I recently found myself looking back to a time before digital media, before multichannel home theater, and yes, before even VHS tape. Things were simple -- movies were projected from film, and music was pressed into discs made of vinyl. In 1970, RCA Records changed everything by introducing a new way of listening to music called Quadraphonic, which, as its name implies, used four discrete channels instead of two. Quadraphonic was the beginning of the surround-sound formats that we have today.
In 1976, Dolby Laboratories put its own spin on things by introducing Dolby Stereo, designed for the analog sound systems of movie theaters. Though also a four-channel format, Dolby Stereo differed from Quadraphonic in consisting of front right, front left, and center channels, and a mono matrixed surround channel. Dolby Stereo was adapted in 1982 so that it could be experienced in the home using a Hi-Fi-capable VCR, albeit through only two channels. It wasn’t until 1987 that the original Dolby Stereo, renamed Dolby Pro Logic, was made available to the public for surround-sound use in the home. To fully exploit the potential of this early codec, you had to purchase either a five-channel Pro Logic receiver or a Pro Logic processor and pair it with a five-channel power amplifier -- at that time, a rare item.
About ten years ago, I reviewed the One For All Cinema 6 learning remote control. This very basic learning remote cost only $25, but with it I was able to control all of the components of my home-theater system. As that system grew more complex over the years and new components were added and old components removed, I grew weary of constantly having to reprogram the Cinema 6, and reverted to using the original remotes supplied with my components.
For the past few years, Harmony remote controls have been making a name for themselves as some of the most versatile and easy-to-use on the market -- in 2006, we awarded the Harmony 880 a SoundStage! Network Product of the Year award. The 880 has since been replaced by the Harmony One, which is widely regarded as one of the best remotes now available. However, all of this functionality comes at a price; the 880 cost $249 when available, and so does the One. However, Harmony has an extensive line of remotes at a wide range of prices, including one of their latest, the subject of this review: the Harmony 300 ($50 USD).
Apple’s iPods and iPhones must be charged to work properly, a fact that has spawned a whole family of products generally known as iPod docks. You see them everywhere these days, and most have three things in common: they look cheap, they sound awful, but they do charge up an iPod or iPhone.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I removed from its box the Logitech S715i rechargeable loudspeaker and iPod/iPhone dock ($149.99 USD). It didn’t look cheap. It was a solid piece of work without a rattle or squeak. It was like picking up a 2.5-pound brick.
The S715i is 15.25”W x 5.25”H x 2.36”D and shaped rather like a reclining peanut. It struck me as being similar to styles used for automobile systems, with a transparent, fine-mesh grille that gives an easy view of its drivers while fully protecting them. At the center is a smooth plastic lid that, flipped all the way back, reveals the dock while providing a sturdy easel that holds the speaker upright, tilted slightly back. Four rubber feet offer protection from scratches and scuffs to any surface on which the S715i is placed.
The S715i is described by Logitech as a “trayless dock, works with any iPhone or iPod with a Universal Dock Connector.” A 3.5mm jack on the back of the S715i lets you connect an iTouch via the latter’s headphone jack. You can also use this jack to plug in a portable CD or DVD player, or almost any other portable player.
Since its inception, KEF has earned a reputation for being one of the most innovative and technologically advanced speaker companies. In fact, it wasn’t long after Raymond Cooke founded the company, in 1961, that KEF transformed the loudspeaker industry by being one of the first to design and build their own drive-units and associated surrounds entirely of synthetic materials. This innovation opened the door to countless new applications, ranging from ultrasmall portable radios to drive-units flexible enough to be installed in homemade cabinets and even in walls. In the late 1960s, Cooke reestablished his affiliation with the BBC, and signed an agreement allowing KEF to manufacture the BBC-designed LS5/1A minimonitor. Production of the LS5/1A and several of its successors continued into the mid-1970s; it eventually evolved into the LS3/5 and then into the LS3/5A -- a completely re-engineered minimonitor designed specifically around the drivers used in KEF’s then-popular Coda model.
KEF kept the ball rolling in the early 1970s by becoming the first speaker maker in the world to use computer-assisted design techniques, which they called “total system design.” In 1973, the Model 104 not only exploited KEF’s total system design, but became the company’s first Reference Series model. The next four years saw many improvements in this design, and then, in 1977, the world-renowned Model 105 was launched. Two years later, the Model 105 was joined by an entire family of Reference speakers: the 105/2, 105/4, 103/2, and 101.
The 1980s marked the introduction of KEF to this side of the pond, in the form of KEF Electronics of America. It proved to be a dynamic time for the company; they not only continued their success with their Reference line, but broke into car audio with their Universal Bass Equalizer (KUBE), and released their first in-wall speakers, derived from drivers designed and built in the ’60s. Most notably, however, in 1988, KEF introduced the revolutionary Uni-Q system. The Uni-Q technology continued to evolve throughout the 1990s -- as did KEF, releasing several new speaker lines, home-theater products, and numerous new driver technologies. Today, almost every speaker made by KEF, including the model reviewed here, employs Uni-Q technology.
It seems that just about every computer manufacturer these days is making an inexpensive, high-definition media player, many of them selling for $100 or even less. I recently reviewed the popular Western Digital WD TV Live ($149 USD) and found it a very good media player, if lacking in a few areas, especially the playing of audio files: it can’t output 24-bit/96kHz digital audio.
In my quest to find a media player that satisfies my audiophile sensibilities and my inner video geek, I decided to try Asus’s O!Play HDP-R1 -- I’d heard some good things about it, and it’s a popular choice among audio/video enthusiasts. It has a list price of only $99, but, like most peripherals from computer manufacturers, can often be had at a discount.
There is something dreadfully wrong with the human ear. It can hear almost any note in the sound spectrum, but when taking in the many tones produced by a group of different instruments, if there isn’t a low tone, the sound is thin, wispy, lacking. Not many instrumental groupings, other than classical string quartets and bluegrass trios, survive very long without the low end: bass.
Long ago I took a class in the physics of music, and even the esteemed professor couldn’t really answer the mystery of our need for bass. "It just sounds better," he said. There was a time when rock’n’soul engineers mixed the sound of the double bass or bass guitar in with the bass drum. They knew they needed it, but had no idea what to do with it. It wasn’t until the emergence of such bass masters as James Jamerson, Charles Mingus, Scott LaFaro, and Paul McCartney that bass was recognized as something other than an aural necessity. They and many others demonstrated that bass could deliver a contrapuntal line, a second harmony, or freeform modality. I play a Fender Jazz Special, and I love it. I’m not very good, but I hold John Patitucci, Rob Wasserman, John Entwistle, Jaco Pastorius, Duck Dunn, and a host of others in a special place in my heart. They’re bassists. They hold down the bottom. Subwoofers should seek them out and pay homage.
There are two basic approaches to bass. First, there’s the technical approach: what we do here, which deals with the hi-fi reproduction of bass, what works, what doesn’t -- what has become known as bass management. There’s another approach, though, which considers bass, especially the stand-up double or string bass and the electric bass guitar, as the apotheosis of modern rock and jazz. So when I approach a subwoofer qua subwoofer, I give equal weight to its technical qualities (i.e., why you’re reading this) and its ability to convey the emotional seat of the sounds I so love.
Bass management is as much art as science. What may measure optimally may alternately under- and overwhelm the listener. Crossover points are meticulously calibrated, only to boom at tender moments, then poop out as whole planets crumble. Then there’s the question of placement. There are aficionados of room corners and lovers of the open air, as well as those who prefer subwoofers to be placed behind a wall or between the floor joists. And after you’ve taken all that into consideration, there’s the room -- and no two rooms seem to behave the same. What murmurs politely in one venue blasts shamelessly in another. The science captures low-frequency signals and spins them into hefty woofers with dedicated power supplies. The art fiddles with subwoofer positions until the sub sounds as well as it’s going to -- in your room.
It probably goes without saying that Velodyne is, odds on, the first name conjured when one hears the word subwoofer, so rich is their history and so numerous their achievements. Among their considerable innovations are the small-footprint sealed-box sub; the high-powered, low-heat Energy Recovery System (ERS) class-D amplifier that claims a "green" 95% efficiency; and the room-bass correction that makes linear the sound in your room. In one sense, the Optimum series represents the culmination of Velodyne’s many innovations. Each sealed-box Optimum subwoofer has an ERS amp, occupies a dinky footprint, and uses software (a microphone is supplied) to automatically tailor the sub’s output to the room. Indeed, one could suggest that this auto-EQ approach, first developed for Velodyne’s SPL series in 2005, takes the dice roll out of room placement.
