March 2002Paradigm Monitor 5 Loudspeakers
by Doug Schneider
Those companies that embark on building cost-no-object products have something of an advantage. As one designer said to me, "The tough part is deciding what Im going to build. How Im going to build it is simple -- I just use whatever I need." Switch that around to build a cost-is-the-object product, and youve got a real problem. Youll still spend a lot of time deciding what to build, but the real chore will be to figure out how to get it all into a very affordable package.
Welcome to the world of building high-performance, inexpensive speakers. This is an area of the industry that some companies wont even think of wading into given the vast manufacturing and engineering resource requirements, along with the years of experience, that companies like Paradigm have when they create products like the $519-USD-per-pair Monitor 5 loudspeakers.
Paradigm, of course, doesnt just build inexpensive speakers; they have a staggering number of products in the lineup, their best being from their Reference series. Although even their own top-of-the-line speakers dont cost nearly as much as what some companies top products do, I suspect that if many companies without the resources Paradigm has tried to build those same speakers, they would cost a whole lot more.
I think highly of what Paradigm achieves with their loudspeakers. As a result, I own what I think are among their best -- the Reference Active/40s. These are self-powered and offer nearly state-of-the-art performance from a modestly sized speaker. Unfortunately, the market just wasnt ready for a speaker with amps built in, and Paradigm discontinued the Reference Active/40. Still, similar technology is available in the Studio/40 -- same drivers, same cabinet, but no built-in amps -- and also the Monitor 5.
One look at the Monitor 5 should strike a familiar note with anyone who knows the Paradigm family tree. This 21"H x 8 1/8"W x 11 3/8"D speaker with its Paradigm-designed and -produced 1" titanium-dome tweeter and dual 6 1/2" injection-molded polypropylene woofers is the spitting image of both the Active/40 and Studio/40 -- a dressed-down version, so to speak. You can be sure that much of what was learned in those speakers went straight into the Monitor 5 -- trickle-down technology at work.
At the bare-bones price of the Monitor 5 youre obviously not going to get the same things that you get with the pricier Paradigm speakers, but you do get a surprising amount nonetheless. Fitnfinish are very good, as is expected these days from the big-time speaker builders. Instead of a cabinet of MDF, this one is made from a type of particle board. A knuckle-rap on the sides revealed it to be a bit hollow-sounding compared to the super-inert Active/40s and Studio/40s -- one of the prices paid to offer a speaker at the Monitor 5's price. My review pair came in an attractive rosenut vinyl-veneer finish. The Monitor 5 is also available in black-ash and light-cherry finishes. Paradigm gave the Monitor 5 just a wee-bit of curviness by rounding the top of the grille, a nice touch.
Now, before you go peeling the grilles off thinking that youre going to get the best sound without em, understand first that Paradigm designed the Monitor 5s to sound best with the grilles on. What they do is sculpt the front of the speaker in such a way that the grille becomes an integral part of the baffle and works with the drivers, not against them as with some other speakers that need to be de-grilled. (Take note, though, that I favor the way these speakers look without the grilles.)
In terms of relevant specs, Paradigm rates the Monitor 5s to 35Hz -- a hearty amount of bass from a stand-mounted speaker. The anechoic sensitivity is said to be 88Hz, and the impedance is about 8 ohms. You can get high output from most any reasonably powerful amplifier. They say the maximum input is 120 watts, but I doubt you'll come close to that without your ears bleeding first. There is single set of binding posts on the back.
The crossover is said to be a third-order design. The tweeter hands off to both woofers at 1.8kHz -- this makes the Monitor 5 a two-way design. This is a difference between the Studio/40 and Active/40, which are 2.5-ways. These speakers have an additional lower crossover point that makes one of the woofers roll off before it gets into the midrange region so that both drivers handle the bass and only one rides up to meet the tweeter.
Like all of Paradigms designs, the low crossover point for the tweeter was chosen to optimize off-axis dispersion characteristics of the speaker. This is based on the Floyd Toole research done in the 1980s at the NRC in Canada, in which Paradigm also took part. In turn, Paradigm says their speakers work better in real-room situations than speakers that dont take this aspect of design into account.
The Monitor 5s are bigger than most bookshelf speakers Ive auditioned, and not surprisingly they are intended to work best on shorter stands. The company recommends stands 18-20" high. I used a pair of BBC speaker stands that worked well.
