Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
“High-end hi-fi shouldn’t be like a Honda, or a Hyundai for that matter,” a designer once said to me. “It should be special.”
I then owned a Honda CR-V. I still own it, and will likely soon replace it with a Hyundai Santa Fe. Still, I wasn’t offended by what the designer had said, because he wasn’t knocking those brands; in fact, he went on to praise their quality, reliability, and value. His point was that high-end hi-fi companies should work to produce something more distinctive than mass-market companies do -- products with a certain cachet. This is something I understood and appreciated back then, and appreciate even more today. Despite my CR-V being almost 12 years old now, I saw three on the road exactly like mine when I ran out to Starbucks for coffee this morning. I can’t recall how many CR-Vs I’ve seen in those 12 years in my city alone -- over 1000, probably. Not distinctive. No cachet. Certainly not . . . special.
The people at Paradigm Reference weren’t privy to my conversation with that designer, but I suspect similar things were being said in their headquarters when they were creating their two 30th Anniversary speakers: the Inspiration stand-mount ($2599.98 USD per pair) and the Tribute floorstander ($5999.98/pair). The 30th Anniversary line contains no center-channel, no surround, no subwoofer model, nor will it; it’s obvious that Paradigm remembers their roots and has designed these two models for aficionados of two-channel sound. But they won’t be available for very long . . .
The Reference 30th Anniversary Inspiration and Tribute are being produced in limited editions at Paradigm Electronics’ state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. Because Paradigm is so vast an enterprise, they’re able to make almost everything for their speakers in-house: cabinets, crossovers, drivers, and various other parts. Having such resources at hand and not having to rely on off-the-shelf parts allows their designers to tailor specific components to the needs of each speaker design -- not insignificant when attempting to design a certain level of build, styling, and performance to a particular price. Evidence of this approach shows up everywhere in the Inspiration’s design.
The Inspiration is a two-driver two-way with a well-built, beautifully finished, curve-sided cabinet made of multiple layers of MDF covered in real-wood veneer. The cabinet measures 14.5”H x 8.25”W at the front, but is narrower at the rear; the speaker is 13.125”D.
The 30th Anniversary models come in only one finish: Dark Garnet Gloss. The finish is special -- in low light it looks like high-gloss black, but in brighter light it glows a deep red. Hands down, it’s one of the best-looking finishes I’ve seen from any company, and gives the modestly priced Inspiration luxury appeal. The phrase that continually popped into my mind was jewel-like.
The Inspiration has a 1” tweeter and a 7” midrange-woofer crossed over at about 2kHz, a frequency chosen so that the dispersion characteristics of the low end of the tweeter’s range matches the upper end of the midrange-woofer’s. Around back are some great-looking, high-quality binding posts developed just for the 30th Anniversary models; they accept spades, bananas, or bare wire, and permit single-wiring, biwiring, or biamping. Magnetically attached grilles to protect the drivers are supplied. I often recommend leaving the grilles off for serious listening, but these have been optimized for smooth wavelaunch -- they did little if anything detrimental to the sound. I suggest you try the Inspiration both ways to see which you prefer.
The drivers are hybrids of those used in Paradigm’s lower-priced Studio and higher-priced Signature lines. The latter’s most obvious contribution is the tweeter’s beryllium dome, which no other Reference model has. Beryllium is far more light and rigid than the aluminum and aluminum alloys commonly used in metal domes. Audio designers also like the element because its primary breakup mode can be designed to be at least an octave above 20kHz, the top of the audioband. Aluminum-dome tweeters often break up just below or just above 20kHz, which compromises the highest frequencies. The woofer’s cone is made of black-anodized aluminum.
In these drivers, Paradigm’s manufacturing horsepower shows up in other ways as well. According to their literature, by having full control over the design and production of the drivers for each model they’re able to tune the response of each driver and, in turn, minimize the number of components in the crossover while maximizing component quality. The Inspiration’s crossover is said to contain polypropylene capacitors, precision high-power ceramic resistors, and air-core and laminated silicon steel-core inductors.
The Inspiration’s drivers boast other upper-end features: Paradigm’s IMS-Shock/Mount system, which has to do with how the drivers are attached to the baffle, to reduce resonances; a corrugated surround on the midrange-woofer that permits greater excursion and lower distortion; and a ferrofluid-cooled, neodymium magnet system in the tweeter. Plus, two more fitting touches: each pair of Inspirations is serial-number matched and comes with a letter signed by Scott Bagby. Bagby, one of the company’s founders, is currently Paradigm’s CEO and board chairman.
Usually I take a manufacturer’s specs with a grain of salt, but I’ve seen Paradigm’s R&D facility many times, and have witnessed the rigor of their tests, so I put more stock in their specs than most. Plus, their specs usually closely match our own measurements. Paradigm claims that the Inspiration has an impedance that’s “compatible with 8 ohms”; an anechoic sensitivity of 89dB/2.83V/m; an on-axis frequency response of 54Hz-45kHz, +/-2dB; and an in-room low-frequency response of 36Hz (which I assume is the -10dB point). They recommend using a power amplifier with an output of 15-180Wpc, but specify a maximum input power of 110W. These specs indicate that the Inspiration will work with a little or a lot of power, but it’s a small speaker -- if you feed them unlimited amounts of power, they’ll blow up.
Paradigm sells matching stands for $499.99 each, but they weren’t sent with my review samples; instead, I placed the Inspirations atop my 24”-high Foundation stands, which worked well. I drove the speakers with Anthem Statement M1 monoblocks (Anthem, Anthem Statement, Paradigm, and Paradigm Reference are all owned by Paradigm Electronics), via Siltech’s Classic Anniversary 330L speaker cables. My source components were a Sony Vaio laptop and a Meitner MA-1 DAC linked by an AudioQuest Carbon USB cable. These fed an EMM Labs PRE2-SE preamp, connected to DAC and amps with balanced Nordost Valhalla interconnects.
I like listening to the embellished Goldtop Edition of Daniel Lanois’s Acadie (16-bit/44.1kHz, Red Floor), less for its sound quality than for its soundstages, which vary widely from track to track. In one track Lanois’s lead vocal might be at the center, in another off to one side. Some tracks have little depth, others significantly more. In most tracks, most of the sound remains between the speakers, but it occasionally sneaks past the speakers’ outer edges.
With the Inspirations just over 7’ from each other and from me, they cast a stage that was really broad, very deep, and highly revealing of all the studio manipulations that Lanois puts into his innovative productions. In “Jolie Louise,” his voice was at the front center of the stage, the drums distinctly behind him, with superb front-to-back separation. Far to my left was Ed Roth’s accordion; the liner note states that Roth was recorded another day at a different studio, and that’s how it sounded, in terms not only of image placement, but in terms of tonality and acoustic space.
In the darker, richer, far more atmospheric “Fisherman’s Daughter,” Lanois’s voice is miked very closely. The Inspirations had no trouble placing a vivid image of his voice at the center of the stage, in the right size, ample dimension, and with so much detail that I could tell that he was this close to the microphone. “Ice” is another atmospheric track, but here Lanois’s voice sounds considerably thinner than in “Fisherman’s Daughter,” and in a different place: midway between center stage and the left speaker, and pretty far back. Insofar as soundstage size and image specificity went, the Inspirations nailed it all, and then some.
While all the sonic trickery on Acadie means that I seldom use the album to gauge tonal balance, I’ve listened to it often enough to know that Lanois’s voice and the instruments played sounded correct through the Inspirations -- the speakers weren’t imposing on them any oddball colorations of their own. I could also tell that the Inspiration’s voicing, from the midrange through the highs, was similar in some respects to that of the KEF LS50 ($1499/pair), which I’d just reviewed. I corroborated these findings with the far more natural-sounding recordings that I usually use, including Mariza’s Transparente (16/44.1 FLAC, Times Square), Ennio Morricone’s film score for The Mission (16/44.1 FLAC, Virgin), and various tracks from our own 2L-TWBAS 2012 Sampler (24/176.4 FLAC, 2L/SoundStageRecordings.com). The Inspiration’s upper midrange sounded ever-so-slightly relaxed, the sort of thing that makes speakers like it and the LS50 sound less upfront and in your face. Also like the LS50, the Inspiration’s upper frequencies seemed to have just a little lift, though not to the point of sounding bright. The word I use when I hear a slight uptilt in the highs is lively, though by that I mean nothing objectionable. The Inspiration’s highest highs sounded as clear and clean as those from some of the best speakers I’ve heard, including ones costing multiples of its price. Because of their lively highs, the Inspirations, like the LS50s, have the most natural, neutral, and pleasing balance when listened to not directly on the tweeter axis, but about 15-30° off axis (depending on room acoustics).
To test a speaker’s low-frequency extension, I use the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session (16/44.1 FLAC, RCA), which has some serious low bass -- the kind that’s not only heard but felt, assuming your speakers can reproduce it all. “Mining for Gold,” “Misguided Angel,” and “Sweet Jane” are the tracks I turn to. With my setup, I had the Inspirations pulled way out from the front and side walls, so that they were getting very little boundary reinforcement. Although this puts speakers at a disadvantage bass-wise, I do this to hear what they can do on their own, without help from the room boundaries. Those who place the Inspirations closer to the walls than I did can expect to hear a little more bass. With my setup, my best guesstimate was strong, full, fleshed-out bass to a little under 50Hz, which is pretty deep for so small a speaker. Paradigm’s low-end limit of 36Hz sounds credible with placement closer to the walls.
Overall, the Inspirations sounded weighty enough, punchy, and well fleshed out, so I suspect most listeners won’t be left wanting a subwoofer unless they’re real bass freaks or will be using these speakers in a home-theater system, where ultra-deep bass is pretty much mandatory to get the most out of soundtracks. Furthermore, the Inspiration’s bass was much tighter and better controlled than the LS50’s, which reached down about as far in my room, and also produced a weighty, satisfying sound that belied the speaker’s size. The improvement in tightness and control from LS50 to Inspiration was more or less the kind of improvement you expect for the $1100/pair difference in price. If you want to hear slightly deeper bass that’s just as tight as the Inspiration’s, then the larger Music Culture Elegance RL21, which I reviewed a few months ago, will do the trick, though for almost $900 more. There’s usually a pretty direct relationship between price and bass quality and quantity: you pay more, you get more. Considering the Inspiration’s price, the size of its cabinet, and the diameter of its midrange-woofer, I found the depths it was able to reach wholly satisfactory, and the quality of that bass outstanding.
All of this qualified the Inspiration as a strong performer. What made it sonically special was its clarity, which in my audiophile dictionary encompasses such terms as transparency, openness, resolution, detail, and maybe a few others. When I played Buena Vista Social Club (24/96 FLAC, Nonesuch/HDtracks), I heard/saw an astoundingly clear view into the recording, with a width and depth of stage that was extraordinarily easy to discern, images that were rock solid in space, and musical nuances that were a snap to hear, from the bass through the highs. Forget about trying to hear into the recording, imagining a credible soundstage, picking out subtle cues -- it was all just there, in grandly stark relief. The Inspirations’ transparency and presentation of recorded detail surpassed those of the KEF LS50s, and even of the pricier Elegance RL21s in the mids and highs (bass detail was about the same).
The Inspirations most reminded me of the PMC twenty.24s, which I reviewed last year (about $6000/pair when reviewed), which also gave a clear view into recordings, particularly in the midrange. Even a really mediocre recording, such as cover band Nouvelle Vague’s 3 (16/44.1, Peacefrog/EMI), was reproduced by the Inspirations with striking precision, including “air” around voices that I otherwise couldn’t hear. Granted, some of that clarity was lost when I cranked obscene amounts of power into the Inspirations. (Each Anthem Statement M1 can put out more than 1000W into 8 ohms, though I didn’t use anything close to that.) I did this to hear just how loud the Paradigms would play before hitting the point at which they might break; and for such a small speaker, it was very loud. But within its limits, from about 50Hz up, the Inspiration offers a crystal-clear view into recordings that, to my ears, is unmatched at the price.
The beautifully built 30th Anniversary Inspiration is, by far, the best-looking stand-mounted speaker Paradigm has ever made, and to my ears is their best-sounding and their highest-resolution. Still, I must temper that last statement with this caveat: I haven’t heard the latest iteration of the Paradigm Reference Signature S2, which is the next step up in Paradigm’s line and costs $800/pair more (but I’ve seen it; the Inspiration looks better). But let’s face it, no one’s wallet is infinitely stretchable -- even if the S2 is better, it might not matter to many because the budgetary brakes must be put on somewhere -- there’s a big difference between spending $2600 and $3400 on a pair of speakers, particularly if you need to spring for stands as well.
What’s probably more important is this: In terms of appearance, build, and sound, as well as the exclusivity offered by a limited edition, and the cachet of custom features, the Paradigm Reference 30th Anniversary Inspiration is a unique and highly appealing speaker that’s tough to beat at the price. If all that doesn’t make a product special, I’m not sure what does. If what I’ve described appeals to you, consider ordering some Inspirations before it’s too late.
. . . Doug Schneider
Paradigm Reference 30th Anniversary Inspiration Loudspeakers
Price: $2599.98 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Paradigm Electronics, Inc.
205 Annagem Blvd.
Mississauga, Ontario L5T 2V1
Phone: (905) 564-1994
Fax: (905) 564-8726