A few weeks back at my class reunion, an old classmate asked me for my thoughts about the most interesting trends in the audio industry at the moment. Honestly, I didn't have a very satisfying answer at the time. But the more I think about it (and the more I sober up), I wish I had said this: the thing I'm noticing more and more frequently these days is angry old men yelling at the millennial crowd about how their crappy taste in audio gear is killing the hi-fi market.
If it sounds like I might be talking about you, bear with me for a moment. Don't put your grumpy face on just yet. Think about it for a sec. For all of the castigation that we're piling on younger listeners for the way they're destroying our favorite hobby, how many hi-fi manufacturers are stepping up to embrace the way that music is actually consumed these days and elevate that experience, rather than offering gear with oodles of connectivity that many people don't want or need? Mind you, millennials aren't a monolith. Some of them really do enjoy "our way" of enjoying music in and around the home; but, for those of any generation whose music libraries reside primarily on their phones (if they own it at all), how many audiophile companies are trying to embrace them rather than merely tell them they're doing it wrong?
As far as I can tell, it's a pretty short list. Bowers & Wilkins comes to mind with its mobile headphones and wireless speakers. There are a few others, and I'm sure we'll hear about them in the comments section below. My point isn't that there are no exceptions, though; it's merely that the exceptions are too few.
Now, though, as Yoda would say, there is another: another hi-fi company embracing the present day in a really simple, straightforward way. Paradigm recently introduced its Premium Wireless Series, which joins the slowly growing ranks of wireless multi-room music systems based on DTS Play-Fi.
If you're not familiar with Play-Fi, it's easiest to think of it as a sort of open-platform alternative to Sonos. A good number of manufacturers--from Definitive Technology to Polk to Wren to CORE Brands--have adopted the Play-Fi standard and are cranking out some surprisingly good wireless speakers that can all be integrated together and controlled with the same Play-Fi app for iOS, Android, or Windows PC. In other words, unlike Sonos, you could have a Def Tech wireless speaker in one room, a Polk in another, a Paradigm in the third, etc., all working together pretty much seamlessly. And unlike AirPlay, you're not limited to one mobile ecosystem. Furthermore, you avoid the compression of Bluetooth.
So, what makes the Paradigm PW AMP stand out in that pack? A few things, actually. Firstly, it allows you to bring your own speakers to the Play-Fi party, which is still pretty rare at this point among the lineup of available Play-Fi products. Paradigm rates its Class D output as two x 200 watts dynamic peak; two x 100 watts RMS into four ohms, and it's compatible with four-, six-, and eight-ohm speakers, which means it's capable of driving just about any speakers you'd want to pair with it.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it features Anthem Room Correction, as do all of Paradigm's Premium Wireless Series products, which means that you can dial in its performance to the exact acoustical quirks of your room, with a startling degree of flexibility.
Out of the box, the Paradigm PW AMP is a pretty unassuming little device, measuring just a hair over three inches tall, a little under six inches wide, and right at 8.6 inches from front to back. It's a stylish little bugger, though, with a nice mix of gloss and satin accents, gracefully curved corners, and a pretty simple five-button control layout up front. Around back, it features an Ethernet port, analog RCA inputs, a subwoofer out, and two USB ports (neither of which can be used for streaming audio), along with two sets of speaker outputs. If I have a nit to pick with the design of the PW AMP at all, it's with the latter. Instead of nice five-way binding posts that would match the quality of the amp overall, we get spring-loaded terminals whose caps can be removed if you want to opt for banana plugs (guilty as charged). That's a subjective grump, though. That aside, the PW AMP is a beautifully built little device.
Physical setup is exactly as straightforward as you might expect, although I did go through the process a number of times just to try out the PW AMP in as many ways as possible. My primary setup consisted of the amp connected to a pair of GoldenEar Triton One towers via a pair of Kimber Kable 12TC speaker wires. Paradigm also sent along a pair of its exceptional Prestige 15B bookshelf speakers, which I hooked up using the same cables, along with an Artison RCC Nano 1 subwoofer, connected using a run of custom-shielded RCA cable whose maker I've honestly forgotten.
With that done, I ran through the wireless setup process once just to get a feel for it and to do a little wireless listening, but shortly thereafter I ran a direct Ethernet connection to the PW AMP for the duration of my testing. I listened to the PW AMP for a few days before running Anthem Room Correction two different ways on both of the different speaker setups.