I used the 5s in two systems. One was receiver-based consisting of the Nakamichi AV-10 surround-sound receiver (although it has five channels, I used it as a stereo receiver) and a Kenwood DV-S700 DVD player (which plays CDs too). The other was my upscale reference rig with Blue Circle Audio BC2 mono amplifiers and BC3000 preamplifier, Theta Prime II DAC, and Theta Basic transport. I used Nordost Red Dawn II speaker cables and Nirvana S-L interconnects in both systems. More than likely people are going to match the Monitor 5s with modestly priced equipment, like that in the first system I mentioned. However, I wanted to give these speakers a workout with some really outstanding equipment just to see what they could do.
A whisper of power gets these speakers playing pretty loud, and it certainly doesnt take much more to get them to really high volume levels. But even at low volumes, the Monitor 5s are room filling with an appreciable amount of bass and an extended top end.
Overall clarity proved to be a strong point from the start, with noticeable high-frequency energy -- not brightness per se, but more prominence way up top than, say, Paradigm's $189 Atom speakers, which sound darker by comparison. If you have bright or edgy electronics, or perhaps a very reflective room, this clarity can exacerbate things like sibilance in vocals, so you may have to watch it. If your components are more neutral and your room is sufficiently damped (carpeting does the trick), it shouldnt be an issue.
I played Tom Waits Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years [Island 524519], much of which has a dark and murky sound inherent in the recording that can sound too congested on systems without a clear presentation. Try "Cold, Cold Ground" to see what I mean. The Monitor 5s proved themselves capable of slicing into the recording and unraveling plenty of detail throughout the frequency range. With music like this, the speakers sounded best at moderate or louder volume levels, where their robust character tended to convey a sense of fullness and presence to instruments and vocals.
Midrange performance proved very strong, with a fleshed-out sound that I really liked. This smallish speaker doesnt sound small -- it sounds BIG. This along with the bass, which Ill describe in a moment, are what will appeal to most listeners.
Male and female vocals had wonderful presence and a good amount detail. Ani DiFranco, a favorite of mine, had a level of purity in her voice that really impressed me -- from a speaker of the Monitor 5's price no less. Her cleanly rendered acoustic guitar had realistic vibrancy and attack. The lively horns that accompany her on "Little Plastic Castle" (Little Plastic Castle [Righteous Babe Records RBR012]) flew from the speakers. Male vocalists -- like Tom Waits, Willie Nelson, and Bruce Cockburn -- were conveyed with fullness and texture that charged the room.
The Monitor 5s have the sort of richness and vibrancy that most every listener will agree sounds very pleasing to the ear. However, there are a couple caveats to add here. On the male vocals, the midrange exhibited a somewhat overly resonant and chesty quality -- something I dont hear at all on my Active/40s, which convey voice with astonishing precision and clarity. There is also a wee bit of grain when, again, compared to more expensive speakers. The Monitor 5s are not quite as liquid as the upscale bunch.
Bass proved the most interesting, simply because thats the biggest difference youll find among the best of the good-sounding, well-designed inexpensive speakers. And the reason is simple: Great bass performance costs big money -- lots more money than what these speakers cost. So designers have to decide just how much bass they want to give you and how good its going to be -- a skilled combination of quantity and quality.
Given the larger-than-normal cabinet size and the use of two bass drivers, its obvious Paradigm wants to give some heft down low. And theyve done just that. This is a stand-mounted monitor that plays more like a floorstander. The Monitor 5 can play deep -- thunderously so, in fact -- which, once again, is very impressive given the price. Home-theater bass freaks will still want a subwoofer, but for pure music listening, the Monitor 5's low end is more than sufficient as it goes even deeper than some of my favorite bookshelf-sized speakers that are priced quite a bit more.
As a result of the deep bass capability, piano is surprisingly well reproduced. I say surprisingly because piano is one of the toughest instruments to get right even if you have low bass. Many speakers many times the price of the Monitor 5 fail miserably trying to do so. Its proof that the designers valued quality here too. I played the piano-dominated "You Wont Catch Me Cryin" from Willie Nelsons The Great Divide [Universal 586231], and the Monitor 5s showed good definition and conveyed impressive weight, which made the piano sound real and room-filling. Drums showed the Monitor 5s bass strengths too. They play tight, have good impact, and are able to go extremely loud. Rock and jazz are done justice here.
The downside of this superb extension is a bit of a boxy, wooden character to the drum sound and a bit of extra resonance on piano. Some of the best (and more expensive) speakers that can reach down as low as the Monitor 5s can do it with a visceral thoomp! -- impact that can compress your chest without the boxy coloration. But as I said, great bass costs big money; the combination of quantity and quality that the Monitor 5 delivers at their price is excellent.
Soundstaging proved to be quite good too. There is strong left-to-right placement with images of ample size, and depth of stage was rendered well. With the Monitor 5, the orchestral and choral The Mission soundtrack [Virgin 90567-2 ] was an expanse of sound that bettered some more expensive speakers that have entered my room. No, the Monitor 5s cant match what the super-imaging $1265 Amphion argon2s can do, but at a price point where you can get a flat-as-pancake presentation, the 3D performance that the Monitor 5s offer is a bonus.
Where the Monitor 5s shine is their big-speaker sound coupled with the across-the-board fine performance -- all at a very modest price. I suspect that this is why this speaker has gained some word-of-mouth notoriety among in-the-know, bargain-hunting audiophiles. Yes, you can do better for more money, but for what these speakers cost you can certainly have a lot of fun. If you play around with equipment (different amps, tube-based perhaps) and tweak the speaker in terms of placement in your room, you can get some serious system synergy going that results in shockingly high performance with audiophile bells and whistles attached. The level of performance the Monitor 5s achieved in my reference system was ear-opening. True high-end sound for half a kilobuck is what makes the Monitor 5 special.
Axiom speakers have become something of a reference at my house for offering high performance at value prices. The $275 M3Ti SE can hold its own in some ways against the Monitor 5 -- its midrange, for example, is a bit more transparent than that of the 5. But in areas of bass and overall output, it cant keep up given its size. The Monitor 5 is a much bigger speaker, has two woofers, and costs almost double the price. The companys floorstanding $465 M40Ti SE, with a single 6 1/2" woofer and a much larger cabinet, is the more logical comparison. Midrange transparency is about equal on these speakers (read back and youll realize that this is something that the over-achieving M3Ti SE has over both!), as is the high-frequency extension. Not surprisingly, the biggest difference comes in the bass region, and its obvious with both of these designs that the companies that built them value deep bass extension. Each speaker offers serious low bass for the price, but how they deliver it differs.
The M40Ti SE is warm and really weighty-sounding, but is a little fat and underdamped. It has an impressive sense of bloom, reminiscent of old-time tube sound, but it sacrifices tightness and control. The Monitor 5 hits with more authority and thwack -- the capability to drive the music home -- and that makes it more suitable for rock and quick-paced jazz, and also the transition to home theater.
On the flip side, Polk Audios new $810 LSi7 minimonitors proved an excellent contrast in design goals. Its woofer measures just 5 1/4" across, and the cabinet is compact and exceptionally inert. Based on my assessment of this speakers sound, Id wager Polk places midrange and high-frequency detail above having deep bass extension. In that vein, its a success in that it provides a bit more refinement in these areas than the Monitor 5. But this also makes it a whole lot different. The less-expensive Monitor 5 has deeper bass (by a long shot) and higher output capability. It fleshes out music more and is capable of filling a bigger room. But its not as precise as the Polk, which certainly does have impressive detail and can create a soundstage that gets close to what the Amphion argon2 can do.
Its not a matter of whats right or wrong, but rather of what you like better. As I said, you cant put everything into speakers at the Monitor 5's price, so you must determine priorities and start to pick and choose what to listen to. This goes for designers and listeners.
The Monitor 5s have a big-speaker character and offer truly high-end sound at an entry-level price. As a result they warrant usage with equally good electronics -- theyll show off the differences. Sure, you can go and spend double or triple the price and get better performance in this area or that -- after all, Paradigm offers the Studio/40, which is a more refined version of the Monitor 5 -- but your circumstances may not let you do this, or you simply might want to spend your money elsewhere. Whatever the reason, if you are in the market for a $500 loudspeaker, check the Monitor 5 out.
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