Paradigm Premium Wireless Multiroom Audio System Review

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn
AT A GLANCE

Plus

  • Excellent build and sound quality
  • 192-kHz/24-bit support over Ethernet
  • Anthem Room Correction with included mic

Minus

  • Limited number of streaming services
  • Single orientation for PW speakers
  • Components can’t be powered on via the app
  • Play-Fi control and proximity limitations

THE VERDICT

Limited streaming options and a few limitations for its Play-Fi multiroom platform are the only things that hold back this beautifully designed system with top-notch room-correction technology.

At last count, 1.34 bazillion established companies and crazed startups were designing wireless streaming audio systems. The latest company to toss its Wi-Fi dongle into the steaming streaming pile is Paradigm. Founded in 1982, the Toronto-based speaker company is no starry-eyed Kickstarter sensation hell-bent on streaming multiroom audio using a Raspberry Pi, an Altoids tin box, and numerous references to the Internet of Things. In fact, as well known as Paradigm is, the company should know better than to sully their engineering hands (they actually do build a lot of their speakers by hand in Toronto) with the interference-ridden mishmash of 802.11g/n standards, amplified speakers, audio codecs, sample rates, apps, and “What’s the best router to use?” On the other hand, maybe Paradigm—with its new Premium Wireless series—has actually succeeded in building a premium, wireless, streamingaudio system.

Share and Share Alike

With any streaming audio system, there are two constituents to consider: the hardware components and the software, used by the hardware and/or apps for control, communication, and the all-important user interface. In this case, Paradigm is using the DTS-owned “open” Play-Fi interface. But let’s look at Paradigm’s hardware first.

The Premium Wireless series includes three products. The PW 600 and PW 800 are all-in-one, amplified sound systems. The driverless PW Amp is a wireless, streaming-oriented, integrated zone player/amplifier. (A fourth item, the line-level-only PW Link, was on the way at the time of my evaluation. It’s essentially a zone player/preamp designed to turn an existing sound system into a room or zone.) As with all such systems, the components within the Premium Wireless series have plenty of design features and functions in common. For starters, they all include Wi-Fi connectivity (duh…), both 2.4 gigahertz and 5.0 GHz (802.11 g/n). The components also support high-resolution audio files up to 192-kilohertz/24-bit—although that capability is only achievable when using the device’s wired Ethernet connection.

All three PW models have a line-level RCA subwoofer output and can detect a connected sub. When they do, each component—including the PW Amp—will automatically redirect low-frequency content from the main speakers to the sub. Each one has a stereo analog audio input (3.5mm for the 600 and 800, RCA jacks for the Amp). You can select the analog input by pressing the input button manually, or any of the components can be configured to automatically select the analog audio input when the Play-Fi app is turned off. Connected to the analog audio output of a TV, for example, the 600 or 800 becomes a high-class, two-channel soundbar when not being used for streaming audio. The Amp and a pair of attached speakers make for the possibility of an even better step-up in TV-audio quality.

Paradigm PW 600

All the PW components share distinctive and quite classy industrial design elements, too, such as a slightly offset aluminum baseplate that makes the speaker’s cabinet appear to float a fraction of an inch above the plate. The 600 and 800 have fullfront, black metal grilles and glossy wood-veneer tops. The Amp’s top cover has a racetrack (or cribbage board) of ventilation holes around the outer perimeter, with a solid black rectangle in the middle holding it all together.

The baby of the breed, the compact PW 600 ($599) is a vertically oriented, two-way, bookshelf-style speaker, with two 1-inch domes and a single 5-inch cone. There are five control buttons and a status LED located on the cabinet’s lower right side. Without knowing otherwise, you’d think the 600 was a typical, upper-end passive monitor. Unlike most monitors, though, the 600 includes 200 watts of Anthem Class D amplification. If you want to go all out, you can configure two 600s as a $1,200 screaming, streaming stereo pair.

