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Product Review - Paradigm 90P and Monitor 11 Speakers - July, 2001

Colin Miller and Brian Florian


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Paradigm Monitor 90P Speakers

3-Way Semi-Active Speakers

One 1" PTD (Pure Titanium Dome) Tweeter

One 6-1/2" ICP (Injection-Molded Co-Polymer) midrange

Three 8" Mineral Filled Polypropylene Woofers

Crossover (Tweeter to Midrange):  3rd Order @ 2 kHz

Crossover (Midrange to Woofers): 3rd Order @ 150 Hz

Subwoofer Active Low-Pass @ 180 Hz

Subwoofer Amplifier: 175watts RMS/525 Watts Dynamic.

Size45.5" H x 9.187" W x 16.375" D

Weight:  81 Pounds Each

MSRP$1699/Pair US - $2100/Pair CAN

 

Paradigm Monitor 11 Speakers

2-1/2 Way Vented Speakers

One 1" PTD (Pure Titanium Dome) Tweeter

One 6-1/2" ICP (Injection-Molded Co-Polymer) Mid-Bass Driver

Three 6-1/2" Mineral Filled Polypropylene Bass Drivers

Crossover (Tweeter to Mid/Bass) 3rd order @ 2kHz

Lowpass (Bass Drivers): 2nd Order @ 600Hz

Size: 43.5" H x 7.625" W x 14.375" D

Weight: 52 Pounds Each

MSRP$999/Pair US - $1250/Pair CAN

 

Paradigm Electronics, 101 Hanlan Road, Woodridge, Ontario, CANADA L4L 3P5; Phone 905-850-2889; Fax 905-850-2960; E-Mail usdlr@audiostream.com;  Web http://www.paradigm.ca/

Introduction

I’ve come to agree with my mother. I AM very special. I say this not out of vanity, but out of simple statistics. At a time in my life when thirteen life forms resided at our address, six of which had both arms, legs, and presumably a brain, out of all of us, only I could take the trash out to the designated receptacle. I built on that feat by pulling that receptacle to the curb every Wednesday, or almost every Wednesday. A couple of the goldfish have the initiative, though, because the lack of opposing thumbs really put them out of the race.

When it seems difficult to find people capable of following direction, let alone synthesizing their own, and up to page 1022 of Ayn Rand’s "Atlas Shrugged", I’ve come to the shared conclusion that the lack of either ability or initiative is not abnormal for, or a phenomenon of, human beings, but perhaps even a necessary condition. After all, not everyone can be great at something, even if it’s as simple as moving a bit of trash on a weekly basis. If the probability of success cannot justify the risk of failure, it may seem better not to really try, but rather do just enough to get by and complain about how opportunity isn’t fair. Or, with just a little more confidence, perhaps a soul could sell a passing success, or less, as a brilliant triumph. Sometimes this seems to work very well, in the short-term.

Witness, for example, the marketing that convinces women young and less young that they’d be more attractive built like prepubescent boys, and convinces boys that drinking enough alcohol to stagger around in public like morons will get them a date with that cutie in trig class, or for that matter, gets politicians who don’t seem to get anything in particular done elected over and over.

But, while greatness is often rooted in selfish dedication to a task, selfish in that the drive usually exists more for itself than to meet some outside measure, it must, almost by necessity, be personally motivated. Otherwise, mediocrity would overwhelm the world merely through the power of popular opinion.  It sometimes appears just that way.

For instance, if you randomly selected thirty people walking down a given street in the United States (not at CES), and asked him or her to suggest five brands of speakers to consider for good sound quality at a price that most gainfully employed people could fit into their budget, chances are slim that you’d ever hear the name Paradigm. You would hear names of companies that spent an unholy proportion of their operating budget on marketing, or really big companies that by sheer size have the marketing muscle to make good on that route.

Were you to do the same among individuals experienced with, and fairly knowledgeable about, high-performance loudspeakers, the omission of the name Paradigm would almost be grounds enough for excluding the individual from the sample group on the basis of failing to meet the qualification criteria. In other words, if you don’t know the name Paradigm, you’re probably new to the world of high-performance loudspeakers.

Paradigm, a company of unabashed Canadians that have consistently and incorrigibly been producing high-performance loudspeakers at reasonable prices for some time, have succeeded in the leaner, more fickle market of serious audio enthusiasts because of it, and have done so over the long haul as opposed to simply riding a trend of enthusiasm generated by pandering audio critics, eager to "discover" the next hot item.

As a part-time audio critic myself (Colin Miller), I prefer to think that truly good products don’t succeed in product reviews because a critic is gracious enough to endorse it, but because the product’s virtues beat the critic into submission so far as to force the truth. In keeping with that line of thought, Paradigm’s been a bruiser.

The Monitor 90P, though not entirely standard fare, holds true to Paradigm’s philosophy in terms of innovation and value. Summed up by an axiom by Brian Florian, "For a given price, Paradigm gives you more.  For a given performance level, Paradigm costs less."

Reading Paradigm reviews (in other publications) is almost boring. "They’ve done it again!" "Fantastic!" Blah, blah, blah. I’ll save you the filler between the beginning and the point, and let you know that the 90P’s and the 11's do indeed sound good. They sound great. If you’ve already got some, and ran across this review after a search for reassurance on your purchase, be reassured- your choice has been endorsed by yet another self-appointed expert. Go listen. Gossip later. I’m not going to wax on or wax off just yet Mr. Miyagi.

The Monitor 90P Speakers (by Colin Miller)

The Whole Story, or the Beginning Anyway . . .

At CES, when Brian Florian introduced me to Mark Aling, one of Paradigms movers and shakers, and more importantly, someone similarly obsessed with sound reproduction, Brian subtly suggested to me, in front of Mark, "You should review these," pointing to the sleek, driver-laden towers that were the 90Ps. That Brian’s pretty sneaky, so if any of you happen to be in his neck of Canada, be warned, he’s a wolf in woman’s clothing!

Coming Home

From that union, a pair of tall babes arrived on my front porch a few months later.

