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Paradigm Monitor 9 v.5 Loudspeakers Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 December 2007
Article Index
Paradigm Monitor 9 v.5 Loudspeakers
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Music And Movies
As soon as the music started playing, I knew that my favorite word to describe the Monitor 9s would be “fun.” Whatever other characteristics the Monitor 9s have, my overriding conclusion is that these speakers are very enjoyable to play music through. There’s a dynamic richness to the presentation that makes me want to put in CD after CD and just sit back and listen, tapping my foot and bopping my head. And for a while, I did just that, but unfortunately that makes for pretty dry reading, so it was time to start paying attention.

The first test CD I used was Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells III (Warner). This is an old favorite test CD that I’ve listened to on every imaginable type of gear at every imaginable price point. There’s little bit of everything here, from voices to guitars to various drums to many, many bells. It’s these I noticed first, sounding quite realistic and textured. It was easy to recognize the initial hit on the bell, and the subsequent texture and tone of the instrument. The highs were smooth and rounded, and though a little glassiness was evident, it wasn’t enough to distract. Strumming guitars and strings were also smooth and well-separated. Well-separated is actually a good description of how the Monitor 9s sounded overall. Instruments and tones seemed to occupy their own individual sonic spaces, easily distinguished from nearby frequencies and volumes, without sounding forced or analytical. This was evident in the shimmering of bells, with the sound oscillating as it faded, as opposed to slower speakers that can’t resolve those minute variations of volume. This was also evident when playing voices. Track 6, “The Inner Child,” featuring a female soloist singing scales. The tiny quivering of her voice imparted a sweet, emotional resonance to her song.

That same track starts out with the distant, faded voices of children on a playground, somewhere on the right side of the soundstage. The soloist came on front and center, and she was very much in the room with me, her voice coming out of the quiet darkness like a lamp fading in and illuminating the stage. And once she was there, that’s where she stayed. The Monitor 9s’ imaging was excellent, well-defined and stable, with voices, instruments, and sound effects well-integrated and, again, separate. When a backup singer came on, she took her own place farther back on the left. The big drums were farther back still, but their impact was strong and they comfortably filled out the soundstage. And they sounded like big drums, not just loud and deep, but with their own mass and three-dimensional volume through the Monitor 9s. Like the strings and bells in the high frequencies, the drums exhibited the same realistic impact and inner detail, well down to floor-shaking levels. Paradigm claims the Monitor 9 is a full-range speaker, and I certainly don’t feel like I’m missing anything on the low end. The fact that I’m getting solid, satisfying (and loud) bass from a 15-watt amp is testament to Paradigm’s SuperDrive technology. Whatever high tech wizardry is in the crossover networks and the low mass drivers, it is certainly working.

Now, tonal resolution and inner detail are wonderful things, but the big questions I have for my speakers are: Can they rock? Can they go loud and blow my hair back while keeping all that delicacy and finesse? To find out, I skipped ahead to the last track, “Far Above the Clouds.” The track started out with a low and clear heartbeat, setting the anticipation as the virtual orchestra dropped out and a child’s voice announced the onslaught of the titled tubular bells. When they arrived, they did so in legendary force, the first hammer strike coming out of the quiet with breathtaking power in one of the most rousing finales since Beethoven. After the bells came the big drums again, and the chorus, and the wail of the electric guitar. When this song sounds good, it’s riveting, it’ll take your breath away, and on the Monitor 9s, it did sound that good. Turned up loud, the amount of energy was tremendous; as advertised, all the details remained. Each clang was crystal clear, each bell provided the mass and oscillating decay of a five-foot instrument, even when they were being played quietly behind the drums, and the guitars, and the beautiful vocals. Everything was there and easily distinguished and as loud as you could take it. Until it all suddenly dropped off into silence, to be replaced by little chirping birdies. This part was really interesting, because once the musical storm quieted down, I realized that I hadn’t been breathing, and I was pushed back into my chair and was quite possibly levitating. As the bells faded in the distance, I could feel myself physically lighten. It was a wonderful experience and it only works with very dynamic, very emotionally involving speakers, which the Monitor 9s just happen to be.

From there, I switched gears with Anna Nalick’s Wreck of the Day (Sony). This is nowhere near the acoustical virtuosity of Tubular Bells III, but that’s why this CD worked: it’s all about Ms. Nalick and her refreshing and beautiful lyrics. A nudge down on the volume control and the Monitor 9s presented an intimate, candle-lit mood without losing any of their liveliness or detail. They were just as emotionally involving when turned down low, which was as much an accomplishment as being able to perform at high levels. As soon as I hit play, I was very pleasantly surprised to find that this album had something special going on. I actually stopped taking notes and just listened all the way through because, well, the Monitor 9s made it easy. The most I can hope for when auditioning equipment is that the critical, nitpicky voice in the back of my head shuts the hell up and I can just enjoy the music. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s something special when it does, and it was certainly happening here. Whatever else can be said about a speaker’s measurements, ultimately what counts is how well the emotion comes through, and in that category, the Monitor 9s delivered. Smooth, light and effortless, Nalick’s voice appeared in the room like it belonged there, and the speakers disappeared completely. There was no shout to the midrange, no congestion, nothing distracting to take away from the experience. Whatever Paradigm is doing with their latex-colored drivers, it was extremely stimulating.

Also impressive, as I switched positions around the room, was that the sweet spot was unusually wide. These aren’t the kind of speakers that only sound their best when your head is firmly anchored in a single spot, and this makes them an attractive proposition for anyone without a dedicated audio room. If the best spot on your couch isn’t exactly centered between the speakers, or if your ears aren’t perfectly aligned with the tweeters, there’s nothing to worry about: the music will sound just as good. In my experience, the tradeoff with this kind of wide dispersion design, and there’s always some tradeoff, is that imaging suffers a little. While the Monitor 9s’ ability to place an instrument at a specific location the room is by no means lacking, if holographic spookiness (technical term) is your particular audio Nirvana, this may not be the speaker for you. Then again, you’re not going to find speakers like that anywhere at or near the Monitor 9s’ price range.

For multi-channel music and movies, I added the Outlaw 1070 AVR receiver into the mix, an appropriate choice considering that Outlaw, like Paradigm, focuses strongly on making performance speakers that sell for less than the competition. I connected the Denon DVD-2910 to the Outlaw via digital coaxial cable, and I set the Outlaw to do all the processing. The 9s I left connected to the Super T-Amp, which I connected to the Outlaw via the preamp outputs, and the center channel I connected directly to the Outlaw. The sub I connected the 1070’s LFE out.

With the P-3A DAC out of the chain, replaced by the Outlaw’s internal DACs, I immediately noticed some extra brightness out of the Paradigms, which tended to cause fatigue during extended listening sessions, and the midrange fell back a little deeper into the soundstage. Now, the P-3A is itself a product that gives a lot of bang for the buck, much more so once it was upgraded by Modwright, and it costs about what the Outlaw and the Monitor 9s cost together, so the difference in sound quality is to be expected. Even so, I’m impressed by the Monitors’ ability to resolve so much of what the P-3A was putting out. It shows that they’ll be able to keep up when fronted by components well above their price range.

However, I still had a brightness problem, but I largely solved it to my satisfaction by toeing the Monitor 9s out a little further, almost straight on, and by lowering the treble controls on the 1070. The toeing out of the speakers also widened the soundstage, often beyond the physical edges of the speakers, and gave more air to instruments playing to the extreme right or left. The cost is the addition of some blur in the center of the soundstage, but this was well compensated for by the addition of Paradigm’s center channel.

Once all my tweaks were in place, I found the addition of Paradigm’s UltraCube Subwoofer and the CC-290 to perfectly compliment and extend the Monitor 9s’ capabilities without any signs of disconnect. Voices through the center channel were smooth and clear, with the same extension and high level of tonal separation that was found in the Monitor 9s, and it dispersed sound widely enough that everyone in the room got to stay in the conversation. It also disappeared well enough that I never noticed it in play unless I was very carefully looking for it. In short, it did everything a center channel needs to do, anchoring the center of the soundstage for all sitting positions without calling any attention to itself.

The UltraCube also fit its role very well by filling in the bottom octaves without making anyone notice it was there. The analog crossover knob allowed for anything from 40 Hz up to 120 Hz, and after some experimentation, I found the best position to be around 60 Hz. This gave plenty of overlap with the Monitor 9s to get a smooth frequency blend, while keeping the sub in its comfort zone where it was fast and articulate. In fact, the biggest problem I had in setting it up was that I had it turned up too high for my modest-sized room. Somewhere around only 10 percent on the volume knob is where I found the happy spot.