The PW 800 ($799) is a horizontally oriented, two-way, tabletop speaker that acts as a stereo sound system, with two 1-inch tweeters and two 5-inch bass drivers. It’s only 7 inches tall, but the 20-inch width means you’ll need plenty of cabinet or shelf space. Despite the dual woofers and 230 total watts from Anthem Class D amps, Paradigm specs the PW 800’s low-frequency extension at 39 hertz, which is only one hertz lower than that of the PW 600. (A word of wisdom: If one hertz, two won’t feel any better.) Other factors being equal, the 800 is likely to have more output capability and/or lower distortion at those frequencies.

The stocky, two-channel PW Amp ($499) is surprisingly deep by modern streaming-gadget standards at 8.63 inches, but it’s quite diminutive when compared with most traditional power amplifiers. The height (3.13 inches) and width (5.75 inches), however, make the PW Amp perfectly suited for mounting up to three-across in a standard A/V rack. (Middle Atlantic Products conveniently offers custom faceplates for rack-mounting PW Amps.) As with the other components, inside the Amp is an Anthem Class D amplifier. This one is rated at 2 x 50 watts RMS into 8 ohms.

That’s all pretty standard streaming-audio system stuff. However, there’s a feature that, while common to all the PW series components, is quite uncommon in other streaming systems: Every Paradigm PW box includes a calibrated USB microphone. That’s because each Premium Wireless model is designed to take advantage of a version of the highly regarded room acoustic-correction technology from Paradigm’s electronics-only sister company, Anthem. Naturally enough, it’s called Anthem Room Correction (ARC).

ARC isn’t some cheesy, five-band equalizer with a seizure-inducing array of flashing lights, the likes of which you’d expect to find in a tricked-out 1976 Chevy Impala. (I know. I used to own one.) As we’ve reported in earlier reviews of Anthem’s pre/pros and AVRs (for which ARC was developed), when it comes to levels, crossover settings, equalization, and the rest of the nitty-gritty details concerning what’s best for the particular speakers in the particular acoustics of your particular room, ARC is the real deal.

Paradigm PWAMP Premium Wireless Amplifier

Calibrating a PW speaker requires running “ARC for Play-Fi” software on a Windows PC (or a Mac running Windows, which is what I used) with the USB microphone connected to the PC—not the sound system, as you might expect. The program searches the network for connected components, lists them, and prompts you to select the one to be calibrated. The software plays five test-tone sweeps through the unit(s), pausing between each one so you can move the mic to a different spot. ARC then cranks the heck out of the data and uploads the configuration file to the PW component. You won’t need the computer again unless you move things and need to re-calibrate.

Anthem Room Correction routinely gets top-notch ratings, and even though ARC is slimmed down in the PW series, it’s easy to hear why it’s so well respected. Of course, the differences you hear will depend on the room, the sound system’s location in the room, and your finesse with the measurement procedure. In very general terms, in my room, the bass got tighter (but not necessarily louder), the midrange gained clarity, and the highs became less aggressive and harsh without losing detail. One of the many cool things about ARC is that after you’ve completed the calibration process, you can print out a report containing graphs of the frequency response pre- and post-ARC

ARC de Triumphant

For those of us who are hip-deep in this sort of stuff, it seems only natural that you’d place your system where it’ll sound best. “Normal” people don’t always do that—especially in kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms, where speakers often get shoved to an out-of-the-way location. ARC can compensate for acoustically undesirable placement—within reason, of course.

To see what ARC could accomplish with a speaker in a stupid location, I placed the PW 600 on a stool in one corner of my office, partially under the desk. Prior to ARCification, with the 600 pointed into the room toward my chair, the poor thing sounded very bass-heavy. With a song like Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” which is bass-rich to begin with, the 600 sounded like an overclocked bass generator. On John Gorka’s “Writing in the Margins,” the lower guitar strings continued to vibrate long after the song was over and Gorka had already packed up and headed home from the studio.

In the vocal range and higher, everything was brighter and sharper than it would have been in a more appropriate location. ARC calibration did an amazing job of curing most of those ills—most notably in the bass response, which tightened up dramatically. The vocals were more focused, and everything had a more defined presence.