The Optimum-10 ($1199 USD) measures 13.5"H x 13"W x 15.2"D, weighs 43 pounds, and sports a 1200W ERS amplifier driving a 10" front-firing woofer with 3" dual-layer voice coil. The controls are simple. The front panel has a power button, a two-button volume control, an LED display that tells you what your output setting is, and the equalizer’s microphone input. The rear panel contains the master power switch, power-cable receptacle, low-pass crossover control, the second of three volume controls, line-level inputs and outputs, speaker-level inputs, and a switch that toggles between Active and Standby modes. The latter function lets you leave the subwoofer on all the time, but it doesn’t electronically engage until it detects an input signal. One line-level input is labeled LFE, for an A/V receiver’s subwoofer outputs. You can use the sub’s crossover filter, your receiver’s bass-management crossover, or both. This is an improvement over many powered subs, in which the sub’s own crossover is defeated by connecting the LFE and the amplifier’s subwoofer output. Finally, there’s an IR sensor input: If the Optimum-10 is placed where it’s difficult to use the remote, a third-party IR sensor can be connected. A 12V trigger can be engaged for ancillary equipment so fitted. The Optimum-10 comes in your choice of Gloss Black or Cherry veneer.
However, the business controls are on the Optimum-10’s remote control. Here is found another power switch, which turns the unit completely off. (The manual suggests that this control forces the unit into standby mode, but a quick check with Velodyne confirmed my experience: the remote’s power switch replicates the master power switch on the rear panel.) There are four phase settings: 0, 90, 180, and 270 degrees. Once you’ve set everything else up, you listen with each phase setting and choose the one that sounds best. A Mute button does exactly that. The Night switch limits the Optimum-10’s dynamic output power and is designed, as its name suggests, to lower the power output at night, when you might risk disturbing the neighbors. A Light button toggles the front panel’s LEDs on and off. The EQ button calibrates the onboard seven-band parametric equalizer (more on this in a bit). Finally, there are four EQ presets: Movies, Rock, Jazz, Games. Each of these alters the subsonic filter frequency, EQ frequency, EQ level, and volume differential to complement what you’re listening to. Only the Jazz setting alters only the subsonic filter without touching the equalization. The Optimum-10 is shielded from interfering with video displays.
Setup was a breeze. You plug the sub in. Connect the Subwoofer Out on the nifty Onkyo TX-NR808 receiver to the LFE input on the Optimum-10, and you’re in business. Well, almost. The magic in this puppy is the parametric equalizer. Velodyne supplies a dinky omnidirectional microphone, a dinky stand for it, and a 20’ cord to connect to the input on the front panel. You plug the mike in and locate it at the primary listening position. When you press the EQ button on the remote, the Optimum-10 generates 12 sweep tones; listening to these tones through the mike, the Velodyne’s software measures the effects that the room’s dimensions, walls, and furniture have on the sound, then programs the sub’s equalizer to account for them. Move the sub or the furniture, and all you have to do is plug the mike in and run the sweep tones again.
"Yeah, so what?" I hear you say. "An equalizer. Good audiophiles generally avoid equalizers." Well, friend, the proof is in the listening. Once you’ve set up the Optimum-10, you’ll hear bass as you’ve never heard it before.
I set the crossover at 80Hz on the Onkyo and disengaged the Velodyne’s crossover. After the Optimum-10 was installed but before doing any critical listening, I recalibrated my MartinLogan surround speakers.
I’ve had a lot of powered subs hooked up to my A/V rig. Each had its own characteristics: bone-rattling depth, sublime tonal accuracy, unimpaired loudness. All have done the job satisfactorily in one fashion or another, but none has done everything so very, very well as the Optimum-10.
In Enya’s Watermark (CD, Reprise 26774-2), deep synthesized bass is the order of the day. From the root punctuations of "Cursum Perficio" to the pedal rumblings of "Storms in Africa" to the Stygian bridge in "Orinoco Flow," this CD challenges not only a subwoofer’s ability to reach down and grab the notes, but to render them with distinct clarity. Set to Rock, the Optimum-10 did it all, note for note. Similarly, Jellyfish’s landmark Bellybutton (CD, Charisma 91400-2) is a minor miracle of modern engineering; Jack Joseph Puig somehow dialed in the precise amount of bass for each track. Jason Falker’s opening to "The Man I Used to Be" burrowed to just the right depth, and John Patitucci’s upright bass in "Bedspring Kiss" flowed so smoothly it inadvertently took over the track -- just like Rob Wasserman’s upright in "Night Train," from Bruce Cockburn’s The Charity of Night (CD, Rykodisc RCD 10366), an instrument of propulsive energy and grace. Don Dixon’s sublime bowed upright in the title track of Marti Jones’s Any Kind of Lie (CD, RCA 2040-2-R) precisely trembled through the Velodyne, just as his electric bass in "Second Choice" gently and firmly led each chorus to resolution. Dixon is a bassist, and it’s no mistake that the low end is prominent in any recording he produces.
Rob Wasserman’s performance in "Night Train" brought into stark relief the difference between MP3 recordings and bona-fide hi-fi. I first heard the song on Radio Paradise, and commented that I loved "the guy cookin’ on fretless." After hearing the CD, it was massively apparent that he was playing an acoustic double bass -- the sonic differences between the two instruments are obvious, but were not apparent on the MP3 over the radio, even through excellent PC speakers like my Audioengine A2s. Finally, I’ve never been much of a Bruce Cockburn fan (I know; don’t start), but The Charity of Night is a terrific album that I can’t recommend highly enough -- especially when its low end is reproduced by the Velodyne Optimum-10.
Now set to its Movies mode, the Optimum-10 took my DVDs to places they hadn’t been. A word about the function of deep bass in movie soundtracks: We all know and are all familiar with the thundering rumble of space cruisers (the Star Wars effect), massive explosions, and the sickening crunch of large machines with too many wheels. Generally, those kinds of rumbles are associated with some real image, action, or artifact on the screen -- but they barely scratch the surface of what the low end can do. The artful film-sound engineer will deploy bass to create atmosphere, to signal some meaning to the viewer, be it foreboding, dread, a portent of change, and so on. So uniquely refined was the Optimum-10’s sound that it gave me wonderful insight into the many duties of bass in a soundtrack.
Guillermo del Toro’s sublime Hellboy opens on a remote Scottish isle, where Der Führer’s Requisite Cast of Pure Evil (c.f. Raiders of the Lost Ark), aided by one Grigori Rasputin (it’s a comic book, fercryinoutloud), prepare to unleash some tentacled nasties, the Ogdru Jahad, on the planet. At one point a Klieg light is sucked into Rasputin’s cosmic vortex past the Jahad, flailing helplessly in its crystalline prison. What I heard was a marrow-curdling rumble -- not the sound of the Jahad so much as a portent of doom, a not-so-subtle warning that these übersquid weren’t to be trifled with. Bass can also enhance the illusion of very large spaces bounded by very large doors, gates, windows, what-have-you. In chapter 5 of Hellboy, Agent Myers’ descent into the FBI’s Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense was accented by deep, heavy, metallic clanks as trap doors shut and walkways magically appeared onscreen. Even the vault-like door to Hellboy’s apartment (chapter 6) punged dully as the tumblers laconically fell into place. It is the reverberant bass dialed into the soundtrack that give these illusions their depth and authenticity -- artifacts that the Optimum-10 rendered with conviction.
Alex Proyas’s flawed I, Robot, with its plot holes (how do Spooner and Calvin know where each other lives?) and ill-conceived characters (what exact purpose did Shia LaBeouf’s street urchin fill?), is nonetheless occasionally compelling sci-fi, if only for Will Smith’s screen presence and the loving care with which Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk), the almost human NS5 robot, is drawn. This is one movie that uses atmospheric bass to marvelous effect. In chapter 14, the deep bass in Marco Beltrami’s background music signals danger as Smith’s Det. Del Spooner approaches Dr. Lanning’s mansion -- a portent of dread that is quickly fulfilled. Similarly, in chapter 31 every other downbeat in the score is heavily accented with bass, building the suspense as Spooner and Calvin approach the USR Building for the final showdown. The latter scene was noteworthy because, for the first time -- and I know this movie’s sound pretty well -- I could hear timpani mixed in with something else harsh and uncompromising, the two and maybe more sounds instilling in me an edge-of-the-seat anticipation. I’m not sure I’d heard the timpani before. And in genuine action scenes -- the rolling out of the NS5s (chapter 16), their attack on Spooner (chapter 18), the fierce rumbling of the USR trucks, the crash of Spooner’s Audi (product placement at its finest) -- the LF effects boomed prodigiously, such was the bass power created by the Velodyne Optimum-10.
