Publisher Jerry Del Colliano and I have, for the better part of the past four years, spent more hours than I care to count waxing philosophical about the future of high-end audio. What is the problem (if you can call it that)? What place does truly high-end gear have in a market where prices are plummeting and performance skyrocketing in inverse proportion? That is to say, when you can spend just a couple thousand dollars to achieve levels of performance that would have cost twenty or thirty thousand just a few years ago, why pay more?
My answer to that (which is likely either the most obvious thing in the world or scandal bordering on heresy, depending on your point of view): performance isn't everything. It's the main thing, to be sure. It's a necessary thing. But it isn't necessarily a sufficient thing.
To strengthen my argument, I submit Exhibit A: Paradigm's new Persona Series of high-performance, high-style loudspeakers. Forget flagship; the company refers to the speaker line as "vanguard," and rightly so. What started life as the Concept 4F has now evolved into a fully realized line comprised of one massive active floorstanding speaker and three increasingly smaller passive floorstanders, as well as a bookshelf speaker, a center-channel speaker, and a subwoofer that bears quite a bit of resemblance to the now-discontinued SUB 1. All of these (save the sub, of course) undeniably share the same DNA as their conceptual forebear.
In a way, the Persona Series resembles a sort of aesthetic Greatest Hits Remix from Paradigm's history. Its offerings boast the elliptical cross-section of former favorites like the Studio line, sliced and diced in interesting new ways to eliminate perpendicular intersections. The new speakers also borrow heavily, it appears, from the clean elegance of the newer Prestige line: the lack of visible screws; the unperturbed metallic cones; and the phase-alignment lenses, constructed (in this case) from overlapping reversed spirals instead of concentric circular perforations, and expanded to cover the seven-inch mid-frequency driver as well as the tweeter.
Finding familiar design traits in these new speakers shouldn't draw attention away from what's new about the Persona line, though. Namely, the use of 99.9 percent pure Truextent Acoustic Beryllium in not only the one-inch tweeter common to all of the speakers in the line, but also the seven-inch midrange driver found in all of the towers and the bookshelf, as well as the four-inch mid driver in the Persona C center.
You'll occasionally see Beryllium used in the tweeters of some high-end speakers, like the Focal Sopra N°2 we reviewed a few months back, select upcoming Revel speakers, and indeed Paradigm's older flagship Signature Series line. Its mix of high rigidity and low mass make it very nearly the ideal transducer material, practically synonymous with clarity and purity of tone. Its scarcity and the effort required to shape it do make it extremely costly, though, so you normally only see larger beryllium mid drivers in offerings like the $78,000 TAD Reference One. The fact that Paradigm is delivering a seven-inch, 99.9 percent pure beryllium driver in speakers starting at $3,500 each is, quite frankly, a bit stupefying.
That said, the price of the Persona line is sure to put it out of reach for most of our listeners. $3,500 only gets you the smallest speaker in the family: the Persona B bookshelf speaker (one of them, remember), with its one-inch beryllium tweeter, seven-inch beryllium mid-bass driver, and rated low-frequency extension down to 36 Hz. The top-of-the-line Persona 9H is a massive $17,500 (each!) hybrid active beast with the one-inch beryllium tweeter and a seven-inch beryllium mid driver (both passive), along with four 8.5-inch ultra-high-excursion X-PAL drivers in a balanced, vibration-canceling configuration (with two firing forward and two firing rearward into a vented chamber in back of the cabinet), each pair of which is powered by a DSP-controlled 700-watt (RMS) amplifier for a total of 2,800 watts of dynamic peak power.
This review isn't about the top-of-the-line model, however. Given carte blanche to pick and choose the Persona system of my choice for review, I did what I imagine few in my position would have done: I went straight for the bottom of the line. I honestly just giggled at myself for typing the words "bottom of the line," considering the fact that a pair of Persona 3F towers (the smallest floorstanders in the family, priced at $5,000 each, with dual seven-inch high-excursion X-PAL bass drivers)--along with the Persona C center ($7,500, with a one-inch beryllium tweeter, four-inch beryllium mid driver, and a quartet of seven-inch high-excursion X-PAL bass drivers) and the aforementioned pair of Persona B bookshelf speakers as surrounds--adds up to $24,500.
