Soundbars are making more and more sense for a growing group of buyers who want much better performance than they get from the speakers in their flat TVs. Right now, there are three main groups of soundbars: entry-level products under $500, the more feature-rich $800-ish products, and the more audiophile-grade, often passive soundbars in the $1,000-and-above range. Priced at $799, Paradigm's 2.1-channel Soundtrack System is solidly in the middle category.
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The Soundtrack System is an active soundbar that lives up to the hype when it comes to features, as it makes an AV receiver somewhat unnecessary. It can accept optical digital audio (one input) or analog audio (one RCA and one aux in) directly from sources like a cable/satellite box, a Blu-ray player, a Roku media player, or an Apple TV. It lacks video inputs, so video switching must be handled by your HDTV, many of which now offer up to four HDMI inputs. If you need more input options, you need to look for a more complex soundbar or likely should look to a simple AV receiver for your switching needs.
The Soundtrack System subwoofer is of the wireless persuasion, meaning that it connects to the wall for AC power with a wire but talks with the soundbar over a wireless connection, which allows for a multitude of placement options. Paradigm highlights an under-the-sofa location that's pretty cool if you've got room under your sofa. The subwoofer has an eight-inch laminated polypropylene driver with a 1.5-inch aluminum-wire voice coil. The Soundtrack System subwoofer is dual ported and, amazingly, can be installed in an equipment rack. There is an internal 100-watt class-D (digital) power amp under the hood that gives this sub-that-roared the power needed to rock big movies in a small form factor.
The Soundtrack System soundbar is packed with two 4.5-inch midrange drivers, two four-inch passive radiators, and two ferro-fluid cooled dome tweeters. Paradigm packs in 25 watts of digital amplification and DSP that allows management of the soundbar's power handling so that it can keep up with the output demands when (as we all do) you are pushing a small soundbar to act like a pair of big speakers.
I don't keep a lot of media on my phone, but I've got tons on my iPad. The Soundtrack System is compatible with Paradigm's BD 1 Bluetooth receiver ($59.99) if you want to wirelessly stream music from audio sources. This is something that is becoming increasingly common in AV receivers, and it's nice to see the option appearing in more soundbars, too. Apple's AirPlay is not included in the Paradigm Soundtrack System.
Getting the Soundtrack System soundbar up and running is pretty easy - well within the reach of the end-user AV enthusiast. The products are packed beautifully, and the package is loaded with the templates needed to wall-mount the soundbar above or below your TV (snap-on feet are also supplied if you want to set it on a stand). In my case, we needed to do some pulling of wires from the floor level up to the HDTV's level on the mid-wall. Once the Panasonic 60-inch ST60 plasma was mounted and installed, it became pretty obvious where to put the soundbar. It's highly important that you use a level to balance the soundbar and a measure to position it evenly under your HDTV; otherwise, your installation will look screwy.
The subwoofer's installation is about as easy as finding a place to stash it and an outlet to plug it into; however, getting it to blend sonically with the soundbar takes the most time in the system setup. You can't get Barry White deep bass from a small soundbar, nor should you expect it, which is why these systems include a subwoofer. However, unlike with a pair of bookshelf speakers like the Paradigm Atoms that we recently reviewed, the Soundtrack System soundbar needs the subwoofer to cover low octaves that you actually can hear, thus placement and level setting are key to sonic success. I recommend that, if you can, you should keep the subwoofer on the same wall or plane as the soundbar. This is a "do as I say, not as I do" situation, as I put my Soundtrack System subwoofer on the back wall of my new master bedroom. It took me a few days of tweaking to get the blend right between the volume on the subwoofer and the soundbar. For a while, I could locate more bassy voices coming out of the subwoofer. After some adjustment of the levels, this was no longer an issue; but, as with any subwoofer, placement and levels are key to success.
Read about the performance of the Paradigm Soundtrack System on Page 2.