Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.

Paradigm has been around since 1982, and still designs and engineers all its loudspeakers in its headquarters just outside Toronto, Canada. The company can always be counted on to deliver high-quality products with good sound, at a variety of prices.

A long time ago, in need of a center-channel speaker for my home theater but in a pinch for time, I went out and picked up a Paradigm (I don’t remember the model). It performed admirably for many years. My parents still use, with no complaints, a budget Paradigm 5.1-channel speaker array I recommended for them years ago. It seems that Paradigm always manages to produce products that no one complains about, but perhaps not enough that people rave about.

Very recently, however, Paradigm has been making waves with their new, all-out assault on the high end: their Persona range of speakers, stereo pairs of which range in price from $7,000 to $35,000. These are on my list of dream speakers I’d love to hear. Here in the real world, real people who have to keep within real budgets must make tough decisions about which speakers they can afford to bring home. But here, too, Paradigm delivers, this time in the form of their four Monitor SE models, their lowest-priced line of conventional speakers: the three-way, five-driver Monitor SE 6000F tower ($898 USD/pair); the two-way 2000C center-channel ($199); the two-way Atom ($298/pair); and the subject of this review, the three-way, four-driver Monitor SE 3000F tower ($698/pair). But how much respectable sound quality can Paradigm squeeze from speakers designed to meet these low retail prices?

Paradigm

Description

The Monitor SE 3000F is a small floorstander measuring 39.5”H x 7”W x 10.2”D and weighing a back-pleasing 35 pounds -- something I appreciated when it came time to compare their sound with that of my Bowers & Wilkins 685 S1 minimonitors. The Paradigm is a three-way design with second-order crossovers at 800Hz and 3kHz. The two 5.5” woofers have mineral-filled polypropylene cones, as does the 5.5” midrange driver. The tweeter is a 1” aluminum dome, damped and cooled with ferrofluid and fitted with Paradigm’s proprietary Perforated Phase-Aligning (PPA) lens. Paradigm claims that the PPA lens acts as a refined phase plug, blocking a wide range of out-of-phase frequencies, to increase and smooth the output without coloring the sound. The 3000F’s specified on-axis frequency response is 55Hz-21kHz, ± 3dB; its sensitivity is 91dB in-room (88dB anechoic); its nominal impedance is 8 ohms; and its low-frequency extension is a claimed 44Hz.

The Monitor SE range is available in only two finishes: Matte Black or Gloss White. This seemed odd to me, but I suppose Paradigm had to make some difficult decisions to meet their retail-price targets, including limiting the buyer’s options. Whatever cosmetic corners Paradigm may have had to cut, none were obvious in my Gloss White review samples. Examining the 3000F from the front and sides, I saw a speaker that looks far more expensive than it is. Fit and finish were good, lines and corners were clean, and there were no bubbles or obvious scuffs in the finish. At this price I expected mitered corner joints, and sure enough, I found them around back. Examined from the rear, the 3000F is clearly a sub-$1000 tower speaker -- but who looks at a speaker from the rear?

Paradigm

Also on the rear of each speaker is a pair of quality five-way binding posts and a plastic-lined port. My only other minor complaint is about the 3000F’s black grille, which is not magnetically attached. If you choose to listen without the grilles, you’re faced with the unappealing sight of ten mounting holes on the speaker’s baffle.

Setup

The Monitor SE 3000Fs were well packed. In each box were an instruction manual, a grille, four floor spikes, and four hardwood-friendly rubber discs. The manual suggests placing the speakers so that they and the listening position form an equilateral triangle, and toed in so that their tweeter axes cross behind the listener’s head, with at least 8” between the rear of the cabinets and the wall behind them. I placed the 3000Fs in my usual spots for speakers: a 9’ equilateral triangle with my listening position, toed in 18°, with the backs of the speaker cabinets about 22” from the front wall. My listening room is relatively small (15’ x 12’), but it’s dedicated, sound isolated, and treated with broadband absorption at the first reflection points, and on the long wall behind the speakers.

To mate the 3000Fs with upstream gear of commensurate value, and in the name of simplicity, I eliminated most of my reference components from the signal chain. Using a Bluesound Node streamer as the source component and DAC, I connected it to an NAD C 316BEE integrated amplifier’s line-level inputs (RCA), in turn connected to the 3000Fs with homemade 12-gauge speaker cables with conductors of oxygen-free copper. The little NAD integrated, specified to output just 40Wpc, turned out to be more than up to the task -- it let me play the 3000Fs at earsplitting volume levels if I wanted to.

Sound

My very first impression of the Monitor SE 3000Fs’ sound was not favorable. They sounded boxy, a little bright, and bass shy. This turned out to be my fault. I hadn’t been able to resist giving them a quick listen as soon as I’d connected speakers to amp, and my review samples were brand new -- I learned the next morning, after having played music all night through them at a decent volume, that a new pair of 3000Fs requires some break-in. What I now heard was a completely different speaker: What had been bass shy the night before was now bass heavy for the Paradigm’s size; its midrange was smooth and detailed; and its top end was clean and extended, if still a little bright.

