Paradigm Signature Sub 1 Review
Small yet mighty? That's the Sub 1, not Russell!
At the inaugural National Hi-fi Show, in 2009, there were some impressive demonstrations, in what was a stereo hi-fi dominated show. It wasn’t without its AV highlights with several traditional hi-fi, plus some more naturally AV focused manufacturers, demoing full multi-channel systems to varying degrees of success. As I wrote on the AV Enthusiast Blog, the top performing room of that list, by more than a small margin, was the Anthem/Paradigm/Sim2 room.
As well as comprehensive work to treat the, normally, less than ideal environment of a sizeable conference room, the guys from Anthem had brought out all of the big guns. Reference level, 3-chip DLP constant image height projection from Sim2 shining on a curved variable mask screen, partnered with Anthem D2V/D2/D5 processing/amplification and Paradigm Reference Series speakers and subwoofers. Refer to the AV Enthusiast website for more detail, but to cut a long story short; It rocked.
Whilst Paradigm may be known to the average AV enthusiast, its products have exemplified the typically on/off relationship between the British and North American audio products. That being one of good, but sometimes rather large stuff, that doesn’t quite gel with the British psyche. The original Servo subwoofers made a great impression and spread like wildfire when the prices dropped toward the end of product runs, justifiably living on in internet forum folklore and the classified ads.
Well, they’re back and this time it’s an altogether different proposition. With Paradigm and it’s electronics arm, Anthem, pushing technological boundaries, backed by significant investment from the rather enlightened Canadian Research Council. The current product ranges draw heavily on the results of the research and development these funds have enabled; amongst which is the proprietary room equalising technology which Paradigm market as ‘Room Perfect’. As I was reviewing a series of subwoofer room EQ products, at the time of the show, I decided to harass the technical man present, Tom Garrett, about the technology and was treated to a good half hour of good humoured discussion and prodding of computers.
And what a place to start reviewing the new breed from Paradigm, because the first product to turn up wasn’t something mid-range, nor even the mighty Reference Sub 25 subwoofers from the show. No, the first offering was, the smaller of the two new range toppers, the Sub 1 from the Signature Series.
Design, connections and set up
At an RRP of £3499, you should not only be guaranteed very high level of performance (more later) but you have a right to expect something of exceptional build quality and a right to hope for something technologically beyond the ordinary too. Initial impressions of build are borne out by the back breaking density of 45kg for what is not actually a very large sub. Finish, from the liquid depths of the gloss black paint, to the total absence of sharp edges on the rear panel/heat-sink extrusion, is flawless. The only niggle was that the pins on the hefty grills are a little weak and in spite of having been warned that they were (the owner had broken one), I managed to break another all the same. Ironic, considering I did it whilst removing the grill to prevent damage whilst moving the sub. Ho hum.
None of this loveliness is what makes the Signature Sub 1 such a special beast however. What clearly strikes you first is the shape of the sub which, in cross section, is broadly a rounded hexagon with grills on three of the faces, the plate amp on another, with only two painted panels visible under normal circumstances. Pealing a grill or three off, reveals the bespoke 8” drivers, two to a face, stacked vertically making a grand total of six. Why so many? Well, a larger and/or longer travel driver may shift as much air for SPL purposes but the smaller ones have several advantages. First; is that the smaller roll surround is a better termination for controlling linearity at higher frequencies, plus, the break-up frequencies of a smaller cone are higher and so true pistonic behaviour of the cone, over the frequencies it is asked to cover, is assured. Secondly, and this is pertinent to the amplifier power black hole that is a sealed sub, you have a lot more voice coils to dissipate the heat generated in soaking up the considerable power you're going to need to generate the SPLs this sub is capable of, especially if you want it to dig deep.
So, with plenty of drivers to spread around, Paradigm has done just that. Spreading them around the cabinet on opposing faces has the benefit of cancelling the forces fed into the cabinet and whatever floor type it is standing on. Indeed, it does pass the 'fifty pence piece on edge' test when playing flat out – it doesn't move, even slightly. Less often discussed is the large effective radiating area this topology enables. Rather than just one large driver, emanating bass from a single point and the precise way that driver will drive certain room modes, spreading the drivers around what is not actually a very large cabinet (occupies less space than a 50cm cube) and vertically on the cabinet diffuses or, if you prefer, spreads the area over which bass is generated. This can (and did) make the Sub 1 'couple' very nicely with the room and aside from the most dominant modes in my room, which affect everything, it gave one of the naturally smooth responses I've yet seen in here.