Room correction is performed using the same ARC 2 software you'd use to set up one of Anthem's MRX Series receivers. If there's any difference worth noting, it's that the microphone shipped with the Premium Wireless Series speakers is a little smaller than the one included with Anthem gear. Other than that, if you're familiar with ARC, there are no surprises here. I mean, unless you consider the fact that a $499 wireless amp comes with the same room-correction capabilities as much more expensive receivers and preamps, not a gutted, scaled-down version thereof. That's a bit of a shocker.
If you're not familiar with Anthem Room Correction at all, though, here's the basic rundown. The ARC 2 software installs on your Windows PC, and the included microphone attaches to the same via USB. With both the PC and PW AMP (or any other Paradigm Premium Wireless speaker) connected to the same network, you use ARC 2 to measure the speakers (a pretty quick process in stereo), set your target room-correction parameters (or just let the software do the decision-making there), run some automated calculations, then upload the results.
As for the sorts of decisions you can make about the target parameters: in a simple two-channel stereo setup, you can adjust the high-pass filter (with your choice of anything between 1st- and 6th-order) anywhere between 20 and 200 Hz in 1Hz increments, or you can leave it flat. You can also adjust the Max EQ frequency between 200 and 5,000 Hz. Add a subwoofer to the mix, and ARC 2 also gives you a fine level of control over bass management, as well as allowing you to set a Minimum Subwoofer EQ frequency.
At first I chose to approach the ARC 2 setup of the PW AMP as I would a home theater system, setting the Max EQ frequency to 500 Hz to account for a bit of a spike centered around 350 Hz in my two-channel listening room. After a bit of listening to both speaker systems equalized as such, I went back and ran Anthem Room Correction again, this time allowing the software make it own decisions (the biggest difference being a Max EQ Frequency of 5,000 Hz, the default), just to gauge what I feel most listeners will hear when they set up the PW AMP at home.
Frankly, the sonic differences between Anthem Room Correction set to its defaults and tweaked to heck and back to suit my own preferences were minimal at best. The differences between the performance of the PW AMP with and without ARC, though, were substantial. Switching back and forth between room correction and no room correction is a simple matter of holding the Mute button for a few seconds, which makes for pretty easy comparison. Without ARC, bass performance was a wee bit less even, a little less controlled, and some mixes had a tendency to be a little out of whack.
I'm thinking specifically of tracks like the Nirvana's "Polly" from Nevermind (Geffen Records, specifically a rip of the original CD release, not the awful high-resolution remaster). With ARC disengaged, the bass here is just a little much. Too loose. Sloppy. It overwhelms the rest of the delicate mix. Not egregiously so, mind you, at least not in my pretty well-arranged two-channel listening room. Still, it was enough to notice, especially once I turned on ARC, and the mix just popped into place, with a perfectly balanced bottom end and stunning clarity.
Mind you, "Polly" doesn't really give the PW AMP much to work with, so I switched over to something a little denser: Greg Laswell's "That It Moves" from the album Three Flights from Alto Nido (Vanguard Records). Again, with ARC engaged, the tracked played with perfect tonal balance, but two other things became clear here. Firstly, this adorable little amp exhibits Paradigm's normal penchant for stunning dynamics. The track had exactly the right amount of punch and clarity that I would expect from a great Class D-based system.
Secondly, there's a level of transparency here that shines a light on even the subtlest background textures of well-mixed music. In particular, I loved the way that the acoustic rhythm guitar that's ever-present in "That It Moves" was never buried or obscured by the PW AMP. As with all great sound systems, that element of the mix provided texture even when other, louder elements pushed it somewhat aside.
If there's one major complaint to be made about the PW AMP, it's that it is perhaps too revealing, too transparent.
And you're squinting at me right now. I know you are. I'll explain, though. About a minute and a half into "That It Moves," there's a passage of the song that gets a good bit quieter, but still quite dynamic. Here, I noticed the ever-so-slightest hint of what sounded like some form of digital distortion, but I couldn't entirely put my finger on the nature of it. Especially given that the vast majority of the songs in my digital collection simply didn't reveal it.
