I’ll admit that I somewhat backed myself into a corner with my last big speaker review. In it, I rather tersely summed up my criteria for a good speaker as tonal neutrality, low distortion, and excellent time alignment between the disparate drivers, and I confidently proclaimed the speaker in question an unmitigated success on all fronts. So how, now, do I square that with the fact that I’m thoroughly and utterly in love with another pair of speakers that checks off all of the same tick marks in terms of what a good speaker should sound like to me, yet somehow manages to sound utterly different in so many other ways?
To be frank, I stopped trying to square that circle somewhere around the third draft of this review. Because, despite the well-researched science behind speaker design, there’s still room for variation. There’s room for different approaches to high fidelity. And there’s certainly room in the audio market for yet another $2,500, high-performance loudspeaker--especially one as beautifully crafted and meticulously engineered as Paradigm’s Prestige 95F floorstanding speaker.
If you’re hip to Paradigm’s existing speaker lineup, you can in many ways think of the Prestige Series, atop which the 95F sits, as the successor to the company’s uber-popular Studio Series (a quintet of which serves as the reference speaker system in my main home theater, in the interest of full disclosure). That fact isn’t immediately obvious at full glance, since Paradigm has done away with the Studio Series’ teardrop contours in favor of a more minimalist monolithic shape. Driver configurations are also radically different, and the Perforated Phase-Aligning Tweeter Lens, in particular--which protects the tweeter from prodding fingers and acts as a phase plug--makes for a speaker that looks quite unlike anything Paradigm has ever crafted.
Along that same line, the visible fasteners that adorn the front of my Studio 100s have been nixed in favor of a completely screw-free façade. Plastic accoutrements have been given the boot to make way for gorgeous polished stainless steel and aluminum tootsies. And yet, it takes no more than a casual listen to realize that, for all its design and manufacturing mutations, the Prestige 95F is absolutely the product of its heritage. It is undeniably a Paradigm speaker…but we’ll get to all of that in short order.
Before we dig too deeply into the setup of the Prestige 95Fs, I should probably admit to something. My name is Dennis, and I have a serious binding-post fetish that is matched only by my borderline obsessive fascination with the tactile response of volume knobs. If you don’t share that particular predilection, what I’m about to say probably won’t resonate with you in the slightest. As I was connecting my pair of Kimber Kable 12TC speaker wires to the Paradigms (with Peachtree Audio’s nova220SE integrated amplifier at the other end of the chain), the experience was akin to an autonomous sensory meridian response. Silly? Perhaps. But even if the silky smooth feel of the binding posts and the fingertip-tickling satin finish don’t make you feel tingly, I still think you’d appreciate the fact that Paradigm poured just as much love and attention into these rarely seen connectors as they did the rest of the speakers’ industrial design.
Setting aside such (arguably trivial) aesthetic observations, the most substantial thing I have to say about setting up the Prestige 95Fs is that placement required a little more thought and attention than was the case with my Studio 100s. The former, after all, features a front-firing tuned port, whereas the Prestige 95F sports two rear-firing ports: one behind the tweeter, and the other behind and betwixt the pair of eight-inch brushed pure-aluminum woofers (the third eight-inch driver, although identical looking from the front, is actually a midrange driver). As such, the Prestige 95F interacts with the space behind it a little more and performs its best at certain distances from the back wall. In contrast, I’ve found that I can plop my Studio 100s pretty much any-old-where without too much deleterious effect. In my room, I found that the pair of 95Fs sounded its best anywhere between 10 inches and a couple of feet from the back wall (which gave me more than enough wiggle room) and slightly toed-in. Truth be told, though, I couldn’t really find any placement options that resulted in unsatisfactory performance. In other words, the Prestige speakers reward a little extra effort in terms of positioning but don’t punish you if placement is dictated a bit by room décor.
The one other thing worth noting about the setup of the Paradigm Prestige 95Fs is that they do require the weensiest bit of breaking in. Generally speaking, I tend to be skeptical about speaker break-in. More often than not, I find myself adapting to the unique voicing of a new speaker after a few hours of listening, as evidenced by the fact that I can swap an older, well-used speaker in for whatever I’m currently listening to, and it still takes me a few hours to adjust to its sound. With the Prestige 95F, by contrast, there’s simply no denying that the first few hours of use result in some substantial objective changes: the slightest amount of harshness in the treble (really only noticeable in very open and airy recordings) fades away, and a minuscule dividing line between the eight-inch midrange driver and the tweeter is slowly erased. Paradigm recommends “several” hours of playback before critical listening commences. I found that roughly three hours of continuous use did the trick.
Loathe as I am to plagiarize--even when plagiarizing myself--in an old review of the Paradigm Studio 100s, I expressed my difficulty in describing the sound of the speakers themselves. After all, a speaker that excels in one aspect over all else--whether it be imaging, midrange smoothness, dynamics, bass response, or what have you--gives me something to focus my attention on. However, the better a speaker aligns with my own personal tastes in audio, the more it’s like trying to describe the sensation of having exactly the right amount of oxygen in the air I’m breathing.
Perhaps a better writer than I would be able to resist the obvious pun, but the Paradigm Prestige 95F truly is a breath of fresh air in that respect. Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay it is that I find myself struggling to describe it. It is, in my respects, much like the Paradigm Studio 100, simply more refined, more nuanced, more detailed, more robust, and more effortless.
Speaking of the Prestige 95Fs purely on their own terms, though, what I think I love most about them is their ability to, for lack of a better term, de-clutter favorite recordings of mine that tend to turn to mush on otherwise excellent speakers. Mates of States’ “Get Better” from their 2008 album Re-Arrange Us (Barsuk Records) is a fine example of this. The song is an outright mélange of textures: rolling, staccato drum lines mixed with sweeping strings and choppy piano accompaniment. Vocalist and keyboardist Kori Gardner’s vocals run the gamut from ethereal falsetto almost-whispering to jubilant borderline shouting. Via the Prestige 95Fs, the song is less of a soup and more of an artisanal sandwich, which is to say that it’s very much a singular thing, but one in which all of the component parts maintain their separate identity. Vocal clarity is astounding. Lyrics are actually intelligible. Nine times out of ten, when listening to this particular track through other speakers, I forget that the piano is there at all except during the bridge. With these speakers, though, it’s an ever-present aspect of the mix, no matter how deeply it gets shoved into the recesses. Perhaps my favorite thing about listening to this song through these Paradigms, though, is the way they deliver the subtle dynamic variations in the drumbeats. Are those variations there when played on other speakers? Probably. So why am I just noticing them now? I think that probably has much to do with the sheer dynamic prowess of these speakers.
That same dynamic prowess really reveals itself with another favorite disc of mine, the original soundtrack recording for Sid Meier’s Civilization V (2K Games). Even if you’re not a gamer (or a fan of turn-based world-domination strategy games specifically), you owe it to yourself to track down the CD version of this compilation of songs, which were written and/or arranged by Geoff Knorr and Michael Curran and recorded by the FILMharmonic Orchestra Prague. Also, please don’t judge the fidelity of the music based on the low-quality streaming sample below. It’s gorgeously recorded, but I do often find that when listening to my favorite selections--like Nebuchadnezzar II’s Peace Theme, which is based on “The Hurrian Hymn”--I tend to crank the volume knob a little more than I should, if only to eke every last ounce of impact and visceral oomph out of the music. With the Prestige 95Fs, though, I’m perfectly comfortable listening at any volume. Even at whisper-quiet, don’t-wake-the-baby listening levels, the percussion is still deliciously tactile, the soundstage vast, the sub-60-Hz beats powerful and authoritative, and little elements like the shakers that frequently punctuate the track positively slither right out into the room. Conversely, I can crank this tune to levels that positively run me out of the room, yet the speakers never struggle. The mix retains every ounce of its nuance, its intricacy, its clarity, its stunning detail, and its exquisite tonal balance.
I don’t mean to imply, of course, that the Paradigm Prestige 95F only struts its stuff with more bombastic music. Heavens no. Even with delicate a capella works like the 24/96 FLAC stereo download of “It Was a Lover and His Lass” from Zephyr: Voices Unbound (AIX Records), imaging is outright stupefying, the sense of space rendered by the speakers is breathtaking, and the wonderful flatness of the speakers is impossible not to appreciate. Close your eyes and you can very nearly point to individual singers in the mix.
The speakers prove themselves to be just as capable with hip-hop, as well, delivering raunchy, hard-hitting bass with nary an ounce of boom or bloat. The opening passage of Digable Planet’s “Slowe’s Comb/The May 4th Movement starring Doodlebug,” from their album Blowout Comb (Pendulum Records), with its faux-vinyl scratchiness and old-school horns, provides further evidence of the speaker’s ability to deliver exceptional texture and detail. I was almost more impressed by the speaker’s exception handling of the track’s deep boom-bap beat, without the assistance of a subwoofer. At no point did I find myself longing for deeper, harder-hitting bass, and I’m usually the first guy to add a sub to a two-channel audio system. In fact, I often prefer a less-full-range speaker mated with a good sub. But the Prestige 95F delivers exactly the right mix of low-frequency attack and seamless blending with the mid-frequency driver.
The only reasonable complaint I could make about the Prestige 95F is that it’s so detailed and so revealing that it makes some of my favorite recordings sound like microwaved crap. Fatboy Slim sadly moved right out of my regular listening rotation while living with these speakers. I also had to hit the pause button on my mash-up obsession because the rough edges of Girl Talk’s All Day (Illegal Art) darn near ripped the flesh right off of my skull.
Also, I hinted at this above, but I really want to spell it out more bluntly here: the Prestige 95F can get a little dangerous because it simply doesn’t give you the normal warning signs that you need to ease off on the throttle. Despite my best efforts, I was incapable of pushing the speakers to anywhere near their performance limits. It may seem like I’m being facetious here, but I’m dead serious: if you have a habit of getting frisky with the volume knob, you’ll need to be careful to avoid serious hearing damage.
Comparison and Competition
Although I haven’t had the opportunity to compare the Prestige 95F directly with many speakers (aside from the aforementioned Paradigm Studio 100, as well as GoldenEar Technology’s Triton One, which we’ll dig into more in a moment), I did have the privilege of experiencing some blind testing of its littler brother, the 85F, against Bowers & Wilkins’ $1,200 CM8 S2 tower and KEF’s $ 1,800 R700 when I visited the Paradigm/Anthem factory in Mississauga back in December. All three speakers were behind an acoustically transparent screen, and my fellow journalists and I were handed a remote control with clearly labeled A, B, and C buttons as the Paradigm representatives were walking out of the room to let us listen without influence.
Switching between the KEF (which we only knew at the time as “B”) and the Prestige (“C”) was a night-and-day contrast. The Paradigm was vastly more neutral, more robust, and in terms of time alignment it was right on par if not slightly better. The Prestige Speaker also boasted drastically better dispersion characteristics. The race between the Paradigm and the B&W (“A”) was a little tighter. Dispersion was similar. Time alignment was similar. We all agreed in the end, though (before the screen was lifted), that the Paradigm ultimately won out thanks to its more neutral, natural sound.
Here at home, without the benefit of blind A/Bing, I’ve had a chance to put the Prestige 95F head-to-head quite a bit with GoldenEar Technology’s Triton One, which is only a competitor insofar as their prices differ only by the cost of a pack of gum. It may seem like a copout, but the speakers are so radically different that they’re not really comparable otherwise. I tried to make a list of how they stacked up with one another in a number of different respects, and I seriously noped out about halfway through. The Triton One, for example, takes the lead when it comes to the depth of the stereo image, but the Prestige 95F excels at width of soundstage and vertical dispersion. With its built-in subs, the GoldenEar obviously wins hands-down in terms of powerful sub-bass, but the Paradigm boasts a bit more impact in terms of midrange punch. Those same subs make the Triton One a little pickier to position from side to side if you have any AV furniture to contend with, but the rear-firing ports make the Prestige 95F the slightest bit fussier in terms of front-to-back placement. When it comes to geeky tech coolness (if such a thing can be quantified), I think the GoldenEar speaker pulls ahead in the race. In terms of aesthetics, though, the Prestige is the clear winner (and in my house, that counts for a lot). The WAF is strong with this one. Even with the grilles off. Especially with the grilles off.
There are so many things about the Paradigm’s Prestige 95F floorstanding speaker that are worthy of discussion, but which simply got left out of this review (or ended up on the cutting-room floor) for the sake of brevity and flow. Its inverted Active Ridge Technology surrounds, for example, which give the woofers greater excursion with less distortion and allowed Paradigm to really play around with crossover points in interesting ways. The intriguing anecdotes I took away from my most recent factory tour, like the fact that the design of the Prestige Series was, in a way, crowd-sourced from in-home interviews with current Paradigm speaker owners and dealers. The exquisite design of the voice coil motors and internal wiring and all of the other components that most people will never have a chance to see.
I intended to talk about all of that. I really did. But the fact of the matter is that, when I sit down in front of these speakers, I simply forget about all of it. For that matter, given a recording of sufficient fidelity, I forget about the speakers altogether most of the time. I can’t tell you that this is exactly what you should look for in a passive loudspeaker. I won’t tell you you’re wrong if your tastes lean in other directions. But for me, the Prestige 95F presses all of the right buttons.
The one thing I’m having trouble wrapping my brain around is that, although the Prestige Series marks something of a new beginning for Paradigm, they’re starting in the middle. There’s also a new flagship lineup in the works, which I’m told will feature the teardrop contours I love so much in my Studio 100s, in addition to a slew of new technical innovations, no doubt. Granted, if a $5,000 pair of speakers is what you’re looking for, it’s safe to say that this new flagship lineup will be a little out of your budget range. My point is that, as soft reboots go, the Prestige Series in general and the 95F in particular make a heck of a first impression. I just can’t wait to hear where Paradigm goes from here.
• Paradigm’s Prestigious New Speaker Series at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Check out our Paradigm brand page.
• Visit our Floorstanding and Audiophile Loudspeakers category page for similar reviews.