Canada is celebrated for any number of things, some of them well known and somewhat clichéd and others fully legit representations of a country that appears to have its act together. One thing that's been apparent in high-end audio for years is Canadian prowess as it relates to speaker design. Located near Toronto, Paradigm has been researching, designing, and building high-performance, affordable speakers for over three decades. They take quite a bit of pride, and sink quite a bit of money, in their R&D efforts, and it shows, especially with regard to the flagship Signature Collection.
While Paradigm's product line runs the gamut from bookshelf speakers and floorstanders to soundbars, subwoofers, and headphones, the subject of this review is the Millenia CT 2, which is part of the SHIFT Collection.
The CT 2 retails for $899 and is a true plug-and-play system, which is to say it's fully powered and ships with all of the necessary cabling. The amplifier, which is built into the sub, is of the Class D variety and provides 40 watts RMS to each of the satellites and 80 watts RMS to the sub. Frequency response on the satellites is listed at ±2 dB from 140 Hz to 20 kHz, and sensitivity is rated at 88 dB / 85 dB. They weigh a stout five pounds each and measure 7.75 inches high by 4.5 inches wide by 5.75 inches deep. Frequency response on the sub is rated at 28 Hz; it weighs 12.5 pounds and measures 15.75 inches high by 5 inches wide by 14 inches deep.
Systems like the Millenia CT 2 are becoming more ubiquitous as people seek out simplicity and affordability. This Paradigm system directly addresses both of those needs, as you can be up and running in five minutes, whether you're comfortable with electronics or not. Inside the box, you'll find two satellite speakers, a subwoofer, a remote control, a control box, and all of the necessary cabling. As I said, it's a true plug-and-play system: you simply connect each speaker to the subwoofer, plug the sub into the wall, and connect the included optical cable to your source (Blu-ray player, cable box, etc.). The system is also Bluetooth-capable, so really you don't even need the optical cable if all you want to do is stream audio. The sub comes with a cradle if you want to rock it vertically, as well as some rubber feet if you're the horizontal type. The satellites come with adjustable stands and, due to some space limitations in my listening room, I came to appreciate the flexibility. I ended up placing them on top of my reference Focal towers, but then I had to tilt each of them down in order to direct the sound to the sweet spot. You simply insert the included hex key into the back of the stand, give it a twist, and you're on your way. It's also worth noting that both the sub and the satellites are beautifully designed in black gloss and should pass the ever-daunting Spousal Approval Test. Also, with the dual-mounting option on the sub, Paradigm has wisely made it easier to hide.
Due to my overwhelming lack of patience, I didn't connect the optical cable on the initial go-round and went straight for Bluetooth streaming from my iPhone. I had no connection problems and was up and running in short order. After breaking in the system for a good 10 hours, I connected the included optical cable to my AppleTV and then quickly ditched it in favor of a higher-quality optical cable from WireWorld. The result was better resolution and generally more open sound.
That's it; that's the hookup. If you're looking for ease of setup and exemplary sound quality, then keep reading.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion . . .
Those who are familiar with Paradigm and have experienced the sound quality of their speakers understand that this is where the company hangs its hat. That's not to say that their products suffer in terms of aesthetics or general form factor; it's simply that, while a company like Bang and Olufsen might focus on aesthetics, Paradigm begins and ends with performance. The Millenia continues that tradition of exemplary sound quality, provided you feed it the proper source material and keep in mind that it's not designed for massive rooms.
When I began my critical listening, I immediately found that removing the grilles provided a better listening experience by opening up the sound, especially in the high frequencies. While manufacturers, Paradigm included, will often design speakers to sound the same with their grilles on, this rarely plays out in real-world listening scenarios.
I started with Bluetooth streaming, and the Millenia CT 2s feature Bluetooth aptX technology, which (if you believe the marketing hype) is a huge leap in sound quality over standard Bluetooth. Sadly, though, being a bit of an Apple junkie, I was unable to test this, as Apple products don't support aptX. If you're interested in learning more about the technology, here's an informative read. Also, if you're curious as to whether or not your phone or tablet features aptX, you can reference this list.
In streaming to the Paradigm system, I used my iPad, iPhone, and Mac, and all worked flawlessly, provided I was in range and not shuffling about. In general, I was pleased with both the functionality and the sonic signature of the system, despite the fact that Bluetooth is a highly compressed format. In doing a bit of back and forth between streaming and listening through AppleTV to some of my lossless files, I was a bit shocked to realize that the CT 2, despite its relative affordability, is remarkably revealing.
For reference, the various song selections I'm about to discuss in detail are all Apple Lossless files that I played through the Paradigm using my AppleTV. Also worth noting is the fact that the system has two listening modes - Music and Movies - and you don't want to be in the wrong mode.
I began with "Showdown," the standout track on 311's new album Stereolithic (311 Records), and I was pleasantly surprised at the CT 2's mid and low bass reproduction. 311 leans heavily on the bass, and the Paradigm handled it with authority. Guitar chords were also reproduced accurately, and the overall presentation was coherent without being bland. While Nick Hexum isn't exactly known for his range as a singer, the CT 2s conveyed the rasp and bass in his voice with natural and pleasant warmth.