There is no such thing as the perfect speaker, and that more than likely applies doubly to subwoofers -- too much can go wrong. However, the combination of an inky-dinky footprint, an overabundance of power, a modest driver, and its room-correction equalizer makes the Optimum-10 as close to perfect a subwoofer as I’ve heard. Musical bass was musical; atmospheric effects were stratospheric; and plain ol’ Hollywood CRASH! BAM! KA-BOOM! action hijinks were rendered with joy and abandon. Indeed, this is one subwoofer that stood out because of what it didn’t do: The Optimum-10 never once exhibited any bloat, fuzzy rendering, or aural flatulence. If there were standing waves bouncing about my A/V room, they were barely noticeable. What the Optimum-10 delivered was honest, bona-fide bass: clear, crisp, and clean, with no sense of strain or needless rattling.
I will return the Optimum-10 to Velodyne with great reluctance. If there is a subwoofer out there that delivers the brand of honest sound that the Optimum-10 does, I want to hear it. But folks, I’m not sure it exists. The Optimum-10 is an outstanding audio product. Highly recommended.
. . . Kevin East
- Source -- Oppo BDP-83 Blu-ray player
- Receiver -- Onkyo TX-NR808
- Speakers -- MartinLogan Motion 4, 6, 10
- Display device -- Dell W4200HD
Velodyne Optimum-10 Subwoofer
Price: $1199 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor, electronics; five years, driver.
345 Digital Drive
Morgan Hill, CA 95037
Phone: (408) 465-2800
Paradigm manufactures all manner of loudspeakers, from traditional floorstanding and bookshelf designs for stereo and home-theater applications to in-wall, in-ceiling, and even outdoor models. One of their most recently launched lines is the Reference Millenia (the misspelling is deliberate), which combines the slim, pleasing appearance required of "lifestyle" products with the high performance associated with the Paradigm Reference name.
The latest model to be added to this line is the MilleniaOne. Designed to be used as one of a stereo pair or as any speaker in a multichannel system, the MilleniaOne is an ultracompact model that can be mounted on a wall, stand, or shelf. It costs $250 USD each and is available as a stereo pair or a set of five. A matching Millenia subwoofer, wireless and similar in design to the slim Paradigm Reference RVC-12SQ, with dual, vibration-canceling drivers, will be available late in 2010 for $1399. For this review, Paradigm sent along their Reference Seismic 110 sub ($1399).
The Paradigm Reference MilleniaOne is a diminutive 7.75"H x 4.5"W x 5.75"D, but it weighs a stout 5.6 pounds, or 6.6 pounds including the dedicated stand. Its shape is oval from the front, which gives it a softer, more rounded appearance than other Millenia models, which are quite angular. It uses the same 1" Satin-Anodized Pure-Aluminum (S-PAL) tweeter as the other Millenia models, and an all-new 4" S-PAL mid/woofer similar to that used in the step-up Studio line. The rock-solid enclosure of die-cast aluminum is said to act as a heatsink for the drivers to aid in cooling, and to permit larger, more powerful drivers than would normally be used in such a small speaker. Instead of being oriented at a right angle to the rear panel, the port extends the entire height of the enclosure, starting at the bottom and firing out near the top. This is claimed to extend bass response.
The spring-loaded speaker terminals, designed to accept bare wire of relatively light gauges, will not accommodate the large, audiophile-approved spades (or any spades) and banana plugs that I like to use. I ended up adding extensions to my existing speaker cables with some old AudioQuest F-14 wire I had lying around. On the plus side, even though the terminals are slightly recessed, a trough molded into the rear of the speaker makes it easy to guide the wires into place. The rear mounting plate is articulated so that it can be moved both horizontally and vertically, then tightened by hand. This plate can be replaced by a compact stand suitable for shelf placement. If the Ones are purchased as a five-speaker set, one of the stands is shorter and oriented horizontally, so that the One it supports can be used as a center-channel speaker. The One is available in décor-friendly Black Gloss or White Gloss finish, with matching, magnetically attached grille.
The Reference Seismic 110 subwoofer isn’t a Millenia model, but its unique appearance and small size will make it a "lifestyle" product in the eyes of most, and it’s similar in price to the forthcoming MilleniaSub. A short cylinder lying on its side, it measures only 13.75"W x 13.5"H x 12.6"D. Packed inside its tiny sealed enclosure is a unique 10" driver of mineral-filled copolymer polypropylene, with a Linear Corrugated Surround that permits greater, more linear excursion, and a split voice-coil that runs almost the entire length of the enclosure. The Seismic 110 is finished in satin black and weighs 37 pounds.
The Seismic 110’s high-excursion driver is powered by an 850W RMS class-D amplifier said to be capable of 1700W of dynamic power. There are the usual controls for output level, frequency cutoff continuously variable from 30 to 150Hz (with bypass option), continuously variable phase (0-180 degrees), and trigger or auto power. Inputs consist of a single XLR jack or a stereo pair of RCAs. A USB input is provided for connection of Paradigm’s optional Perfect Bass Kit (PBK) room-correction system ($300).
The MilleniaOnes are so small that their tweeters weren’t high enough, even when I set them on the 22"-high stands I had on hand. I ended up placing the Ones atop a pair of Paradigm Reference Signature S6 v.3s and C3 v.3 center-channel speakers, also in for review. The surrounds were placed in their usual position in my room: on 48"-tall stands to the sides of the listening position, angled slightly toward the rear of the room. I put the Seismic 110 in the right front corner, where room interactions are typically minimized -- which I confirmed by running the Anthem Room Correction (ARC) system in the Anthem Statement D2 A/V processor. I didn’t run PBK with the Seismic 110 sub, as ARC accomplishes essentially the same result.
ARC set the response cutoffs to 140Hz for the MilleniaOnes, and I adjusted the phase control on the Seismic sub to get the best bass integration possible. I noticed a touch of leanness in the upper bass that couldn’t be cured by moving the sub, adjusting the phase, or increasing the sub’s output, but this was quite minor in comparison to the system’s excellent overall sound. In fact, the integration of the speakers’ outputs was outstanding for a system comprising extremely small satellites, and better than anything I’ve achieved with other sat-sub systems of similar size.
To get an idea of the MilleniaOne’s performance, I first listened to a stereo pair without the aid of a subwoofer. As expected, they didn’t extend particularly low in the bass, but I was surprised at how big and powerful they did sound. Nils Lofgren’s guitar on "Keith Don’t Go," from Acoustic Live (CD, Vision 820761101422), was reproduced with a thrilling explosiveness. There was a good bit of weight behind the resonance of the guitar, and the strings had lightning-fast speed. About three minutes into this track, when things really get going, there was a natural richness to the sound, but the guitar never lost its tightly controlled character.
Although the MilleniaOne lacked deep bass, and was even a little light in the midbass, its midrange was exceedingly clear and neutral, as evidenced by its reproduction of voices. Listening to Steven Page and Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies was impressive. Their good-humored interplay on "If Had a $1,000,000," from Gordon (CD, Sire/Reprise 26956-2), flowed naturally from the large soundstage created by these speakers. The two voices were easily distinguishable, and well separated from the backing chorus, the sweet-sounding fiddle, and the lyrical accordion. The MilleniaOnes are intended to be used with a subwoofer, but listening to a pair of them alone let me hear how astonishingly good they were for a small satellite speaker.
Adding the Reference Seismic 110 sub to the array transformed the Ones into a remarkably coherent, full-range speaker system. I’ve been listening a lot lately to R.E.M.’s In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 (DVD-A, Warner Bros. 9 362483819), and it sounded excellent through the Millenia system in both its two- and multichannel mixes. Michael Stipe’s melancholy singing on "Nightswimming" was crisp and clean, as it should be, and the piano and strings were full-bodied. The overall sound was a little forward, but this gave voices a nice immediacy and palpability. The playful "Stand" had toe-tapping pace, supported by a huge soundstage that was anchored by a solid bass guitar. Delightful percussive sounds were placed throughout the soundstage, and the distorted electric guitar solo was in perfect tempo.
The wonderfully transparent midrange and the References’ ability to reach down to the lowest octaves with little noticeable distortion were amazing for a $2649 system, let alone such a compact lifestyle system. Pop music dominated by bass beats, such as Katy Perry’s "California Gurls," from Teenage Dream (CD, EMI 6 84601 2), went amazingly deep, and maintained a solid grip on the bass that was devoid of boominess. Even with all that driving bass, Perry’s cavalier lyrics and Snoop Dog’s rapping remained crystal clear.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Gladiator Blu-ray is a favorite of mine, and Paramount has reissued it with remastered video; its picture quality is now worthy of this Oscar-winning film and its outstanding soundtrack. Although the massive sounds of battle in this film can sometimes overwhelm speakers, the Millenia system kept everything in check without sacrificing dynamics or high output levels. In the opening scenes, the music and sounds of wind were calm and enveloping, unlike what was about to follow. When the battle began, the catapults and explosions, which can sound harsh through some systems, were frighteningly realistic and loud, but did not distort. During the rooftop chase in the BD edition of The Bourne Ultimatum, the speakers easily transitioned from the atmospheric musical score and the echoing sounds of birds to extreme dynamics as the chase moved inside, to claustrophobic hallways.