Wanting to first check out the 3000F’s bass response, I cued up “La La La,” from Sam Smith’s In the Lonely Hour (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Capitol). Although the 3000Fs are specified to reach down only to 44Hz, hardly the lowest extreme of the audioband (their woofers are only 5.5” in diameter, after all), the bass quality and output I heard in my room was quite satisfying. The 3000Fs managed to fill my room with tight, punchy bass, as well as pulsing, chair-cushion-massaging bass -- just what this track calls for. Using my miniDSP UMIK-1 calibrated measurement microphone, I measured the Paradigms’ in-room -3dB point (relative to 1kHz) as 37Hz -- quite respectable. But that measurement somewhat belies the bass performance I felt in my room. Although my B&W 685 S1s -- speakers I’ve used in my home theater for a while now -- measure slightly lower in the bass than the 3000Fs, there was no doubt that the Paradigms put out far more energy in the 40-80Hz octave, creating a fuller, more satisfying sound in the lower octaves (more on this later).

Paradigm

When I listened to the title track of Diana Krall’s The Look of Love (16/44.1 FLAC, Verve), the 3000Fs presented her voice with very good clarity, detail, and presence. The persistent brushed cymbals throughout the song had nice delicacy and airiness, and were easy to hear to the left of and behind the image of Krall’s voice. The 3000Fs also reproduced the bass with good accuracy, timing, and weight, laying a solid foundation for the entire performance. Minor complaints: I heard a bit of chestiness in Krall’s voice, perhaps a result of cabinet colorations -- I was subtly reminded that the sounds were emanating from boxes. Also with this track, the 3000Fs’ tweeters sounded a bit hot for my taste, making cymbals sound ever so slightly over-accentuated, and with occasionally unpleasant vocal sibilants at high volumes. The upside of the hot tweeter was a sense of more “air” in, for example, the upper ranges of voices, acoustic guitars, and cymbal crashes.

Next I wanted to try a cut with a lot of musical density -- or, to put it another way, some hard rock! “Bombtrack,” from Rage Against the Machine’s eponymous debut album (16/44.1 FLAC, Epic). What I heard was pretty solid. The 3000Fs reproduced the sound of the bass guitar at the beginning of this track with authority, and when the lead and rhythm guitars kick in, the whole sonic landscape was presented with great detail and rhythm, with all the layering of guitars preserved, and ample thump from the kick drum. The voices sounded a bit recessed, but that’s how this recording was mixed. I was able to play this very dense track fairly loud without obvious compression. What tempered my desire to turn it up too loud was, again, the tweeter, which was still a bit too hot: At high volumes, the cymbal crashes could sound somewhat grating.

Paradigm

Next up was “What a Good Boy,” from the Barenaked Ladies’ Gordon (16/44.1 FLAC, Sire). This excellent recording has wide dynamic range, and the 3000Fs didn’t disappoint. Steven Page’s voice was projected with detail, body, and intimacy, and imaged clearly above the speaker plane. There was a bit of chestiness in his voice, but to a far lesser degree than in Krall’s on her recording. The 3000Fs also re-created the sounds of the strummed and plucked guitars to left and right of Page with convincing realism, letting me easily focus on each instrument. And again, the foundation of lows laid by the 3000Fs made for exhilarating listening.

Paradigm vs. Bowers & Wilkins

Needing to conduct a realistic comparison, I had only two choices on hand: my reference Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2 speakers ($2500/pair), and my older B&W 685 S1s ($600/pair when available). Based on price alone, the more appropriate pairing with the Paradigm Monitor SE 3000Fs ($698/pair) was obvious.

I set the 685 S1s atop the B&W stands I used for my 705 S2s, and marked the speaker positions on the carpet with tape, to make placement and replacement accurately repeatable. I measured each pair of speakers’ sound-pressure level (SPL) output at the listening position using a 1kHz (-20dBFS) warble tone, and found that the 3000Fs were 0.5dB louder, meaning they were just a bit more sensitive than the B&Ws. Since the NAD C 316BEE integrated amp uses a good old-fashioned motorized potentiometer as a volume control, the only way to adjust the volume by 0.5dB for each comparison was to use the Bluesound Node’s built-in volume control. I found that one notch of the Node’s volume control represented a change in volume of 0.5dB -- perfect. So I listened to the B&Ws at full volume, while the Paradigms were evaluated with the Bluesound volume set one notch below maximum. With this scheme, I didn’t need to alter the NAD’s volume setting for each comparison.