The session that followed imparted not only moments of hedonistic satisfaction, but points of intellectual discussion. A few elements of design, though not ground-breaking or controversial, carried enough cleverness in their integration to merit discussion. Besides, that’s what I like, and I’m driving.

The cabinet, though very well-constructed, is very much typical for loudspeakers costing slightly more than the 90P, with the exception that the veneer isn’t really wood, but an artificial facsimile. The cherry-like finish that covers the samples Paradigm sent looks very nice, but if you look closely, you can tell that it’s not real wood. Personally, I don’t really care considering the price and what you get in addition to the veneer. The box is solid, the look is attractive, and the fit and build don’t leave much, if anything, to desire.

The Monitor 90P loudspeakers are not the first slim tower-style full-range loudspeaker to use "powered" woofers, but I would say that it offers one of the better implementations of the technique. Where some have used powered woofers to simply apply more deep bass response, Paradigm has intelligently incorporated built-in amplifiers and other techniques to yield better bass response.

Let’s Talk Shop

A sensible tangent to entertain, at this point, is what exactly powered woofers mean to you and me, the end user. In the 90P, the tower essentially operates as a 3-way loudspeaker. With speaker level inputs, a 1" metal-dome tweeter, a 6" midrange/mid-bass driver, and count ’em, three beautiful 8" low-frequency transducers, or woofers for you cool cats who speak the lingo, the front baffle hosts enough drivers for quite a party. There are a few other knobs and hook’em ups to talk about later, but for this side step, the most relevant extra the 90P has hanging off it compared to a conventional passive speaker is a power cord, which is, of course, wired into an amplifier spec’d at 175 Watts continuously, boasting 525 watts for short duration.

And let’s just have a quick talk about that power cord. I’ve heard people whine about power cords as one extra hassle to deal with, which require a nearby receptacle. Extension cords anyone? Run them next to the speaker wire if need be. If you’re worried about picking up noise on a loudspeaker cable, either you or your system has much greater problems than running that combination together could ever hope to cause. Low impedance (source and destination) and high signal levels means very little noise pickup on a speaker-level cable, such that any noise induced will be drowned out by the rest of the system’s noise floor, even if that noise floor is exceptionally low.

So, like a "regular" speaker, the 90P takes a full-range signal from some sort of power-amplifier, or directly from a receiver, a signal that could hopefully drive an entire loudspeaker just by itself. However, while the passive crossover divides the frequency spectrum between the midrange/mid-bass driver, just like a completely passive loudspeaker, the crossover between the woofers and midrange/mid-bass is somewhat of a mix between an active and passive design. A combination of passive crossover components and the natural roll-off of the driver, form the high-pass section of the crossover, in essence filtering out lower frequencies from passing through the driver. The low-pass section that feeds the woofers, though, is a bit different.

The active electronics for the built-in amplifier that feeds the woofers taps the full-range signal, but only draws a minute fraction of power in the information exchange, essentially invisible to the power amplifier preceding it. That input section then steps down the voltage through a resistor network before it hits the active (or line-level) crossover preceding the amplifier stage, which in turn filters out the higher frequencies before the signal then goes to any EQ used for response tailoring. After that, it goes to the power amplifier, which then feeds the woofers directly, without any crossover components between the amplifier and woofers to speak of, as opposed to a conventional speaker in which the amplifier would have to go through or around inductors, capacitors, and possibly even resistors before getting to the woofers. (I now pause to take a deep breath.)

This whole process might seem a little redundant. Amplify the signal, then step it back down near line-level, only to amplify it again. It is a little redundant, truth be told, but there are benefits to this method.

The first to mention would be the aforementioned response tailoring. Loudspeaker engineers regularly use response tailoring, even with passive loudspeakers. In passive loudspeakers, though, the engineers are limited by the use of passive electronics. Active EQ is not only easier to apply, but offers greater precision for tweaking driver response. EQ gets a really bad rap in high-end audio, partly because the industry is infested with misguided idealists who place more stock in the idea of purity than the reality of performance. While there is a lot of concern about the phase shifts caused by EQ, these phase shifts, when resulting from a minimum phase EQ circuit, are analogous to phase shifts induced by loudspeaker drivers, be they dynamic, ribbon, or electrostatic, when frequency response deviates from flat. An interesting facet is that if the frequency response of two minimum phase devices (an EQ circuit and a loudspeaker driver) sums flat, so does the phase response. In other words, a driver equipped with a specific, complementary EQ curve preceding it will perform better in all regards than a raw driver alone.

Besides, in the specific case of a loudspeaker with powered woofers, the EQ and active crossover are only in line with the amplifier driving the woofers, and not the midrange or treble drivers, so as to not antagonize our more fragile comrades less tolerant of "extra" electronics in the most audible range. More importantly, EQ allows the speaker designer to get more bass extension by selectively channeling more power into frequencies where the loudspeaker would otherwise roll-off, getting deeper bass in less space without sacrificing efficiency over the entire band of the woofer.

Secondly, because a dedicated amplifier drives the woofers exclusively, the loudspeaker designer can allow the midrange/tweeter combination to work at their most efficient level. Usually, because of the classic trade-off of efficiency vs. bass extension vs. cabinet size, woofers generally sacrifice efficiency for bass extension in a limited enclosure volume. In a passive loudspeaker, all drivers must, or at least should, operate at the same voltage sensitivity - that is, have the same SPL output level given same input (voltage) level, within their respective frequency ranges. Therefore, it is often the case that the passive crossover must "pad down" the signal provided by the amplifier with resistor networks before it reaches the higher frequency drivers, wasting power. Because of that, a passive loudspeaker often operates less efficiently than its midrange and treble drivers would allow in order to match output levels with the less efficient woofer. Using powered woofers allow the midrange and treble drivers to operate with only each other as a limiting factor, requiring less attenuation, if any, while the woofers can match their output level by simply making up the difference with a gain adjustment of their own amplifier. As a result, the main amplifier driving the whole system "sees" a system with greater sensitivity, meaning a lower voltage level requirements for a given SPL, and if the impedance seen by the amplifier is more or less equal, greater efficiency. When it comes to the Monitor 90P, the spec’d voltage sensitivity of 95 dB (standard rating is @2.83 Volts and @ 1 M) is quite high for a relatively compact tower with such good low-frequency extension, demonstrating that benefit.  Bottom line is greater dynamic range from the system as a whole and lower distortion from your own amplifier at a given output level.

