Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
Paradigm’s Monitor SE Atom is one of the least expensive loudspeakers I’ve ever reviewed. At $298 USD per pair, the Canadian company’s entry-level model isn’t an aspirational product that someone will lust over for months, waffle back and forth about whether to buy, then pull the trigger on in a moment of weakness. These are speakers that almost everyone can afford, and that anyone can appreciate.
The Atom anchors Paradigm’s new entry-level range, the Monitor SE models. Accompanying the Atom are the 2000C center speaker ($199 each), 3000F floorstander ($698/pair), and line-leading 6000F floorstander ($898/pair). Noteworthy is Paradigm’s decision to make the 3000F and 6000F true three-way loudspeakers, with a 1” tweeter and 5.5” midrange driver married to two or three 5.5” woofers, respectively. That’s not a cost-conscious decision for an entry-level line of loudspeakers, but it pays very real dividends in midrange clarity and bass control.
Now in its eighth generation, and priced $100/pair less than its predecessor, the Atom’s recipe is a simple one: a generic-looking, two-way minimonitor with a 1” aluminum-dome tweeter and a 5.5” midrange-woofer in a squared-off, vinyl-clad cabinet -- no frills, gimmicks, or fancy features. The Atom is available in Gloss White, or the Matte Black of my review pair. The 12.8”H x 7.2”W x 11”D bass-reflex design has a port on the rear panel, where there is also a single pair of five-way binding posts that accept cables terminated with spades, banana plugs, or bare wire. The MDF cabinet is surprisingly well made, given the Atom’s modest entry fee, with no obvious seams or quality problems. The vinyl finish is admirably consistent, with no signs of peeling, nicks, or discoloration. While I’ve seen the Atom in Paradigm’s Gloss White only in photos, that finish’s contrasts of black and white pop in a way that the Matte Black doesn’t, and would definitely be my choice if I bought a pair. Rapping the 12-pound Atom with a knuckle yielded a predictably hollow, high-pitched resonance.
What the Atom lacks in heft and internal damping it more than makes up for in its driver complement. It uses Paradigm’s patented 1” X-PAL aluminum-dome tweeter and Perforated Phase-Aligning tweeter lens, just as are used in every model in Paradigm’s significantly more expensive Premier and Prestige lines. The motor structure of the Atom’s tweeter is a bit less robust and sophisticated than in those more expensive applications, but it’s still a terrific example of technology trickled down from more to less expensive model lines. Compared to the tweeter used in the previous Atom model, this 1” tweeter includes a high-quality neodymium magnet and is more efficient. The tweeter nestles in a shallow plastic waveguide on the Atom’s baffle, and is crossed over at 2.3kHz to the 5.5” polypropylene midrange-woofer (two of these are used in the matching 2000C center-channel), using second-order (12dB/octave) slopes. The midrange-woofer’s inverted dustcap and inverted rubber surround give it a “dished” look.
The Atom’s frequency response is specified as 61Hz-21kHz, ±3dB, with a low-frequency point (presumably -10dB) of 45Hz. Quality sub-50Hz output from a $298/pair of small monitors is remarkable. The speaker’s anechoic sensitivity is 86dB/W/m. Paradigm’s suggested range of amplification is 15-100Wpc -- while 15Wpc might work in a small room at moderate volume, I’d recommend a receiver or amplifier of at least 25Wpc or even 50Wpc, to be able to fully appreciate the Atom at high volumes.
The Atom comes with a five-year warranty, which is common practice for speakers from major manufacturers that retail for $1000/pair or more -- it’s nice to see Paradigm willing to stand behind one of their least expensive models for that long.
Setting up the Monitor SE Atoms was a breeze. They come with traditional plug-in grilles -- no magnets here, unfortunately -- but I opted against using them on aesthetic grounds, as I’m wont to do. I didn’t attach the included rubber feet -- instead, I perched the Atoms on my generic 24”-tall stands -- but the feet are a nice addition for those who might use the speakers on a desk, bureau, or bookshelf. I wired the Atoms to my Hegel Music Systems H360 integrated amplifier-DAC using DH Labs Q-10 Signature speaker cables. That’s $6000 worth of electronics and $360 worth of cables hooked up to a $298 pair of speakers -- no matter how you look at it, it’s a bit daft. But the Hegel and DH Labs cables are my reference gear, and I don’t believe that a system needs to be “balanced” in terms of cost. A good speaker will sound its best with high-quality partnering equipment, and I figured the Hegel would allow the affordable Paradigms to express themselves without being hamstrung in terms of power, distortion, or signal quality.
