Component Reviews

Paradigm 5.1 Monitor v.6 Series Surround Speaker Package

They will be missed when I have to return them - not because they sound better nor have the finesse of my $10K reference speaker system, but they never disappointed with my casual listening over the two months I’ve had them.

Published on February 12, 2009

Paradigm 5.1 Monitor v.6 Series Surround Speaker Package
Paradigm 5.1 Monitor v.6 Series Surround Speaker Package
SRP: $4020

Paradigm
MPO Box 2410
Niagara Falls, NY 14302
(905) 564-1994 (voice)
(905) 696-9479 (fax)


System includes:
1 pr Paradigm Monitor 9 Fronts

40.25” x 7.5” x 13.25” (HxWxD); 44 lbs each; 93 dB anechoic/96 dB in room sensitivity; 2.5-way system; 1” tweeter; 6.5” bass/mid; 2- 6.5” bass drivers; 5-year warranty; $1000 pair.

1 ea Paradigm CC-290 Center

7-13/16” x 26.75” x 11-7/16”; 32 lbs each; 91 dB anechoic/94 dB in room sensitivity; 3-way system; 1” tweeter; 4.5” midrange; 2- 6.5” bass drivers; 5-year warranty; $520 each.

1 pr Paradigm ADP-390 Surrounds
9-11/16 x 14 x 6 13/16; 13 lbs each; 87 dB anechoic/90 dB in room sensitivity; 3-way system; 2- 1” tweeters; 2- 4.5” midranges; 7.5” bass driver; 5-year warranty; $450 each.

1 ea Paradigm Ultracube 12 Subwoofer
15” x 14” x 14”; 36 lbs each; 1500 watts peak power/650 watts RMS power; 12” bass driver; 2- 10” passive radiators; adjustable cut-off from 40 Hz – 150 Hz; Phase adjustment from 0 to 180 degrees; 3-year warranty; $1200 each.

1 pr Paradigm J-29 Speaker Stands
29” stands; $400 pair.

Associated Equipment

Arcam AVR-350 Surround Receiver; Marantz BD7003 Blu-ray Player; Rotel RCC-1055 CD Changer; Audioquest cables.


Setup

Fronts.  I first unpacked the Monitor 9s.  They come with side supports that help to keep the speaker balanced and allow for a slight height increase.  Spikes that come along with the package thread into these supports and the manual states that they will improve the sound of the speaker.  I would have liked to have some threaded soft rubber feet (or pads), but there were none.  Aesthetically, the supports give the speaker a less boxy look although it makes them a bit wider (requiring more floor space).  The top, sides and back of the speaker are in a simulated wood finish (Wenge, Cherry, Rosenut, or Black Ash).  Unfortunately, you don’t really see much of this when seated right in front of them as the (black) grill covers 95% of the speaker.  It also sticks up slightly over the top and obscures the view of the top of the speaker.  The bottom is blocked by a black rounded plastic piece.  Paradigm should shorten the grill, remove the plastic piece (that makes the speaker look cheap) and show some wood!  If you want you can always remove the grill as long as foreign objects don’t strike the drivers.  (The tweeter is already somewhat covered by a plastic cover.)

After unpacking a component I always resist the urge to hook it up right away and take out the manual for a quick read-through.  The manual that came with the Monitor 9s was called OM-102 which is a generic manual for Monitor series front L/R speakers and center channels according to the subtitle.  You’ll have to determine which diagram is relevant to the speaker you just bought.  There is a setup diagram for setting distance and angling the speakers toward the listener is recommended.  Also, there are different options for wiring the speakers including bi-wiring and bi-amping options. 

The manual recommends eight or more inches from the back wall and as far away from the side walls as possible.  There is a chart for speaker gauge requirements based on length that should prove useful for the novice.  I hooked them up in the full-range configuration, but you should consider bi-wiring.  The manual states that this “can improve clarity and openness, with less grain and more solidity to the bass.”

