Paradigm’s Monitor SE 3000F loudspeaker isn’t new to SoundStage! Network readers. This three-way, 39.5”-tall floorstander has a 1” aluminum-dome tweeter and three drivers with mineral-filled polypropylene cones: a 5.5” midrange and two 5.5” woofers. In Diego Estan’s review on SoundStage! Access, published April 1, he called it “a solid, dependable speaker that, set up correctly, can give its owner a glimpse of true high-end sound for a mass-market price.” And you’d think that would have been that.
It wasn’t. As I’ve mentioned before, my home is a bit of a staging area for review samples, many of which arrive here to be photographed and/or, if they’re speakers, measured in the anechoic chamber of Canada’s National Research Council, just a few miles away. I didn’t have to photograph the Monitor SE 3000Fs, but I did have to measure one of them for Diego’s review. And because this model’s price is so affordable ($698/pair, all prices USD), and the samples were already here, I thought them a natural fit for my System One budget setup -- and this column.
Old System One
I pulled the Monitor SE 3000Fs from their boxes and immediately liked what I saw. Their Gloss White finish doesn’t appear to be paint or lacquer, but a shiny laminate bonded to MDF -- with or without the included grilles, it looks good and durable. Unlike a typical painted finish, this one seemed pretty resistant to scratches and marks. The 3000F also comes in a Matte Black finish that I’ve seen at Paradigm’s factory, but I definitely preferred the Gloss White.
I installed the 3000Fs in the same System One rig that had seen Paradigm’s Monitor SE Atom ($298/pair) and Premier 100B ($798/pair), Q Acoustics’ 3050i ($799.99/pair) and 3020i ($299.99/pair), and PSB’s Alpha ($199/pair) loudspeakers. I threaded the supplied spikes into the speakers’ feet, and punched them through the carpet to give them a firm footing on my floor.
Up front was an NAD D 3045 integrated amplifier-DAC ($699), connected to the Paradigms with 10’ runs of AudioQuest Q2 speaker cable ($179/pair). For digital playback, I ran a Chromecast Audio wireless streamer ($35, discontinued) via its optional TosLink interconnect ($15, discontinued) to an optical input on the D 3045. I played LPs on U-Turn Audio’s Orbit Plus turntable ($289), connected to the D 3045’s MM phono input with the U-Turn’s stock phono cable. Amp and turntable rested on an IKEA shelf (under $100) placed between the speakers. Throughout this system, I used only the components’ stock power cords.
I was smitten with the Monitor SE 3000F with the very first music I played. Its sound was a bit brighter than that of the Monitor SE Atom, which surprised me -- the two models are members of the same series -- but not objectionably so. Instead, the 3000F’s upper frequencies were “lively” -- which I like. The 3000F’s midrange was cleaner and more detailed than the Atom’s, probably due to the 3000F having a dedicated midrange driver, not a midrange-woofer that must pull double duty as a midrange and woofer, as in the Atom. That the 3000F’s sound was cleaner and clearer was obvious when I played Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, whether on the U-Turn (LP, Columbia OC 40999) or streamed through the Chromecast (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Tidal). His voice sounded clearer and more detailed than through the Atoms, and projected out from the speakers more freely.
But I was surprised that the significantly bigger 3000Fs didn’t reach much deeper in the bass than did the overachieving Atoms. The Monitor SE 3000F’s bass output pretty much ended at 50Hz or a little below, but it was much tighter and better controlled than the Atom’s bass, which sounded a bit more loose and bloated.
So the Monitor SE 3000F’s sound was a clear step up from the Atom’s -- to be expected at 2.34 times the price. I also liked the 3000Fs a bit better than I had the Q Acoustics 3050i floorstanders, which I’d set up in the same positions in the room and which cost about $100/pair more. The Q 3050i reached deeper in the bass than the 3000Fs, for a fuller, weightier sound, but I found the 3000Fs’ bass tighter, its midrange cleaner and more detailed, its highs a bit more prominent but not overly so, and its overall sound a little more open and free. For this setup, the Monitor SE 3000Fs provided the best overall sound I’d heard in this system -- and by such a wide margin that I decided to step up System One’s game.