Thirdly, while the crossover between the woofer and midrange/mid-bass isn’t truly active so far as the main power amplifier is concerned, which must swing voltage across the entire frequency range, just as if it were driving a passive loudspeaker system, the loudspeaker engineer can tailor the impedance below the lowest range of the mid-bass/midrange to rise as frequency falls. Benefit? Though nowhere near the alleviation that amp would get if it were preceded by a relatively mild 2nd order filter before amplification, which would attenuate power requirements at 12 dB per octave, even if the amplifier driving the speaker must provide signal content to 20 Hz and below, the actual power draw at a given input level falls with the rising impedance, and the power supply of the main power amp takes a bit of a break. Because the load still requires the voltage swing, and the rise of the impedance begins to double as frequency halves, what we’re looking at, in terms of power saving, is a relatively modest 3 dB per octave. It's not nearly as beneficial as if the high-pass were completely active, but it keeps more current for the rest of the reproductive range on tap, promotes the amplifier’s ability to remain stable with real musical material, possibly lowers distortion, and marginally improves dynamic range of the amp, particularly if that amp is borderline in terms of current delivery to begin with, like many receivers.

Summary of the above three points in case you want to get back to your sandwich . . . Paradigm does it right.

You can see the low-frequency "current relief" we’re talking about illustrated in the impedance curve of the Monitor 90P, shown below. The two peaks in the plot indicate the effects of the driver suspension resonance and/or the reactive portion of the passive crossover components. The peak near 2 kHz is likely a combination of the crossover and tweeter suspension resonance, and likewise the peak at 200 Hz is probably exclusive to the midrange itself. The crossover point specified for the woofers is 180 Hz, which falls more or less in line with what we see reflected from the midrange just below 200 Hz.  Given that drivers often have substantial output below their low-end resonance, the specified 150 Hz lower-end bandwidth limit of the midrange seems plausible.

Anyway . . .

Aside from the peaks at roughly 200 Hz and 2 kHz, the impedance steadily rises below 100 Hz, so that while much of the load sits below 8 ohms, dipping to a minimum of just under 4 ohms around 400 Hz and similarly near 150 Hz, from 100 Hz down to 20 Hz, the impedance rises from roughly 4 ohms to 29 ohms.

What does that mean to the end user? Were an amplifier required to apply a signal level of 20 volts RMS into 4 ohms, the load would require 5 amps of current, resulting in 100 watts of power consumption. At an impedance of 29 ohms, the current draw would drop to 0.69 amps, consuming only 13.8 apparent watts.

(Note for the nitpicks: Since the load is reactive at 20 Hz, with 29 ohms in this particular instance, in that it is almost completely capacitive, there is little power dissipation at the loudspeaker itself, technically speaking. Even though the amplifier is driving current through the speaker by applying voltage, the phase shift induced between the current and voltage negates the power dissipation, so that the amplifier itself must dissipate that power.)

But wait, there’s MORE!

As previously mentioned, the design is a 3-way, which means not only woofers, but midrange and tweeter drivers. The midrange itself doesn’t look extraordinary as a clear polypropylene cone with a rubber surround. But, then again, a driver doesn’t have to look exotic to perform well. Some of the best drivers available look pretty mundane. The polypropylene, a generic term meaning "fancy plastic," comes in many formulations.  Paradigm has their own, but generally speaking, it may be designed easily for a well-damped, controlled flexure, contributing to wider dispersion of frequencies on its top band, without much in terms of audible cone break-up. The rubber (as opposed to foam or textile material) surround further improves cone damping to reduce coloration.

The tweeter is of the metal-dome variety. Metal domes tend to be very stiff, eliminating breakup through much of their range, but also tend to ring near the top of their bandwidth (metal domes are essentially bells).  The trick in a good metal dome is to somehow damp that ringing, push the dome resonance far above the audible range, or both.  I think Paradigm did a fine job either way, because the treble didn’t sizzle or sear anywhere near as much as some metal-dome tweeters I've had the discomfort to meet.

And Yet Even MORE!

And how does one turn on those wonderful built-in amplifiers? Well, we’ve got two options. Either leave them on and finance your favorite special interest group (that's our Energy Shortage Joke of the Day), or set the switch on the back to "Auto turn-on." In the past, many signal-sensing turn-on schemes have proved more annoying than convenient. The signal level drops below the trigger level for a span of time during a quiet part of the movie, and the amps turn off, then kick on again. This can be particularly problematic with powered subwoofers, where simply a lack of low bass for a few minutes can shut off the bottom end, only to have it suddenly roaring back, a few seconds late. Such isn’t the case with the 90Ps. They turned on immediately, even at low-levels, regardless of the presence of low-bass information, and never turned off until a good time after I had shut down the entire audio system.

By itself, the front of the Monitor 90P impresses visually. Perhaps it’s a guy thing, to just stare and say, "Mmmm, look at those drivers." Most noticeable of the array were the three little woofs. While a single 8" woofer is often under-gunned for the task of deep bass at reasonable levels, three 8" woofers offer almost as much surface area as a single 15" woofer. And, when those woofers pooling their efforts possess any reasonable excursion range, they can sport substantial low frequency output capability. Considering that you’ll most likely have a second set in the room, accompanying the second half of the pair of speakers, prospects for the bottom octave get very good indeed. Results for in-room response will vary widely with the room, but the 90Ps performed as promised in my room.

To Port, or Not to Port . . .

These three bass drivers load an "aperiodic" port. Like a simple bass-reflex ported enclosure, the "aperiodic" port loads the drivers at a tuned frequency, transferring that energy through the port, limiting the excursion requirements of the drivers at and above the tuned frequency, thus lowering distortion, increasing potential low frequency output levels, and increases the low-frequency extension of the alignment. Seem like a pretty good deal? It can be.

