servo sub. The S4 is a fast speaker, not in the least challenged by transients, as proved by its reproduction of the powerful percussion on "Incident at Neshabar." Santana has a penchant for turning the treble on his guitar all the way up—he likes a sound that's crisp and clear, at least until it hits his grossly overdriven amps, which warm the tone. The Paradigm speakers would fit Carlos' requirements; they reproduced his guitar parts as lovingly as I've ever heard, with pulsating sustain and ringing harmonics intact.