 
Center.  The CC-290 center channel did come with rubber feet, so the speaker will be protected as well as the shelf upon which it sits.  The best position for the speaker is horizontal due to the tweeter array’s layout—also the grill will fall off due to its shape if you want to position it vertically  On my sample the grill did not fit snuggly on the right side—there was about 1/16” space between grill and cabinet that is reduced to nothing at the opposite side.  However, this is not visible from more than three feet away.  Rather than use magnets behind the cabinet in the corner like some speaker companies, Paradigm has the grill rest right on top of the screws that hold the drivers in.  Tolerances aren’t tight enough to allow a perfect fit every time, so a bad fit is a result in those instances and a conventional grill would be more secure. 

Although having the tweeter vertically arrayed should be a benefit sonically, having a 3-way speaker necessitates a more complex crossover.  Again it was necessary to search through the OM-102 manual and try to find recommendations on setup.  There isn’t all that much aside from keeping front speaker distances equal and ensuring the speakers are in the same plane and up front so that the sound doesn’t reflect unnecessarily off the shelf or the top of a TV.

Subwoofer.  The manual for the sub was called OM-100 although there is no indication that it is for subwoofers.  In fact, most of the diagrams in the first few pages relate to other speakers.  There are literally four pages of diagrams that are then referenced to in the pages following.  It took even a seasoned pro like me a few minutes to try and figure out what was being illustrated.  Paradigm needs some work on their manuals.  Once you are done wading through useless information you find yourself on page 10 where there is actual information about the subwoofer.  Since most of the information is general, the casual user will have difficulty figuring out which instructions apply to the Ultracube 12.

First of all, the sub does NOT have high level inputs and only has a single RCA line level input.  This will be of extreme importance to those who: a) don’t have a dedicated subwoofer output or b) have a stereo component with no preamplifier out or c) have a stereo component with no combined mono output.  If you don’t have a level-controlled line output then this sub is not for you.  If you have a stereo preamp/receiver/integrated amp then you will need a Y adapter if you don’t have any sort of mono level-controlled line output.

The sub utilizes a downward firing 12” woofer (and has feet that elevate it off the floor and are adjustable with an included wrench).  I used the subwoofer on medium thick carpeting with good results.  In addition there are two 10” radiators to the left and right.  Controls for phase (0-180), crossover (with a bypass) and level control are on the back.  There is no power switch.  When signal is applied the woofer will come on.  I bypassed the crossover (and used the internal receiver crossover), turned the volume to halfway (and used the internal receiver level adjustment) and had a friend help adjust phase.  The subwoofer was placed along the wall and not in the corner.  The manual suggests that this placement option “provides a good balance of quantity and accuracy” while the corner “provides the most bass, but sometimes at the expense of accuracy.”

The section relevant to this sub is on page 14 entitled “For Subwoofers that have a Sub./Sat. Phase Alignment Control.”  The steps listed should prove very useful for the listener to aid in setup.  In addition, there is a section on using multiple subwoofers on page 11 for those that want to go all out.  I set the crossover on the Arcam for 50 Hz and used the level adjustment on the receiver to match it up with the fronts.


Surrounds. 
The surrounds only come in black or white (which is usually fine considering most of the time people will mount the surrounds), but in my case I opted for stands.  The sub is gloss black (the only option), the surrounds were black and the front three speakers came in the Wenge finish.  The DSP line of subwoofers (which are bigger) do come in the Wenge.  I opted for the Ultracube because I think many people are looking for good bass from a small package.  If space isn’t a concern then I would look at the DSP subs.  They should be capable of even more low frequency output AND sell for less money than the Ultracube models.

The bracket included with the speakers is small and plastic, but if it is properly attached to the wall there should be no problem.  Also included are some small pads (some soft, some harder and in different sizes) to protect the bottom of the speaker or the surface they rest upon.  You could also use them on the back to protect the wall.  There is no way to physically attach the speakers to the stands, but they are fairly heavy (as are the stands), so I don’t imagine they would fall off without some effort.  After some thought, I decided to mount the speakers on the wall.  I would encourage those with that option to do the same (to not only save money), but to offer better sound as well.  On the stand the speakers only sit about 35 inches off the floor—great if you are the only one listening and position them exactly right  The ability to place the speakers at exactly the right angle and distance is an advantage for stand mounting.  However, the speakers mounted higher up on the wall (either side or back) will offer more flexibility with multiple listeners and in environments when setting a pair of stands out in the open and running speaker wire might be difficult.

