Your heart is set on a full-fledged surround sound system, but that's not in the cards for you for whatever reason, be it space constraints, aesthetic concerns, or spousal acceptance. The soundbar approach is appealing for its form and convenience, but you want a higher level of performance than your average, run-of-the-mill soundbar can provide. If that describes you, Paradigm has a new product that definitely deserves your attention.
As its name implies, the PW Soundbar ($1,299) is part of Paradigm's Premium Wireless Line, which includes products like the previously reviewed PW AMP, as well as a preamp and two wireless speakers. The common denominator across the entire line is its reliance on DTS Play-Fi for wireless music streaming. The PW Soundbar adds a couple of tricks that the other PW products don't--namely, aptX Bluetooth and AirPlay wireless connectivity.
This soundbar also brings with it the ability to craft a complete surround sound system via Play-Fi, by linking it with a pair of PW 600 (or other compatible standalone wireless Play-Fi speakers) in the Play-Fi app. But we'll get to the details of that in a moment. First, let's talk about the PW Soundbar in and of itself because its unique design is sure to raise a few eyebrows.
Within its unassuming-looking cabinet, beneath its uncontroversial-looking grill, the PW Soundbar sports a total of nine full-range drivers, grouped into three channels with three drivers each, all backed by 270 total watts of dynamic peak power (135 watts RMS). That all seems fairly normal, right? What stands out is the configuration of those drivers. For the left and right channels, the outside driver is rotated roughly 45 degrees in the horizontal and vertical axes, such that it points upward and outward; the center driver is, I'm estimating, somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 degrees shy of pointing straight upward; and the inside driver points roughly 15 degrees shy of straight forward, with about that angle of toe-in, too.
In the center-channel section, the leftmost driver points roughly 15 degrees shy of straight up; the center driver is dead split between upward- and forward-firing; and the rightmost driver points mostly forward, but with a slight lean back.
This unusual driver configuration gives the PW Soundbar a good bit of flexibility in terms of placement. When positioned flat on a tabletop beneath the TV (and likely below ear level), it gives an upward and outward thrust to the sound that makes the system sound larger than it is. It also allows the PW Soundbar to be mounted, either above or below the TV, with the "base" of the cabinet flat against the wall. In the case of below-TV on-wall mounting, the soundbar is mounted "upside-down" (or "frontside-up" if you assume the tabletop position to be its natural state), and a tweak in the setup menus flips the channel configuration so that left is still left and right is still right.
In terms of connectivity, the PW Soundbar is fully loaded. It features three HDMI inputs (2.0a with HDCP 2.2 and full support for 4K/60p and HDR, which is something that Paradigm fails to call out as a selling point on its website or on the packaging--a major oversight, in my opinion), as well as one HDMI output with Audio Return Channel capabilities. There's no video processing, only pass-through--but said pass-through does include 3D, if that's your thing. The soundbar sports Dolby Digital and DTS decoding, dual stereo RCA inputs, dual optical digital audio inputs, and a subwoofer output. It also has wireless subwoofer output capabilities and comes packed with a wireless subwoofer receiver that can used with the sub of your choice.
As with all of Paradigm's PW Line, it features Anthem Room Correction capabilities, either via desktop software and the included microphone or via the newish ARC Mobile app for iOS.
Since the PW Soundbar can be used in so many different ways, I went through the entire setup and testing process twice. First, I configured it as a purely 3.1-channel system, relying on the included wireless subwoofer receiver connected to a Paradigm Monitor SUB 8. I also tested out a couple of other subs, including the recently reviewed RSL Speedwoofer 10S, which didn't work out as well as I had hoped. The PW Soundbar likes a rather high crossover point of 120 Hz or thereabouts, and the 10S works better with a standard 80Hz crossover, at least in my room. The Monitor SUB 8, on the other hand, turned out to be a pretty much perfect match for the soundbar.
I connected the PW Soundbar to my network via Ethernet, ran Anthem Room Correction, and pretty much ignored the other network functionality for a few days as I evaluated the system purely as an AV product. The results of ARC proved rather surprising, to be blunt. Simply put, the PW Soundbar delivers the sort of in-room response you would expect from a nice trio of small bookshelf speakers. In fact, below is a comparison between the measurements of the center channel of the PW Soundbar (top), RSL's $200 CG23 Center Speaker (middle), and the $499 KEF Q Series Q200c Center Channel Speaker (bottom). The combined in-room response (from five measuring positions) is in red, the post-bass-management room response is in purple, the target curve is in black, and the corrected response is in green.
You'll notice a couple of things right off the bat. Firstly, whereas I usually set a 500Hz Max EQ frequency when using ARC, I let it do its thing with the PW Soundbar all the way up to the maximum 5000 Hz. Secondly, there really wasn't much correction to be done between those two points. While it does get a bit wobbly above 5 kHz, the PW Soundbar's midrange output is, for a soundbar, surprisingly smooth and neutral, comparing favorably with the KEF center.
What these charts don't show is that the PW Soundbar interacts with the room quite a bit more than your typical speaker, which isn't surprising given its unique driver configuration. During my first Anthem Room Correction run, I noticed that the response of the left channel looked a bit off, compared with that of the right. That was due to the fact that I left one of RSL's speakers in place on my credenza, close to the left side of the soundbar cabinet, which caused some wonky reflections. I removed the RSL speaker, ran ARC again, and got much more consistent results. Later I noticed that, when I closed my bedroom door (thereby creating a greater distance between the soundbar and its closest boundary on the left side), the sound was again unbalanced, but this time only ever so slightly (and not enough for the missus to even notice).
