Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at
Over the past year I’ve had the good fortune to spend time with some very high-quality, high-performing audio gear. From Simaudio’s Moon Evolution 600i reference-grade integrated amplifier ($8000 USD) to Von Schweikert Audio’s UniField 1 loudspeakers ($4000/pair), there’s been no shortage of top-notch equipment to grace my listening room. While it’s been a lot of fun reviewing stuff I wouldn’t otherwise be able to buy without testing the love and understanding of my partner, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that listening only to expensive gear puts me at risk of making an ill-founded assumption: that high levels of performance and listening pleasure can be achieved only by spending thousands of dollars on one’s system. It took a small pair of bookshelf speakers from Paradigm’s Special Edition series to ground me again.
Paradigm hails from Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, where they build all of their speakers in an enormous factory of 230,000 square feet. Several years ago I visited this facility and developed a new appreciation for the term economies of scale. As I watched a large production run of their venerable yet super-affordable Atom bookshelf speaker move down the assembly line, it was clear how the sheer volume of production made it possible for Paradigm to keep their prices down. Against such a giant, a boutique speaker manufacturer selling only a few dozen speakers a year could never compete on the basis of price for a given level of quality.
In the Special Edition, a relatively new product line, Paradigm has married technology from their entry-level Monitor Series with their more expensive Reference Studio series, all while keeping prices firmly in check throughout the four SE models: the SE 1 bookshelf ($698/pair), the SE 3 floorstander ($1598/pair), the SE Center ($599), and the SE Sub subwoofer ($799).
For starters, the SE cabinets look very similar to the Monitor boxes, except that they have rounded edges and corners. Furthermore, they are veneered in real wood rather than the less expensive vinyl used in the Monitor line. My review samples of the SE 1 came clad in Rosenut, a very rich-looking, warm, reddish finish (the SE 1 is also available in Black Gloss). This, combined with the gold-plated binding posts (which accept spades, banana plugs, or bare wires) and magnetically attached grilles, make the SE 1 look very elegant, its superb fit and finish giving the impression of a more expensive speaker. Paradigm designed the SE 1 to be used with its grille in place, so I kept them on for my listening.
The Special Edition drive units have been trickled down from Paradigm’s Reference Studio series. Both the tweeter and midrange/bass units are directly descended from Reference models, albeit without the fancy, die-cast heatsink chassis and Isolation Mounting System (IMS), which decouples the drivers from the cabinets. The SE 1 uses Paradigm’s 1" tweeter of Gold-Anodized Pure Aluminum (G-PAL), a model also found in the Reference Studio series but originally developed for the flagship Reference Signature series. The G-PAL combination of metals is used to ensure rigidity while maintaining low mass. The tweeter is mounted in a die-cast waveguide that includes a phase-alignment bridge over the tweeter to improve driver integration and ensure a smooth frequency response.
Via a second-order crossover, the tweeter hands off to the 5.5" mid/woofer at about 2kHz. That cone is made of Satin-Anodized Pure Aluminum (S-PAL), and its elliptical rubber surrounds are made of Santoprene, which Paradigm claims permits deeper, louder bass while keeping distortion inaudible. The magnets, a combination of ceramic and ferrite, are intended to produce potent low frequencies while being able to handle a lot of power. The SE 1 has a rear port to increase its bass output.
Paradigm specifies the SE 1’s on-axis frequency response as 70Hz-20kHz, ±2dB, with a lower-end limit of 45Hz, -3dB in a typical room -- pretty impressive for a speaker measuring only 11.5"H x 6.5"W x 8.5"D and weighing 12.9 pounds. With Paradigm claiming for the SE 1 sensitivities of 85dB anechoic and 88dB in-room and a nominal impedance of 8 ohms, I anticipated that the speaker would be relatively easy to power, and indeed it was.
Compared to the Amphion Argon3s, which they replaced in my room, the SE 1s looked rather diminutive perched atop my 24" Osiris speaker stands, from which they were decoupled using White-Tack (similar to the blue variety in all but color). I positioned their front baffles 45" from the front wall, 68" apart, and 7.5’ from my listening position. After experimenting a bit, I settled on leaving the SE 1s toed-in so that their tweeter axes crossed behind my head. Then I settled into my chair to hear what they could do.