Bass-reflex systems in general, though, carry significant design compromises. The more complex alignment makes consistent results more difficult due to very real and common differences in manufacturing tolerances. Performance parameters may be less consistent with output levels due to the increased sensitivity to shifting driver parameters resulting from temporary mechanical changes in the suspension and electrical changes due to heating of the voice coils, both of which occur during operation. Transient response, in bass-reflex designs, usually suffers at the low frequency cut-off, and that roll-off is more severe than an equivalent sealed system. Because of this, and the fact that the whole chain depends on blowing air through a tube that can cause turbulence to boot , the port, if not very carefully managed, can add a sonic character of its own (commonly called "chuffing"), detracting from performance as much as, or more than, benefiting it. 

Paradigm took pains to ensure that the 90P would not fall prey to the most common pitfalls of ported alignments.

Looking deeper into the rear port from the outside reveals that ports flange not only on the outer end to reduce the possibility of distracting turbulence, or port chuffing, but on the inner end as well, covering that base from both ends.

In the actual design of the reflex system, Paradigm took the road less traveled by, and used the "aperiodic" method. "Aperiodic" means literally, without period, or inversely, without cycle. It’s not accurate to say that it’s not tuned to a specific frequency, but rather, not tuned very sharply compared to a standard ported system. With an "aperiodic" system, the bass-reflex system is damped quite a bit, so that the system acts somewhat like a hybrid between a sealed and ported enclosure, yielding better extension and efficiency than an equivalent sealed system, yet still provides better transient response, frequency response, consistency, and dynamic linearity than an equivalent conventional ported system.

Comparing the inside of the cabinet of the 90P to the more conventional bass-reflex approach illustrates how the "aperiodic" method differs from the standard bass-reflex system. In a standard bass-reflex system, the port or passive radiator generally has a clear shot, more or less, to the active woofers so that the air coupling the resonant systems can maximize energy transfer with minimal loss. Damping material usually stays to the side of the cabinets, so that the reflex system and the active system can directly "see" each other. As a result, as the frequency of the active driver approaches to tuned frequency of the reflex system, the port sees a lot of air pass through it with relatively little motion from the active driver.

In the "aperiodic" system as implemented in the 90P’s, damping material sits directly behind the drivers, immediately damping not only the driver movement, but the back wave that would drive the reflex system as well. The effect is then further damped by cabinet bracing that also acts to not only reduce cabinet coloration, but also to limit the airflow of the reflex system. End result? A design that reaps some of the benefits of a ported system, without running the risk of sounding ported. More work in terms of construction, but I think in this instance, worth it.

(Should we have a contest as to how many times I used the word "system" in the preceding three paragraphs?)

As pretty as those woofers look stacked on top of each other in MDF, they’re even more beautiful when you pull out a driver from the baffle. Not only do the sturdy die-cast baskets sport a generous magnet structure for all of you motor heads, but looking carefully at the rear of the polypropylene cones divulges the fact that they have ridges running from center to edge, essentially increasing the structural thickness of the cones without appreciably increasing weight. Try that with paper pulp!

And it doesn’t stop there. It gets better? You bet!

Grille or Baffle?

When I first pulled the grille off to admire the drivers, I noticed a funny thing. The tweeter is set into its own plate. That’s not strange at all, but what was strange is that the tweeter's plate, though inset to fit flush at its edges of the cabinet, did not itself present a flush surface to the tweeter diaphragm, raising concerns of diffraction. Why would someone take the time and effort to mount the plate flush with the surface, but not provide a smooth surface on the plate itself? I shrugged, put the grille back on, and went on to listening without worrying, taking note, though, that if the non-flush surface were causing diffraction artifacts, that would screw with imaging and frequency response, the speaker didn’t seem to be suffering a whole lot. Later on, when I got around to taking snapshots, I noticed a very curious thing. The grille itself forms a surface which directly meets the raised edge of the tweeter plate, the surface at the same angle, becoming an extension of that plate just as if it were mounted flush with the entire baffle, with the added benefit of then gradually rolling back to flat, like a gentle horn, so that less treble energy actually hits the corners of the cabinets, limiting diffraction again! Ingenious! I’ve seen it before, specifically in my gone but not forgotten Infinity Renaissance 90s, but occasions have been rare.

Smart Spikes . . .

I won’t get into the couple vs. decouple argument of spiking loudspeakers. Okay, I will, but only briefly. The only decoupling that spikes do is by raising the bottom panel of the speaker off the floor, which gumdrops will do just as effectively. If you buy into the argument that spikes decouple due to lower surface area, please think again, very carefully, and failing that, do an experiment. Put your hand between a concrete slab and a strong metal plate. Construct a third metal plate with a few spikes on the bottom to "decouple" the sledgehammer that’s going to come down on those sheets of metal. Following the theory that less surface area decouples an object, your hand should be just fine. Or, for the less masochistic, you can just get a tuning fork, an object that vibrates when struck, and see how it behaves when the very small amount of surface area of the base turns your table into a sounding board. Interestingly, some might argue that the added loudness contributed by the sounding board makes it sound better. Fine. That’s it, I quit.

So why, then, are Paradigm’s spikes smart? Well, the spikes themselves are rather standard. It’s the "couplers" which form the attractive "Bugs Bunny spaceship" style that are so intelligent, not only from a cosmetic perspective, making the speaker look that much more than just another box, but from a practical perspective as well.

Consider a hypothetical situation: tall, narrow speakers (sleek and attractive, but without much width in the base and a high center of gravity. Or, children. Or maybe large, rambunctious dogs.

The coupling pieces, which fit so that they actually look like part of the speaker itself, effectively widen the base and increase stability, giving you a fighting chance in a real-world domestic environment. Even in earthquake country, the 90Ps didn’t fall once. Don’t use them as tackling dummies, because they’ll hurt you, but know that they’ll most likely stay where you leave them barring large natural disasters or full-speed collisions.