The drivers themselves are entirely custom designed by Paradigm and, whilst it's obviously more complex than this, the unusual features of note are the ribbed (for your pleasure) roll surrounds, and the fact that the voice coil is vented through the cone behind the oversized dust cap, rather than through the centre of the pole piece, as is more normal. The former will again control resonance, within the roll surround, as well as limit the driver more progressively as it approaches it's excursion limits; whilst the latter will maximize flux, within the pole piece, to maximise motor force in the 4kg of magnet equipped motor structure. Think about that; That's 24kg of magnet in total and over half of the sub's weight. These are serious and very refined drivers.
The shove for the drivers comes from a 1700w continuous, 3400w peak amplifier that runs warm to the touch whether its just on or hammering the life out of the drivers. That sounds like a lot of power, and indeed it is, but of greater note is the onboard DSP room correction that is used in conjunction with the modestly named Paradigm Perfect Bass Kit, that is included in the price. Rather than go the route of jamming everything in the sub, Paradigm use your PC to do the number crunching and simply download the results to the sub via a nice long USB cable. As such, the other controls on board are the usual gain, crossover frequency, 0-180deg continuously sweepable phase and an Auto On/Off switch. Alarm bells rang at the lack of a simple 'On' option but I never noted a single instance of the sub being off when a signal of any level was present. That's a first and a positive benefit, as the warmth of the amplifier suggests the Sub 1 draws a fair amount of power at idle.
The Perfect Bass Kit itself comprises a hefty microphone stand, a well built USB powered mic and a software CD. The CD is unique to the microphone as it includes a custom calibration profile for the mic, so if you loose or break one, you're not going to be able to accurately replace it without Paradigm's help. Hook up couldn't be simpler as long as your PC has two USB ports – one for the sub, one for the mic, but the mighty mic stand is dubiously useful as it has no boom to extend over furniture. This means setting the mic at ear height, in the listening position, can only be accomplished if you either place the stand on the chair (not ideal) or remove the chair (awkward). Indeed, the only time I ever unboxed the stand was for the photos, preferring the use of my own. Use of the (PC only) program is very, very simple and you just follow the on-screen prompts, measuring a minimum of three and preferably more positions to allow the software to build up a picture of your rooms bass response. There is the usual before/after graph, to see the results of your labours, prior to hitting the 'Send' button to download the EQ profile to the sub, but that's about it and it takes literally minutes. For the bass EQ nuts, Paradigm are tight lipped about their technology, but the EQ is done using Infinite Impulse Response Filters and, based on what I've used in the past, I'd estimate that it uses about 10 to 20 of them. The target response is basically flat. I say basically because the software graph target curve has about a 1dB rise from 60 down to 20Hz, but that's near as dammit flat. There is no opportunity for user preference beyond setting a low pass roll-off in the software, but as the processor/AV amp does that, I set it to EQ to the maximum allowable 240Hz instead.
So, EQ'd up and levels balanced and it was on to listening. Dealing with films first, then I have to say that this is a sub that will tend to rearrange typical received wisdom. It's not without its limits, but it goes very deep and very loud for a sub of any size, never mind one this small; and it is small in the context of subs you can drop £3.5k on. Paradigm have chosen to roll-off the extreme bottom end – they claim 12, but I'd say closer to 15Hz but, no matter, the point is that everything the Sub 1 is allowed to deliver, it continues to deliver at all volumes, without the audible bottom end progressively disappearing as the volume is edged north. All but the most obsequiously deep bass effects are delivered full scale and without a sense of any limit being approached and that's one of the overriding impressions the Sub 1 will leave me with – Even when the program material is testing, the Sub 1 simply doesn't sound like it is trying, even if you can feel the pressurization in the room and can audibly hear it's walls and doors complaining.