I placed the Atoms just shy of 5’ apart, 14” from the front wall of my listening room, and 7’ from my listening position. I’ve found that this farfield setup tends to work best for small stand-mounted speakers in my long, narrow room. I angled the Paradigms in until I could just see each speaker’s inner side panel, streamed some tunes from Tidal HiFi via my Hegel’s Apple AirPlay input and USB input courtesy a DH Labs Silversonic USB link, and was satisfied with what I heard.
There’s a reason that many manufacturers recommend “breaking in” their products for 50-100 hours. It has less to do with breaking in the equipment itself than with breaking in the listener. With each passing minute, hour, and day of listening to a new piece of gear, the listener’s ear-brain system further acclimates itself to the sound on offer; thus the new becomes normalized.
I experienced this when I replaced my reference bookshelf speakers, KEF LS50s ($1499.99/pair), with Paradigm’s Monitor SE Atoms. At first, all I heard were the ways in which the Paradigms couldn’t match the performance of the five-times-as-expensive KEFs. But as the hours of listening rolled by, I began to hear some of the Paradigms’ many virtues.
The first notion that any potential purchaser of the Atom needs to be disabused of is that the Atom is a lo-fi loudspeaker. All I had to do was throw on any well-recorded human voice and it became quickly apparent that Paradigm’s engineers are seasoned pros of affordable hi-fi. With “Crystalised,” from The xx’s eponymous debut album (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, XL/Tidal), I heard singers Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft neatly projected from, respectively, left and right of the soundstage. There was no hint of boxiness or midrange congestion in either singer’s voice, nor did I hear any laziness or flab in the bass line. Even the mildly reverb’d guitar melody that begins the track was clear and concise, with a spot-on timbre, and no sign of softness or ambiguity. In fact, the Atom’s top-to-bottom coherence was almost baffling for the price. The order of the day in hi-fi, affordable or cost-no-object, is primum non nocere -- do no harm. Hippocrates would approve of Paradigm’s creation.
“Renegades of Funk,” from Rage Against the Machine’s Renegades (16/44.1 FLAC, BMG/Tidal), is a fantastic cover of Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force’s 1983 single, highlighted by up-tempo drum work from Brad Wilk. What the Atoms gave up in overall transparency -- remember, $298/pair! -- they made up for in neutrality. From Zack de la Rocha’s impassioned singing at the center of the soundstage, to the attack and decay of Wilk’s snare drum and his kick drums alternatively punching through the left and right channels, nothing was accentuated -- the track just sounded natural. De la Rocha’s voice sounded detailed and slightly forward, and the kick drums had genuine weight. I rocked out to this track, my enjoyment rising in lockstep with my Hegel’s volume dial. Up to my wife’s “PLEASE TURN THAT DOWN!” volume, the Paradigms remained composed -- but at extreme volumes, they got a bit shouty at the top end. Turns out these little guys had limits after all.
Playing the title track of Amy Winehouse’s Grammy-nominated Back to Black (24/96 MQA, Universal/Tidal), I learned that the little Paradigm’s tweeter is a bit of a knockout. The shimmering tambourine that punctuates the opening passage immediately caught my ear with its clarity and air. It also sounded commendably clean, with no hashiness or brittleness to speak of. I’ve heard many Paradigm speakers over the years, and have come to think of the company’s house sound as being fairly neutral, with a lively top end. But from the SE Atoms I heard only smooth, clean extension -- nothing more, nothing less. Beyond that, the kick drum had convincing weight, Winehouse’s voice was full yet well defined, and, most important, I was engaged with the music.
Six years ago, I reviewed Aperion Audio’s Intimus 5T tower loudspeaker, which at the time retailed for $790/pair. I vividly recall feeling underwhelmed by the speaker’s sound. The slender two-and-a-half-way design should have had some decent upper bass, and in my old loft-style apartment, where I’d placed them almost 2’ out from my living room’s front wall, they should have sounded big. But they didn’t. Everything sounded flat and two-dimensional, with gutless bass, and what sounded like a thin, silky haze layered over the sound. For the record, Aperion knows how to design a loudspeaker. They may not have hit the Intimus 5T out of the park, but I’ve been impressed by their more expensive models. But for less than half the 5T’s price, the little Paradigms offered more punch through the upper bass, greater midrange clarity, and far more refined highs than the Aperion towers. That’s quite an achievement for a truly budget minimonitor.