Every penny of that prohibitive price tag is clearly on display as one unboxes and assembles the Persona speakers. Even ignoring the exotic driver materials (and, of course, all of the hidden internal bracing and componentry), there's an undeniable high-end elegance to the speakers that pictures and words alone cannot wholly convey. Build quality is flawless. The finish is simply luxurious. The slight inconsistencies that we easily forgive in lesser speakers are nowhere to be seen. Disparate elements come together with striking precision. The binding posts simply make my chest feel floopy. There aren't any grills to be found within the speaker boxes because to affix one to the Persona speaker would be a crime and a sin.
My wife, always the first to comment on the look of new speakers I bring into the house (almost always critically, and only occasionally with some begrudging acceptance that passes for approval) took one look at the Persona speakers as I was assembling the stands for the bookshelves and center and said, "These are the first speakers I've ever seen that are actually too nice for our house. They're bound to make the rest of the room look crappy by comparison."
She wasn't wrong. It did take me a while to test her hypothesis, though. The stands for the bookshelves take about a half-hour each to assemble, with the center speaker stand taking a little longer. As with the speakers themselves, tolerances here are tight, and a good deal of patience (and liberal use of the included protective paper templates) is a must. You can, if you wish, fill the stands with sand, rice, shot, or kitty litter for enhanced dampening; however, given that I'd be returning these beauties in a few weeks, I didn't go that far. Even unboxing the 3F towers (which come fully assembled, save for carpet spikes if you should choose to install those) is a slow process. Once everything was unpackaged and assembled, it didn't take long to get all of the speakers into position.
The Persona B bookshelves slid right into the places recently vacated by a pair of Studio 100v5 towers near the rear of the room, the Persona C (far too large to actually fit on the shelves of my TV stand) took the place of my dual-driver Sunfire SubRosa flat-panel subwoofer on the floor in front of the TV, and I positioned the pair of 3F towers to the left and right, in line with the center. I also brought my pair of Paradigm SUB 12 subwoofers forward and in-line with the towers and center. Power for all five main speakers was provided by my Anthem A5 amp, and cabling consisted of Straight Wire Encore II speaker wire, factory terminated with banana plugs.
A bit of preliminary listening revealed that the speakers required virtually no repositioning. Forward-backward tweaks and toe-in adjustments that would normally have quite an impact on the performance of most speakers proved to have very little effect on the sound of the 3F towers, in particular. To merely call them "forgiving" in terms of placement would be an amusing understatement. The Persona C is ever-so-slightly less forgiving, owing to its rear-ported design and the sheer volume of air moving through those ports. Thankfully, due to the gargantuan size of the speaker, I had no choice but to put it out in the room where it had plenty of room to breathe.
In the end, I settled on a completely non-controversial crossover point of 80 Hz for the surrounds, and I ran the front left, right, and center speakers full-range. What room correction I applied to the speakers was handled by Dirac Live (via Emotiva's XMC-1 preamp/processor). I set an upper limit of roughly 500 Hz when designing my correction filters for the L/R speakers, center, and surrounds, which was enough to compensate for some ooky bass issues centered around 200 to 300 Hz (caused by the geometry of my room) and to ensure a smooth transition between filtered and unfiltered output without affecting the voice of the speakers above that point. (You can check out my older article Automated Room Correction Explained for more thoughts on room correction, many of which don't apply to Dirac Live but nonetheless explain why I don't apply filters to higher frequencies when reviewing speakers of this caliber.)
With all that out of the way, we come to the portion of the review that I've been dreading for weeks. Why dreading? Because the pages of notes I've taken since I started listening to the Persona speakers in earnest are mostly filled with observations of all the things I didn't hear. Those little (and sometimes large) distinctive traits that give a writer something to latch onto. A voice to describe. Something upon which to hang hundreds of adjectives. They're hard to find when listening to the Persona system. It's a bit like being plopped in front of the newest, cleanest, most blemish-free picture window overlooking the loveliest landscape and then asked to describe the glass.
This was evident from the moment I popped in the 2016 "re-imagining" of Pete's Dragon (Walt Disney Studios) on Blu-ray and pressed play. Even before the film began, I found myself in outright awe of the depth and clarity with which the Disney logo music was rendered. Especially right around the 10-second mark, as the strings and percussion start to swell.
Quite frankly, there just isn't a lot to say about what I am hearing here: midrange is wonderfully neutral, high frequencies are sparklingly detailed without being harsh in the slightest, and bass is rich and intricate. Dispersion is wide and even. But again, what strikes me most is what I'm not hearing, especially right around that 10-second mark. What I'm not hearing is the slightest coloration or the faintest hint of any resonance from the speaker cabinets or the drivers.