Stands.  The J-29 stand is heavy duty and the base has a rounded front and a raised oval shape towards the back.  The front has a separate gun metal colored piece and the rest of the post (which is also oval shaped except for the front where it mates up with the smaller post) is black.  Without the spikes the stands are about 28 inches.  The top plate is square and measures 6” x 6”.  Although the stands are heavy, you can fill them with sand or lead shot to make them even more solid.  There is a cavity in the back for speaker wire to pass through freely though it may not be big enough to fit larger-sized speaker cable  I opted not to use them during the review process.

I let the speakers break in for several days with a variety of material.

Sound

Fronts. 
I auditioned the fronts separately so I could gauge their performance with stereo music.  I began with track 7, “Africano,” from the MFSL recording of Earth, Wind, & Fire’s Way of the World.  The flute with this recording sounded very nice and overall the highs had good extension with good depth and some pretty neat xylophone effects.  Bass was punchy but not super deep.  For theater use I would almost always recommend the use of a subwoofer.  The auditioning room was fairly large, so your mileage may vary.  If I had to distinguish the Monitor 9s from speakers that cost twice the price I’d say they lack the refinement and delicacy in comparison, but sound much better than you’d expect for their cost.  Clarity was good and the sound comes from behind the plane of the speakers (in part due to the sound characteristics) of the amplifier.  With most mass-market Chinese-made electronics I’d expect these to sound more forward and a brighter/harder/more congested.  The speakers are revealing enough to demand better electronics.

With the Muddy Waters recording “You Shook Me” from the Willie Dixon Box Set I found myself impressed with how the speakers handled this older recording.  The voice came right from the center (imaging was good).  At extreme volumes there was evidence of some compression/sloppiness to the sound, but nothing bothersome at normal (and even loud) levels.

With “The Sweet Escape” from Gwen Steffani’s album of the same name the soundstage was big and wide.  Dynamics were excellent, but the bass seemed to lag slightly behind the music although it was nice and punchy.  The 9s didn’t emphasize or deemphasize any particular range of sound across the bandwidth—which is quite rare at this price.  Imaging isn’t as good as more expensive speakers as there was more spread and less focus than the recording demands.

Switching gears I put on track 1, “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” from LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled record.  The sound was slightly reserved (although a change in equipment could have affected the presence and doing so might add too much to the high frequency range).  I cranked the volume and the speakers didn’t sound stressed which is a good sign for the home theater testing that would be coming up later.  The Monitor 9s definitely manage to elevate themselves from sounding “hi-fi” and retain the ability to concentrate on different instruments.

With some jazz—Nancy Wilson doing “Taking a Chance on Love” the speakers sounded very neutral.  Again, better focus and imaging and more three dimensionality can be had for a higher price.  There was an over-so-slight “mmmmm” added to the voice, but not great enough to be a problem.

Last up with the stereo-only listening came from “The Firebird” Finale (Stravinsky) on Deutsche Grammophon and Pierre Boulez conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call the sound sweet, but it was definitely not edgy or harsh.  This is where it would have been nice to have the sub in effect although at 2:06 and 2:15 these speakers did a respectable job (in the bass).  I enjoyed the piece through the Monitors.  Horns after 2:45 became a little strident (partly due to the recording).

Subwoofer.  Next I dialed in the subwoofer and balanced the system out with all the speakers.  I set the subwoofer at 50 Hz and I left the amp in the stereo + sub mode.  When I put on track 2, “Le Monde,” from The Thievery Corporation’s Mirror Conspiracy I had so much bass coming out of the woofer that the side of the equipment cabinet was vibrated loudly.  I had to stop and insert pads to keep the thin wood from interrupting the listening tests.

The addition of a good subwoofer ends up costing more than the price of the front speakers and for a very good reason.  When any low bass was present the system simply sounded better.  With the Steffani track the sound was even bigger and had more “oomph” while at the same time the bass blended naturally.  The classical piece was more exciting to listen to and there was a fullness that just wasn’t there when the subwoofer was not installed.

