SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIHot Product Archives

Published October 1, 2001


Paradigm Reference Active/40 Loudspeakers

Almost everybody I know agrees that active loudspeakers -- loudspeakers with built-in specifically designed-for-the-purpose amplifiers -- make sense. Yet I know almost nobody who uses them.

Well, no consumers, that is. I know lots of studios that employ them for mixdown purposes.

You've got to wonder why consumers resist them so. After all, matching an amplifier to a specific driver/crossover combination makes a lot of sense. If the speaker nudges 2 ohms at a certain frequency, the designer can build in a massive amplifier to cope with it -- and if the load remains benign over the speaker's entire output, it can be matched to a much more modest design.

Plus, it's one thing less to worry about. It means you don't have to have a rack for an amplifier -- heck, it even eliminates an extra interconnect and speaker cable. Lordy! These days, you can buy the Paradigm Reference Active/40s outright for what you save by eliminating a single pair of interconnects. So why don't people buy 'em?

Well, they're different, and different makes consumers nervous. And even though reviewers occasionally review them, they seem like an afterthought. Month after month after month we push power amplifiers -- why believe us, if every so often, we advocate a system that doesn't need one?

But people are finally starting to accept loudspeaker systems with self-powered subwoofers -- is it possible that that's the "killer app" that will turn the tide for active loudspeakers? No, probably not -- audiophiles have become just too comfortable with the notion that separates mean increased flexibility to change now.

That's too bad. Too bad for them -- and too bad for Paradigm -- because the Active/40s are one helluva loudspeaker and one heckuva bargain. It's a pity that so few audiophiles will actually end up owning them.

Sometimes more is more…

The Active/40 is a large (21.5"H by 9"W by 13.25"D) stand-mounted speaker with three drivers -- a 1" pure-aluminum dome tweeter paired with a 6.5" mica-polymer cone midrange and a 6.5" filled-polypropylene cone woofer. Paradigm refers to the speaker as a 2 1/2-way design, meaning that it utilizes a third-order electro-acoustic crossover at 1.5kHz and a second-order electro-acoustic crossover at 400Hz. These active crossovers, Paradigm says, allow greater control over frequency and phase response and also eliminate crossover saturation, a common cause of limited dynamics. All of the drivers are custom-built by Paradigm and feature massive voice-coils, die-cast heat-sink chassis, and, in the case of the tweeter, ferrofluid cooling/damping.

My review pair was clad in a handsome rosewood veneer that curves gently away from the speaker's grille. The speaker's top plate is also curved -- contributing a rather elegant look that belies the speaker's $2000-per-pair price point. Under the skin, the cabinets are rigidly cross-braced and reinforced.

The plastic Paradigm logo-plate mounted under the speaker's grille glows green when the speaker is powered up and turns red when the protection circuitry is tripped -- or so I'm told. It would take a heartier head-banger than myself to trip the protection circuitry. Even Waiting for Columbus [Warners 2-3140] at frat-party level couldn't do it.

The back panel replaces conventional speaker binding posts with an input/control panel that begins to hint at what a complex system the Active/40 is. Mounted under a hefty slab of heat-sinking, the panel contains: a high-pass switch (third-order beginning at 100Hz), in case you wish to use the Active/40 in a bass-managed system; a low-frequency contour control with a 4dB range; a high-frequency contour control with a 2dB range; a level control; an RCA line-level input jack; a switch for choosing RCA or balanced inputs; and a balanced/XLR input jack. There's also a switch for choosing the "always on" or "auto on/off" function and an IEC AC mains socket. Extra-long power cables and a pair of 20' RCA cables are also included.

Each Active/40 contains two high-current, fully discrete power amplifiers -- a 125W amp to power the bass/midrange drivers and a 50W amp for the tweeter. High-power low-noise toroidal transformers and precision components, including mil-spec glass/epoxy circuit boards with plated through-holes, are used throughout.

Think about it -- if you were offered the Active/40 as separates, you'd be getting a pair of 50W monoblocks, a pair of 125W monoblocks, an active crossover system, and a sophisticated speaker system all for $2000. Sounds like a bargain, don't it?

More to be desired than gold…

Actually, they sound incredible. They've got big, muscular sound that really puts the boot to rock music like almost no other speaker I've heard in their price range. Dylan's Love and Theft [Columbia CK 85975] is graced by the best band the man's ever assembled (yes, I do rate it above both the Kooper/Bloomfield Blonde on Blonde group and possibly even The Band). One of L&T's standout musicians is drummer David Kemper, who swings with a limber, loosey-goosey version of the big beat.

The Paradigms captured this propulsive rock without adding any boom or bloom. It's a big sound, but they kept it from getting too big. Guitarists Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell trade riffs throughout the record, but their individual sounds were kept distinct and readily identifiable throughout. And Augie Meyers' organ has never been a more organic part of any band's sound than as it is heard here -- what a monster player he is. And what a cookin' album. Hope I'm half as vital when I hit 60.

It probably doesn't come as a surprise that the Active/40s have a big sound -- they're big speakers. They're rated down to 32Hz and they sure sound like they get there -- maybe even a fewer Hz lower by the time you add room gain.