Paradigm PW800 Wireless Stereo Speaker

 Sure, that was a stupid location for a speaker, but not f’ing absolutely stupid. So I turned the sound system 180 degrees, toward some boxes stacked under the desk. After resetting the ill-treated PW 600 back to its factory defaults, I gave it a listen again—and, of course, it totally sucked, lacking any kind of clarity or warmth in the vocals. What there was of the muddled highs was harsh and brittle, while the bass was louder and boomier than ever. Then I ARC’d the PW 600, using the same microphone locations I’d used earlier.Gobsmacked isn’t a strong enough word for my response to the overARCing improvements. The bass tightened up to where it was almost as good as the sound with the post-ARC PW 600 firing forward. Vocals and the pluck of guitar strings regained much of their definition, and the highs became softer with more subtlety. ARC wasn’t able to compensate entirely for the poor placement, but it did make astounding improvements—enough to make the PW 600 enjoyable to listen to in that configuration.

Set up in an appropriate listening location and even without the benefit of ARC, the PW 600 is a fantastic sound system that’s definitely a rival in terms of performance to what I consider to be the best streaming system for the money—the similarly priced Sonos Play:5 (Gen 2). The PW 600’s only negative is that it’s designed strictly for vertical placement, and the limited distance between tweeters leaves little doubt you’re listening to a single source location.

The additional 5-inch bass driver gives the PW 800 a slight edge in bass performance over the PW 600, although it’s more in bass tautness and definition than in depth or volume. The 800 was more open, with a tad more clarity, on Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses.” Those differences were slight, however. Much more obvious was the 800’s wider and deeper soundstage. I’m not talking about stereo separation, as you listen for in a speaker pair. Instead, it’s the spread of sound across the front that’s important. Thinking of it in terms of video aspect ratios, the PW 600 is 4:3, while the PW 800 is 16:9. As a result, if you have the space, the 800 is certainly worth the extra $200.

Paradigm’s smallish PW Amp is wickedly good and—at 50 watts per channel into 8-ohm loads—modestly underpromises and then seriously overperforms. To prove the point, Paradigm shipped a pair of the company’s new Prestige 75F tower speakers (in a gorgeous Midnight Cherry finish) to use with the PW Amp. I thought it questionable to send a $3,000 pair of speakers to use with a $499 streaming amplifier, but it took only a few minutes of listening before I was sucked in and swallowed up whole by the delicate detail and holographic three-dimensionality the speaker/amp combo produced. I’ve rarely heard a set of towers that could take the incredible panorama of guitar, barking dogs, and recorded conversations at the beginning of Roger Waters’ “The Ballad of Bill Hubbard” and spread it so far to the sides of the room. The bass was tight, powerful, and deep, despite the fact that the Prestige 75F towers don’t include powered woofers. [Ed. Note: Our review of the Prestige 75F will appear in a future issue.] Amazingly, that little-but-mighty PW Amp never seemed to run out of steam, motivating all the tower’s drivers in my room.

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin

I’m totally sold on Paradigm’s PW hardware. The components sound awesome, especially with ARC, and they look great. I’m not so enthralled, however, by the underlying architecture of the DTS Play-Fi technology used for streaming to the PW gear.

One of Play-Fi’s best features is that it’s brand agnostic, so Play-Fi gear from any company will work in a system with Play-Fi gear from any other company—similar, in that respect, to the interoperability of products with Apple’s AirPlay. For best performance, Play-Fi recommends using a max of 16 Play-Fi products on a home network. But if you really want to push it to the limit, a single phone/tablet can simultaneously stream independent audio to up to four zones, each zone containing up to eight speakers grouped together in the app. All Play-Fi apps, by the way, are virtually identical. The main differences are the logos and color schemes. Paradigm suggests using the generic DTS Play-Fi app, which is available for iOS and Android. There’s also a Windows PC version that’s relatively straightforward and allows you to stream audio directly from your computer. The free version allows you to stream to one Play-Fi component. It’ll cost you $15 for the Play-Fi HD upgrade to stream to multiple speakers.

I don’t find the Play-Fi iOS and Android apps to be very intuitive or especially easy to use. DTS has made some improvements since the apps were introduced, and I’m sure the company will continue working on the user interface. Unfortunately, the underlying Play-Fi architecture has, in my opinion, a deeply ingrained flaw. Play-Fi components are “stupid”—as in, the critical software resides in the phone/app that’s actively controlling the component(s). In other systems—such as Sonos, Heos, and Bluesound—the smarts are in the components. In other words, the control apps for some other systems instruct the components where to go to get the streaming audio for themselves. But the Play-Fi app has to actively spoonfeed the streaming audio to the devices the entire time they’re in operation.

