Paradigm Shift A2 Active Loudspeaker Review
Active DSP loudspeaker to breath new life into a tired system
So, to avoid further confusion, here is the first speaker in an entirely new Paradigm brand - Paradigm Shift. The focus of Paradigm Shift is dare I say it, on the funkier 20 something market, the emphasis being on products that plug into your computer, mp3 player or some such. Gaming headsets and headphones are to follow the launch products of three sets of ear buds (in ear headphones to you, grandad) and the subject of this review, the A2 powered speaker. I'll leave you to speculate if that leaves room for an A1...
Despite the new Shift brand being focused on what is unfairly called the disposable generation, the other name on the front is Paradigm. With that comes the expectation of thoroughly developed product, with an implicit level of performance and longevity expected. Indeed, the basis of the A2 is the Paradigm Atom Monitor Series 7, but that is a passive, ported stand mount bookshelf loudspeaker, that retails for approximately £350 per pair. The A2 is a powered, or more correctly, an active bi-amplified sealed speaker, that retails for £279-329 each, as in one at a time.
Paradigm are being clever here, because there is no real intended role for the A2, outside of what you want to use it for. DAB radio in the kitchen sounds a bit limp? Buy one. Need some quality monitors for your computer desktop? Buy two. Freshen up an unrefined AV receiver that has pre-outs? Buy five, six, seven, or however many channels are required to stay ahead in the pub bragging race. About the only prerequisite is that your chosen source has a volume control - The A2 has a gain control, on the rear, but that only adjusts that individual speaker.
Starting at the top, there is a 25mm S-PAL anodized aluminium tweeter, that sits behind a fine mesh guard, at the throat of a shallow wave guide. Beneath, is the 140mm S-PAL anodized aluminium mid/bass driver, with inverted aluminium dust cap. This is suspended from a chunky foam rubber surround and a conventional spider, with venting both under the spider and through the motor pole piece. Whereas the tweeter uses a Neodymium magnet, the mid/bass driver sports a large ferrite unit. As with most of Paradigm's drivers, this is all trickle down stuff from the development of the Reference Series.
Sandwiched between the bottom of the cabinet and the mid/bass driver is the LED that indicates the On/Standby Status of the A2. And this is why you will keep the grill on, because the designer that spec'd this LED, liked blue. Now, even I am am softening to this ghastly, distracting colour, that has no place is a darkened room, because lets face it, I can't stop the blue tide. However, this designer saw blue LEDs and then asked the supplier if they had one the went up to eleven. I kid you not, with three of these lit up at the front of the room, I can find my way round the room with the lights out and the telly off and where I live is proper, countryside dark. I've seen less irritating laser pointers. My plasma has an eminently sensible red LED that goes off, when the screen is on. This way, you know the unit is powered when not in use and the picture, or sound coming from it, is self evident that the unit is powered when you're using it. Paradigm, please take note.
Holding the front and rear baffles apart, is a tidy, well braced MDF cabinet available in a number of finishes. The samples I had were in the satisfyingly convincing Black Ash effect (£279ea), but also available are painted finishes (£329ea) named Storm Black Satin, Gunmetal Grey Gloss, Vermillion Red Gloss and Polar White Gloss. On the base of the cabinet is a single screw thread, which can be used to secure the A2s to a stand. There is only one dedicated stand currently sold for the A2s, which takes the form of a curved aluminium foot that imparts an upward tilt to the speaker.
Turning to the rear, we have the gubbins that sets the A2 aside from the Atom Monitor. Instead of the simple baffle with speaker binding posts and a reflex port, there is basically the rear of the internal amplification that powers the speaker. As mentioned earlier, it is important to distinguish the A2 as a true active, as opposed to simply powered speaker. In the latter case, you simply have a single power amplifier pushing it's watts through a passive crossover and thence onto the drivers, in exactly the same way a traditional power amplifier and passive speaker would work. In a true active amplified speaker, each driver is connected directly to it's own dedicated poweramp, with all of the crossover functions performed, before the poweramps, on the line level signal. This confers a number of quite specific benefits upon an active speaker.
In a normal speaker, the values of the crossover components are calculated in conjunction with the electrical properties of the driver with which they work. Owing to the voltages involved, these components are relatively large and if you want them working to single digit percentage tolerances, quite expensive. As they sit between the poweramp and the driver a fair amount of power is lost, mainly as heat, although there is some debate as to exactly how much. The point is that not only does the position of the crossover in the chain, dilute the amplifiers control over the drivers, the heat generated in the crossover and the drivers, serves to modify their electrical values, which changes the way they work together, depending on the programme material or how loud you are playing it. By placing the crossover before the amplifier, you allow the amplifier direct control of the driver and as it's output impedance is low, the fluctuations in the drivers resistance with heat, pass virtually unnoticed.
