I read many reviews on supposedly great audio products in which the writer starts off by being vague, bulks up through the middle of the review, and then ends with a bang, declaring the product to be [fill in any number of superlatives here]. Basically, the writer wants to keep you guessing until the end. I thought about doing this here -- but I just cant with this product. See, the Paradigm Reference Active/40s are great speakers -- I mean really great speakers -- and I just cant hide this fact until the end of the review. Such a strategy would be foolish and only detract from what I need to say. So, just as in the movie Memento, Im going to start by telling you the ending and then work back to the beginning. In the movie, this makes sense, and I think it will here too.
So, yes, these speakers are that good, and, yes, if youre shopping for speakers in the $2000 price range, you must put the Active/40s on your list. They easily compete with passive speakers Ive heard costing upwards of $6000, maybe more. And the Active/40s dont even need an amplifier because its built in, so their value is even greater, making the Active/40s are a screaming hot deal.
Thinking inside the box
Active loudspeakers are not new, but with the lack of acceptance in the marketplace some people might mistake them as such. The fact is that companies like Meridian have championed this cause for years, and so too have others that cater to the professional market. Paradigm, while not necessarily a pioneer, is already on its second generation of actives -- far ahead of most North American manufacturers.
But despite the fact that there are companies like Paradigm pushing the technology, its an uphill battle for acceptance of active speakers. Audiophiles just don't readily accept the idea of their speakers being self-powered. But active loudspeakers have some distinct advantages over their passive counterparts. In fact, when I asked the designers at Paradigm which technology was better, active or passive (since the company makes both types of speakers), I couldnt even finish my sentence before the word "active" was rushed back at me. There was just no second thought about it. But why?
Serious audiophiles know that the amplifier/speaker interface is crucial. If you use the wrong amp, you can get atrocious results, even with great speakers. So imagine that instead of guessing which amp to use with your speakers, you let the designer, who knows the speaker inside and out, take care of choosing it for you. And instead of that engineer having to design the crossover to interact with the huge output of a power amp, he creates the crossover to work with line-level power, something that the folks at Paradigm say is better because it allows them to tailor everything with far more accuracy. So, for a designer who is skilled at loudspeaker and amplifier design, active speakers are ideal in terms of amplifier/speaker mating.
But in the end, active loudspeakers take some freedom away from audiophiles who like to mix and match their components (and risk the very big chance of messing things up). But it gives this power to the designer, who is then free to optimize the amp, the speaker, and the crossover so that all pieces work together optimally. And thats precisely what the Active/40 is about.
The Active/40 loudspeakers are part of Paradigm's Reference line and stem from the companys passive Studio/40 design. However, the Active/40 shouldnt be thought of as simply a Studio/40 with some amps thrown in. This is quite a different speaker, although cosmetically the two look very similar.
Each Active/40 measures 21.5"H by 8.25"W by 13.25"D and weighs in at a hefty 55 pounds, largely due to the amps mounted to the back inside. The speaker uses a 1" aluminum-dome tweeter and two 6.5" woofers -- one with a mica-polymer cone and the other with a polypropylene cone -- all of which Paradigm designed and manufactured. The Active/40 is a 2.5-way design. What this means is that both woofers operate through the lowest frequencies to give the best bass possible. But as the frequency increases, one of the drivers is rolled off and the other travels into the midrange region by itself -- sort of like engines dropping off a rocket, I guess. The tweeter handles whats above all that. The crossover is a third-order design with the main crossover point at 1.5kHz. Additionally, one woofer crosses electro-acoustically at 400Hz, while the other woofer handles everything up to 1.5kHz. Like all Paradigm models, the Active/40s have been designed for wide and even dispersion, something that the company learned while working closely with Canada's National Research Council and Floyd Toole back in the 1980s.
There are two solid-state amplifier modules in each Active/40 speaker: 50 watts for the tweeter and a 125 watts for the midrange/woofer section. Therefore, each speaker is biamped with enough power to drive it to excruciatingly loud levels. Having the amps built right in also allows for a safety feature. If you play the speakers too loudly -- the green "P" on the bottom front turns red, indicating that you should TURN THE MUSIC DOWN!
Since these speakers are self-powered, you just need a line-level source with volume control to play music -- usually the output of a preamplifier, or if youre lucky and dont need switching capability, the output of a CD player or DAC with volume. There are two sets of inputs on the back: one is single-ended (RCA) and the other is balanced (XLR). While most will use one or the other connection, its worth nothing that it is possible to have two sources connected to the speakers at once, one balanced the other single-ended, because you can switch between the inputs on the back panel.