Almost from the very beginning, a couple of things struck me about the sound of the SE 1s that never wavered during my time with them. The first was that, despite its relatively small size, the SE 1 sounded big and could play pretty darn loud. For two such tiny boxes, they had an uncanny ability to easily fill the room, and even seemed to thrive on more power as it was fed to them. The second thing I noticed was how clean the SE 1 sounded across its entire frequency range. If you prefer a revealing speaker that will let you hear exactly what’s on your CDs and LPs, the SE 1 delivered that.
"Jigsaw Falling into Place," from Radiohead’s In Rainbows (CD, TBD TBD0001), sounded nicely detailed, with clearly outlined images spread across a wide stage that had good depth. The drum kit sounded powerful and, as its rhythm propelled the song forward, I reached for the remote to turn up the volume. The SE 1s responded enthusiastically, showing no signs of strain or compression at volumes that might have angered the neighbors had I not soon turned the volume down again. Obviously, if I’d continued to increase the volume the Paradigms would eventually have cried uncle and begun to sound distorted and unpleasant -- but I never reached that point. In fact, had they been hidden behind a curtain, I would have guessed that the SE 1 to be a good bit larger than it is. A pair of them should have no trouble filling with music a small or even midsize room. And even if you tend to listen at more reasonable volumes, it’s nice to know that your speakers can play loudly and cleanly when pushed.
I then moved on to "Snow," from Loreena McKennitt’s To Drive the Cold Winter Away (CD, Quinlan Road QRCD102), and the SE 1s did a fine job of conveying a sense of the venue in which the song was recorded: Glenstal Abbey, in Ireland. Granted, they couldn’t match the almost cavernous sound I’ve heard while listening to this track through some of the larger speakers I’ve reviewed, which deliver much deeper bass, but again, the Paradigms sounded bigger than I thought their physical size gave them any right to. The strings of McKennitt’s harp resonated with pristine clarity as the clean high-frequency reproduction did a nice job of carving out the leading edge of each note, and her sweet-timbred voice was solidly placed between the speakers, easily filling the room.
It was about then that I began thinking that the most notable part of the SE 1’s design is its tweeter, which seemed to have limitless extension and a very smooth, even response. The SE 1 was certainly well extended in the highs, and the only time it sounded remotely unpleasant or harsh was with music that had been poorly recorded in the first place. However, calling a speaker "honest" is hardly a criticism, and as I prefer a more revealing, detailed sound, the SE 1 met that criterion with ease. But if you prefer a more rolled-off top end, the SE 1 mightn’t be your cup of tea.
No matter how much power a mid/woofer can handle or how solid its enclosure, a single 5.5" cone can move only so much air and dig only so deep. This speaker’s low end won’t fool many into thinking they’re listening to a floorstander, but what the SE 1’s bass lacked in quantity it more than made up for in quality. Still, the lack of truly low bass did tend to scale back the size of some venues, something I noticed with the McKennitt disc and with Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall 1971 (CD, Reprise CDW 43327). It was still clear that Young was performing in a large room, but the legendary Toronto music hall lacked the depth and sense of space that I’ve enjoyed with some other speakers that reach lower in frequency.
However, rather than be distracted by the SE 1’s inability to produce truly deep bass -- something no small speaker can do -- I was impressed with how its punchy, clean low frequencies could still be easily felt, and how they provided a more than sufficient foundation for the music. If you find yourself needing a little more low-end energy, a subwoofer wouldn’t be out of the question, and Paradigm’s matching SE Sub is probably as good a place as any to start, designed as it was to complement the other SE models.
The acoustic bass in Elliott Smith’s "Going Nowhere," from the posthumously released New Moon (CD, Kill Rock Stars KRS455), sounded warm and full, filling the room with articulate low frequencies that I could feel through the soles of my feet. Smith’s voice was upfront and center, sounding a touch forward and commanding my full attention. It was carved out with amazing precision and intelligibility, a good sign of well-integrated and coherent-sounding drivers. In "First Timer," Smith’s characteristic doubled vocals occupied distinct spaces in front of me, very well separated and about as clear as I’ve heard them. And once again, the ability of the SE 1s to create a clear soundstage with sharp images was almost beyond reproach.