There is plenty of low bass throughout The Hurt Locker, but chapter 8, in which a desert patrol is ambushed by a sniper, will test the low-frequency extension and output of any system. As the final shot rang out and an empty shell casing fell to the ground in slow motion, the Paradigm system sent a low-frequency wave rolling through my room. The ominous rumble was truly subsonic, and completely filled the room without the subwoofer giving any sign of distress or any indication of its location. The launch sequence in Apollo 13 was not only loud and free from distortion at window-rattling levels, the coherence and integration of the outputs of the five identical satellites and the subwoofer were outstanding. Dialogue always remained intelligible, even as massive booster rockets roared, the orchestral score filled the background, and objects in the command module rattled. In fact, each element of this densely layered soundtrack was clearly and realistically reproduced, creating a believable 360-degree soundfield. Also musicians are avid gamblers and playing on the playground best online casino.
$2649 is a fair amount for a small sat-sub system, but more than half of that is for the Seismic 110 subwoofer ($1399). At first glance that might seem disproportionate, but the MilleniaOne is so good that it deserves a sub of this caliber. And with a sub that can go as low and play as loud as the Seismic 110, there’s really no need for the MilleniaOne to reproduce much bass. This lets it concentrate on reproducing the midrange and treble frequencies, where it excels. Put the two together and you have a speaker system that doesn’t just sound good for a $2649 lifestyle system, it sounds good for a $2649 system, period.
I didn’t have another sat-sub system or even a budget speaker system on hand for direct comparisons, but I did have an array comprising Paradigm Reference’s Signature S6 v.3, C3 v.3, ADP3 v.3, and Sub 1 (total price $16,194). It might seem ridiculous to compare the MilleniaOnes and Seismic 110 to a system costing nearly six times as much, but both are Paradigm Reference systems, and there was a similar familial sound. Granted, the Signature system, with its much larger speakers all around, and the six-driver Sub 1, went even deeper and played noticeably louder, but the Millenia system will play plenty loud and deep for almost anyone in a small to mid-size room.
The clarity of the Millenia system’s midrange and treble were close to those of the Signatures, but the high frequencies weren’t as silky smooth. For example, though cymbals weren’t splashy with the Millenias, they lacked that sparkling quality exhibited by the Signatures’ wonderful beryllium tweeters. The acoustic guitar on Nils Lofgren’s "Keith Don’t Go" was powerful and dynamic through the Millenias, but the metallic sound of the strings lacked that last touch of refinement and detail that the Signatures deliver.
Although it couldn’t match the performance of the Signatures, the fact that the MilleniaOnes plus Seismic 110 could even be compared to such reference-quality speakers is quite an accomplishment for a décor-friendly lifestyle system. After all, many people don’t want a big, expensive speaker system like the Signatures. For those who want attractive lifestyle speakers that can be placed just about anywhere and won’t break the bank, this system will reward them with fantastic sound.
Lifestyle speakers -- those that melt into rather than dominate a room -- typically sacrifice some performance to achieve their compact size and good looks. But with the Paradigm Reference MilleniaOne speakers and Seismic 110 subwoofer, there was little such compromise. If I were looking for a compact lifestyle system, this one would be at the top of my list. The MilleniaOnes and Seismic 110 cost a little more than many small sat-sub systems, but cost a lot less than I would have expected considering their outstanding performance.
. . . Roger Kanno
- A/V processor -- Anthem Statement D2
- Amplifiers -- Bel Canto e.One REF 1000, eVo6
- Sources -- Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player, Trends Audio UD-10.1 USB digital converter
- Speaker cables -- Analysis Plus Black Oval 9, Blue Oval
- Interconnects -- Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval, Copper Oval-In Micro, Pro Oval subwoofer
- Digital cable -- DH Labs Silver Sonic HDMI 1.3, DV-75
- Power cords -- Essential Sound Products AVP-16
- Power conditioning -- Blue Circle Audio Peed Al Sea Thingee, Zero Surge 1MOD15WI
- Display device -- JVC HD-56FC97 RPTV
Paradigm Reference MilleniaOne / Seismic 110 Home-Theater Speaker System
System Price: $2649 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor (three years, Seismic 110).
Paradigm Electronics, Inc.
205 Annagem Blvd.
Mississauga, Ontario L5T 2V1
Phone: (905) 564-1994
Fax: (905) 564-8726
The ubiquity of portable music players like the Apple iPod has made headphones quite popular. But the tiny iPod lacks the cojones to adequately drive many of the better headphones, which really need a separate headphone amplifier. Headphone amps range from iPod-sized (designed to be part of a mobile music player) to huge units about the size of a VPI LP vacuum. And the costs of headphone amps range from under $100 to well into five figures.
If you want a good headphone amp but don’t want to spend much for it, where do you go? For a lot of folks, the answer is eBay, where you can find a number of Chinese-made headphone amps at low prices. Some of these are terrific bargains, but I suggest caution: The shipping charges may be high, and if it breaks, you’ll probably have to ship it back to China for repairs.
One way to avoid the risk of buying Chinese on eBay is to shop for US-made products -- such as the Asgard from Schiit Audio, which gives the Chinese crowd a run for their money. The Asgard’s price of $249 USD seems too low to qualify it as a high-end audio product, but the amp looks as if it costs far more, and has some very high-end design features. From Schiit’s website, we learn that the "Asgard is a fully discrete, class-A, single-ended FET headphone amplifier with no overall feedback and a non-inverting circuit topology. Its high-current design makes it uniquely suitable for low-impedance headphones." That means that its signal path contains no integrated circuits. I’m somewhat ambivalent about that, because I’ve heard some fabulous headphone amps that do use integrated circuits -- but when it came time for me to buy a headphone amp for my own use, I chose the Stello HP100, which also lacks ICs, and I’ve never regretted it.
A class-A circuit can produce very pure, accurate tonality, but it can also run very hot, and the Asgard was no exception to the latter tendency. Schiit’s cute, humorous owner’s manual warns you that the amp runs really warm, though not necessarily hotter than blazes! But it does.
About the company’s name: Yes, it’s pronounced just as you might think it would be. Why would company founders Jason Stoddard, formerly of Sumo, and Mike Moffat, formerly of Theta, pick such a name? I think they prized it for its ability to grab your attention; they certainly use it provocatively throughout their website, whose home page proclaims "You aren’t gonna believe this Schiit."
I’ve seen $1000 amplifiers that don’t look as good as the Schiit Asgard. Its chassis is a thick sheet of brushed aluminum bent into an elongated U; a second U-shaped section, this one of black-painted steel, inserts into the rear of the unit, and on top is a perforated section for ventilation. The amp can be placed horizontally or vertically (in the latter orientation, the volume control is on the front panel’s lower half); stick-on feet let you choose.
The Asgard’s exterior is very simple: on the front panel are an aluminum volume control, a 0.25" headphone jack, and a white LED that tells you when the amp is turned on. At first, I wondered: Why white instead of the far more common blue? Then I bought a new computer, and noticed that all its indicator lights are white. Maybe white is the new blue.
On the rear panel are an IEC jack for the power (hooray, no wall wart -- another high-end feature), a toggle switch to turn the power on and off, and two RCA input jacks. That’s it -- elegant simplicity.
Setup and use
Many headphone enthusiasts have simple audio systems consisting of only a source component, an amplifier, and their ’phones. I set up such a system comprising the Asgard, a Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD/CD player, and Sennheiser HD 650 or AKG K701 headphones. I plugged the Sony and Asgard into a Silver Circle Audio Juice Box, Jr., a two-outlet power filter well suited for providing clean power to a headphone system. I used Blue Marble Audio Blue Lightning power cords from the Juice Box to the Sony player and the Asgard. It may sound goofy to use power cords that cost almost twice as much as the amplifier, but these were the cheapest decent-sounding cords I had.