Handy Configuration Features to Boot . . .

The back panel also sports a line-level LFE input for summing an externally-provided LFE channel with the information provided by the power amplifier, presumably the full-range left and right channels. The benefit of these speakers over simply having a conventional subwoofer is that you can send the entire LFE into the speaker, and expect to get the entire LFE out. The LFE channel is often mistakenly considered as intended to feed a "subwoofer" exclusively. It should directly feed a bass speaker in a purist, cinematic sense, but a speaker that will reproduce frequencies substantially above 80 Hz. If you haven’t read Brian Florian’s article on The Misunderstood LFE Channel yet, please do so, and you’ll be a happier camper for it.

A subwoofer operating much above 80 Hz isn’t operating entirely as a subwoofer, which in many cases, can be problematic in terms of localizable content emanating from the far corner of the room. Since the woofers handle frequencies as high as 180 Hz, they can handle the entire range of the LFE channel without compromise. Even if your receiver or preamp/processor’s bass management will allow sending the entire LFE intact to the left and right "main" channels, sending the LFE exclusively to the LFE input on the 90Ps will save the main amplifier the hassle of amplifying the signal.

"Subwoofer" Level . . .

I’ve noted that while the woofers on the 90P can go toe to doe (was a typo, but decided to leave it, hence the reference of dexterity) with many a subwoofer, because the woofers actually operate substantially above 100 Hz, they’re not technically subwoofers.  However, the "subwoofer level" control allows contouring the bass response of the woofers as if you were adjusting the level of a subwoofer, boosting or cutting bass below 60 Hz 10 dB. Simply adjusting the woofer level would screw up the blend with the midrange, which I would argue is still the case when adjusting the level of a subwoofer as a clumsy approach to a tone control. I think that the control on the 90P may prove superior to adjusting the level of a subwoofer for the same purpose, as regardless of the setting, the 90P guarantees the system’s integrity as a system. This "subwoofer level" adjustment allows the user some leeway in tailoring the woofer response to match the room and his or her own personal taste. I left the level at flat for most of my listening, and in my somewhat small room, thought that perhaps a slight cut might better serve the cause of accuracy, but left the knob where it was just because the bass was so much fun.

Setup

Because of the rear ports, you’ll want at least 6 inches between the speakers and any obstacles behind them, so as not to interfere with the airflow or tuning of the system. Due to the wide (and might I add even) horizontal dispersion, when determining toe-in, consider not only the sound that will likely be coming at you, but the sound that will be reflecting off of nearby surfaces. If you’ve got side walls relatively near the speakers, a good toe-in will substantially improve the stability of the center image. In my evaluation, I preferred the angle formed by the speaker to the listener position to the speaker to round out to about 400 - 450, though really, as with most speakers, you’ll likely have to play a bit to get the sound just the way you want it, and listeners who prefer a wider soundstage at the expense of focus might want to go as wide as 600, perhaps more.

From Bottom to Top . . .

I love these like my own children (my wife assumes I only have one), or at least as much as some of my pets, and certainly more than my neighbor’s noisy kids. In any case, they excel in so many areas that I almost loathe to spell it out, except that it reinforces the notion that my opinion matters, and therefore makes me feel good. I like feeling good.

The overall tonal presentation was, in my opinion, nothing short of superb.

While not quite a match for my electronically assisted subs that have the advantage of room placement independent from the constraints of stereo imaging requirements, and a dedicated EQ to gently counteract the character of the room, in terms of the final room response, the bass quality had every bit of the shudder factor I require. Perhaps not the most extended bottom end ever, but pretty darn good in that regard, rivaling or surpassing many dedicated subwoofers, with a good kick in the kaboodle to boot.

Besides, the 90Ps excelled in bass quality. To call bass fast is somewhat of an oxymoron in a technical sense, but the control and ease of the 90Ps in the lower frequencies seemed to fit the bill, despite the semantic contradiction. Perhaps to say that the bass balanced quality and quantity extraordinarily well would better serve the point. While many bass-reflex systems sound very much like bass-reflex systems, the bass from the 90P sounded like bass reproduced by better loudspeaker systems, be they bass-reflex or sealed, in that it didn’t much sound like a speaker at all, and that's the way it should be.

I’m not proposing that you can actually reproduce the full grandeur of a full pipe organ in a large venue, particularly with two channels in a venue as small as a living room, but there’s no reason you have to settle for bass reproduction that sounds like a box or a tube having a fit. The Monitor 90Ps stand as proof of my assertion, proof most of us can afford. With musical material (Mark Knopfler’s Golden Heart CD has most recently pricked my ears), the blend of definition and richness only said good things for Paradigm’s effort. The 90Ps also breathed the lowest frequencies like a waking dragon throughout parts of Sarah McLaughlin’s Surfacing album.  Life can be tasty.

Running through our Disney DVD collection (both "Toy Story" flicks, "A Bug’s Life", "Tarzan", etc. ), found the 90Ps far from lacking in terms of impact. Though I would never discourage anyone from adding a high-quality subwoofer (or for JJ, adding six), I could only say that the 90Ps needed a subwoofer in the context of a poor joke.

The mid-bass through the 90Ps had enough punch to accentuate the punctuation of percussion, or the attack of a good thud, but didn’t thicken the soup so much as to detract from the whole of the package. In the scene from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", where the two women run up walls and over roof tops, fighting over who got to hold that guy’s sword, the drums were able to convey the speed and drama of the chase while still maintaining the musical nature of an instrument, as opposed to sounding like just another movie prop.

Whether fashioning the context of Mark Knopfler’s smooth, resonant voice in either "Golden Heart" or "Sailing to Philadelphia", the sumptuous but slightly hissing nearness of Sarah McLaughlin’s vocals on "Surfacing", or the sonorous horn of Miles Davis in "Kind of Blue", the 90Ps let me get the most from the middle. Not too laid back or recessed, nor overbearing or blatantly exploited, the 90P's clarity of depth and character, when combined with the overall neutrality of tonal character, could put a few loudspeakers at ten times the price to shame. Unfortunately, I’m not speaking in hyperbole.