The next quality of note is, and I hesitate to use the word speed in connection with a sub, as it's not strictly an applicable term, but the speed of the Sub 1 is incredible. The suddenness with which massive dynamic effects arrive is impressive, although I've heard others that do this well, but it's the speed with which they stop happening that elevates this sub into the über class. If a tank tracks past, it sounds as deep and as loud as you'd hope, but the difference here is that you get a series of tactile thuds, rather than a continuous rumble, of the track links hitting the ground. It can sound like something is missing and it is – it's missing overhang and this gives a much improved sense of texture and reality to sounds.
It had me reinvestigating old favourites like Open Range, for the final gunfight, and the drum sequence from House of Flying Daggers and I can't say I've heard them done better. The individual drums, of the latter, each had a more clearly defined character, sounding less like repetitive strikes of the same drum. A small but subtle difference, but that's what is being dealt with here. There is a beautiful roll of thunder about 4 minutes into Open Range, that is an early indication of the quality of the soundtrack. Via the Sub 1, it gained a more clearly defined texture to the complex sound, which I can only liken to a god sized Rolf Harris Wobble Board being flexed.
All of this bodes well with music, where the bass nuances and a lack of overhang are even more critical, if a real instrument is to sound real. It came as no surprise that the Sub 1 shrugged off everything thrown at it, even when I resorted to Car Audio SPL Sound-off demo pieces. Bassotronics 'Bass, I Love You' was simply insane and had me removing stuff from shelves in adjacent rooms.
Real music was excellent with double bass posing no issues with depth, control or power and excellent tonal separation of notes, the decay of an earlier note sustaining beautifully behind the note that follows. The upper bass is ultra clean and blends effortlessly with the main speakers and, indeed, I spent a fair amount of time experimenting with crossovers up to 120Hz with no noticeable localisation issues and the added benefit of filling in the bass floor bounce dip, suffered by stand-mount speakers. Drums, in particular, gained extra kick in the chest and indeed, this is one of the few subs I've met that really kicks in the upper bass, so why not let it?
So it's without limitations? Not quite; As I mentioned above, Paradigm have correctly decided there's no point in trying to reproduce frequencies that you can't even feel, never mind hear, with the driver area and power available, but everything that is left is delivered with staggering conviction and dynamics. Some of the Blu-ray effects, that can only be measured using the Richter Scale, tail off a little earlier than the big ported subs and the deepest stops on church organs start to loose grunt, a touch, but this has to be set in the context of how big this sub isn't and that it even troubles these frequencies, as hard as it does, is simply astonishing and none of the subs, that do go deeper, are as good as the Paradigm in the other 95% of the sub bass frequency band.
Reference Status. There, I said it. You can't mark it down for being hard to move because so is my wife and I still keep her about. Like the wife, in just about every other respect, it's just so damn easy to live with. Whereas other subs may have you fiddling about with separate movie and music settings to bypass their deficiencies, you just plug the Sub 1 in, tune it once, put the microphones away and sit grinning like a nun who's found the soap; for hours on end. I never thought that movies needed a bit more bass or that music sounds a little bloated – It just did accurate bass, as loud or low as you could want, and then stopped exactly when it wasn't being asked to anymore. It never drew attention to itself in an unpleasant way; it turns itself on and off without missing the beginning of an effect; and looks gorgeous in any front room. If only it was a bit bigger and more powerful, so as to go a bit deeper, then it would achieve as close to bass perfection as I can imagine. Oh dear! Paradigm may have; with 10” drivers and 3400/7000w of power and called it Sub 2. I think I may actually be scared...
EDIT 28/10/10; As of October 2010, the price of the Signature Sub 1 has increased to £5000 due to increased manufacturing costs. The rise also affects the Signature Sub 2 which has increased to £9500. No other sub within Paradigm's ranges have been affected. It is impractical to edit a review, it's conclusion and scoring every time a manufacturer changes a price, especially given the unstable times we live in. However, as this is an unusually large increase so soon after the publication of the review, this information is offered with the intention that the reader be aware and draw their own conclusions.
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Reference level Active Subwoofer
Paradigm Signature Sub 1
Suggested price: £3,500
Reviewed 11th June, 2010 by Russell Williams
To get the best out of your TV or projector, consider getting it calibrated.