For example, when I listened to the DVD side of Five for Fighting’s The Battle for Everything DualDisc (Sony), John Ondrasik’s vocals seemed to float directly in front of me, somewhere between the mains, not from center channel on the floor. The midrange blended perfectly between the three speakers, coming off smooth and detailed and very natural. The UltraCube blended in very well, too, extending the kick drum’s reach and helping anchor the soundstage. What makes this album a good test, however, is that a poetic, dreamy approach was taken to the multi-channel mix, creating an acoustic environment that wraps completely around the listening room. The location of instruments was spot on and easy to pick out, but echoes and reverberations traveled around, creating a wraparound effect. On the track “Dying,” the piano took up the front of the soundstage, extending as wide as the room, but there was also the sense that it was floating over me. The string ensemble, while easily localized behind the piano, lined up around the soundstage, reaching in and enveloping the listener, almost like a mist. It was a very pleasant effect, and the Paradigms recreated it seamlessly.

On the high-definition front, I fired up my Dish Network satellite system and brought up Rabbit Proof Fence (Miramax), a movie scored by Peter Gabriel that I’ve been holding on to for some months, waiting for a test system to unleash it on. The story takes place in Australia in 1931, and follows three aboriginal girls who are forcibly separated from their families and taken to a training school where they are to be assimilated into white society at the orders of the government. The girls escape and make their way back home by walking 1,200 miles along a fence that spans the entire continent. The opening scene introduced the sound of the Earth, a deep and low guttural rumble that played out underneath all the dialogue and sound effects. Without the sub, this was only a low rumble, but the sub gave it voice, texture and character. In the third scene, government officers forcibly remove the girls from their families, and the soundtrack portrayed the full emotional violence of the event. Below the cries and screams was a dark and menacing growl. It was a good test of the speakers’ snap, impact and speed, and here again, the Paradigms delivered, so much so that the scene got a little hard to watch. When the girls finally get to the camp, the soundtrack of their arrival was downright spooky. Footsteps in the dirt and nearby crickets mixed in with strange whines and ghostly whispers and a low, room-shaking rumble. The sub anchored the scene and Monitor’s ability to separate sounds into distinct entities created the feeling of being surrounded. The sounds in this part of the movie were mixed to be loud and strange and immediate, the way they would seem to scared and alienated children, and the Monitor 9s’ quick snap and clear response made every noise come alive with frightening realism. The entire movie is an aural feast and its impact through the Monitor 9s was visceral and often gut-wrenching.

As should be no surprise by this point, the Paradigms’ nimble dynamics and tonal separation were ideally suited to conveying high-energy film scores and realistic environments. In Casino Royale (Sony), the foot chase at the beginning of the movie, aside from being one of the best chase sequences ever and a work of action film art (yes, there is such a thing), was also a great test for the Monitor 9s. The sequence in which Bond gets in the wheel loader and gleefully crashes through the construction site comes to mind. The crashes and explosions snapped out of nowhere and the subwoofer responded with immediate, crisp and detailed room-shaking power. The orchestral score laid itself out across the soundstage just behind the action, with every instrument as vibrant and differentiated as on a classical music CD, while grunts, hits, jumps, crashes, slides, and all the rest of the sound effects that gave the action realism played firmly in the foreground. Somewhere between, behind and around were the ambient sounds that portrayed the sense of place, including sound effects that aren’t usually noticeable, like the sounds of the construction workers’ tools, their agitated chatter, the echoes of a welding torch reverberating in an elevator shaft, the voom of cars in the background and the chirping of birds. The loud stuff caused excitement, but these small detailed sounds made the scene feel natural and engaging. This is, without a doubt, a well-mixed soundtrack, but it’s the Monitors that get credit for bringing it to life with the energy and detail that, at this price point, is terribly rare, if not unprecedented.

Much of the movie is a surprisingly talky affair, but the speakers still got plenty to do, mostly offering a great seat from which to enjoy the score, and creating more realistic environments by excellently playing back background sounds. I could watch the movie blindfolded and still have a good idea of each location just from the soundtrack. Naturally, the voices sounded, well, natural, which doesn’t surprise me, given how well the Monitor 9s and the rest of the Monitor Series speakers have performed throughout my listening tests.


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