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Manufacturer Report - A Tour of Paradigm and Sonic Frontiers Factories - July, 2001

Brian Florian

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Toronto's CN Tower - Worlds tallest 'Free Standing' Structure

Its 10:00am, Monday June 18th.  We're outside the Hotel Victoria, just a few minutes walk from Toronto's terrific waterfront skyline.   Mark Aling, Marketing Manager for the Paradigm group pulls up.  We load up the car and are off for a comprehensive look at a loudspeaker and audio electronics mogul.

Established in 1982, over its nearly 2 decades of existence, Paradigm has earned and defended a reputation as being one of the best values in consumer loudspeakers.  Currently, Paradigm offers no less than 59 models of loudspeakers and subwoofers between their two brands:  Paradigm and Paradigm Reference.

Like Kismet, in 1998, Paradigm crossed paths with another company whose drive was also heavily influenced by the word value: electronics manufacturer Sonic Frontiers and its more affordable label, Anthem.  Together, the companies have come to be known collectively as The Paradigm Group.

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Chassis stuffing and testing of a Sonic Frontiers Piece

We began our day at the new Sonic Frontiers location in Mississauga.  While some of Sonic's manufacturing has been moved to the Paradigm location, where it benefits from the existing infrastructure, here is where all the R&D, manufacturing, and testing of all the two channel and tube gear takes place.

Chris Jensen, one of Sonic's founders, meets us in the lobby.  Dressed in summer casual, Chris is a warm individual and an animated talker with a downright infectious enthusiasm for the industry.  We talk about Sonic's humble beginnings, how it rose to be the #1 supplier of tubes in North America, and the appeal of its hybrid tube/solid state products.  I have a couple questions to ask, but "we'll get to those at lunch" he tells me.  "I want to show you something . . . ."

He leads us into their new listening room.  It's not finished, yet but Chris points out the shape No two surfaces are 100% parallel.  While that is not the end of the acoustical treatments, I'm told it is a huge help.  In addition to the rack of all Sonic or Anthem equipment, there is a complete set of Paradigm Reference speakers (of course), and a Toshiba 16:9 rear-projector.

What we're here to see is their newest product, still being developed:  The AVM-20 pre-amp/processor.  "It's a computer," Chris declares, "with over 35,000 lines of code which we are continuing to refine".  It is a true power-house of features and possibilities, many of which feel so 'useful' it's scary.  It's like they jumped inside the everyday person and addressed the infinite wish list.  But this does not come at any sacrifice to audio quality.  The goal of the AVM is to be both a high-end preamp and a top notch surround sound processor.  Chris gives one example of the steps they take: "There are about 2,000 parts on the circuit boards in this piece.  Typically, designers let a computer figure out the ground path for all those parts.  It works, but we have found significant performance improvements when plotting the ground traces manually.  It takes a lot of time (more than 2 months on this piece), but it's worth it."

With his background in sales shinning through, Chris has us sold on requesting a unit for review.

Our next stop is Paradigm's new factory in Missasaga.  With 125,000 ft2 already in use, there is another 105,000 being added so that their old location can be closed and everything brought under one roof.

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MDF sheets, piled high!

After donning earplugs, we head for the woodshop.  And what a pile of wood there is!  Stacks of pre-laminated MDF dominate one corner of the cavernous space.  A speaker cabinet begins life here, where the pieces are first cut. A massive machine cuts out all the pieces to within 1/1000th of an inch.  Yes, we're talking about wood cuts as accurate as many metal machining facilities!

Next, the pieces move over to an even larger machine which does most of the routing, such as cutting out the holes for the speaker elements.  This isn't your high school woodshop.  We're talking industrial!  Precision is the watch word with everything being done using templates, and the pieces being held in place by an incredible vacuum force. 

The pieces move on to a cutter which carves the edges for locking joints, Paradigm's preference for bringing wood together.

This is where it really gets interesting.  Remember we said that the wood comes in pre-laminated?  At this point, V-cuts are made in the wood, leaving just 1% of the laminate's thickness at the notches.  A single piece then folds in three places, literally, to make a cabinet with 4 sides done.  What our photos below don't show is that, at the same time, the sides would be present and the main piece then folds around them, joining with the tight lock joints.  Wood glue is used on the joints, while some hot glue is applied inside to help keep it together while the glue sets.

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Single piece, ready for 'folding'

The same piece, folded, but without the sides

Of course, the assembly varies a little from model to model.  In the Performance line, it is the front and back that are separate pieces, and of course the Reference models all have extensive internal bracing (you can see the grooves for the braces in the above photo).