So, imagine I’m throwing a party (unlikely as that is), and I’ve used my iPhone to stream music from Tidal to components in three rooms. Halfway through the party, I realize we’ve run out of absinthe (again), so I hop in the car—with my iPhone, of course—and head to the liquor store.

With a Sonos/Heos/Bluesound system, my guests won’t know I’m gone, since there’s no break in the audio; the components blithely keep streaming from their assigned source until commanded to do otherwise. With a Play-Fi system—remember, this isn’t limited to Paradigm but affects Play-Fi gear from all manufacturers—the system goes silent as soon as my phone loses its Wi-Fi connection with my home network.

Up until fairly recently, Play-Fi users coming into an active listening zone with their own iOS or Android device also couldn’t adjust the volume on the stream booted up by another device. Fortunately, the Remote Volume feature introduced late last year addressed this by allowing a user to adjust volume from a second device without interrupting the original stream. However, unlike Sonos and some other systems, this is the extent of the control the secondary device can provide. To change the music source, for example, still requires direct involvement of the master device.

Maybe I’m being a streaming-system diva. In a small Play-Fi system with two or three components in a house or apartment with only one or two users, Play-Fi’s jack-of-all-streams app structure probably won’t be as inconvenient as I’ve portrayed. But from an ease-of-use standpoint, it’s going to become more problematic as the number of components and/or users grows.

Conclusion

I truly love the components in Paradigm’s new Premium Wireless series. The folks in Canada have blended Paradigm’s speaker expertise with Anthem’s excellence in electronics and still managed to keep the PW components at relatively affordable price points. Most important, Anthem Room Correction brings out the absolute best in the sound systems—including optional connected subwoofers—as well as in conventional speakers (Paradigm’s or any other brand’s) that are hooked up to the PW Amp. I’m not so in love with the DTS Play-Fi technology, on the other hand, due to what I consider to be drawbacks in Play-Fi’s streaming architecture.

Other than that, I have to struggle to find any serious negatives with Paradigm’s Premium Wireless components. If you’re a fan of PlayFi, appreciate the technology’s brand-agnostic nature, and aren’t concerned about the potential limitations cited, then I can highly, highly recommend the new Paradigm wireless gear. Paradigm shouldn’t have called it the “Premium” Wireless series. It’s better than that. You might say it’s premium-er than premium. Regardless of what it’s called, it’s a fantastic collection of gorgeous, awesome-sounding streaming gear.

Specs

  • PW 600: 5 in aluminum-cone woofer, 1 in aluminum-dome tweeter (2); 6.5 x 10 x 5.5 in (WxHxD), 7.5 lb; 200-watt RMS, Class D amplifier; Wi-Fi, Ethernet, Play-Fi; 3.5mm analog input, USB
  • PW 800: 5 in aluminum-cone woofer (2), 1 in aluminum-dome tweeter (2); 20 x 7 x 5.5 in (WxHxD), 13.8 lb; 230-watt RMS, Class D amplifier; Wi-Fi, Ethernet, Play-Fi; 3.5mm analog input, USB
  • PW Amp: 2 x 50 watts RMS (8 ohms), Class D; 5.75 x 3.13 x 8.63 in (WxHxD), 3 lb; Wi-Fi, Ethernet, Play-Fi; analog input, USB
  • Prestige 75F: 5.5 in aluminum-cone woofer (3), 1 in aluminum-dome tweeter; 11 x 37.4 x 12 in (WxHxD), 47 lb
  • PRICE: $1,897 (PW 800, $799; PW 600, $599; PW Amp, $499)

Test Bench

This graph shows the PW Amp’s left channel, from analog input to speaker output with two channels driving 8-ohm loads. Measurements for THD+noise, crosstalk, signal-to-noise ratio, and analog/digital frequency response were all within expected performance parameters.

(soundandvision.com, http://goo.gl/SffTLt)

Comments

comments

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn