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.
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