For the next track, I went from Omaha, Nebraska (the home of 311) to Liverpool, England, for "Here Comes the Sun" from my favorite band. Specifically, from the 2009 remaster of Abbey Road (EMI). The first thing that struck me was the soundstage, which was compellingly wide, despite the diminutive nature of the satellites. Again, the system displayed exemplary coherence, somewhat counter-intuitive with sub/sat systems and a testament to Paradigm's engineering. The sure sign of the enjoyment of a speaker system is the desire to play back a favorite track several times, often in the interest of finding something new. While I didn't find anything new and don't think I ever will, I did truly enjoy listening to the Beatles through the Paradigm system.
Switching gears, which is to say switching genres completely, I cued The Beastie Boys' "Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament" from their album Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (Capitol Records). The Beasties have recorded many an instrumental throughout their career, although this is the standout for me. Unsurprisingly, given the band, this is a bass-heavy track, and I had to dial the subwoofer volume back a bit in order to find some balance. Once dialed in, I was immediately hit with a brilliant reproduction of the song. The mids and highs were compelling and warm, and the imaging was better than I'd expect from a system of this ilk.
Moving on to movies, I played Free Birds (20th Century Fox), a mixed bag of a film that starts strong and then falls apart. Paradigm makes much hay about its Virtual Surround, which uses an algorithm to send the surround sound information, typically lost in a two-speaker system, back into the room. Does it work? Actually it does, but there's a caveat. How well it works depends on two things: how close your ears are to speaker level and how the film was actually recorded. As such, I found myself hovering over my theater chair, much the way you would in a porta potty, in order to get my ears to the proper height. Thanks to all of the chase scenes in this film, there is plenty of action in the surrounds; and, while you can't replace dedicated surround speakers, the Millenia handled the smoke and mirrors of creating surround sound from two speakers as well as any system I've heard.
Next up, I played R.I.P.D. (Universal Studios), another mediocre film but a good torture test for a speaker system due to all of the action. Out of the gate, I noticed that the bass was bloated. The simple solution was to experiment a bit with the placement of the sub, which made a marked improvement. Due to dramatic engineering differences and power ratings, it's always a good idea to experiment with subwoofer placement. Anyway, I cranked the volume while watching good guys shoot at bad guys in the beginning and was generally pleased with how the system sounded. In doing a bit of A/B testing between the Paradigm and my reference 7.1 system, the thing I missed the most was a dedicated and well-placed center channel. That said, despite a lack of a center and dedicated surrounds, the Paradigm did an admirable job of conveying all of the action and dialogue without sounding muddy or distorted, even at higher volume.
The first and probably most annoying issue I had with the system had to do with Bluetooth range. Not all of this can be pinned on the Paradigm, though, as I've had the same problem with Bluetooth on several other devices - it's simply an imperfect technology for audio streaming. If there were obstructions and/or my distance from the system went beyond 20 or so feet, the connection would drop. Moving around with my iPhone also caused drops, which would be especially annoying during a party.
The second issue is related to indicator lights, which would be nice. In other words, if there were just a handful of indicators on the front of the control box to let you know whether or not aptX is engaged, whether you're in Movie or Music mode, etc., it would be helpful.
Comparison and Competition
Suffice to say, this is a busy product category, and it's getting busier. Just about every major audio company seems to have something of this ilk in its product line. So it comes down to design and audio quality, as the feature sets have become somewhat commoditized. That said, I'll point out a few that might be worth your time if you're comparison-shopping.
Audioengine is a company that has been aggressive in its marketing efforts and has also garnered some positive reviews. While I've never reviewed, or even listened to, any of their products, they might be worth a look - specifically the A5+ powered speakers, which retail for $798/pair. With the A5+, you gain a bit more simplicity, as there's no control box and no subwoofer. What you lose is the low-end prowess a dedicated sub brings to your system.
A more direct competitor to the Millenia CT 2 would be the Bose CineMate GS Series II, which retails for a bit more affordable $599.95. Some audiophiles scoff at Bose as being a product for those not in the know. I find this a bit arrogant and myopic as, while Bose does make some crap, they make some great-sounding products, as well.
One company I'm familiar with from former reviews is Aperion Audio, an online-only outfit out of Oregon, known (like Paradigm) for products that perform well and don't hammer your wallet. By combining several of their products, including Allaire Bluetooth speakers, a Bravus II 8D subwoofer, and the Allaire Home Audio Link (HAL) system, they've created a 2.1 sub/sat speaker system. It's currently "on sale" for one dollar less than the Paradigm system at $898. The other thing worth noting about Aperion is that they have a 30-day in-home trial program and a whopping 10-year warranty.
In terms of cost, you can spend the same amount you'd spend on the Paradigm Millenia CT 2 and get yourself a very capable receiver. Although the obvious problem is that you'd be missing speakers, cabling, a subwoofer, etc. Not to mention the fact that someone, if you're not electronically inclined, is going to need to set the whole thing up. To many, that equals a hassle, and to those people I will say that the Millenia CT 2 is worth your time and money. While $899 is certainly not a drop in the bucket, when you take a hard look at the Millenia CT 2's price-to-performance ratio, it starts to make sense.
As I mentioned above, you can find plenty of competition in the three-channel plug-and-play realm, but you're just not going to find many that look and sound as good as the Paradigm. This is how Paradigm has done so well across its product line. It's akin to running a successful restaurant, which is to say: make it look nice, serve up a memorable experience, and don't insult us with your pricing. The same recipe seems to be working just fine for Paradigm.