That's all well and good, but what does it mean? What does a lack of resonance and coloration actually sound like? It means that individual notes and percussive hits are more distinct, less smeared. Or, in this case, perfectly distinct and not smeared in the slightest. It means that your attention isn't drawn to the speakers themselves. As such, the perception is that sounds are less anchored to five or seven points in space. And here I'm not just talking about great dispersion, but about mixed elements that seem to seamlessly bridge the gaps between speakers as they move from one to another. I mean that you quickly forget there are defined origin points for those sounds at all. It's a wee bit spooky.
Skip forward to Chapter 13, "Standoff at the Bridge," and everything that you could say about a high-performance speaker applies here: wonderful tonal balance, exceptional (at times even alarming!) dynamic punch, and exquisite detail. The Persona C center also has a real chance to shine here, with wonderful dialogue clarity and nigh-flawless consistency from seat to seat, even on my wide, off-center three-person reclining sofa.
Again, though, the experience of listening to the scene via the Persona system is defined as much by what you don't hear as by what you do. As the action escalates and Elliot (the titular dragon) first tries to launch himself off the back of the flat-bed truck that has been his prison for several scenes now, the rumbling, air-compressing flap of his ginormous wings is the sort of sound effect that would normally cause even the most inert speaker cabinets to quiver at least a little, especially speakers this large played this loudly. In the absence of such resonance, what you're left with is a deep, rich web of sound that's delivered with the same sense of real space that you normally only get from higher-frequency effects. Those hurricane-force wing flaps don't cling to the speakers from which they emanate; they don't merely encircle the room. Instead, they inhabit it without outright saturating it. (The attached video clip contains a major spoiler from the film. For those of you who haven't seen the new Pete's Dragon film, stop watching at around the 1:19 mark, or just go rent the Blu-ray and watch the entire film. It's totally worth it.)
Jupiter Ascending (Warner Bros.) is another film that unsurprisingly gives the Persona system a chance to shine, with a near-constant barrage of sci-fi whirring and buzzing and booming and shooting, not to mention the head-spinning mix of flying characters whizzing from one corner of the room to the next. But that's actually not why I chose to spotlight this Blu-ray. What makes it stand out is the dialogue of one particular character, Balem Abrasax, played by Eddie Redmayne. For whatever reason, 90 percent of Redmayne's dialogue is delivered in a sort of half-high raspy whisper reminiscent of Marlon Brando on a Quaalude bender with his cheeks stuffed full of actual cotton. The other 10 percent consists of comic-book-villain screaming. The one time I watched this Blu-ray previously was also the one time I ever engaged dynamic range compression for a film, not so much to deal with the outbursts but rather to make the whispers comprehensible without constant volume adjustments.
Viewed with the Paradigm Persona system in place, neither dynamic range compression nor volume-knob fiddling was necessary. Redmayne's voice is still puzzlingly quiet as compared with the rest of the mix, but the clarity and precision of the Persona C, combined with its ability to maintain its lucidity and presence at pretty much any volume level from hushed to Hiroshima, transform Balem's vocals into a curious quirk rather than an infuriating grievance.
That same clarity and precision does wonders for films like Tom Hooper's Les Miserables (Universal Studios) on Blu-ray, especially those tracks that involve a chorus of singers. Perhaps it's the perforated phase-alignment lenses on both the tweeter and mid driver. Perhaps it's the beryllium driver material, with its incredibly mix of rigidity and light weight. Perhaps it's the ridiculously inert speaker cabinets themselves. Or maybe it's all of the above. But I found the vocals in these crowd-heavy scenes, especially the opening number, intelligible in a way I never have before.
My wife is a much bigger fan of Les Mis than I'll ever be, so I asked her for her thoughts after the film was over. "I don't know if I'm saying this right, since I don't have my speaker-geek-to-human dictionary on hand," she said, "but as great as the music sounded, the battle scenes impressed me even more. The cannons especially sounded less speaker-boomy and more cannon-boomy, if that makes sense."
Moving onto more purely musical pursuits, I spent a good deal of time listening to not only the 3F towers but also the Persona B bookshelves in pure stereo mode with, well, pretty much the entirety of my digital and disc-based musical collection. Aside from obvious differences in bass extension, both speakers blew me away with their detail, precision, clarity, and stupendous imaging. Everything from Rimsky-Korsakov to REO Speedwagon sounded so sumptuous that I struggled to figure out what to spotlight here.