I’ve recently seen comments on websites to the effect that some audiophiles, and even some reviewers, seem to regard burning-in components as a hoax perpetrated by deranged reviewers; some even appear to take suggestions that they need to burn-in new gear as personal insults. I heartily agree that burning-in components is a pain in the posterior, but my ears tell me that burn-in does improve the sound of some equipment -- and let’s not ignore the fact that most manufacturers recommend the practice. Schiit Audio recommends burning in the Asgard for a week for best sound, so I gave it ten days with a TARA Labs burn-in CD. To my ears, it was well worth the effort; before burn-in, the sound was somewhat closed-in at the top; after, it was extended and open in the highs. Now, however, there was a slight emphasis in the highs. Back in the burn-in CD went for another week. Now the high end was smoother, and more open and extended.
The Asgard’s high operating temperature warrants another mention. During setup, I picked up the amp to move it a couple of feet, so that the headphone cord would reach my listening chair. It was so hot I almost dropped it. Outside of some tubed units, I’ve never seen any component run this hot. Unfortunately, the metal volume knob, which looks lovely, gets just as hot as the rest of the amp. I’d almost rather see a plastic knob.
I experimented with different interconnects, and settled on Crystal Cable’s CrystalConnect Piccolo because its radiant midrange complemented the Asgard.
Schiit touts the Asgard as being a particularly good match for Sennheiser headphones, and I hoped that would be true; while I own a pair of their HD 650s, I’ve never been a big admirer of the brand’s sound. Usually, after admiring Sennheiser ’phones’ huge bass, I quickly miss the high-frequency response, which I find rolled off and lacking in detail. But because Schiit recommends them, I used the HD 650s as the primary headphones for this review.
While the Schiit Asgard didn’t bless the Sennheiser HD 650s with super-extended highs, it did make listening to them more enjoyable. However, compared to other amplifiers I’ve used, I thought the Asgard rolled off the highs just a smidgen. Given the HD 650s’ tonal balance, the last thing they need is a high-frequency rolloff.
However, there’s no problem with HD 650s’ lows. These ’phones are capable of prodigious bass, and the Asgard elicited from them weighty, ultradeep bass extension. Jordi Savall and his ensemble romp lustily through "Folia Rodrigo Martinez," from La Folia 1490-1701 (CD, Alia Vox AFA 9805). One of the instruments played is a large drum with a frequency response that extends down into the mid-20Hz range. The Asgard drove the HD 650s effortlessly to reproduce the deepest response. I could hear how the drum loaded the room when it was enthusiastically whacked, and how its reverberation then decayed to silence.
Nor did I have any problem getting as much volume as I wanted. The volume control typically sat at the 12:30 position with most music I listened to.
To check out the Asgard’s handling of vocal music, I sampled A Sei Voci’s recording of Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere (CD, Astrée E 8524). The voices were quite smooth, and I could hear individual singers in the chorus. Headphones aren’t great for depicting information about the spatial qualities of a recording venue, but I could tell that the performance had been recorded in a medium-size room that had a bit of reverberation. This piece includes elaborate ornamentation of the basic melodies by the sopranos, who soar high above the other voices. There was a smidgen of HF rolloff that made the bass voices more prominent than the sopranos, however. To evaluate solo voice, I cued up Chris Jones’s "God Moves on the Water," from his Roadhouses and Automobiles (CD, Stockfisch SFR 357.6027.2), and clearly heard his gruff baritone. I also heard a subterranean bass guitar that went deeper than I had heretofore realized, even when listening with subwoofers.
My favorite track for evaluating how a component reproduces recordings of large-scale orchestral works is Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon overture, with the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Eiji Oue (CD, Reference RR-92 CD). I can’t say that the combination of Schiit Asgard and Sennheiser HD 650s re-created it perfectly, but they did full justice to the very low bass, and respectably well at reproducing the orchestra’s full percussion ensemble. At hi-fi shows, it usually takes speakers costing over $20,000/pair to convincingly reproduce this recording.
To check out the Asgard’s transient performance, I cued up "PercusienFa," from Eric Mongrain’s Fates (CD, Prophase Music MVDA4585), a solo guitar piece with scary-fast transients. The Asgard certainly didn’t lack energy; the transients were like physical blows to my eardrums. However, the transients’ leading edges seemed rounded, which in turn made it seem as if the highs were slightly rolled off.
With the AKG K701 headphones, while I heard lots of detail and somewhat more elevated HF response, I still wasn’t hearing all the highs -- some of the highest-frequency details were missing. The highs in "PercusienFa" were more evident than through the Sennheisers, making Mongrain’s guitar sound much more realistic. There’s a lot of HF content in guitar music, and the AKG K701s did more justice to it.
I was pleased to hear the Asgard producing deep bass with the K701s, whose bass response is, I think, plenty deep. However, if you think the HD 650s’ bass is just right, then I can see how you might think the AKGs are lacking in that department. With the K701s, the bass in the Colas Breugnon overture seemed nearly as deep and strong as through the HD 650s -- but with "Folia Rodrigo Martinez," the Sennheisers produced a notably deeper, fuller low end.
Like the Asgard, my Korean-made Stello HP100 headphone amp ($595), which I reviewed in the June 2006 SoundStage!, uses discrete devices in its output stage. It has two inputs and a line-level output, so it can be used as a preamp in a small-scale system. It looks like a miniature preamplifier with a thick front panel, and its fit and finish are impeccable. Like a Ford Model T, the Stello comes in your choice of colors, as long as it’s black. It runs only slightly warm, so it’s probably not heavily biased into class-A.
With either pair of headphones, the Stello’s HF response was somewhat more extended than the Asgard’s. That surprised me; the last two headphone amps I reviewed, the HeadRoom Ultra Micro (June 2008) and the Blue Circle Audio SBH (September 2007), had sounded brighter than the Stello, and I’d decided that the Stello had perhaps a slight HF rolloff. In comparison to the Asgard, the Stello didn’t sound peaky, or as if it had a rising high end, but there was considerably more HF energy, with commensurately more detail and tonal accuracy in the sounds of musical instruments. The Stello gave both headphones frequency balances that sounded like those of good speakers. The result was that I actually enjoyed listening to the Sennheiser HD 650s, which I don’t always.
The Stello also seemed to have more punch and dynamic range than the Schiit; music through ’phones sounded more exciting, more realistic. But the Asgard had deeper, more powerful bass. I’ve already noted that the electric bass in Chris Jones’s "God Moves on the Water" sounded incredibly deep through the Asgard. When I listened to the same track with the Stello, Jones’s voice was noticeably easier to understand; I actually understood some lyrics that had sounded like mumbles through my speakers. That’s one of the standard strengths of headphones, of course, but it took the Stello amp to make it happen with this track.
Just for grins, I then tried the Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD player’s built-in headphone amplifier. It was fairly decent, but rather anemic in the bass, and I had to crank the volume control all the way up to achieve adequate volume. Overall, music through the Asgard sounded way better -- a good illustration of why you need a separate headphone amp.
In keeping with Schiit Audio’s recommendations, I primarily used Sennheiser’s HD 650 headphones to audition the Asgard. What I heard was potent bass, a smooth midrange, and a slightly rolled-off high end -- but I think that much of that rolloff can be attributed to the Sennheisers. With the flatter AKG K701 headphones, the rolloff was still present but less extreme. So just as you’d take care in matching an amplifier to the speakers you use, you need to do the same in picking the headphones you’ll use with the Asgard. I wish I could have tried the Asgard with the rather bright-sounding Beyerdynamic DT 880 headphones I reviewed in November 2006, but they’re long gone.
I’m impressed that Schiit Audio can produce a headphone amplifier for $249 that sounds and looks as if it costs $1000. And you don’t have to order it from some unknown Chinese company on eBay and pray you’ll actually see something for your money. If you need a good headphone amplifier at a price that seems silly cheap, I suggest you rush your order directly to Schiit via their website, before they come to their senses and raise the price.
. . . Vade Forrester
- Headphones -- Sennheiser HD 650, AKG K701
- Headphone amplifier -- Stello HP100
- Source -- Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD/CD player
- Power conditioner -- Silver Circle Audio Juice Box, Jr.
- Power cords -- Blue Marble Audio Blue Lightning
- Interconnects -- Crystal Cable CrystalConnect Piccolo
Schiit Audio Asgard Headphone Amplifier
Price: $249 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor; 15-day money-back guarantee.
22508 Market Street
Newhall, CA 91381
Phone: (323) 230-0079
Paradigm is a relatively large company by audiophile standards, whose core business is the design and manufacture of high-quality speakers at real-world prices. While probably best known for their many lower-priced models, Paradigm is able to exploit their advanced research and design facilities and large-scale manufacturing plant to create a line of flagship speakers, the Reference Signatures, at reasonable prices. I suspect that most boutique manufacturers would be hard-pressed to design speakers as technically advanced as Paradigm’s Reference Signatures for any price. While they cost considerably more than Paradigm’s entry-level models, I still consider them to be an excellent value for their outstanding performance for the price.
