Paradigm SA-35/SA-15R In-wall/ceiling Speakers 
Home Theater Loudspeakers In-wall Loudspeakers
Written by Bryan Southard   
Wednesday, 01 September 2004

There’s often a division between what men and their wives feel is important. The book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” clearly pointed out these idiosyncrasies. This separation of priority is never more magnified than with that of audio/video gear, which has proven to be a focal point of tension in many homes. Men typically want big, bad and powerful. Women are typically less interested in performance but rather opt for modern elegance, void of large annoying speakers and unsightly cables.

There is a popular belief that you cannot achieve high performance from anything other than large floor-standing speakers. In many cases, these large speakers are at their best when set several feet off from the wall. Another option, originally made popular by Bose, is small cube speakers placed in the corner of the room’s ceiling. This made for a much more concealed look, but at a huge expense in performance, although companies have since developed much higher-performing mini-speaker options. Another option is in-wall speakers. This yields a very concealed look but the question remains, is this even an option for those who care about the sound of their home AV?

The Paradigm Reference SA-35 In-Wall speakers are an ultra high-performing two-and-a-half-way, three-driver in-wall speaker system that is designed to mount flush to your wall. They come in a standard white finish and are paintable, allowing you to match your wall color or any other desired look, and have a retail price of $1,400 per pair. The SA-35s measure 20-1/16 inches in height, nine-and-one-sixteenth inches in width and weigh a stout 14 pounds per speaker.

With hundreds of in-wall speakers to choose from, Paradigm set out to produce a speaker that would perform at a high enough level that discerning consumers could consider ditching their large box speakers for a sleeker and more elegantly finished loo
k. The SA-35s were designed to leverage the technology and advancements found in Paradigm’s Studio Series loudspeakers. The drivers use the same materials as that of their critically acclaimed Studio 80s and 100s. Paradigm started out with a one-piece, die-cast baffle that is infinitely rigid for a less colored sound. The baffle employs ridges to draw heat away from the speaker and avoid dynamic compression and other negative anomalies. For drivers, Paradigm used a one-inch ferro-fluidic aluminum dome tweeter housed in a die-cast heatsink chassis. It uses an eight-inch mid-bass driver constructed of mica-polymer and is housed in its own die-cast chassis. For low-frequency spank, the SA-35 uses a similar eight-inch driver, positioned at the bottom of the speaker baffle. The SA-35 has a rated frequency response of 35Hz to 22kHz and an extremely efficient sensitivity rating of 95dB, making this speaker very easy to drive. It can be pushed to huge volume levels with even the lowest powered receivers.

I have long maintained two theater systems in my home. I have a dedicated reference theater on the bottom floor of my tri-level home that is outfitted with the biggest, baddest and craziest gear I can afford or sucker top manufacturers to lend me. This room is equipped with a large-scale eight-inch projector from Vidikron and a rack full of the industry’s best electronics from Meridian, Linn, Transparent and many others. Upstairs, I have my living room set-up with Revel F30s and electronics to match. In most cases, movies and HDTV are watched in the big theater with casual TV being watched in the living room. For the record, my wife differentiates the two by calling them “his theater” and “my theater.” Although she sometimes gets annoyed by the look of large speakers six feet away from the wall, she also understands that my audiophile placement (thanks to a Bob Hodas set-up) is necessary to achieve the mastering studio quality sound that I lust for from my music and theater system. This summer, we set out to renovate the living room of our home where “her theater” lives. Part of this change would necessitate a cleaner-looking AV system. Trying to find a streamlined speaker option, we agreed to give the Paradigm SA-35s a try so that we could eliminate much of the clutter that had plagued the room.

Mounting the SA-35s proved to be pretty achievable task, considering my trepidation before the project. I used the provided templates to cut the holes in the sheetrock, ran the cabling through the wall and beneath the house and mounted the speakers. The SA-35s are outfitted with a hugely rigid cast bracket that has a unique split design, making it relatively easy to maneuver into the cutout. I placed the recommended fiberglass insulation behind the speaker, tightened the screws and we were ready for action. The SA-35 mounting was extremely rigid, providing little (if any) possibility for resonate vibration. Within a few hours, I was ready to listen. Sure, in-walls take longer to install and create more of a mess, but that is a small price to pay to make speakers disappear.

The Music and Movies
To round off the theater system, I used the Paradigm Reference SA-35s ($1,400 per pair) in the front, a pair of SA-15R ceiling-mounted speakers in the rear ($670 per pair) and the Paradigm CC-470 center channel speaker ($650 each). For electronics, I used the Kenwood Sovereign VR-5900 receiver and impressive Linn UNIDISK 1.1.