New System One
One aspect of my original System One had been bugging me for some time: that IKEA stand. I liked it because its low price (under $100) suited the System One ethos, it’s built well enough, and it looks good -- with the turntable, amplifier, and bookshelf speakers all sitting on the top surface, it made for a clean-looking setup. (I know -- having the speakers on the same surface as the turntable is asking for the trouble caused by resonances generated by the speakers being picked up by the turntable-tonearm-cartridge system, fed back through the electronics, and amplified as distortion -- but so far, so good.) And the shelves below are the perfect size for storing LPs. But that stand is big, and seemed to get in the way of floorstanding speakers like Paradigm’s Monitor SE 3000F, not only visibly but sonically -- it pretty much filled the space between them, which tends to interfere with the sound of a stereo pair of speakers, especially their soundstaging and precision of imaging.
Luckily, I had another much smaller, less obtrusive rack I could use -- a four-tier model made by Sound Rack (now defunct). Its MDF shelves are nicely finished, but the structure of the rack itself is nothing special: metal rods threaded through the shelves, which are held in place with rubber washers and nuts. If you’re handy, you could probably build one for $100 worth of materials.
I also wanted to change up the electronics and the turntable, for something of a fresh start -- and opportunities to do so fell into my lap. Diego Estan had just finished listening to Audiolab’s 6000A integrated amplifier-DAC ($949.99) and 6000CDT transport ($499.99), for reviews that will probably be published on SoundStage! Access in September, and had sent them on to me. I’d also just received three Pro-Ject X1 turntables, one each in their finishes of High-Gloss Black, High-Gloss White, and Walnut. I thought about setting up the Walnut sample, which looks really nice, but the white one better matched the 3000Fs. In Europe, the Pro-Ject X1 comes bundled with an Ortofon Pick it S2MM moving-magnet cartridge for a total price of €799. This combination is what most around the world will see, and it’s what I received. In the US, the same turntable comes bundled with a Sumiko Rainier cartridge for $899.
I used the X1’s excellent stock phono cable to connect it to the Audiolab 6000A integrated-DAC’s MM phono stage, and used the Chromecast Audio streamer via TosLink into one of the 6000A’s two optical inputs. I then used a TosLink interconnect (about $20) to connect the 6000CDT transport to the 6000A’s optical input, though I didn’t use it much for this audition -- that’s for a future installment of System One.
The total price of this new setup exceeds $3000 -- a far cry from the System One I began with, which didn’t top $1000. But it’s a big improvement over that system, with superior speakers that don’t need a stand or shelf, a dedicated CD transport (there was no way to play CDs in any of my earlier System One rigs), a killer turntable (the X1 is really good), and a much beefier integrated amplifier-DAC (that first setup included NAD’s D 3020 V2). In fact, considering how good it looks, is built, and sounds, I’m surprised this system doesn’t cost $6000. And if you don’t need to play CDs or spin LPs and can do without one of those source components, the price drops well below $3000 -- and if you don’t play either format, it drops to $1600. But, as you’ll read below, it’s nice to have a system that can play all formats still relevant today.
Was what I’d assembled worth three grand? I wondered that myself as I set it up, but I got my answer as soon as I dropped the needle in the lead-in groove of side 2 of Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love (1987) and heard the album’s title track. It begins with strong drumming accompanied by the high-frequency sounds of amusement-park rides, followed by Springsteen’s guitar, his voice, and the rest of the band. Everything was reproduced by the Paradigm Monitor SE 3000Fs in topflight fashion -- each drumstroke had strength, power, and pretty good weight; the highs were lively and superclear; and Springsteen’s voice and guitar had fantastic definition and great presence. In this setup, the speakers were almost a foot farther out from the front wall than the Paradigm Atoms had been, which, combined with now having much more open space between the speakers, made the sound even more open and spacious than before, and more detailed. Images were also more exact, and I experienced a decent amount of soundstage depth, I think because all that sound wasn’t reverberating off the front of that big stand anymore. In his review, Diego said that the 3000F offers “a glimpse of true high-end sound,” but I think that does the speaker a slight disservice. In this setup, what I heard was high-quality sound, not a mere glimpse of it.