Paradigm

Overall, I preferred listening to the Monitor SE 3000Fs. With most tracks, their increased bass response yielded a more pleasing listening experience. In addition to the four tracks mentioned above, I listened to three more. Of the seven, I preferred listening to the B&Ws with only two -- Krall’s cover of “The Look of Love”; and “Home,” from Michael Bublé’s It’s Time (16/44.1 FLAC, Reprise) -- and both for the same reason: the chestiness in these singers’ voices as reproduced by the 3000Fs was almost nonexistent through the 685 S1s. Bublé’s baritone and Krall’s sultry, throaty contralto both shone a spotlight on the 3000F’s upper-bass accentuation; this, coupled with the subtle cabinet colorations to be expected at this price, made the choice of the more transparent-sounding B&Ws fairly easy. The 685 S1s seemed to reproduce both voices with more air, palpability, and realism. With “Home,” the Paradigms also exhibited a bit more sibilance than the B&Ws, causing a little bit of irritation at high volumes. However, keep in mind that while the 3000F was a little hotter than the 685 S1 in the top end, the tweeter used in B&W’s current 606 model, which I reviewed last December, and in the 705 S2, which I currently own, is even hotter than what I heard from the 3000F.

I also listened through both speakers to “Good Enough,” from Sarah McLachlan’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (16/44.1 FLAC, Nettwerk/Arista/Sony Legacy). This was a different story. The Paradigm 3000Fs reproduced McLachlan’s voice with very nice presence and transparency, convincing me that she was in the room with me, and that the speakers were doing an admirable job of performing the much-sought “disappearing” act. I felt that the two speaker models’ reproductions of McLachlan’s voice through the midband were very close, but the 3000F’s ampler bass response made the overall sound feel warmer, fuller, more inviting. With this track, the Monitor SE 3000Fs got my vote.

Paradigm

Moving on to “Layla,” from Eric Clapton’s Clapton Chronicles (16/44.1 FLAC, Reprise), I gave the slight edge overall to the 3000Fs -- but it was a tough call. The 685 S1s’ midrange transparency was slightly better, both pianos and voices having more depth, detail, and delineation, which let me more easily distinguish each in the mix. And again, the 3000Fs reproduced Clapton’s voice with a bit of chestiness, reminding me that the music was coming out of a pair of boxes (though to a lesser degree than with Bublé’s “Home”). On this track, however, the 3000F’s slightly hotter tweeter was a clear advantage, reproducing the cymbal crashes with more attack, presence, and longer decays, but without over-accentuating of any of these. Last but not least, the 3000Fs’ reproduction of this track’s foundational drums and bass guitar was clearly superior, which made my overall listening experience more enjoyable than with the 685 S1s.

My conclusion for this comparison? Most of the time, I’d rather listen to the Paradigms.

Conclusion

By now, what I think of Paradigm’s Monitor SE 3000F loudspeakers should be obvious: They’re easily worth $698/pair -- and would be even if they looked only half as good as they do but retained the same quality of sound. Is it the right speaker for you and your budget? You should always, of course, listen before buying; here I’ll summarize why, if their price meets your budget, you should be sure to audition the 3000Fs.

Once the Monitor SE 3000Fs had broken in, I heard: an extended top end; a neutral, relatively detailed midrange; strong, ample, authoritative bass; and very good imaging. The 3000Fs are easy to drive, can be played loud without compression, and their attractive fit’n’finish make them look like speakers costing over $1000/pair. Pitted against a large B&W bookshelf speaker of similar price, the 685 S1 (ca. 2008), although retrieving slightly less midrange detail and displaying less transparency, the 3000Fs managed to put a wider smile on my face with most tracks I tested.

Paradigm

The Monitor SE 3000F wasn’t the last word in transparency; it could sound a bit chesty and boxy with lower-pitched voices; and its tweeter could be a little hot, accentuating sibilants at high volumes with some recordings. Of course, that last observation is subjective -- one person’s bright speaker can be another’s detailed, airy speaker.

Paradigm’s Monitor SE 3000F doesn’t overachieve in any single area, but for a $698/pair loudspeaker it also doesn’t do anything particularly wrong. It’s a solid, dependable speaker that, set up correctly, can give its owner a glimpse of true high-end sound for a mass-market price.

. . . Diego Estan
diego@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Speakers -- Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2 and 685 S1
  • Subwoofer -- SVS SB-4000
  • Power amplifier -- McIntosh Laboratory MC302
  • Integrated amplifier -- NAD C 316BEE
  • Preamplifier-DAC -- McIntosh Laboratory C47
  • Room correction EQ -- miniDSP DDRC-22 with Dirac Live (between digital sources and DAC)
  • Digital Sources -- Bluesound Node streamer, Rotel RCD-991 CD player
  • Analog sources -- Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Esprit with Ortofon 2M Red cartridge
  • Speaker cables -- homemade, with 12-gauge conductors of oxygen-free copper terminated with locking banana plugs
  • Analog interconnects -- AmazonBasics (RCA), Monoprice Premier balanced (XLR)
  • Digital interconnect -- AmazonBasics optical (TosLink)

Paradigm Monitor SE 3000F Loudspeakers
Price: $698 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Paradigm Electronics Inc.
205 Annagem Boulevard
Mississauga, Ontario L5T 2V1
Canada
Phone: (905) 564-1994

E-mail: orders@paradigm.com
Website: www.paradigm.com