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I’ve been asked to review several home-theater soundbars over the years, and I usually decline. In my experience, the vast majority of them don’t sound any good. They’re so compromised in size and abilities that they wouldn’t be on the radar of most home-theater enthusiasts. Nor have I had an easy way to accommodate a soundbar, either in my home-theater room or my living room. The speakers in my living room are on-wall models, and running wires from my receiver to a traditional soundbar would be messy.
What interested me in Paradigm’s PW Soundbar ($1299 USD) is that the entire soundbar is self-contained. It doesn’t require a receiver to power it, and looked as if it would be easy to set up without requiring me to take apart my existing home-theater systems. Other draws were its built-in wireless features, with options for connecting wireless surround speakers. I used two of Paradigm’s PW 600 speakers ($599 each) and their wireless Monitor Sub 8 subwoofer ($825). Finally, Paradigm includes their excellent Anthem Room Correction (ARC) system for optimizing the PW Soundbar to your room. The total cost of this system is a hefty $3322, but as you’ll see, it offers great sound for anyone looking for a clean, uncluttered home-theater setup.
The PW Soundbar is a slick model measuring 46”W x 4”H x 5.5”D and weighing 12.7 pounds. It has everything you need to run a basic home-theater system: speaker drivers, an Anthem class-D amplifier, and a processor for decoding Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks. The amplifier, specified to output 135W RMS (190W peak), is connected to nine 2.5” composite-cone drivers variously assigned to the left, center, and right channels. DSP processing synthesizes the two rear surround channels from these three speaker channels.
Around back are three HDMI inputs and one HDMI output with Audio Return, a hardwired LAN connection, two optical digital inputs, two stereo analog inputs, and a subwoofer output. If you want to use the PW Soundbar for audio-only content, you need only plug it into a wall outlet -- you can then wirelessly stream music to it via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. For home theater, the minimum number of physical connections is three: an HDMI source (e.g., a BD player), HDMI output to your TV or projector, and power.
The PW Soundbar is designed to be placed below or above your TV, on a shelf or wall mount. For the latter, Paradigm provides a bracket and template. Mounted on a wall, the front display is visible, offering such useful information as volume level and HDMI input. Unfortunately, this display isn’t visible when the unit is placed on a shelf, unless you’re standing right over it. Hopefully, future versions will provide an onscreen display via the HDMI connection; I placed the Soundbar on a shelf, and found the lack of visual feedback frustrating.
The PW Soundbar comes with a nice metal remote control with which you can set it up, control its volume, select Night Mode to compress the sound for less boom, or Bass Boost, when you can let loose without bothering anyone. There are also buttons for sources, Mute, and On/Off. The PW Soundbar is compatible with DTS Play-Fi, which is primarily a music-listening app. Using a PC or an iOS or Android device, you can stream music to the PW Soundbar through DTS Play-Fi.
Although the PW Soundbar is capable of generating surround channels from three LCR channels, you can also add a pair of PW 600 speakers, as I did. The PW 600 measures 10"H x 6.5"W x 5.5"D and looks like a small bookshelf speaker; under its metal grille, a 5” S-PAL aluminum woofer handles bass duties, and there are two 1” S-PAL tweeters, enabling a single speaker to act as a “stereo pair.” A switch on the back lets each PW 600 be assigned as a left- or right-channel speaker or a “stereo pair.” Inside the speaker’s 7.5-pound cabinet is an Anthem class-D 200W RMS amplifier.
The PW 600 can be connected to a network via Wi-Fi or a hardwired Ethernet connection. The speaker can also be connected directly to a subwoofer, and be fed an analog signal such as the output from a DAC. I don’t know how Paradigm can cram all of this technology into such a small package.
When the PW 600s were connected to my network and I entered the Settings menu of the DTS Play-Fi app, more magic happened. If you want to stream to two PW 600s in stereo, you can designate the two PW 600s a stereo pair. Even slicker, you can make the PW Soundbar the front LCR, one PW 600 as the left surround, and one PW 600 as the right surround, for an instant home theater. Once these roles have been assigned, each speaker maintains its role until you use the app to reassign it.
The little Monitor Sub 8 is a virtual cube measuring 10.7"H x 10.3"W by 11.1"D and weighing 25 pounds. Its 8” cone of carbon-loaded polypropylene is driven by a class-D amplifier claimed to output 300W RMS sustained or 900W on peaks. The cone’s unusual surround incorporates ridges on its surface that, according to Paradigm, permit much longer excursions, for greater output. Maximum output in a typical room is not specified, but DSP processing ensures that the driver will be precisely controlled to minimize distortion. Unlike most small subs, the Sub 8 has a sealed cabinet, with no port or passive radiator to get deeper output. The Sub 8 is specified to produce frequencies down to 19Hz. There are controls for setting subwoofer level, crossover frequency, and phase alignment. For further tweaking, the Sub 8 can be optimized with Anthem Room Correction (ARC) software, which comes with the PW Soundbar. To run the Sub 8 -- or any subwoofer -- wirelessly, the PW Soundbar comes with a kit that connects to the Sub 8’s LFE input.
Setup with Anthem Room Correction (ARC)
To set up a PW Soundbar alone, you first connect it to your network, either wirelessly or via its Ethernet connection. Then you run ARC on a laptop or iPhone, and you’re done.
If you have a wireless subwoofer, there’s another step: Go to Sync in the PW Soundbar’s menu, and hit Wireless Sync in the wireless subwoofer module.
If you’re using PW 600s as wireless surrounds, you first connect them to your network, then use the DTS Play-Fi app to add the rear PW 600 to the PW Soundbar. Then input the distance to each speaker. After adding the Soundbar, surrounds, and subwoofer, there’s one more step: ARC. To set this up, connect the supplied microphone to your laptop. This mike isn’t calibrated, like the one Paradigm includes in its Anthem home-theater products, but it still works well with the ARC software. If you’re using a Windows laptop, ARC will set up your system more precisely. It will require five mike positions, and will run the test signal through all five channels and subwoofer. I like using a laptop because it plots each speaker’s frequency response on a graph. You can also tweak settings, including correcting the FR range and adjusting room gain. The alternative to using a Windows laptop is to use ARC Mobile on an iPhone, with the phone’s built-in mike. The setup routine is much faster, but you can’t adjust settings.
I tried the PW Soundbar in several ways: by itself, with the Monitor Sub 8, and with the PW 600 speakers as left and right rear surrounds. At first I set up the PW Soundbar in my living room below my TV. This configuration was disappointing, as it placed the Soundbar quite a bit higher than my seated ear height. It was fine for casual TV watching, and was better than my TV’s built-in speakers, but it sounded dull, and it was difficult to hear three discrete channels. However, I suspected the PW Soundbar had more to give, so I set it up in my home-theater room, below my 92” screen, and used it to watch both Netflix and BDs played in my Sony PlayStation 3.
In my basement home theater, while watching a stream of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi with the PW Soundbar alone, there was good separation from left to right of the soundstage. Dialogue was very intelligible, and the frequent scenes of driving through the streets of Benghazi panned nicely through the left, center, and right channels. Paradigm claims that the PW Soundbar simulates the presence of rear surround channels through DSP processing, but I got little sense of envelopment in my room. This may be due to the fact that the PW Soundbar is more suited to smaller rooms, and in my theater room I sat 12’ from it. As well, there were few wall surfaces nearby off which to bounce the sound, which may also have been a factor.
Adding the Monitor Sub 8 made a huge difference in my enjoyment of 13 Hours. There are explosions and gun battles throughout, and the Sub 8’s contributions to these scenes were immense. Although equipped with only an 8” woofer, this sub rocked: explosions were tight and loud. ARC made the blend between the PW Soundbar and Monitor Sub 8 seamless. My reference system includes as front speakers Definitive Technology BP8060STs, each of which has a 10” subwoofer built-in, as well as a Paradigm Servo-15 V2 subwoofer, which has a 15” cone. The Monitor Sub 8 couldn’t play as loud or as deep as my usual gear, but it didn’t embarrass itself. I can tell the bass is loud when my family, above me on the main floor, yell at me to turn it down. While cranking up the combo of PW Soundbar and Monitor Sub 8, I got yelled at a lot.
Adding the PW 600 speakers for the rear surrounds made another huge difference. With the PW 600s and Monitor Sub 8, the PW Soundbar sounded like a proper home-theater system. The surround soundstage was seamless from front to back, and much wider than with the Soundbar alone. Instead of the sound being focused at the front of the room, I now could hear a lot of neat effects beside and behind me, particularly with Love & Mercy, the biopic about the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Throughout this film, many voices and much music appear in the surround channels, to illustrate the psychological toll the making of Pet Sounds and Smile had on Wilson. Through the Paradigm system, I felt I was inside his head, hearing what he was hearing in his mind. At times, the surrounds tended to run a little soft, upsetting the balance between front and rear. I easily remedied this with the remote control, boosting the surround channels +6dB. This complete system played loud, deep, and with excellent surround envelopment, like a proper home theater -- but without wires.
Listening with DTS Play-Fi
The DTS Play-Fi app has undergone a number of changes since I first tried it. In Critical Listening mode, it can now natively stream 24-bit/192kHz FLAC files without downsampling, and is compatible with AIFF files up to 24/192. However, when I tried to play 24/192 FLACs wirelessly through my home network, there were many dropouts and pauses. You may have better luck. It was better with an Ethernet connection, but still with the occasional dropout. The sweet spot in Critical Listening mode was 24/96 FLAC files, which played flawlessly via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. The tonality of the double bass in Rachel-Z’s Grace (24/96 FLAC, Chesky/HDtracks) was particularly good, the PW Soundbar’s output blending quite well with the Monitor Sub 8’s. Rachel Z’s piano, however, sounded reticent, likely due to the Soundbar’s lack of tweeters to reproduce high frequencies. Its 2.5” cones are essentially trying to cover the entire audioband above the crossover frequency to the woofer. I would imagine that most buyers of this system wouldn’t be bothered by this, as most of them would use it for home theater. For music, most people would use the PW Soundbar for background music rather than critical listening.
But the PW system excelled when I used the two PW 600s as a stereo pair. This can be easily set up in DTS Play-Fi, but you have to remove them from surround-sound mode. Configured as a stereo pair, the PW 600s sounded outstanding, easily rivaling separate speakers and electronics costing many times their $1198/pair price. One caveat with the PW 600 is that DTS Play-Fi’s Critical Listening mode works with only one device at a time -- it can’t be used with two PW 600s as a stereo pair. Ironically, this means that the PW Soundbar can be used with Critical Listening mode, but the better-sounding PW 600s can’t. At first this was a disappointment, but when I listened to “Mr. Bojangles,” from John McEuen’s Made in Brooklyn (24/192 AIFF, Chesky), McEuen’s mandolin sounded wonderfully natural through the PW 600s. The imaging was solid, with a clarinet in the left speaker, and McEuen’s voice at first in the center, then to the left in the song’s latter half. This sonic treat was achieved with the track downsampled to 16/44.1.
When I ask myself if I would ever buy the Paradigms, I think of my current living-room system, in which no wires are visible because I placed the speakers onto the walls when I bought my new house. My Angstrom on-wall speakers are fairly low-profile but big: 32” high. They give me much better bass response and channel separation than the PW Soundbar. I also have a Yamaha receiver powering all of my speakers. It’s more versatile, with far more HDMI inputs, and can decode the latest surround formats, including DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD, whereas the PW Soundbar is restricted to Dolby Digital and DTS. But unless you’re going to move or renovate your house, a wireless solution such as the PW Soundbar is a great option.
I’m glad I finally agreed to test a soundbar system. Paradigm’s PW Soundbar, PW 600 surrounds, and Monitor Sub 8 subwoofer were easy to set up wirelessly, and the inclusion of Anthem Room Correction puts the PW Soundbar a step above other wireless soundbars. As a 5.1-channel surround-sound system in only four cabinets, the Paradigms sounded as good as many wired surround-sound systems with six. Although DTS Play-Fi imposes some limitations in Critical Listening mode, it worked fine for CD-quality listening. If you’re looking for a way to unobtrusively enhance the sound of your movies, give these speakers an audition. I’m sure you’ll be as impressed as I was.
. . . Vince Hanada
- Monitor -- Panasonic TC-P50S1 50” plasma TV
- Receiver -- Yamaha RX-V667
- Speakers -- Angstrom: Suono 300S mains, Suono 200S center, Suono 100SD surrounds
- Subwoofer -- Mirage Prestige S8, Paradigm Servo-15 V2
- Source -- Sony PlayStation 3
- Cables -- Analysis Plus Blue Oval in-wall speaker cable and Super Sub interconnects
Paradigm PW Soundbar
Price: $1299 USD each.
Paradigm PW 600 Loudspeaker
Price: $599 USD each.
Paradigm Monitor Sub 8 Subwoofer
Price: $825 USD each.
System Price: $3322 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Paradigm Electronics, Inc.
205 Annagem Blvd
Mississauga, Ontario L5T 2V1
Phone: (905) 564-1994
Fax: (905) 564-8726