What surprised me was how delicate they sounded playing Pierre Bensusan's new all-acoustic Intuité [Favored Nations FN2130]. Bensusan's playing style -- densely articulated runs punctuated by widely spaced harmonics-heavy floating notes -- could have been formulated as a speaker torture test. If the crossover isn't spot-on, or if the cabinet colors the sound, you lose all the magic. Through the Active/40s, Bensusan's light touch and whimsical compositions survived without an extra ounce of speaker-induced heaviness.

Nor did they intrude upon Iona Brown's solo excursions in The Lark Ascending [Argo ZRG 696]. Her viola was so light and so free from boxy sludge and grunge, it was like listening to liquid sunshine. And what a sweet-sounding, terrifically extended tweeter!

The epic sweep of the Reiner/CSO Beethoven 7th Symphony [JMCXR-0006] was extremely well served. I especially enjoyed the propulsively rocking cello line in the fourth movement. Talk about boogie!

Inevitably, I wound up listening to many of my favorite songs -- John Hiatt's new The Tiki Bar is Open [Vanguard 79593], The Delevantes' Postcards From Along the Way [Capitol 56179], Buddy Miller's Cruel Moon -- with everything I played, I was impressed by how much information the Paradigms extracted from my favorite discs and with the phenomenally sophisticated presentation they had.

Soundstages were huge -- both wide and deep. Images were unwavering. The sound was detailed, yet robust and full-bodied. I really had no complaints.


Associated Equipment:

Preamplifiers: Ayre K1x, Krell KCT

CD players/transports: Krell KPS 28c

Power amplifier: Krell FPB 300c

Loudspeakers: Dynaudio Contour 1.3 Mk II

Cables: AudioTruth Midnight, DiMarzio M-Path interconnect, AudioQuest Dragon, DiMarzio M-Path, DiMarzio Super M-Path speaker cable, Illuminations Orchid digital cable

Accessories: Foundation speaker stands, Osar Selway Audio Racks, AudioQuest Big Feet and Little Feet, Vibrapods, Audio Power Industries Power Wedge Ultra 116

Room treatment: ASC Tube Traps, Slim Jims, Bass Traps

As I listened to more and more music, I was beginning to sense a slight grain in the upper midrange. It was consistent from source to source and it was not pronounced, but it colored Emmylou Harris' Anthology [Warner/Rhino R2 76705], robbing it of some of the crystalline sweetness I know the disc to have.

Once I identified this quality, I could hear it with any source or recording. In side-by-side comparisons with the Dynaudio Contour 1.3 Mk IIs, it was reasonably obvious -- but when listening to the Paradigms by themselves, it was noticeable but not all that obvious.

How big a problem is it? Well, it's there, but it's extremely mild -- it took me quite a bit of listening to identify it. And even once I had, it was an extremely minor coloration. So minor that changing interconnects or AC cables might well mitigate it.

In comparison with the Dynaudios, the Paradigms faired reasonably well. They matched the Contour 1.3 Mk IIs' bass extension and heft quite nicely, but the Dynaudios had a tonal sweetness and liquidity that the Paradigms simply couldn't match. This affected extremely low-level detail -- as good as the Paradigms sounded on their own, they didn't actually extract as richly inhabited a soundstage as the Contours did.

But think about this. The Dynaudio Contour 1.3 Mk II lists for $2399, and I was driving it with a $10,000 Krell FPB-300 amplifier connected to the loudspeakers with $1300 worth of speaker cable. It better sound better. The Paradigm Active/40 cost $2000, amps included -- no speaker cables need apply.

More and more about less and less…

I loved the Active/40. What it does right is capture the big picture -- music's sweep, drive, and enveloping grandeur. Its single -- to my ears -- shortcoming was minor and easy for me to adjust to.

And they're cheap! I simply cannot believe that you can buy this much speaker -- let alone amplifier -- for $2000. It's like buying the speakers and stealing the amps.

But I'm reluctant to rave too much about the Paradigm Reference Active/40s. Oh, they deserve it all right. It's just that I know it's a lost cause. No matter how good they are, no matter how convenient, logical and sensible they are, I know that audiophiles won't buy 'em, because audiophiles don't buy active loudspeakers. And non-audiophiles won't buy 'em because non-audiophiles don't buy $2000 loudspeakers.

It’s a great pity, because these speakers are what it's all about. They're wicked good. They're dirt cheap. They're well built and stunningly engineered. Too bad most of you will never even think of owning them.

...Wes Phillips

Paradigm Reference Active/40 Loudspeakers
Price: $2000 USD per pair ($2300 for optional wood side panels)
Warranty: Three years parts and labor on amplifiers, five years on all other parts

Paradigm Electronics, Inc.
101 Hanlan Road
Woodbridge, Ontario L4L 3P5 Canada
Phone: (905) 850-2889
Fax: (905) 850-2960


US distributor:
M.P.O. Box 2410
Niagra Falls, NY 14302
Phone: (905) 632-0180
Fax: (905) 632-0183

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