With the CARA test disc which was reviewed quite a while ago I used the bass test tones to get an idea of the capabilities of the Ultracube 12.  There was solid output (in my room) down to 25 Hz.  When the tone went to 20 Hz though the bass level dropped off dramatically.

With some music I felt I could tell where the sub was, but this was in part to rattling of the equipment cabinet.  Overall, I was very happy with its performance and if you want to get a complete Paradigm system yet keep the subwoofer size down without sacrificing output, the Ultracube is a reasonable choice.


Center.
  I used Chesky’s Ultimate Demonstration Disc track 3 to test center channel quality.  I toggled between the Arcam’s Pro-logic II Music mode and stereo and listened to changes in quality.  As you’d expect there was an improvement in overall space when the surround mode was engaged (due to the surround speakers activating), but soundstage width decreased.  This, of course, is an adjustment that can be corrected for inside the surround receiver.  There wasn’t a significant change in tonal quality however while going from the main speakers to the center channel which is the whole point.  The CC-290 is a bit sensitive to listening height, so if it is placed above or below the level of the listener, you’ll want to tilt it down or up accordingly.

I started the movie auditioning with chapters 22 and 28 from the film Big Night.  This movie has lots of great music mixed in with scenes of relative quiet.  Much of the film is dialogue dependent and although you can tell from the test tone that the center doesn’t match the fronts exactly it was never evident during the movie.

With the original film version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the THX intro was very impressive.  The beginning scenes with multiple newscasters announcing the arrival of the UFO were good tests for intelligibility and the CC-290 passed handily.  Throughout the rest of the movie watching there was never any indication that the center couldn’t keep up with the rest of the system, or that it wasn’t well matched with the other speakers.

Surrounds.  Surround speakers aren’t the easiest to evaluate.  If they are really bad then it is obvious when information goes towards the back.  However, in most circumstances, the surrounds shouldn’t call attention to themselves so it isn’t exactly easy to tell if a particular set is great or just average.  Since I did the break-in with them connected to the front speakers I could tell that they did in fact improve in sound over time.  I would never think to use them as fronts (unless you are a fan of Bose speakers), because they spread the sound around and made images fall to the back and sound indistinct.

With movie soundtrack material like that from the early scenes in Brotherhood of the Wolf and Se7en the surround effect was encompassing and integrated well with the other speakers.  The review system at the time utilized a 42-inch plasma and boy, did the picture seem small in comparison to the sound.  When I changed the film to Paycheck I found myself 30 minutes into the film before I realized I was supposed to be taking notes and working on the review.  This is a good thing.  My general experience with the Paradigms was that they didn’t stand out and call attention to themselves, but instead, let the listener enjoy the experience.

Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band Swingin’ For the Fences is aggressive with its use of the surround speakers.  Certain instruments are intentionally mixed in the rear and the listener is placed right in the middle of the excitement.  With “Yesterday” from the DTS version of Boyz II Men II there are voices in the surrounds as well as instruments.  When the voice was coming out of both speakers in the rear the sound just hung in the air above my head (not quite like a headphone effect, but similar).  With multichannel music material surround height and type becomes more important.  If music is the prime use for the surround system then I might suggest a direct-firing speaker instead of a dipole or bipole for its more pronounced directionality.  For everything else, the dipoles tend to improve spaciousness and are more effective for generally being “surrounded.”

Conclusion

Nothing can make the home movie experience more enjoyable than a good surround system.  Most people would not call a $4000 surround system a budget system; however, it is a tremendous value (even more so if you delete the stands at $400 for a total around $3600)  I might be somewhat biased as I own Paradigm speakers that provide music throughout my home, so I am very familiar with their sound (and have always thought them to be quite good), but in my many comparisons over the years with other speaker manufacturers I’ve always thought that the Paradigm speakers can hold their own. 

My aesthetic comments aside, the new Monitor speakers are good performers and should be seriously considered if shopping in this price range.  I will have to return these speakers to the manufacturer soon and they will be missed.  Not because they sound better nor have the finesse of my $10K reference speaker system, but they never disappointed with my casual listening over the two months I’ve had them for review.  The fact that I never had any major complaints or faults with the system points to an efficient, consistent, quality design.  Go have yourself a listen!

– Brian Bloom
big_brian_b@hotmail.com
 




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