I’ve owned a pair of Paradigm’s original Reference Signature S8s since they made their debut in 2004. Since then, Paradigm has made many improvements to the Reference Signatures. The first major upgrade was a tweeter of pure beryllium (which Paradigm calls P-Be). Many speaker makers consider beryllium to be the best material currently available for tweeter domes, for its low mass, high strength and stiffness, and excellent thermal conductivity. Most recently, Paradigm has completely redesigned their Reference Signature woofers, and claims a 50% increase in output. With these and many other improvements, the latest, v.3 versions of the Reference Signature models should offer significantly better performance than the originals.
Paradigm sent me a pair of the relatively compact S6 v.3 floorstanders, presumably confident that they would compare favorably with my larger, original S8s. The S6 v.3 retails for $2899 USD each in the standard cherry finish; it’s also available in Natural Maple and Piano Black at additional cost.
The Reference Signature S6 v.3 stands only 43.75”H x 8.25”W x 13.5”D, yet weighs a surprising 70 pounds. The cabinet is gently curved to reduce internal standing waves, and the crossover frequencies are specified as 190Hz and 2kHz. Two sets of high-quality binding posts are provided for biamping or biwiring, if desired.
Usually, product flyers from audio manufacturers contain mostly marketing hype, but Paradigm’s Reference Signature brochure provides a lot of technical detail. It’s apparent that a great deal of effort has gone into optimizing nearly every aspect of the speakers’ design. Paradigm’s patented IMS/Shock Mount fastening system decouples the drivers from the heavily braced cabinet, and high-quality crossover components and silver-coated oxygen-free copper wiring are used. More impressive is the advanced technology used in the drive-units, all of which are designed and built by Paradigm.
The 1” tweeter’s P-Be dome is “hot-formed” from a solid piece of beryllium instead of the more common vapor-deposit technique, resulting in a dome that Paradigm claims is measurably higher in strength and consistency. Two massive neodymium magnets are claimed to generate 20,000 gauss of magnetic energy at the voice-coil. The damping chamber behind the tweeter contains high-loss, foam acoustic dampers, as well as fins designed to break up and disperse residual internal resonances; fins on the outer surface act as heatsinks.
The 7” midrange cone is made of what Paradigm calls Co-PAL -- another proprietary material, this time of cobalt-infused aluminum, also said to have high stiffness and low mass -- and has a neodymium magnet whose magnetic field is claimed to be 15,000 gauss. The die-cast aluminum chamber has asymmetrical channels to dissipate the backwave, and is directly coupled to the magnet to transfer heat away from the motor structure. The chamber has high-loss felt dampers to reduce internal resonances, and exterior cooling fins.
The two 7” woofers have polypropylene cones with a higher mineral content to increase their stiffness, revised motor structures, and surrounds made of Non-Limiting Corrugated (NLC) Santoprene. According to Paradigm, the combination of these increases the output by 50% over earlier versions of this woofer. Previously, the tweeter and midrange outputs had to be curtailed to match the lower output of the woofers; now Paradigm says they’ve increased the outputs of the other drivers to match, with the result of a higher output for the speaker overall. On the front baffle, directly below the lower woofer, is the port.
The review samples looked gorgeous in Piano Black, which was finished to a very high standard. They also felt very solidly built. My only complaint was that the pressure-fit grilles seemed a bit fragile -- as if their plastic tabs might break off during installation or removal. Some might also object to the many exposed mounting screws on the drivers, and the visible holes for the grille tabs on the front baffle. Granted, the Signature S6 is designed to be used with its grille on, in which case these would be invisible. However, after listening for some time with the grilles on, I found that I preferred the sound without them. I did most of my listening that way, and suspect many audiophiles will do the same. I found that the high-tech-looking drivers, especially the woofers with their NLC surrounds, gave the Signature S6 a purposeful and muscular look.
With a few minor adjustments to fine-tune the imaging, the Reference Signature S6 v.3s took the places of my original S8s in my reference system: about 3’ from the front and side walls, and slightly toed in.
I listened to the S6 v.3s with and without my Statement D2’s Anthem Room Correction (ARC) engaged. The S6 v.3s sounded very good on their own with no room correction, but, as expected, ARC tightened the bass and made the midrange a bit more transparent, which in turn tightened up the imaging. As I always listen to my S8s with ARC engaged, that’s how I listened to the S6 v.3s.
Over the past several years I’ve grown accustomed to the sound of the original Signature S8s. They have a big sound, with excellent bass extension and a neutral midrange accompanied by sweet but natural-sounding highs. The S6 v.3s indeed had a similar familial sound, but the new speakers sounded better -- a lot better.
I expected the S6 v.3 to be extraordinarily clean through the midrange and especially the treble, due in large part to that P-Be tweeter. What I didn’t expect was the incredible speed and slam in the bass from what is a fairly compact floorstander. Not only was the bass fast and articulate, there was plenty of weight behind it. Some speakers sacrifice bass extension for a quicker response, and end up sounding a little thin or lean. Other speakers, in trying to go lower, end up sounding boomy and inarticulate. Not so the S6 v.3. Down to almost the lowest audible frequencies, it was weighty and tightly controlled in a way I’ve never heard from such a compact cabinet. In combination with the Signature S6’s pristine midrange and treble, its nimble, visceral bass produced a strikingly vivid sound.
The reproduction of Rosanne Cash’s voice in “Western Wall,” from The Very Best of Rosanne Cash (CD, Columbia/Legacy 696998699625), was immaculate. The slight sibilance of her whispery, closely miked voice was reproduced beautifully, and placed high in the soundstage. The vibrant slap and twang of strings were finely demarcated from the resonance of the body of the acoustic guitar, which had an uncannily solid character.
The S6 v.3s easily moved from the big, bold sound of a good acoustic guitar to the diminutive sound of the ukulele on Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole’s Facing Future (CD, Mountain Apple 761268590121). The uke lacks a guitar’s attention-grabbing sustain, but the Signature S6s conveyed its delicate notes’ swift decays into this recording’s utterly “black” background. I could almost picture this giant of a man -- he was 6’ 2”, and at one point weighed 757 pounds -- from the short, labored breaths audible at the beginning of his medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/Wonderful World,” which he transforms into a disarmingly graceful vocal style. The imaging was limited to a relatively narrow space between the speakers, but the S6 v.3s conveyed every nuance of Iz’s voice and ukulele.
Just about any high-quality speaker can make an audiophile recording sound good, but the S6 v.3 made them sound exceptional. With less-than-stellar recordings, all of the speaker’s strengths were still clearly audible while revealing no weaknesses. Kiss’s MTV Unplugged (CD, Island/Mercury 731452895028) sounds decent for a live album, and was surprisingly clean and clear through the Paradigms. The voices of Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley, and Peter Criss were easily identifiable as they took turns singing the verses of “Rock and Roll All Nite,” with Paul Stanley joining in on the chorus. The multiple acoustic guitars were spread uniformly across the soundstage, and I could even hear Bruce Kulick outshine original bandmember Ace Frehley in their respective guitar solos. The opening drumbeats were deep and tight, and even with two drum kits, three acoustic guitars, and an acoustic bass, I could distinctly hear, behind the group, the appreciative noises of the crowd. The less frenetic “Rock Bottom” sounded even better, the scintillating guitars and clearly audible bass guitar complementing Stanley’s voice, which has survived the ravages of time better than have those of his bandmates.
About the only shortcoming of the S6 v.3 was its inability to play extreme low bass. Rosanne Cash’s “Western Wall” is one of SoundStage! Network editor-in-chief Jeff Fritz’s reference recordings for subterranean bass because it contains important musical information in the 20Hz area. The S6 v.3 hinted at but could not fully reproduce the subtle but amazingly deep foot stomps 25 seconds into this track. However, when I switched in the six 8” drivers and two 850W amplifiers of the Paradigm Reference Signature Sub 1 subwoofer ($4499 in Cherry), those foot stomps were reproduced with amazing authority -- as if someone were actually stomping on my listening-room floor. But even without the stomps, “Western Wall” sounded powerful and full-bodied through the Reference Signature S6s. Getting those last few hertz out of a high-performance system is not easy to do, and usually requires a very capable subwoofer, or much larger and more expensive speakers. So it wasn’t unexpected that the S6 v.3s couldn’t reproduce those ultralow frequencies.
Listening to the 24-bit/96kHz download of Iver Kleive’s pipe-organ version of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (FLAC, 2L/HDtracks), you wouldn’t think anything was missing from the S6 v.3’s bass -- this track doesn’t quite dip into the lowest registers. In fact, adding the Sub 1 only marginally improved the bass response of this track; even without the sub, the S6 v.3s wonderfully re-created the organ’s solid, room-filling sound.