In the end, for a number of reasons, it was Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "Karn Evil 9 (1st Impression - Part 2)" from last year's two-CD remastered re-release of Brain Salad Surgery (BMG Rights Management), that I felt warranted a full discussion. Simply put, the experience of listening to the song from across the room via the 3F towers (and even the bookshelves) is very much akin to auditioning it in the near field via a pair of really great studio monitors. The depth and width of the soundstage are captivating, especially in the way the bright percussion pierces directly through the air in the room, while the Moog loop stretches out to the left (again, unanchored to its respective speaker), the organ embraces the listening space in a big hug from both directions, and Greg Lake's vocals rest in the back of the mix like a rock-solid foundation.
Perhaps more startling is the way the mix's individual elements maintain their distinct identities even as things really kick in around the 30-second mark. Each instrument and every electronic element remains easily identifiable to a degree that I rarely hear in a big, open room. I can think of no better way to convey the effect than to simply go the cheeseball route and say that Paradigm's Persona speakers bring you closer to the music, by ameliorating (or outright eliminating) the little colorations and distortions that so often obscure it to some degree. Unlike other speakers I've heard with this level of clarity and finesse, the Persona 3F towers (and indeed, even the Persona B bookshelves) struggled not in the slightest to rock my face right off of my skull when called upon to do so.
From a performance perspective, I'm struggling hard to come up with anything even remotely cautious to say about the Persona system. In fact, my only real caveat has nothing to do with sound quality or performance at all. It's simply that the Persona C is too large to be practical in most home environments. If you're familiar with Paradigm's discontinued Studio line, it's roughly the same size as the massive Studio CC-690 v5 (and weighs a good 14 pounds more). Granted, I'm not saying that Paradigm shouldn't make a center speaker this large in the Persona lineup, since it's a perfect sonic match for the floorstanders in the family. I merely think that the company should also offer a smaller model (a la the old Studio CC-590 and the 45C from the Prestige line), which would be a perfect mate for a surround system built around four or six of the Persona B bookshelves.
Also (and I know this is a petty nit to pick), I feel like speakers of this caliber deserve more than four finish options. Given that every Persona cabinet is hand-finished and buffed and rubbed and petted and named George by an actual human being here in North America, I don't think it would be that difficult to charge an extra few hundred bucks a pop and offer some truly daring finish options.
Comparison and Competition
Simply put, you could assemble a whole lot of five-channel surround sound speaker systems for roughly $25K, in a lot of different ways, depending on your preferences. (You're on your own in terms of subs here, since they weren't part of this review).
You could, for example, put together a Focal Sopra system comprised of a pair of the N°2 towers, a pair of the N°1 bookshelves, and the Sopra Center for just a hair more. That would get you beryllium tweeters all the way around, as well as a design that's no less gorgeous than that of Paradigm's Persona speakers. The Focals do lack the beryllium midrange of the Paradigms, though. For more thoughts on the Focal Sopra N°2 specifically, check out Jerry Del Colliano's review.
A system built around Revel's Performa3 F208 towers would also be comparable in many respects. You can read our review of those here. There's no beryllium in these, mind you. For that you'll have to wait for (and pay a lot more for) the upcoming F208Be.
A surround system built on Bowers & Wilkins 804 D3 tower (and HTM1 D3 center) would also be in roughly the same ballpark. You can read our review of the towers here.
From their exceptional dispersion characteristics to their wonderful tonal balance, exceptional clarity, and stunning detail, Paradigm's Persona Series speakers leave one wanting for nothing, even way down at the bottom end of the line with the 3F tower. Or, I should clarify: they leave this reviewer wanting for nothing.
It's worth pointing out that, if you're part of the "Objective Criteria Mean Nothing, I Only Care About How Speakers Make Me Feel" crowd and you tend to prefer quirky speakers with their own unique voice, the Persona line probably isn't for you. There's nothing wrong with that, mind you, but these speakers come as close to disappearing from the equation as any I've heard at anything near this price point.
Even still, I feel as if concentrating purely on the performance of these speakers is missing half the point. They are, quite frankly, some of the most gorgeous and best-built audio components I've ever been fortunate enough to house for any extended amount of time. To call them works of art would not be going too far, in my opinion, and I'd consider them well worth the price even if they didn't quite achieve the Nth degree of performance that they do.
• Check out our Floorstanding Speakers category page to read similar reviews.
• Visit the Paradigm website for more product information.
• CEDIA Expo 2016 Show Report and Photo Slideshow at HomeTheaterReview.com.