A quick listen to Joanna Newsom's new album Divers (Drag City), especially the song "The Things I Say," gave me a better opportunity to explore this weird quirk, especially since what seems to reveal it is soft, simple music that is nonetheless quite dynamic. That's not a combination you run into frequently. But with this track, that slight edginess crept in quite frequently, as it did with the intro to "Princess Leia's Theme" from the 1993 Star Wars Original Soundtrack Anthology box set.
Since I've reviewed a few other Play-Fi speakers and never heard this sort of distortion before, even with the same tracks (well, not the Joanna Newsom cut, obviously, since it's so new, but all the rest), I assumed at first it was a problem with the PW AMP. However, I sat down again for some serious listening to the Definitive Technology W9, and sure enough, that slight rough digital edge is there in exactly the same situations. It's just less obscured and easier to hear on the PW AMP due to its superior fidelity--not to mention the fact that both of the speaker systems I connected to the amp are vastly superior to any all-in-one wireless speaker.
At any rate, during the process of talking back and forth with Paradigm to get to the source of the problem, we figured out that it is indeed an issue with Play-Fi, and thankfully one that can be fixed with a firmware update. Since it's common to all products that rely on the platform, it's hard to hold it against Paradigm.
Really, though, when you get right down to it, all of the shortcomings of the PW AMP are Play-Fi issues, not Paradigm issues. Mind you, the iOS app has come a long way in the past year. It no longer loses connection with speakers. Regular reboots are no longer required. But still, on iOS at least, there are frustrations. One is the lack of gapless playback. I was able to stream gapless albums via the PC app, but on my iPhone 6S Plus, there are lengthy pauses between each song, and the app is slow to respond to commands like track skipping and searching within a song.
Another source of frustration, at least for this iPhone user, is that there's no support for Apple Radio or iTunes Match.
Comparison and Competition
If you're looking for an apples-to-apples comparison, I think the PW AMP's closest competition is the Polk Omni A1 Amplifier, another Play-Fi product designed for use with your own speakers. Polk rates the Omni A1's output at two x 75 watts, but isn't as exact as Paradigm about how that number was arrived at, so it's hard to compare them in terms of power. The A1 does feature a little more in the way of physical connectivity--namely, an optical digital input--but of course it doesn't boast the PW AMP's biggest selling point, in my opinion: Anthem Room Correction.
If you're not married to the Play-Fi ecosystem, there's also the Sonos CONNECT:AMP, which sells for the same price as the PW AMP and delivers two x 55 watts RMS into eight ohms. As far as I know, though, it doesn't support Sonos' new TruePlay room-correction capabilities.
Monitor Audio also has its $499 Airstream A100 Stereo integrated amplifier with Wi-Fi and Apple AirPlay, which is rated at two x 50 watts into eight ohms (with no rating given for six- and four-ohm loads) and also features an optical input and preamp/subwoofer outputs. It also supports DLNA and playback of files stored on NAS drives. But again, no ARC.
Eventually we'll get to the point where a review of a new Play-Fi speaker or amp is a review of that specific product's inherent strengths and weaknesses. But given that the format is still maturing and expanding, and still has some kinks that need working out (especially on the iOS side of things), we're not quite there yet.
Setting aside the Play-Fi issues, the PW AMP is a wonderful little Class D amp with a smart design and wonderfully dynamic, detailed, nuanced performance, along with excellent bass management and room-correction capabilities and more than enough power to drive great big honking tower speakers like GoldenEar's Triton One.
On the other hand, Paradigm's fault or not (and I say not), the limitations of the Play-Fi system can be a little frustrating, although I suppose that's true of any wireless multi-room music system. On the bright side, the list of streaming apps supported by Play-Fi has grown quite a bit since my last in-depth look at the system, and the iOS experience has finally started to catch up with Android. I like the ability to mix and match products like the PW AMP with other wireless speakers around the home (some Paradigm, some not) to form a complete wireless distributed audio system where each component perfectly matches the room itself.
Put all of that together, and I'm stumped as to exactly what sort of star rating I should assign to this wonderful little piece of kit. For now, I'm knocking a star off of the performance rating merely due to Play-Fi issues that will likely (hopefully) be fixed in the coming months via a software update. But there's no denying that, for what it delivers, the Paradigm PW AMP is one heck of a value.
• Check out our Stereo Amplifier category page to read similar reviews.
• DTS Play-Fi Adds New Hardware Partners and Streaming Services at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Which Multi-room Wireless Audio Systme Is Right for You? at HomeTheaterReview.com.