While the original Signature S8 ($2700-$3000 each when available, depending on finish) is a considerably larger speaker with two additional bass drivers, the Signature S6 v.3 was clearly superior. The S8 was able to play back the 20Hz tone from the Hsu Research/Boston Audio Society Test CD 1 at a considerably higher level than the S6 v.3, but it sounded noticeably looser than the S6 v.3 when reproducing the 31.5 and 40Hz tones. With music -- such as “Poker Face,” from Lady Ga Ga’s The Fame Monster (Deluxe Edition) (CD, Streamline/Interscope 0602527210360) -- the S8’s greater bass extension was pleasing, but came at the expense of some speed and definition that slightly detached the beat from the rest of the music.
The S8 may have been able to reach a little lower, but through the midbass and up the S6 v.3’s superior neutrality and transparency were readily apparent. Everything was just a bit cleaner through the S6s, image outlines clearly snapping into focus where they were slightly blurred with the S8s. Paul Stanley’s fervent singing on Kiss’s “Rock Bottom” was less distinct from the multiple acoustic guitars, and Gene Simmons’ voice was more difficult to identify in the backing vocals. Through the S8s, the violin of soloist Marianne Thorsen, on her disc of Mozart violin concertos with the Trondheimsolistene (24/96 FLAC, 2L/HDtracks), also lacked that last touch of transparency that made individual notes blend slightly together. The S8s gave the orchestral strings a lovely, warm sound, but with a more homogenous quality that masked the melody and robbed the music of some pace. Through the S6 v.3s, the orchestra still sounded rich and luxurious, and Thorsen’s violin was placed solidly between the speakers with power and authority. I enjoy listening to this fantastic string-ensemble recording at lifelike (high) levels; with the S6 v.3s, it never became fatiguing.
Given the Paradigm Reference Signature S6 v.3’s ambitious design, exceptional construction quality, and what I heard from them, I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that it cost $10,000/pair or more. Then again, if anyone could produce such a high-performing speaker for about $6000/pair, it would be Paradigm, with their advanced R&D facilities and modern manufacturing methods. The Reference Signature S6’s combination of ultrasmooth treble, perfectly integrated midrange, and unexpectedly articulate bass make it a speaker that simply must be heard to be appreciated. Its lack of coloration, extremely high power handling, and wide, smooth frequency response allowed it to play back any type of program material without fault.
In short, the Reference Signature S6 v.3 is a remarkable achievement: a technologically advanced product that is beautifully constructed and sounds absolutely amazing. The fact that a pair of them can be had for only $5798 makes it a relative bargain in the world of high-end audio.
I will soon retire my original Signature S8s and replace them with the S6 v.3s in my reference system. The new speakers are a sheer pleasure to listen to, day in and day out, with absolute neutrality, smooth, extended highs, and surprisingly dynamic bass. When introduced, Paradigm’s original Reference Signature models set a benchmark for performance, price, and craftsmanship. Judging by the S6 v.3, with the newest Reference Signatures Paradigm maintains their leadership position in manufacturing terrific products at reasonable prices.
. . . Roger Kanno
A/V processor -- Anthem Statement D2
Amplifier -- Bel Canto e.One REF1000
Sources -- Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player, Trends Audio UD-10.1 USB converter, Asus O!Play HDP-R1 media player
Speaker cables -- Analysis Plus Black Oval 9
Interconnects -- Analysis Plus Solo Crystal, DH Labs D-75 digital cable and HDMI cables
Power cords -- Essential Sound Products AVP-16 AC
Power conditioning -- Zero Surge 1MOD15WI, Blue Circle Audio’s Peed Al Sea Thingee
Paradigm Reference Signature S6 v.3 Loudspeakers
Price: $5798 USD per pair in standard cherry finish; other finishes available at additional cost.
Warranty: Five years, parts and labor.
Paradigm Electronics, Inc.
205 Annagem Blvd.
Mississauga, Ontario L5T 2V1
Phone: (905) 564-1994
Fax: (905) 564-8726
Definitive Technology has remained the brainchild of founder Sandy Gross for 20 years now, and the US speaker company has a long and distinguished record of innovation. Each of the small ProMonitor models, for example, has a passive radiator that fires through its top panel to extend the bass response. Another recent example is the Mythos STS, with its built-in, racetrack-shaped subwoofer in a superslim cabinet, and which earned the SoundStage! Network Aesthetics & Sound Award in 2008.
Gross recently retired from Definitive Technology, and VP Paul DiComo has taken over the product-development reins. DiComo has a long history with successful speaker companies, having come to DefTech from Polk Audio several years before. The Mythos XTR-50 is the first Definitive speaker whose development he has entirely overseen, from vision to final product. I was excited to hear if the sound quality of this ultrathin speaker matched its state-of-the-art looks.
Mythos XTR-50: outside
The Mythos XTR-50 ($699 USD each) measures 27"H x 6"W x 1.5"D and weighs 5.1 pounds. When I first saw the speaker, I was struck by its flatness -- in person, with its tapered sides, it looks even thinner than 1.5"; my impression was of the blade of a machete. It felt all of a piece, as if machined from a solid piece of aluminum, with no looseness or rattling. The rear panel is nearly flat, with indents for mounting the speaker directly on the wall, or with the included mounting bracket. The smooth, high-gloss finish will easily match the finish of most flat-panel TVs.
The unusual design of the binding posts is perhaps my only complaint about the XTR-50’s user friendliness, though it’s clear that some sort of compromise is necessary in so flat a speaker -- conventional binding posts would be too big, and force the speaker away from the wall. You must first thread bare wire (14 gauge maximum) into a green connector, then snap the connector into the back of the speaker. Make sure you push the connector all the way in, or the speaker won’t work.
Included are stands for vertically or horizontally mounting the XTR-50 on a table. The vertical stand is a thing of beauty, cosmetically matching the speaker’s shiny gloss appearance. Although the stands are plastic, with a glass bottom, they bolt easily to the speaker to give a one-piece look. For an even cleaner appearance, you can feed speaker wire through the legs of the stand to the binding posts. The wire channel, however, is small; it won’t accept wire larger than 16 gauge.
The horizontal mount, for center-channel duty, is simple: Two feet screw into the XTR-50’s rear panel. This lets the speaker’s weight rest on the feet and the speaker’s bottom edge. The XTR-50’s tilt can be adjusted by screwing the feet in and out.
Mythos XTR-50: inside
Looking at the Mythos XTR-50, it wasn’t obvious that its grille could be removed until Paul DiComo pointed it out to me. (It’s held in place with magnets.) Centrally placed is a 1" aluminum-dome tweeter that’s voiced similarly to those in the other speakers in DefTech’s Mythos line. It’s built slightly differently, though, because of the XTR-50’s thinness.
The two 3.5" mid/bass drivers are all new for the Mythos XTR-50. Because of the design constraints of a thin speaker, conventional woofers wouldn’t work -- a high-power-handling voice-coil can easily be longer than the XTR-50’s 1.5" depth. Instead, Definitive Technology’s design team has coupled the voice-coil to the enclosure, so that heat can be dissipated without requiring the space-gobbling heatsink of a conventional voice-coil.
Most designers extend a small speaker’s bass response with a port. With the slender Mythos XTR-50, however, a conventional port would be too small, and would result in audible chuffing. Instead, the bass response is extended using four 3.5" passive radiators. As their name implies, these aren’t directly driven by an amplifier, but move in and out in response to the pressure created in the cabinet by the two amplified drivers. The result, according to DefTech, is decent bass response down to 92Hz -- unimpressive for a conventional speaker, but remarkable for one so thin, and one that, anyway, is designed to be used with a subwoofer.
Mythos Gem surround speaker
Compared to the Mythos XTR-50, the Mythos Gem on-wall surround speaker ($279 each) looks like a conventional bookshelf model. Enthusiasts of thin speakers will be put off by the fact that it’s a disgusting 4.25" deep. But since the Mythos Gem won’t normally flank a flat-panel TV, the depth should be fine in most rooms.
The design is unconventional. The front-firing 1" tweeter is normal enough, but the two forward-firing 3.5" mid/bass cones, one above and one below the tweeter, are respectively angled to the right and left. This effectively gives the Gem the wide dispersion of a bipolar speaker in a cabinet with a narrow front baffle. The Gem measures 10.25"H x 4.125"W x 4.25"D and weighs 4.5 pounds.