When the SE 1s arrived, I also had on hand Amphion’s Argon3 bookshelf speakers. At $2795/pair, the Argon3 isn’t remotely in competition with the $698/pair Paradigm, but evaluating these Finnish and Canadian monitors together proved an interesting exercise.
Physically, the SE 1 is to the Argon3 as David was to Goliath. The Amphion speaker has only a 6.5" mid/woofer driver and a 1" titanium tweeter set in a deep waveguide, but measuring 15"H x 7.9"W x 12"D and weighing 24 pounds, the Argon3 is much bigger than its Canadian counterpart, and its cabinet is far sturdier.
Though the SE 1’s bass was notably clean, as already described, it couldn’t match the quantity of bass produced by the much larger and more expensive Argon3. In terms of bass quality, however, the SE 1 conceded little to the Argon3. Both were able to generate punchy, detailed bass that was weighty enough to firmly underpin the music.
Although I found the SE 1s remarkable for their ability to sound big and easily fill the listening room, they couldn’t match the Amphions in this department. No surprises here -- the Argon3 is a bigger speaker with a more substantial cabinet, and I expected it to produce a bigger sound. When I listened to the title track of Cat Power’s The Greatest (CD, Matador OLE 626-2), the SE 1s lacked the fullness of the Finnish monitors, which were able to convey a greater sense of body to Chan Marshall’s piano. Still, the SE 1s managed to hold their own incredibly well, producing sharply outlined images across a broad, well-defined stage.
With "Caravanserai," from Loreena McKennitt’s An Ancient Muse (CD, Quinlan Road QRCD109), the SE 1s again produced a wide soundstage with very good detail and precise images, while the Argon3s were more adept at delineating the assortment of instruments in this track. Furthermore, the Amphions’ stage had a touch more depth, extending even farther beyond the front wall of the room. But again, these differences were fairly subtle; I was surprised that the SE 1s could give the Argon3s such a good run for their money.
The Paradigm SE 1 sounded amazingly clean, but even in this regard the Argon3 had the upper hand -- its squeaky-clean, ultrasmooth sound is the best I’ve heard. The piano in Cat Power’s "The Greatest" was just a bit better resolved through the Argon3, each note sounding a touch more distinct and better separated from the others than through the Paradigm. Still, the SE 1 performed extremely well, and didn’t fall too short of the Amphion. Given that the Amphion costs almost precisely four times as much as the Paradigm, what most amazed me was that the discrepancy in their performances wasn’t greater -- the Amphion doesn’t offer anywhere near four times as much performance. Such is the nature of diminishing returns. If that doesn’t qualify the Paradigm SE 1 as an exceptional value, I’m not sure what does.
The Paradigm Special Edition SE 1 has reminded me that a well-designed pair of inexpensive speakers can give more than just a taste of what the best have to offer, at a price that many music lovers are actually willing to pay. The SE 1 is easy to recommend to those looking into buying their first high-end system. It performs so well in so many areas that I think it an absolute steal for only $698/pair. Nor would a stereo system fronted by a pair of SE 1s need be a mere stepping stone to genuine hi-fi -- the Paradigms could easily serve as a long-term investment guaranteed to offer years of listening pleasure and musical enjoyment. I can’t think of many other $698 investments that can promise that.
. . . Phillip Beaudette
- Speakers -- Amphion Argon3, PSB Platinum M2
- Integrated amplifier -- Bryston B100 SST
- Sources -- NAD C542 CD player, Thorens TD-160HD turntable, Rega RB250 tonearm, Dynavector DV-10X5 high-output moving-coil cartridge
- Speaker cables -- AudioQuest Type 4
- Interconnects -- AudioQuest Copperhead, AMX Optimum AVC 31 coaxial cable
- Power conditioner -- ExactPower EP15A
Paradigm Special Edition SE 1 Loudspeakers
Price: $698 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