I started testing with some Yes from their Fragile classic DVD-Audio release (Elektra). This recording is one of the better DVD-Audio releases to date and serves as a worthy musical reference, considering how many times the DVD-Audio title has been played in my big theater. During the opening cut “Roundabout,” Steve Howe’s guitar intro was surprisingly transparent and detailed. Jon Anderson’s vocals were impactful and immediate, yet had a sweet and relaxed feel. My immediate reaction was that the SA-35s sounded remarkably like larger box speakers and very much like the Paradigm Studio 80s that I reviewed years back. In the track “Long Distance Runaround,” the SA-35s managed to capture the emotion very well. The vocals had a great sense of depth and ease. Although this was a wall-mounted speaker, it became clear that this wasn’t some repackaged mass market in-wall, but was rather a legitimate option for those who simply don’t have the space or are looking for a space-conscious solution.

To test the bass and the SA-35s’ ability to handle rock, I loaded up Foreigner 4 once again on DVD-Audio (Atlantic). Although Foreigner has always been a guilty pleasure for me (this means that I like it but only admit it to my closest friends), it serves up some heavy low-end energy. In the cut “Jukebox Hero,” the SA-35s managed to separate the instruments very well, given the ‘70s genre recording. The low end was powerful and had substantial punch. I am someone who once believed that even smaller box speakers were an unthinkable compromise, but the SA-35s had me thinking otherwise. I was able to sit back for detailed listening and achieve a solid stage and real-time dynamics. In the hit song “Urgent,” the sound was as big as any comparably-priced floor stander, yet the performance in many ways was better than some I have reviewed. Although it’s been a while since the review, the SA-35s sound as good as the Paradigm Studio 80s, with the only possible limitation in comparison being less positional adjustment with the in-wall speakers. They are that good.

I loaded up Al Green’s Greatest Hits (Hi Records DVD-Audio). This recording is not audiophile perfect due to its age, but I wanted to test for the SA-35s emotional connection and their ability to involve me at the highest volume levels. I cranked my system up to “11” ala Nigel in “This Is Spinal Tap” and the SA-35s held strong. I played this track on my $4,000 Revel F30s (now replaced by the slimmer F32s being reviewed by Ben Shyman), then the $1,800 Definitive Technology 7002s and then back to the SA-35s. I felt that although the Revels F30s had a little more focus to the stage due to the positional flexibility, the SA-35s held their own and sounded decisively transparent and lush. This is a big compliment to an in-wall speaker system. Were they as good as the aforementioned speakers? In many ways, the answer is yes. The SA-35s have great bass and midrange performance and a grain-free, liquid-sounding high end.

The T-Rex scene in “Jurassic Park” (Universal DVD) is a great test of detail, low-end power and control. I ran the Paradigm in-wall 5.1 package without the use of a sub and was impressed with the tooth rattling low end, even without a sub. As the T-Rex peers into the car at the frightened children, the low frequency rumble was articulate and detailed. Sound effects from around the room were remarkably energizing. Having watched this on dozens of theater systems, I felt the same emotional connection that I feel from floor-standing box speakers. There clearly was little if any loss from the lack of box.

When looking for an adrenaline rush, I often reach for the intro to “Toy Story 2” (Disney/Pixar). I love the scene where Buzz descends from space and glides into what appears as an uninhabited planet. The large bass booms were controlled well. Very notable, the SA-35s managed to provide all the information both uncompressed and unstrained. If I closed my eyes, it would have not been apparent that these were flush-mounted speakers.

The Downside
The SA-35s are large, heavy in-wall speakers. This is necessary to achieve the performance of larger speakers, yet they are heavy and a little more awkward to mount than lesser in-walls. It takes some strength and patience to mount them, but once they’re installed, the effort is 100 percent worth it.

In-walls in this price category aren’t just throwaway speakers. If you plan to move, often these speakers get left behind, which isn’t the case with floor-standing speakers. Considering the per square foot price in Northern California these days, this might be a small price to pay to get some highly valuable living space back.

I have to admit that I was a skeptic when it came to in-wall speakers. I always thought that this was a product for guys who have lost the battle with their wives and simply can’t have a high-performance speaker package. The Paradigm SA-35s and SA-15R speakers have unquestionably changed this impression. With my living room renovation completed, the AV system sounds so good that I wouldn’t consider putting boxes back on the floor. A blind listening test with the Paradigm in-wall speakers will most definitely fool you into believing you have a large floor-standing speaker in your room. All this performance without the mess was a closer for me. I will purchase these speakers and call them my living room reference for the future. It has also taught me that sometimes the overall listening and viewing experience is aided by the positive energy in the room, created by clean and uncluttered lines. My wife is so excited about “her theater” that she gives me a look every time I want to make an adjustment to it. “Go mess with your theater” is a common theme when I come up from the lower level with new gear or a handful of cables. Perhaps this is a win/win for the men out there. You can make your wives believe you have made a compromise for them when you have merely managed to manipulate an upgrade for yourself. The moral: move beyond your preconceptions of in-wall speakers and consider a cleaner, less cluttered approach. The Paradigm Reference SA-35s are speakers for the interior designer and music enthusiast alike.
Manufacturer Paradigm
Model SA-35/SA-15R In-wall/ceiling Speakers
Reviewer Bryan Southard

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