Because the crossover can now be constructed from lower voltage, higher tolerance components, the precise values of the crossover and the electro-acoustic slopes employed can be altogether more complex, radical in effect and precisely engineered to suit the driver. Further advantages are had in separating the amplification to each driver, in so far as the back EMFs generated by the high power, high excursion bass driver demands, cannot now modulate the output of the amplifier that is trying to power the delicate low current demands of the tweeter at the same time - The same set of drivers off basically the same power, can perform and do sound cleaner, to higher volumes. Finally, each amplifier, matched to it's driver, can be set so as not to overdrive that specific driver with preset and/or thermal monitoring used to protect against premature death.
In the case of the Paradigm Shift A2, this is taken a bit further by the use of digital signal processing to affect not only the crossover and protection, but also to apply some equalization of the A2's bottom end output. A sealed speaker, is normally a lot smaller than it's ported equivalent. For the most part, this is to provide sufficient compression of the air volume within, to prevent the driver bottoming out under heavy bass loads. The larger ported cabinet, if sealed, will play deeper bass, but without the back pressure of the port to protect the driver, can't play as loud. With DSP a 'map' can be set to allow this extra bottom end output at lower volumes, but progressively roll the bass output off with increasing volume.
Paradigm Shift take this a stage further, in actually subtly increasing bass output at low levels, to compensate for the human ears natural drop in bass sensitivity at lower volumes. This has to be carefully done to avoid the potential prat-fall of creating a 'loudness' control, which will mean more to children of the '80s, '70s and earlier. It wasn't a nice effect, given the blunt technology available, but only really worked in cars with rubbish speakers that needed a kick up the opposing frequency extremes to produce either. In the case of the A2s equipped with modern processing algorithms, it is very transparent in operation and is only applied at the bass end. The amplifiers themselves are 'digital' switching amplifiers, quoted as 50W nominal, 80W peak for each driver. Even after a good hammering, the rear of an A2 was little more than skin temperature.
In terms of connections, there is a two pin reversible mains power socket (lead supplied) that can cope with 100-240V, 50-60Hz inputs courtesy of a automatically switching power supply. There is an ON/OFF switch, but on is in effect 'powered' as non-defeatable signal sensing is responsible for actually powering up the internal circuitry. Unlike subwoofers where a lack of bass in the signal, can result is a somewhat late 'wakeup' halfway through a bass moment, there is nearly always some signal in the speaker channels. It took very little signal to wake the A2s and they never, ever turned off during use, even late at night. Only once the signal had been removed for about 15 minutes, did they finally go to sleep. However, it is important to match the gain of each A2, using the rear panel rotary control, to the level of output provided by the source. This is to ensure that the volume control of a source retains a usable range. There is no point in turning the gain right up, only to find that the volume goes from nothing, to nuclear attack in the first three steps of a 100 step scale. Likewise, set the gain too low and you may lack the output on the source to achieve full volume. This of course may have benefits if you have children in the house, but that's not how it's supposed to work.
Audio inputs are for a 3.5mm stereo jack, or a stereo pair of RCA phono jacks. This input arrangement is mirrored with an identical set of outputs, which work in concert with a three position switch labelled Left/Mono/Right. This allows great flexibility in source connection. If you connect a portable, or any other device with a 3.5mm jack with variable volume output (laptop, radio, Airport Express, etc), you need only connect it to one speaker. You can then daisy chain the other speaker (or speakers) off the first using a 3.5mm jack to jack cable of suitable length. You then simply tell each speaker, using the mode switch, whether it's a left or right speaker. If feeding each speaker with a discrete RCA phono cable for each channel, simply set it to left or right, depending on which RCA input you used. I used five, all connected to and set to, right, for surround sound. If using only one speaker, connect the stereo jack to jack, or stereo jack to two RCA phono as before, but set the speaker to mono, to combine both channels. This opens up endless possibilities. You can daisy chain multiple speakers over a wide area such as a bar or reception in mono, where stereo doesn't matter, or have multiples of speakers on each stereo channel. As a final note, there will be a Bluetooth dongle for connecting to one of the A2s, to allow direct streaming via Airplay enabled devices.