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Speaker drivers being attached to front baffle

Once the cabinets are complete, they come out of the woodshop and into the much quieter assembly area.  Here, they go through a methodical assembly line as woofers and tweeters are put in place, crossovers are wired in, and grilles are added.   Stretching the grille cloth over the wood frame is actually one of the most skill-requiring tasks in the process.  It is done by hand and needs to be the right tension, while the grain of the cloth needs to run straight.

Completed speakers are tested against a "key" product.  The response of the new speaker is measured against that of the key speaker.   It only has a 1 dB window from 20 to 20,000 Hz, and if at any point it is outside of this window, back it goes to the start of the line to see what went wrong.

Paradigm completes 1,500 individual speakers a day this way and stocks them in an enormous warehouse at this factory, or a similar one down in Buffalo, New York.

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A pair of Atom speakers are tested against the reference

Time for Lunch.

We meet up with Chris again and are joined by Scott Bagby, chief designer, and one of Paradigms founders.

When asked for his view on the state of the hi-fi industry, Chris is passionate:  "Education is key.  When someone rushes out and buys one of those $1,500 all-in-one-box-home-theaters at the chain stores, it hurts the hobby.   They'll enjoy it for awhile, renting movies every night for a month, but eventually their ears get tired of the distorted sound.  The next time they have money to spend, they won't look for an upgrade, they'll go buy a jet-ski."

Further, he says, "The type of specialty store we sell through, and good magazines like yours, are the most important teachers out there.  It's up to them to educate the consumer on what good sound really is.  Life is too short to listen to bad Hi-Fi.  For me, selling is not about making a buck on a $1,500 boxed-set and never seeing the customer again.  Sales is the transfer of enthusiasm.  When you reach that level of candidness, its a win-win situation:  The customer will enjoy real hi-fi and will be back for an upgrade the next time they want to treat themselves."

When I asked if they would ever look at doing manufacturing overseas to stay competitive, Chris was firm:  "Nope!  There are trade-offs when doing that, which we are not willing to live with, and the biggest being that you lose control and consistency."

Mark muses, "It's one challenge to make a good speaker.  It's a different challenge to make 10,000 which sound exactly the same."

Scott interjects, "That's why we make everything ourselves, from cabinets to crossovers, from speaker cones to voice coils".  I then ask him about their use of 2 1/2 way crossovers.

"We've been using it in the Reference line since we introduced it," he explains, "and we are now using it in some of the Monitor models".

"What are the trade-offs?" I ask.

"With a 2 1/2 way you can come very very close to a true 3 way in terms of dynamics and midrange clarity.  All things being equal, 3 way will still be better, BUT . . . back to what Mark said, it is much more difficult to build 10,000 3 ways which are identical.  2 1/2 way is that much easier to get right on the assembly line.

"On your center speakers, the front baffle is tilted back just a bit making the drivers fire up just a tiny bit.  Why do you do that?" I ask.

"We make speakers for the real world," he replies.  "Our final listening test and double-blind listening sessions are done in a normal room with normal living room furniture.  We first build a speaker which measures correct, but only put it to market if it sounds right. We know that people are going to put centers either above or below their TV, so we design the centers to be perfect just a little bit off-axis in the vertical plane.  So with the angle of the baffle, in 99% of the homes out there, our center will fire either right above or right below the listeners head, and sound its best.  It's just practical."

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Magnets being glued to the pole piece

"What about the off-axis combing of the horizontal d'Apolito?"

"We crossover the tweeter lower than most, and in the Reference/CC center speaker we do it at 1,500 Hz.  Combing does not become an issue until 45 degrees off axis horizontally.  I can't imagine someone seated farther than that off axis in a normal living room/home theater."

"Do you see the Canadian hi-fi consumer as different from say the US counterpart?" I ask.

"Oh yes," Chris chimes in.  "Canadians, at all levels, have less disposable income than their counterpart in the US.  This makes us much more sensitive to value for the dollar and is what drives us and Paradigm to deliver that value."

We finish our coffee and head off to the 'old' Paradigm factory. Though its functions will join everything else in the new location, for the time being all driver manufacturing and R&D still happens there.

Paradigm makes everything themselves, and I mean everything for their speakers, subwoofer amplifiers, and more recently, some of the Anthem stuff.

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Voice coils are carefully glued to the spider

They cast their own metal driver frames.  They mold ALL their own plastic, from the speaker cones to the little clips that hold the grilles on.  It's incredible.

As we stroll along, we see voice coils being turned.

"These are specially modified industrial sewing machines," Mark points out.  "We could buy voice coils for 8 cents each, but they are not consistent enough for us.  We turn ours to within 0 turns!"

Voice coils get leads attached and are glued to the spider.   This assembly gets glued into the driver chassis, and the cone, with its surround already glued on, finish the motor construction.  A precision robotic-type machine put the dust caps on.

"Most stuff at this stage is done by hand with jigs, and we get a very consistent product," Mark explains. "But for the dust caps, you want it to be right in the center, so the robot does it.  The machine is still manned by a person though."

Over in the electronics area, Mark shows us the impressive array of resistors, capacitors, inductors, and other such parts.  From here, 'master rolls' of parts are created.   That is, parts are selected in the reverse order they are needed during assembly, and rolled up in sequence.  When the roll is used to make, lets say, an amplifier, the right parts come off the roll in the right order.

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Making a master roll of electronics parts

Lots of bubbly chemicals surround us as we check out the circuit boards being made.  After the parts are put on, the board goes through a machine that passes it at just the right height over a pool of melted solder, making all the connections.  The amps are then tested.

"We get 0.7% failure on our amps at this stage,"  Mark proudly interjects.

Speaking of reliability, Mark shows us their spare parts room.  It's tiny.

"We can supply a part for any speaker we've ever made from this room.  As you can guess from its size, our stuff doesn't break much."

Into the inner sanctum we go:  Paradigm R&D.

Although a new anechoic room is being built at the new location, the one here is still in use.  Wedges of fiber 6 feet 8 inches in length are arranged on all four walls, floor, and ceiling.  The only place to go is a mesh cat walk to the center where the speaker being measured sits.  I cannot put into words the sensation you feel when you are in this room.  I feel dizzy, disoriented.  There is absolutely 100% no sound.   What was worse is when Mark started to talk.  There is 100% no reflection.   He sounds artificial.  I have a hard time localizing his position.  Then he pulls a trick on me and speaks with his back to me.  Even more bizarre.

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The "erie" anechoic room with its 6' 8" fiber wedges

This is where Paradigm does their 'total energy response' measurements on speaker designs.  They take a full range reading from every 15 degrees in both the horizontal and vertical plane and look at the speakers output as a whole.  Their design goal: as neutral a sound as possible.  Doug, one of the designers, shows us the proprietary software for taking the measurements, walking us through a basic design process.

"We measure the tweeter, then the woofer.  Then we use the software to simulate a crossover.  Then we try it in real life, and then we do it all over again."

He clicks franticly but with purpose as he 'builds' a crossover in the computer, selecting the type of crossover, which parts, and which values.  Then the computer updates the speaker's response.

"Oh man.  Would the Do-it-yourselfers ever like to get a hold of this," I joke.   Doug smiles.  "There are hardware keys on every machine we use this on," he states.  "It's going nowhere but in this room."

Even when Doug gets a design right, the prototype is taken to the infamous listening room that Scott was telling me about.  It's a 'normal' living room with the exception of an acoustically transparent cloth through the middle.  Here people listen to a new design against similar units, without knowing which are which, and score them with all sorts of attributes, the emphasis being on 'preference'.

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Doug demonstrates the ins and outs of speaker design

"Lets do a session," Mark declares.

Of course I'm game, but I have to tell you, when the talking stops and the music starts, it is a very exciting but stressful experience.  This is it:   My ears are on the line.  I have absolutely NO idea what is behind the curtain.   I do my best, picking #3 as my favorite.

I can't be told what was behind the curtain as the panel included one or more models in development.  I am relieved to find out from Doug that my answers were what he expected, consistent with others who had done this same listening test.  Glad to hear my ears are in good shape.

Our tour is at an end, and we have just enough time to catch up with Bill VanderMarel for supper before our flight home.  Bill is the head of AudioSteam, the branch of Paradigm that distributes the product in the US.  He is a terrific person, easy to talk to, interested in what everyone has to say.

"Did you get to do a listening test?" he asks.

"Not the usual one," Mark fills him in, "we actually had him listen to some stuff from R&D".

"Good," Bill says, "in some small way you've helped the design of a new speaker.  We do listening tests all day everyday, and after all these years, I still get that little adrenaline rush of apprehension when doing it."

"It's so important," he continues.  "If it doesn't sound right, it's not worth making.  And the smallest things which only make a tiny difference when measured can make a huge difference in the listening room.  I've seen where changing a voice coil by a single turn has been flushed out in the listening room."

My time at Paradigm has finally answered my long standing question:  How do they pack so much value into their speakers?

The answer: do it all yourself, do it right, and concentrate on making a consistent product.  It seems the folks at Paradigm have indeed figured out how to make 10,000 just like the first.

Cheers and happy listening gang!

- Brian Florian -

A big thanks to Mark, Chris, Scott, and Bill, as well as all the folks in the Paradigm Group for letting us waltz through their world.

Copyright 2001 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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