The speaker is largely tweak-free, although there are a couple adjustments you can make. First, there is the speaker-level control that adjusts the output level (sort of like a volume control). Ideally it should be left midway, but if your source has too little or too much gain, it can be used to compensate. Then there are separate high- and low-frequency contour controls, which can be used, more or less, like tone controls to raise or lower the highs and lows to compensate for room interaction and personal preference. I left these in the flat position. There is also a high-pass filter should you wish to shelve off the bass and use the speakers with a subwoofer.
Finally, there are two power switch settings: Always On, should you wish to keep the power amps juiced up all the time, and Auto On, which turns the speakers on when they sense a signal and leaves them on until no signal has been detected for 15 minutes. The latter setting is really handy because it takes away the fuss of having to power on and off the speakers.
While having the amps built in is convenient, the real benefit of the active technology can be seen when you look at the performance characteristics and compare them to those of a passive speaker. The Active/40 is a relatively small box, but Paradigm claims +/- 1dB from 22kHz down to 36Hz. Thats serious bass output for a small box and remarkable linearity through the frequency range. In contrast, the companys passive Studio/40, which is the same size and uses the same driver configuration, can only muster +/- 2dB through the frequency range and goes down to 59Hz -- a big difference.
But there is one down side to the whole active approach -- youll need outlets near each speaker since each must be plugged in. I reviewed the speakers as a stereo pair and as part of a home-theater system, and the active home-theater system has six speakers to plug in! The issue was further complicated when I found the speakers a little susceptible to dirty power. When I had the front speakers connected to a circuit that also had an air conditioner on it, I could hear annoying "clicks" through the speaker as the air conditioner powered on and off. Furthermore, the air conditioner would kick the subwoofer on even with no music playing.
To remedy the situation, I ended up getting a JPS Labs Power AC Outlet Center with a super-long cord and plugged that into a clean wall outlet and then plugged the speakers into it. Problem solved.
Overall, the Active/40s are an attractive, relatively compact design ideal for modern living quarters. They can be dressed up a little by adding the $300 optional wood side panels. As with all its speakers, Paradigm designed the Active/40 so that it sounds its best with the grille on, which is the opposite of many designs. To accomplish this, they simply extend the drivers out a little bit from the baffle and then sculpt out the grille, so when the grille is mounted, the drivers and the grille form a flush front baffle. All in all, its hard to criticize anything about the design, especially when you consider the more-than-reasonable price.
Ive lived with the Active/40s for a few months. For home theater, I simply drove all the speakers straight from my preamplifier (Paradigm supplies super-long interconnects to do the trick). In two-channel mode, I did most of my critical listening with the Active/40s in the simplest of systems consisting of only the Audio Aero Capitole 24/192 CD player (it has its own volume control) straight into the back of the Active/40s via three-meter runs of RCA-terminated Nordost Quattro-Fil interconnects.
I used the Active/40s on 24" stands, and this should be considered the maximum height for stands for these speakers. Stands that are 20"-22" high would probably be ideal.
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the sound with various recordings (and compare the Active 40s to other speakers), its probably best again to give you the summary information up front and expand as I go on. The Active/40 is an extraordinarily neutral and clean-sounding speaker with little character of its own. Its personality-less, meaning that it passes on the signal with little, if any, editorializing of its own -- perfect for a monitor speaker. Bass is strong and startlingly deep given the size of the enclosure -- it will have you trying to locate the subwoofer. The middle frequencies are neither exaggerated nor pulled back. Instead, as with the rest of the frequency spectrum, the mids are extremely well balanced and neutral. Finally, the high frequencies soar effortlessly. Ive heard some people call Paradigm speakers "polite," meaning a little reticent up top. The Active/40s certainly are not polite -- their high-frequency shine gives vibrancy to instruments along with plenty of air. Imaging is top notch, with a soundstage that is both stable and expansive. If you want to hear most everything a recording has to offer, this is a speaker to do it with.
The KBCO Studio C series of CDs out of Boulder, Colorado features live recordings of well-known artists. Hearing Emmylou Harris "Orphan Girl." from KBCO Studio C Volume 8 [KBCO-C-08] was an ear-opening experience because the speakers rendered Harris' voice with a natural ease that I most often associate with the sound of a great single-ended amp/speaker combo. The recording may not be perfect, but there is pristine clarity and ample detail that show with the Paradigm speakers -- without a hint of edginess or harshness. This is the neutral and "personality-less" quality I was referring to earlier. If this were the tube-world, wed likely refer to it as a liquid quality due to the smoothness. But dont get me wrong. Im not talking about an overly warm and pronounced sound, but as with the Revel M20 that I reviewed a few months back, there is an almost eerie sense of purity and smoothness that very few speakers in the $2000 price range have. Its the kind of thing that fans of electrostatic speakers enjoy because it gives a heightened sense of transparency.