With all acoustic output provided by drivers on the front of the A2s, they were very bass tolerant of positions close to walls. 150mm (or more) prevented excessive upper bass reinforcement, with them only really starting to sound too bass lean once you were 600mm+ into the room. The left, right and rears were positioned on 600mm mass loaded stands. The fronts were toed in about 10 degrees, with the rears firing at it's opposite number at the front - rear right pointed to front left, for instance. It just seems to work best that way with all of the monopole rears I've used in this room.
The centre was sat on Focul and Poli-pods on my equipment rack, in order to tilt the speaker up slightly toward the listening position due to a 500mm high top shelf. As I have room beneath my screen, the centre was stood upright. This brings benefits in maintaining a similar horizontal dispersion pattern to that of the speakers either side, thus serving all listeners equally, but there is absolutely nothing to stop you placing the centre A2 on it's side, if space is lacking.
Of course, for movie use a subwoofer is essential and Anthem AV kindly ponied up a Monitor Series Sub 12 for the purpose. This is one of the subs from the Monitor Series that the A2's precursor, the Atom, hails from. The Monitor Sub 12 is a compact, sharp edged cube that matches the look of the A2s perfectly and is more than a match it terms of sheer output. This 300W (900W peak) 12" sealed sub retails at a few pennies shy of £1000 and is perhaps worthy of a review in it's own right, but it's Paradigm Shift we're dealing with here and as of yet, there isn't a Shift Sub. Suffice it to say, Paradigm have a good name in the sub bass world and the Sub 12 does nothing to drop that particular ball.
One slight bone of contention is that the digital amplification does have a slight hiss at close quarters. I've noticed this with various PWM amps in subwoofers, but seated distance, plus a driver that suppresses high frequencies, make it a non-issue. It is constant in level, unaffected by volume and is more of a pink, than irritating white, noise hiss, that is nullified by moving the speakers back a foot or two. Certainly it was inaudible in my front room and it was only in the office, late at night when the village is really quiet that I noticed it, when using 'family' friendly listening levels. If that's your general listening style and you favour speech radio, over music, then you need to listen to the A2s to be on the safe side. I listen to a mixture and it didn't bother me, but with a three year old in the house, I've learned to tune things out...
In terms of the voicing, it is likely that the A2s will be listened to from both near and far and so much care has to be taken with the treble. Voicing purely for near field, or desk top monitoring, would result in insufficient treble energy when the same speaker is parked on the other side of your living room. The reverse is true, but the ear is sympathetic to a bit of extra treble up close, as long as it is clean and clear. Fortunately, the A2s have a very clean, very smooth treble, that treads a fine line between delivering enough detail to sound interesting, whilst not sounding dull. Sibilance, which particularly draws the ears attention to treble nasties and therefore treble level, is very well controlled, but not at the expense of squashing the shimmer and shine from cymbals, or the tinkle of bullet casings.
The midrange is similarly butter smooth, without ever grating even at consistently high volumes. The slight trade off, is that you can get slightly more insightful speakers in terms of vocal emotion, but they’d likely expose the obvious shortcomings of the average laptop headphone output, so it is a trade well made, given the design intentions.
Bass is one area where no compromise need be made, because there is no such thing as transparent bass. Depending upon the level of playback, performance is quite remarkable for a speaker of this size. It is very deep and clean and, if positioned sympathetically, as tuneful as any mini monitor you will hear. Of course, the positional caveat applies to all speakers, but the extra depth on offer is only something that can be offered by an active speaker. With the performance envelope of the driver and it’s matching amplifier known, the extra extension can be offered without risk to the mid/bass driver. As volume increases, bass extension is curtailed by the internal DSP until, at full chat, the bass is precisely as deep as it would have been if the speaker were a normal passive type. At all volumes, it is tight and controlled and tracks changes of notes like a numismatist, the grip and texture a fine demonstration of what true active amplification brings to the party.
On the subject of which, the other definitively active quality of the A2s, is their dynamics and rhythmic timing. With the phase vagaries of a passive crossover side-stepped, notes at all frequencies start and stop at the same time. The leading edge of sounds are less time smeared, intensifying the dynamic swing, with the greater control of the driver describing the decay more precisiely. Initially, it can sound a little less dramatic as there is less hashness to busy the background against which you're listening. You soon settle into it and just enjoy the rhythmic bounce of the music, undiluted with waffle. So whilst the A2s aren't the most emotive speaker with voice, this should not be confused with lacking excitement and pace, as this is accomplished with vigor.