But not all vinyl I played sounded great. A few weeks ago I bought what looked like a good-condition LP of George Winston’s Winter into Spring (Windham Hill 91019) for $3 at a Salvation Army store. Released in 1982, this album of solo-piano music is exceptionally well recorded, and the music itself is very good. But looks can be deceiving -- even after three thorough cleanings in my Nitty Gritty 1.5 record-cleaning machine, this disc’s surface noise was still higher than that of every decent LP I own. I wondered if someone had spilled a Coke on it. I played it for a friend, who’d wanted to hear this setup, but despite the Pro-Ject X1 doing its best to show off the dynamics in Winston’s incisive keystrokes in “January Stars,” the constant noise and the abundant ticks’n’pops were intolerable. So I pulled out my phone, selected Tidal, and streamed Winter into Spring in CD resolution via Chromecast. Needless to say, it sounded a lot better. (One day soon I hope to obtain a CD of this album and play it in the 6000CDT.)
As further testament to how convenient it is to have a system that can handle multiple formats, after Winter into Spring was finished, my friend, thrilled by what he’d heard, pulled out his own phone, to which he’d downloaded December, a Winston album from 1980 (MP3, bitrate unknown, Windham Hill). The 6000A supports Bluetooth (standard, not aptX HD), so I selected its Bluetooth input while my friend paired his phone with it. We listened to a few tracks, which impressed us with how clean they sounded through this system -- there were no objectionable artifacts to indicate that this was digital playback doubly compressed: the MP3 itself, and the Bluetooth transmission from the phone to the integrated-DAC. Actually, it sounded great -- which is probably much to the chagrin of those who think MP3s are the work of the Devil.
While my friend continued to play December from his phone via Bluetooth, I streamed it from Tidal at CD resolution (16/44.1), and we switched back and forth between inputs to compare. But while the average volume levels of the two feeds was about the same, the Tidal stream sounded louder because it was more dynamic, as well as weightier in the bass and more spacious overall, as readily revealed by the 3000Fs. By comparison, the MP3-Bluetooth stream sounded thin and lightweight -- the absence of the piano’s room-filling sound was glaring.
What surprised me was that the two feeds sounded equally clean -- I’d thought that the higher resolution via Tidal might result in cleaner sound than an MP3 via Bluetooth, but it didn’t. The Bluetooth stream had none of the objectionable artifacts highly compressed digital sound is often known for. But when it came to dynamics, bass punch and weight, spaciousness, and reproduction of detail, the Tidal stream mopped the floor with the MP3-Bluetooth -- Winston’s piano sounded much more like a real piano in a real room. The fact that the Monitor SE 3000Fs -- and the rest of this edition of System One -- could do this speaks well for the quality of reproduction this system was achieving.
This led us to a second test, this time with “Rolling in the Deep,” from Adele’s 21 (XL Recordings), which my friend also had on his phone in MP3 format (again, at an unknown bitrate), and which I streamed from Tidal in CD resolution. This time there was no increase in spaciousness from the Tidal stream, because there’s little spaciousness in the recording; however, the bass weight and dynamics -- mainly the punch of the drums -- were much better via Tidal, Adele’s voice was more robust, and she and her band sounded more there. The Tidal stream sounded cleaner with this track, which led me to believe that the Winston track had been compressed at a higher bitrate. But particularly with the Tidal stream, this track also revealed that the Monitor SE 3000Fs could pound out drum sounds with real authority, even at high volume, while keeping the midrange clean so that we could easily focus on Adele’s voice. I’ve heard speakers that retail for more than $1000/pair that don’t remain as composed and clean as the Monitor SE 3000Fs did in my room.
After we’d played “Rolling in the Deep” for the last time, my friend blurted out, “How much do those speakers cost?” He rarely asks -- usually, he doesn’t care.
His eyebrows rose. He looked excited. “They’d look great at my place.”
“They might actually sound good there, too.”
“Yeah, yeah -- you know what I meant.”
I do. When someone gets jazzed about hi-fi, what they’ve heard often blends with what they’ve seen as they envision having and hearing it in their home.
My friend left impressed. A couple of days later, he called: “I really do have to get a better stereo for my house.” Clearly, he’d been thinking about the Paradigm Monitor SE 3000Fs -- and given what he’d heard at my place, I don’t blame him. Even I was surprised with how this latest version of System One sounded. I won’t be surprised if my friend pulls the trigger.
Paradigm’s Monitor SE 3000F is easy to recommend to friends, or to anyone looking for an attractive, well-made, solid-sounding floorstander at a very reasonable price. Seek out a pair to listen to -- you might be surprised what $700 can buy.
Next month: more about the Audiolab gear.
. . . Doug Schneider