Let’s talk bass. Designing a bookshelf speaker with flat frequency response below 150Hz (relative to the midband) is something of a criminal offense: The speaker will inevitably sound thin and lightweight. But engineer a bump of 1-2dB between 80 and 100Hz into that speaker’s FR and it suddenly sounds bigger, more robust. This is the delicate balance and inverse relationship of bass extension -- how low a bass frequency a speaker can effectively reproduce -- and bass control: does an electronic bass line sound taut, or like a flabby mess? With its newest iteration of the Atom, Paradigm has flexed its know-how and made a minimonitor that can meaningfully reproduce bass down to about 50Hz without falling over itself.
Many a two-way speaker is flummoxed by the lovely bass line that serves as the foundation of the infectious single “Hip-Hop,” from Dead Prez’s Let’s Get Free (16/44.1 FLAC, Epic/Tidal). Miss it, and the song fails to launch. Overcook it, and it overshadows the provocative lyrics. The Paradigms’ handling of the synthesized bass melody wasn’t as well controlled as through my KEF LS50s -- which, remember, cost five times their price -- but I was surprised that the Atoms were able to play just as deeply as the LS50s, bookshelf speakers that are actually renowned for their bass capabilities. I wasn’t looking for the hidden subwoofer in my listening room, but I wasn’t pining for one, either. Moreover, the Atoms’ bottom end was well integrated with the midrange and highs -- in other words, the Paradigms’ sound was consistent throughout the audioband. Nothing stood out, nothing called attention to itself by being too much or too little. For the money, this speaker has an extremely well-balanced sound.
For a grand finale, I cued up one of my guilty pleasures from the last five years: “Of the Night,” from Bastille’s All This Bad Blood (16/44.1 FLAC, Virgin/Tidal). The track is a mashup of two Eurotrash songs from the early 1990s: Snap!’s “Rhythm Is a Dancer” and Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night.” As I played the first 45 seconds again and again, I shook my head in disbelief. First there was the tinkling of the glockenspiel, which exhibited far more air and sparkle than I was expecting. And I was understanding, with profound ease, every syllable sung by Dan Smith. How was there no smearing of the stereo image, no murkiness of low-level detail? Finally, how was it that anything even remotely resembling a bona fide soundstage was being produced? Far from mere center fill between the channels, requiring the listener to go spelunking to determine where each voice or instrument was placed in the recording, I had little difficulty hearing the small spatial differences among the positions of individual bars on the glockenspiel, even when I leaned back and forth in my listening seat. The Atoms produced a fairly broad sweet spot, which suggests excellent off-axis response.
The highest compliment I can pay Paradigm’s Monitor SE Atom is that I was unable to hear in its sound a single concession made to meet its low price point. The company’s engineers no doubt fretted over where to allocate precious Canadian dollars and cents in its design, and surely had to make compromises somewhere. Yet the Atom’s sound is so well balanced that I’d find it difficult to close my eyes and conclude that I was hearing a pair of minimonitors retailing for under $300/pair. Its overachieving high end is every bit as impressive as its supple and articulate midrange. Then there’s that healthy dollop of bass extension down to about 50Hz. Nor does it look half bad, and its Gloss White finish is particularly tasty.
Paradigm’s new Monitor SE Atom is all about maximizing sound quality and value -- a no-brainer that anyone can appreciate.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers -- KEF LS50 and R700, Technics SB-G90
- Earphones and headphones -- NAD Viso HP50, PSB M4U 4
- Integrated amplifier-DAC -- Hegel Music Systems H360
- Digital-to-analog converter -- Hegel Music Systems HD30
- DAC-headphone amplifier -- Oppo Digital HA-2SE
- Sources -- Apple MacBook Pro running Tidal and iTunes
- Speaker cables -- DH Labs Q-10 Signature, Dynamique Audio Caparo
- Analog interconnects -- Dynamique Audio Shadow RCA, Nordost Blue Heaven LS XLR
- Digital link -- DH Labs Silversonic USB
- Power conditioner -- Emotiva CMX-2
Paradigm Monitor SE Atom Loudspeakers
Price: $298 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Paradigm Electronics, Inc.
205 Annagem Boulevard
Mississauga, Ontario L5T 2V1
Phone: (905) 696-2868