SuperCube II subwoofer
In choosing a subwoofer to accompany this system, Paul DiComo ran some tests and felt that the best match would be the SuperCube II ($899). A cute little thing with a volume of only 1 cubic foot (12.5"H x 12"W x 12"D), it hides some potent hardware under its black-cloth grille: a 1250W amplifier that drives an 8" woofer, and two 8" passive radiators. The cabinet is made of 2"-thick Medite, an environmentally friendly material similar to MDF. The entire chassis is solid, hefty for its size at 42 pounds, and finished with a high-gloss top panel.
The control panel on the rear has both left- and right-channel speaker-level inputs and outputs and line-level ins and outs. There are knobs for adjusting the high- and low-pass crossovers and to continuously vary the phase -- rarely seen, these controls are very useful for matching the sub with any main speaker.
After taking delivery of the Mythos XTR-50 system, I was fortunate to have Paul DiComo come by my house and help with the setup. This was the first set of review speakers I’d had in the basement home theater of my new house. The room is 23’L x 16’W by 8’H, with a 92" projection screen on the long wall. My listening seat is 14’ from the screen; sitting there, DiComo detected a bass suckout. Knowing how the SuperCube II should sound in most rooms, he was unsatisfied with the bass response no matter where he put it. "Another SuperCube II will help even out the bass response," he said. "I’ll send you one."
Once the second SuperCube II had arrived and been set up, the layout was as follows: front left and right Mythos XTR-50s on the wall, flanking my screen; center-channel Mythos XTR-50 below the screen, 18" above the floor; and Mythos Gem surrounds on stands near the back wall. Finding satisfying locations for the two subs took some work, but I settled on the right sidewall 4’ from the front wall and, along the front wall, 3’ to the left of the left front speaker. The sub crossovers were set for 100Hz in my receiver.
I first tried the Mythos XTR-50s on the supplied stands near the wall, but for best performance, wall mounting won out. Unlike freestanding speakers, the XTR-50 is designed to work with the wall, which reinforces the upper-bass response and results in greater transparency and a better blend with the output of the subwoofer(s). That’s what I heard.
With the Mythos XTR-50 system set up and me settled in my listening chair, I was astonished by what I heard. Given the paper-thin depth of the XTR-50 compared to most other speakers out there, I couldn’t believe the quality and quantity of sound. This system will play loud. As a carriage drawn by galloping horses careens through the street in the opening scene of Sherlock Holmes (2009), the soundtrack of the Blu-ray edition makes good use of all five speakers and the subwoofers. This system really cooked, with a beautiful blend of the surround and front channels, and a seamless blend of the output of each satellite and the sound from the subs. The scene begins with the horses neighing in the left surround channel, which the Mythos Gem threw well to the left of the left surround speaker. The horses’ hooves and Hans Zimmer’s intense music pounded through the SuperCube IIs. Remarkably, as I turned up the volume, the XTR-50 mains kept up. I heard none of the dynamic compression or cabinet ringing that I expected, given the speakers’ thinness. Dialogue was completely understandable throughout this scene. This was coherence at its best.
The high-frequency performance of the Mythos XTR-50 is similar to that of other Definitive Technology speakers I’ve heard: neutral, but slightly on the analytical side. Like the best high-end speakers, these mains were revealing enough to make lousy recordings sound as they should -- bad. The XTR-50 didn’t gloss over edgy CDs from the 1980s, but rewarded me with superb sound when the recordings were superb. One such is Patricia Barber’s Nightclub (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab CMFSA2004), a two-channel-only SACD/CD. Listening to the bass solo in "Autumn Leaves" through the Mythos XTR-50s was riveting, with all the fine detail of the sound of each plucked string lovingly reproduced.
With this same recording, the blending of the sound from the main speakers with that from the SuperCube II subwoofers was fantastic. On its own, bass through the Mythos XTR-50 was lacking; it was hard to tell, for instance, whether or not I was listening to an acoustic bass or an electric bass guitar. But that’s why you need a well-matched subwoofer. Pairing the XTR-50s with the SuperCube IIs resulted in a balanced full-range sound. If the subwoofer or the main speakers produce too much or too little energy in the transition zone where the outputs of the satellites and subs blend, the sound can be muddy. With the XTR-50s and SuperCube IIs, however, the double bass in "Autumn Leaves" was gratifyingly balanced and deep.
The nimbleness of the 8" woofer in the SuperCube II gave a quality of bass that was quick and light, matching the sound of the XTR-50s. It’s one thing to get the outputs of the Mythos XTR-50 and SuperCube II to jell; it’s quite another to get slam satisfying enough for home theater. This was where the second SuperCube II made its presence known. With the second sub, I had the best of both worlds -- bass with power and definition. With the Blu-ray of 2012, the subwoofers rattled my walls and ceiling with every toppled building and falling boulder. Although two of these subs isn’t a cheap proposition at $1798, it competes with and surpasses most single subwoofers near that price in my room. As your room will be configured differently, your mileage might vary; a single $2000 subwoofer may perform as well.
Although not a visual match for the Mythos XTR-50s, the diminutive Mythos Gems performed like champs with the left and right surround channels. The film Shutter Island contains a great range of scenes and atmospheres, from prison cells to stormy weather. With the Mythos XTR-50s, the Mythos Gems reproduced the enveloping surround environments of the Blu-ray edition, playing much bigger than their size would suggest.
I had a couple of interesting speaker arrays on hand to compare with the Mythos XTR-50 system ($4453): Definitive Technology’s own ProCinema 1000 system ($1724) and the Angstrom Suono on-wall system ($2194). Although these are significantly cheaper than the Mythos XTR-50 system, the latter included two subwoofers; the former had only one.
Neither of the other two systems could match the stunning industrial design of the Mythos XTR-50, and that’s where many shoppers will end their search. The Mythos XTR-50 matches up perfectly with flat-panel TVs, especially the latest, 1"-thin ones. The Angstrom Suono 300S is handsome, but slightly less refined looking than the Mythos. And although the Suono 300S is thin, it will look bulky next to a really slim TV.
The Angstrom Suono 300S system sounded darker and less revealing than the Mythos XTR-50. This would make the Angstrom a better match for a casual system, where you’re not listening for that last ounce of detail. I listened to "S’Wonderful," from Diana Krall’s The Look of Love (SACD/CD, Verve 34 589 597-2); in comparison to the Mythos XTR-50, the strings sounded as if there were an extra layer of cloth between my ears and the speakers. However, the Angstrom system’s strength was its better bass response, which might make matching its mains to other subwoofers an easier proposition. You might even get away with no sub at all if floor space is at a premium, something that can’t be said for either Definitive system. And the Angstrom’s value for the buck is high; the Angstrom 300S main speakers cost only $399 each.
I was floored by the sound of Definitive Technology’s ProMonitor 1000 bookshelf system. I hadn’t had this system set up in a while, and had forgotten how great it is. What had me in a tizzy was these affordable little speakers’ imaging prowess. Being freestanding, they can be toed in to dial in the soundstage. The imaging is so good I can "see" the bassist’s fingers moving along the strings in "Autumn Leaves," from Patricia Barber’s Nightclub. The imaging specificity wasn’t as pronounced with either the wall-mounted Angstroms or the Mythos XTR-50s.
Also in-house was a single Monitor Audio RXW-12 subwoofer ($1300), which I compared with a single DefTech SuperCube II. This 12" subwoofer is slightly bigger than the SuperCube II, and has a couple of EQ settings for boosting the bass for movies or for a flatter response with music. Although as tuneful as the SuperCube II with music, the RXW-12 couldn’t compete with the DefTech’s two additional passive radiators. When I watched the Blu-ray of Star Trek (2009), the SuperCube II played this dynamic soundtrack quite a bit louder throughout the film.
In my extensive auditioning of Definitive Technology’s Mythos XTR-50 system, I was amazed at the dynamic capability and refined sound of these compact speakers. Each model -- mains, surrounds, and subwoofers -- blended together to provide a well-balanced soundfield that I found very involving when watching movies or listening to music. Because it is so revealing, the Definitive Mythos XTR-50 is best matched with good electronics. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with phenomenal sound to match these speakers’ great looks. Add it all up and you have one heck of a good surround-sound system.
. . . Vince Hanada
- A/V receiver -- Integra DTR-8.8
- Source -- Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player
- Cables -- Sonic Horizons Hurricane speaker cables and interconnects, Analysis Plus Blue Oval in-wall speaker cables, Analysis Plus Super Sub interconnects
- Monitor -- Sanyo PLV-Z5 projector with Grandview LFM-92 tab-tensioned motorized screen
Definitive Technology Mythos XTR-50 Home-Theater Speaker System
System Price: $4453 USD.
Warranty: Five years, speakers; three years, subwoofer.
11433 Cronridge Drive, Suite K
Owings Mills, MD 21117-2294
Phone: (800) 228-7148, (410) 363-7148
Fax: (410) 363-9998