Stereo imaging enjoyed this cool control and precision. With little excess to cloud the stereo soundstage, performers and instruments enjoyed their own discrete space between the speakers and without the mid/treble being thrown at you, the image extended nicely back from the speakers, rather than forward. I'm not much of a fan of lead singers in your lap, so I prefer this style of presentation and in a desktop monitor role, it makes even more sense. You're already close to the speakers and have no need of a lead singer in the middle of your head. If you like that, wear headphones.
This list of qualities and trade offs makes them well suited to movies. They are happy to play far louder than the raw power figures would suggest and because of the active operation, will do so without risk to their own health. The refinement makes them an easy long term listen with even the most frenetic action flick, whilst the dynamic capabilities maintain the excitement levels with a satisfyingly crisp punch. Used as I did, with identical speakers all round, tonal matching is obviously without reproach and surround effects hang nicely between the speakers, free of the boxes. With a subwoofer handling frequencies up to 100Hz (and the Sub 12 supplied was a capable upper bass performer) the A2s have an easier ride and the over riding sensation is of sitting in front of a very large, very powerful system. The benign way the DSP controls the speakers as they approach their limits, plus the sheer scale added by the Sub 12, makes for an enormous sound, that feels relaxed, comfortable and impressive.
- Sound quality
- Forgiving of source electronics
- Huge performance envelope for the size
- Paradigm build quality
- Flexibility of uses
- You need to plug each one in to a power socket
- Ridiculous power LED
Paradigm Shift A2 Active Loudspeaker Review
Forensic dissection of music and the system playing it, is fine if you're sure your system and programme material is up to it. There are plenty of speakers designed for that purpose. The Paradigm Shift A2s are designed to perform well with any source, covering the tracks of the less than stellar equipment with which they may be mated and in so doing, sound good regardless. If you like to relax to music and not have your system choose what you can listen to and from, then the A2s will be right up your street.
That's not to say that they can't be exciting, as their natural propensity to boogie suits modern studio recordings well, with the polish they deliver knocking the rough edges off. The immediacy written in the DNA of a true active speaker, is completely unsuppressed with surprising levels of dynamic attack, control and frequency extension on offer. In those respects, the A2s completely surpass their passive counterparts and let us not forget, the A2s are only £279 each - Every speaker at that price point will have a balance, a set of compromises, designed into it's performance.
Although marketed as a product for the wirelessly portable generation, it struck me that the Shift A2s would be superb at refining and breathing new life into a tired AV system. Whilst they might match the quoted headline power figures of a typical £1000 AV receiver, they are in all practical terms, more than a match. It's also fair to say that a lot of what has passed for power amplifiers in that sort of product in the past, has been a bit rough around the edges. If you're lucky enough to have one of the breed with pre-outs worthy of the name, then a set of A2s would be a genuine step up, bringing added refinement in general. In fact, now that second hand HDMI 1.3 AV processors can be had for £500, one of those, plus five A2s and a decent sub can see you with a fully active pre/pro system for under £2500. I honestly think you'd be hard pressed to go the AVR plus passive speaker route and achieve not only this level of movie performance, but musical performance too - a traditional AVR blind spot.
Back on the intended terra firma; partner the A2s with a computer, or dock, sporting a decent soundcard/stereo output (I'm thinking Mac Mini, Dacmagic +, etc) and you'd have a very pleasant and capable stereo that would take up very little space, whilst being capable of filling a much larger one. On a lower level; plug them into the speaker output of your flat panel TV and you can play radio off freeview and make a stab at music from CD via your DVD or Blu-ray player. This may not be ideal in your, or my book, but for some, it's a fuss free way of getting access to a decent level of performance, without swelling the TV cabinet with amplifiers they don't know how to work.
The Paradigm Shift A2s struck me as having a certain iPad quality. You think you don't need or want the A2s, until you've spent a while using them. You slowly realize there are so many situations where they can fulfill a role, you start to wonder what life was like before. Throw in near bombproof electronics and drivers, plus the usual Paradigm standard of construction and finish and a solid Highly Recommended is mandatory.
Value For Money9
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Type Bookshelf Driver Layout Two-Way Bi-wire Capable Yes Driver Size 5.5" Driver Type Anodized Aluminium Dome Max Power Handling 80 watts Frequency Response 55 Hz – 20 kHz (± 2 dB) Sealed Yes
Power Type Active Warranty Yes Release Year 2012 Width 6.6" Depth 11" Depth 8.9"
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