This prowess with musical material equally engaged the reproduction of film soundtracks. I watched a few movies with Maggie, including "A Nightmare Before Christmas" in simple two-channel playback to gauge dialog intelligibility, and never found articulation lacking or artificially highlighted. Voices simply sounded correct.

As a side note, directly comparing the 90Ps to some of my favorites, I would back-peddle enough for my own self-respect to say that I think my own M&K 2510s did hold just a slight advantage in midrange smoothness and clarity.  They ought to, as they not only cost more than the Monitor 90Ps (even without the real-wood cherry finish), but they absolutely require a good subwoofer to match up with, as well as a good amount of muscle behind them, being less efficient, so that when you add up the price of everything around them, they're in an entirely different cost category.  Also, the M&Ks weren't designed as a bang for the buck speaker.

I would have liked to run a pair of M&K LCR-750THX mkII satellites and a V-1250THX subwoofer up against the pair of Monitor 90Ps for a real drag race, but alas, Aaron Hodges (one of our writers who is perpetually putting things like writing articles off) and I couldn't get the rigs together for the occasion. Though I don't think that either would win hands down in all regards, I think that the meeting would be interesting. The LCR-750THX/Surround-550THX/V-1250THX combination has been up to this point, my benchmark for high-performance loudspeakers at that price.  When I learned that a pair of Monitor 90Ps sells for $1,699 USD, the bench added one more notch.

Moving on, the treble of the 90Ps, for the most part carries the same qualifications as the midrange. Smooth and detailed, with as much top-end extension as my adult ears can make use of without the spit and sizzle which many often mistake for either extra detail, speed, or extension at first listen, then come to despise as listening fatigue. While the bass and mid-bass capabilities of the 90P makes the speakers exciting to listen to, the midrange and treble not only add to the pleasure, but ensure that the experience doesn't wear us out. At volume levels short of hearing damage, listening remained effortless.

The one and only thing that I would care to mention is that while the treble is not fatiguing in the least bit, the top-end seemed to have just a little bit of extra zest, most easily noticeable with cymbals and hi-hats and so forth. It may be a characteristic of the metal dome, or it may be that I’m just used to the sound of my M&K MPS-2510’s soft-dome tweeters, but it’s something I noticed just the same, and feet compelled to mention it.

Perhaps many would find this slight, comparatively extra zest appealing with a good deal of recorded music, as it may illuminate interesting textures in the top. It might be argued, even, that with amplifiers other than the Aragon 8008BB, which did most of the driving during the interview, and tends to lay out the top-end like ingredients before preparation on a clean kitchen counter, as opposed to mixed into the soup, this slight treble characteristic would be less noticeable.  With "warm" electronics, it might prove that much more adorable.

Compared to many other loudspeakers that use metal-dome tweeters, however, the treble of the 90P remains pretty smooth, if not silky by comparison, and exceptionally enjoyable of which to partake.

The general imagining capabilities of the Monitor 90Ps certainly held their own. My only direct comparison were my M&K MPS-2510 studio monitors, which held a more focused image with a more explicitly defined depth, possibly more due to the lessened interaction with the room than differences between the loudspeakers themselves. Still, the Paradigms could lock a solid image between the speakers, and contrasting my M&K MPS-2510s presented a more open, taller soundstage, something many might find more natural, also attributable, perhaps to the fact that the Monitor 90Ps make no efforts to limit the vertical dispersion. I would venture to guess that you could easily improve the focus of the soundstage with careful room treatment, as I really should, once I get settled.

To sum up, I don’t know exactly what to say, except that the Monitor 90Ps do so well in so many regards, that it makes summing up the positive comments that much more difficult. I don’t know what would be most compelling to convince others to share in the experience that is the Monitor 90P. Perhaps a single word will do. To quote a line from "Train Spotting", "In a word, pleasure."  I'd be absolutely delinquent to not recommend these for serious evaluation, even if you think you're happy with what you have.

The Monitor 11 Speakers (by Brian Florian)

 

In my defense, Colin was committed to reviewing the 90P speakers before I patted one on the top plate and casually mumbled, "You should check out a set of these".  That was just the gentle nudge which put him over the edge.  I would have been equally happy to harbor a pair of those monolithic wonders in my humble abode, but we're nice kids and we've learned to share.

Besides, with Paradigm, there is plenty of joy to go around.   I've heard enough of them and owned enough of them to be left with no hesitation:  Anything they turn out is going to be a trip on some level.

If anyone's to blame for hypnosis, it's Mark Aling.  With Colin's fate sealed . . . I mean his review of the 90P locked in, Mark turned to me like a high class pusher:  "And for you . . . .?"

It was the drivers.  That's what did it.  That and the price.  A measly kilobuck for what is essentially the 90P's unpowered sibling:  the Monitor 11s.  Yes it was the drivers . . . .

If you are reading this, it's a safe bet that you are into all things hi-fi.  Like Colin and I you probably have been this way all your life but might have become cognizant of your condition sooner or perhaps later.  Some of us get serious about audio at a young age, others buy their first 'real' system well into their 20s.  Regardless, you probably remember an era gone by when such household names as Pioneer, Sony, and Sansui were making speakers to go with their stereo components.  While not bad sounding in their day, one recalls with a somewhat whimsical nature the look of those old pillars to music: stocky, broad boxes with paper cone tweeters, exotic midrange transducers and what was then considered enormous 12" woofers.  And the places we used to put them:  Shoved into corners where they could hold drinks during a party or high up on shelves as if mimicking  a great pipe organ.  My how the face of hi-fi has changed.

The Monitor line has quite a heritage behind it.   Introduced way back in 1982, it has been revamped and retooled more times than I can recall, with such designations as "SE", "MKIII", and "V.2" to help position them in history.  The last time the "11" designation was used was quite a few years ago, and it shows.  The previous model was reminiscent of those stalky models of yesteryear, although much more refined: a 3 way design with a 6.5" midrange, two 8" woofers, and a 1" textile tweeter.  The new model definitely exhibits the changing trends in loudspeaker design: like the 90Ps, an elegantly slender front profile, favoring multiple small drivers and in this case a simpler 2-1/2 way cross-over.

Lets Get Aquainted . . .

At the top is Paradigm's 1" PTD (Pure Titanium Dome) tweeter on a cloth suspension.  The very same may be found not only in the 90P but the entire Monitor line including a dedicated center channel speaker and some radically implemented dipolar surrounds.  Assembling a home theater is pretty effortless, as a tonal match is most definitely assured.  As noted by Colin on the 90P, the grille frame is really the front baffle and is carved to continue the contours of the mild horn started by the tweeter's chassis.  Paradigm calls it "controlled wave-guide".  What is relevant is that these are one of the few speakers you are likely to encounter which do in fact sound better with the grilles on.  They seemed to me to have less focus when played naked.

It's easy to understand why, unlike so many other speaker manufacturers, Paradigm's brochures feature photos of the components.  I, like Colin, just had to pull one of the bass drivers out to show you why. They are of remarkably robust design, given the price point.   High strength rubber suspension, rigid cast metal chassis, and more than generous magnets are easily visible even to an inexperienced eye.  The cone material for the mid/bass driver is Paradigm's own translucent co-polymer concoction which has an advantage in the midrange.  The material for the bass drivers is a more conventional polypropylene, better suited to the low range they are responsible for.

On the back of the 11s are a dual sets of sensible five-way binding posts (bi-wire/bi-amp capable), and a large port.  Most other points of the design are the same as the 90Ps The port is flared at both ends, and the cabinets, oh so well constructed, are stuffed to the gills with damping material.  The finish of my review set was the same as Colin's. It is vinyl, but is of a warm, deep shade of rosewood, so well applied that you will have to look close to be certain it is not an exotic veneer.  The requisite black and a light oak, by the way, are also available.

2-1/2 way speakers are getting more implementation recently than I can ever recall.  Paradigm first used it in their Reference line of speakers (to great success) and it is now trickling over to a few of the Monitor models.  If you are just now catching the buzz, a 2-1/2 way design is nothing more than an ordinary full range two-way speaker (tweeter and woofer) which is supplemented by one or more additional woofers with their own low-pass.  The design makes so much sense:  you do away with the inherently complex crossover of a true three-way (tweeter, midrange, woofer) but achieve comparable dynamics and low frequency extension.  The workload, if you will, of the lower registers is shared across several drivers.  The mid/bass unit, although still getting a full signal, has significantly less to do down deep.  While touring the Paradigm factory recently, I asked Scott Bagby, co-founder and lead designer, about their use of the 2 1/2 way design.  "All things being equal," he told me, "a three way will still be superior.  But it is a lot harder to produce 10,000 3 way speakers which are consistent.  With the 2 1/2 way design we get awfully close to the three-way in terms of dynamics and bass, but it is much easier to implement on the assembly line."

Paradigm's genius in the area of "value" shinning through yet again.

Set-Up

I should interject here that at heart, I'm a multi-channel audio kind of guy.  I'm quick to say that my main interest in high-definition audio is the motion picture soundtrack.  I watch a movie almost every night to my wife's dismay ("you're watching that again?!?")  It's in my veins or something.   Sure I've got a decent CD collection, and there is scarcely a silent moment at my house, but I just never thought of myself as quite so absorbed about two-channel audio.  The Monitor 11s have changed that.  In carrying out the routine of this review, my interest in two-channel music has been refueled.

Thanks to the Nordost Z-plug termination of my speaker cables, dancing from amplifier to amplifier is easy (yet the connection is one of the best you are likely to find).  I gave the 11s equal billing on our Yamaha receiver, Rotel THX amp, and the exquisite Smart Theater Systems Valve/MOSFET hybrid.  I want to make a point here about the 11s and amplifiers.  These speaker are spec'd by Paradigm as being slightly on the more efficient side of things.  91dB doesn't compete with the legendary horns of Klipsh, but it's darn good for a more traditional dynamic speaker design.  It was therefore my pleasure to confirm that the 11s are not at all fussy about the power you supply; the difference in their performance as I went from amp to amp was far less than has been with the more typical, less efficient speakers.  In other words, you don't need copious amounts of power with the 11s, but it doesn't hurt.  More on their performance with the Smart Theater Systems amp later.

 

Listening:  The Whole Point . . .

The treble is actually quite interesting.  I have heard this tweeter before in other Monitor models but could never put my finger on it.  Once we both had our respective review subjects for a couple weeks, Colin and I compared notes and were impressed when we both had much the same to say about the treble.  To reiterate, we identify it as having a little "spice" in the top end.  Don't misunderstand here.  This is not harshness or what I would call brightness, but a bit of spice which is neither right or wrong, just an elusive character.  I am normally scared of metal dome tweeters.  I've ducked into some "esoteric" rooms at CES only to leave shaking my head, trying to get the maddening 'ring' and splash of a metal dome out of my head.  The gang at Paradigm are no amateurs though, their metal domes breaking up the negative stereotypes.  They proved that to me with the Reference models I reviewed, and fell madly in love with, last year.   The detail resolved by the 11s is very good, the complex layers of cymbals being rendered with palpable fidelity.  They image like the dickens.  It was a real kicker to plop someone down in the sweet spot and play them some two-channel music such as Holy Cole's "Temptation".  My test subjects swore on their life that I had some exclusive three-channel sound system, as the center speaker seemed to be alive with her voice, the left and right providing the piano and double bass.  Sure I've heard imaging as good, but it cost more and was from tiny mini-monitors without bass.  Can I talk about the bass yet?  No . . .  midrange comes next in most people's mind.

Midrange with the 11s is very natural without any noticeable distractions.   Even the relatively harsh recording of Alanis Morriset's "Jagged Little Pill" was pleasing to the ear.  Harry Conick Jr.'s crooning was giving me goose bumps, and I'm not easily moved that way.  What is worth noting, and trying yourself should you audition these, is that this neutrality of the midrange is consistent regardless of output level.  At what felt like concert level playback, select live recordings of Bruce Spingsteen, Rush, and Eric Clapton remained warm and pleasing to the ear.  If anything (I feel I should say something), the midrange is a little reserved, as if holding back that one extra layer of detail, but again this is not really a sonic negative, just an observation.

Bass, as you might expect, is the real treat with these speakers.   I drove them has hard as I possibly could and never found their limit.  Peter Gabriel's album "Security", and in particular the opening song "The Rhythm of the Heat", had such visceral impact as to genuinely reach me on an emotional level.   I made similar notes on such material as Dire Straits "On Every Street" and Alana Davis' "Blame it on Me".   Putting sound into words is often considered a vain pursuit, but to attempt it here, I describe the bass as so latent, so accurate, that is ceases to be a 'beat' and turns into an inner body sensation.  The 11s were able to energize the air in a way that only the best (and most expensive) subwoofers can.  No, I'm not saying they go as low as a real good subwoofer or that you will forever be without the need for one, but this is really good bass.   Interestingly, Paradigm's Monitor 9, a similar speaker with only two  8" mid/bass drivers is actually spec'd as reaching a couple Hz lower than the 11s.  But after casually listening to the 9s, it was clear to me what the 11s did differently from even their close sibling:  Natural bass.  Try the double bass of Diana Krall.   Try the throbbing thecho bass of Destiny's Child.  Its all good baby!  

The more analytical are dying to get a number, so to humor them, I can say I was able to get useable output to about 35 Hz in my room, but they seemed to roll off more gradually than other ported designs (there was still plenty of SPL activity, albeit down by over 10 dB, at 20 Hz).  There again when comparing notes with Colin, it became clear this was no product of my imagination.  The aperiodic design will surprise you.

On motion picture soundtracks, the 11s had the gumption to take on the tough guys.  Though it may not usefully voice those bottom frequencies, the speakers had no problem with the signal.  I had the 25 Hz sine wave turned up as loud as the neighborhood would put up with, but it still was not reaching the excursion limits of the combined eight 6.5" drivers.

I've already told you that the 11s aren't fussy as far as amplifiers go, and I'm not backing down on that.  I would be remiss though, if I did not relate to you how revealing these speakers are of the equipment before them and how, as the supporting foundation improves, the 11s pay you dividends.  The Smart Theater Systems 2X150VT I reviewed with great favor recently was fortunately still on hand for this review.  An all together sensible amplifier, the 2X150VT includes a tube input buffer and a generously underspec'd output of 150 watts per channel into 8 ohms.  What an incredible union between speaker and amplifier, master and slave.  The Smart is a control freak, commanding starts and stops with an authority you can actually hear.  The 11s were only to happy to comply, thereby asserting a strata of impact and realism which they just could not grasp under the gaze of the humble Yamaha receiver.  And the mellow warmth of the tube mated beautifully with the aforementioned spice of the tweeter.  These just might want to be on the shopping list of people with upscale tube gear.

But What of the Reference?

Barely had I put the review set in place than some folks asked me the inevitable question, a question perhaps some of your have:  How do they compare to Paradigm's own Reference Studio/40 speakers (reviewed last year), which are almost exactly the same price once you add the stands?  Although I've already praised the 11's performance, the Studio/40s are in fact even more responsible transducers.  This has to be the one opportunity in a reviewer's life when he can get away with saying something is better than the review subject without the manufacturer being upset.   The Reference tweeter in particular is such an overbuilt motor, that it seems to effortlessly achieve a textbook correct sound without the mild sizzle which I've noted on the 11.  Midrange is slightly less resolved on the 11s, while a simple rap with the knuckle will convince even the least knowledgeable observer than the Studio/40's cabinet is as solid as can be conceived.   Coloration on the Reference models is non-existent.  So what's the point of the 11s?  Doesn't take a genius, but I'll spell it out for the record.  While the Studio/40s reach down with confidence and fortitude, bass is where the Monitor 11 commands respect.  Should you be in an intimate space or have the services of an accurate subwoofer, the Studio/40 may prove better value, but short of those parameters, the Paradigm Monitor 11s are the obvious choice.

Conclusion

Whether a stereo pair, the cornerstone of a music/movie set up, or merely mains in a mixed-media multi-channel environment, the Monitor 11s are a speaker that will likely be with you for a very very long time.  Terrifically satisfying sound for only a kilo-buck, they are able to resolve both the fine details of music, while delivering a visceral audio experience.  They are recommended for large spaces and tight budgets, but that does not mean wealthy folks should ignore them.  Put them on your list to audition and you just might embarrass those multi-thousand dollar exotics you've been considering.

Equipment used by Colin for comparison, reference and pleasure:

Meridian 508.24 CD Player
JVC XLZ-1050 CD Player
M&K MPS-2510 (LCR) Studio Monitors
M&K S-85 & S-80 (Rear) "Satellite" speakers
Sunfire Stereo Power Amplifier
Aragon 8008BB Dual-Mono Power Amplifier
Aragon 8008X3 Three-Channel Power Amplifier
Onkyo TX-DS989 Digital Receiver
Yamaha RX-V995 Digital Receiver
Toshiba SD-2109 DVD Player
Audio Control Rialto EQ providing EQ and X-over to...
Dynaco ST-400mkII 2-channel amplifier driving...
NHT 1259-based subwoofers (only 2 for now)
More stuff coming!!!!

Equipment used by Brian for comparison, reference and pleasure:

 

Paradigm Reference Studio/40 & Studio/CC speakers

Paradigm Mini-Monitor speakers (surround)

Velodyne CT-150 Powered Subwoofer

Yamaha RX-V795a Processor/Receiver

Smart Theater Systems 2X150VT power amplifier

Rotel RB-985 5 channel THX amplifier

Toshiba 2108 DVD player

Yamaha CDC-695 CD player

Nordost Blue Heaven, Moonglow, and S-Optix cable

Sony KV-27S36 Trinitron TV

 

- Colin Miller and Brian Florian -

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