I next moved to Didos "Thank You" from her No Angel CD [Arista 19025]. Once again, the Active/40s showed their supreme smoothness, clarity and control through the midrange, both on Didos whispery vocals and the background piano. Sibilance above and beyond whats on the recording is completely absent. As I mentioned, Ive heard some people call Paradigm speakers a little laid-back, but the Active/40s are not like that at all. These are extremely extended and very precise speakers -- the tweeters just soar.
Im not too much of a fan of country music, but the soundtrack to All the Pretty Horses [Sony SK 89465] mixes country with a healthy dose of Spanish flair, which enhances the movies story about a young American boy falling for a beautiful Mexican girl. The acoustic guitars have excellent bite and texture played through the Active/40s -- theres sheen and realism due to the excellent high-frequency extension. On the discs only vocal track, "Far Away," a closely miked Marty Stuart is presented with a full, natural, resonant quality that never becomes chesty or bloated. The midrange is every bit as tight and controlled, which results in a highly detailed and natural sound along with imaging that is precise and soundstage depth that borders on extraordinary. And, once again, the resulting presentation is so transparent that it begs comparison to electrostatics. I suspect what helps the Active/40 achieve this level of performance is a complete absence of boxy coloration and distortion that can obscure detail. To me, this is true neutrality, and its something I value highly in a speaker. However, it should be noted that those who favor a more palpable or forward sound in the midrange might find the Active/40s a touch dry.
Also on the All the Pretty Horses soundtrack is some powerful, deep bass that simply gets missed with similar-sized speakers. That such bass comes from a small package is, of course, one of the benefits of the active technology -- the crossover, amplifier, and drivers are a complete package, and Paradigm can apply equalization to extend the bass down safely where passive speakers of the same size cant reach. The bass is outstanding given speaker's size; it can deliver serious weight, something not all smallish speakers can do. Even something like the outstanding Revel M20, which has its own strengths, can't manage nearly the bass extension of the Active/40s.
Therefore, a more logical comparison here is Mirages large OM-7, which is the equal in terms of extension, but in a much physically larger package. In a nutshell, each speaker has outstanding impact and realism, not something you usually get at the $2K price tag. They are a little different, though. The Active/40 is a little tighter and more visceral, while the OM-7 has a bigger sound that leans slightly more to the warmer, more robust side of things -- a trait some listeners will value greatly. But I suspect that listeners won't have a problem choosing between the two given their distinct differences.
Right, wrong and different
Ive given the Active/40s plenty of praise, but do the speakers do anything wrong? Well, if you want to really criticize, the Active/40s are not full-range speakers (i.e., ones that extend to 20Hz). Their bass is deep, strong and tight, but to get down to 20Hz, you must pair the Active/40s with a subwoofer like Paradigms Servo-15. You'll then shake the floors and walls with bass from the lowest regions.
Also, although the Active/40s can play plenty loud and fill a fairly large room with sound, they may have trouble with very large rooms. They can deliver serious output for a modest-size box, but there are limitations on just how loudly they will go (although I never got close to their maximum). Again, though, this would likely change if you added a Servo-15 (or two!).
As for other things, the Active/40s dont necessarily do anything wrong as much as they do things differently. For example, if you take a speaker from Dunlavy or Cliffhanger, you will undoubtedly find traits you like. But again, the sound will not be something thats necessarily better or worse, but different. And when you compare a much more expensive speaker, such as JMlabs $7000 Mini Utopia, youll find that it has a much more luxurious appeal with a nicer finish (and given the price difference, this is to be expected). But when it comes to comparing the sound, again it is more about differences than one being better (although the Active/40s do have much better bass extension). The Mini Utopia is a bit more incisive, visceral and lively in the midrange and up top. The Active/40s, on the other hand, dont jump out at you quite as much, and they are not quite as precise, but what they do well is play music superbly across the board with top-to-bottom coherency and balance.
So, in the end, what you have is a $2000 speaker that gets you a whole lot of performance with, in fact, very little if anything to criticize. When you consider what some speakers cost and the fact that the differences are more or less just differences and not improvements, you can understand why Im so enthusiastic about these speakers.
Paradigm knows how to make loudspeakers that many times outperform some speakers costing much more. The companys high-flying $189-per-pair Atom is a shining example of this. And I mention this inexpensive speaker in the same context as the Active/40 because the Active/40 is every bit the same type of value. But it competes against rather expensive speakers, and thats what makes it so special.
If you want to move into something that approaches cost-no-object type performance for nothing near the commensurate price, check out the Active/40, my new benchmark for speaker performance in the $2000 price bracket. In terms of high-end speakers, the Active/40s are actually cheap -- and even cheaper yet because they have their own amplifiers. Go ahead and compare the Active/40s to speakers that cost up to $6000, perhaps more, and I'll wager that they more than hold their own against most -- and in many cases they will likely come out the winner. Not even contemplating price, the Active/40 is an outstanding speaker. Considering what it costs -- and what you get -- its a steal.
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