All in all, the PW Soundbar likes a relatively symmetrical room, which you could guess from looking at its drivers. However, as long as there's reasonable space between the soundbar and sidewalls, ARC can deal with any reasonable asymmetries pretty well.
For sources, I relied on HDMI connections to the soundbar from my OPPO BDP-93 and my Dish Network Joey, and from the soundbar to my TV. In terms of physical setup, the PW Soundbar has a feature set that's more in line with a good AV receiver than your typical soundbar. You have options for wired, wireless, or no subwoofer. You can adjust lip sync delay and turn on/off features like Audio Return Channel, CEC, and HDMI Bypass. You can adjust the stereo width, turn on standby IP control, and tinker with all manner of other settings. For real, the manual looks like the phone book for a small island nation. And all of its setup functions are handled via a lovely little top-panel (or front-panel, if the PW Soundbar is wall-mounted) OLED screen. Onscreen display capabilities would be nice, but the lack thereof isn't a huge deal, since you'll likely only ever tinker with these settings once.
After a few days of 3.1-channel testing, it was time to go full-blown surround sound, which meant tapping into the PW Soundbar's Play-Fi capabilities to add a pair of Paradigm PW 600s at the rear of the room. Play-Fi setup is an interesting beast. Browse the user reviews for the Play-Fi app on your mobile store of choice, and you'll find two different sorts of experiences: setup is either a quick and easy process or a capricious, phone-throwing, hissy-pitching nightmare--and there doesn't seem to be an obvious rhyme or reason to why this is so. Hopefully your experience will fall in the former category, but mine definitely falls in the latter--not just with the PW Soundbar, mind you, but with all Play-Fi products. I'll spare you the specifics and just say that adding and configuring the two PW 600 wireless surrounds proved to be frustrating, but I eventually made it happen. If you've set up Play-Fi products in the past without incident, it's fair to expect the same ease here. If you've had Play-Fi setup problems, then it might be best to let your local Paradigm dealer handle that part of the process.
Once the complete surround system was in place, I was able to adjust the distances and volume of the soundbar and each surround speaker (these settings are also accessible after the fact from the Surround Sound tab in the Play-Fi app, if you need to tweak them), then I ran Anthem Room Correction again. The neat thing about the PW Soundbar is that ARC will measure and run room correction on any surround speakers and subwoofer connected to it. It treats the setup like a full-fledged component surround sound system.
It's worth noting that, after my initial struggle with Play-Fi setup, I didn't have any connectivity issues whatsoever during the course of the review.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparsion & Competition, and Conclusion...
I decided to begin my testing with an interesting challenge. Having just experienced Tom Hooper's Les Miserables (Universal Studios) through $24,500 worth of Paradigm Persona speakers, I thought I would give it a spin through the PW Soundbar, just to see what was missing. Needless to say, transparency and purity of tone take a hit. As do the big, bombastic sounds of war toward the end of the film. Still, I was a bit blown away by just how well the PW Soundbar handled the density and dynamics of the soundtrack. Anne Hathaway's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream," in particular, moved me with its richness and sweetness, but the soundbar really deserves major kudos for the intelligibility with which it delivered all of the film's vocals.
With packed choral numbers like "Do You Hear the People Sing?" the PW Soundbar, even without the benefit of surround channels, delivered big, beautiful, articulate, and room-filling layers of sound, with beautifully distinct vocals and swelling orchestration that sounds a lot bigger than it ought to. I heard none of the midrange-heavy, overly processed, and phasey sound that one normally experiences when feeding a surround sound signal to a three-channel soundbar.
The kerfuffle that follows is also delivered with surprising punch. While gunfire never quite sounded as dynamic as it would from a much larger component system, it was still quite cracking, given the constraints of cabinet size here.
Much the same could be said for the film Serenity (Universal Studios), the action-packed follow-up to the criminally canceled future-western TV series Firefly. This movie tried its best to push the PW Soundbar to its breaking point but failed. Again, is the soundbar the last word in dynamics and detail? No, it's not. But does it come mighty close for a cabinet measuring just four inches tall and 5.5 inches deep? Hooboy, yes.
The film's unique sonic blend of old-school and new, of worldly orchestration and out-of-this-world futuristic sound effects, of six-shooter gunplay and pew-pew laser canons, is a lot for any speaker system to handle, but the PW Soundbar handled it ably. If I'm picking nits to tiny little pieces, there was one line of dialogue that got completely obscured when I was running the soundbar in 3.1 mode. It occurs right after the single most tragic line of dialogue in all of cinema history ("I'm a leaf on the wind; watch how I soar"--I will fight anyone who disagrees). The dialogue in question is when Captain Mal looks out the window of Serenity's cockpit and mumbles under his breath, "Chicken's come home to roost." It's one of my top-five dialogue intelligibility stress tests, and the PW Soundbar, at least left to its own devices, did not pass it. (Mind you, most center speakers don't.)
Immediately after viewing Serenity is when I switched over to a surround sound setup, complete with the PW 600 rear speakers. I decided to give that scene another go. Turns out, taking some of the workload off those nine drivers did the trick--or at the very least made that line much more discernible.
Watching that space battle over again also gave me a sort of "Oh, so that's what I was missing" sense, which I mean in the most complimentary way. That's the thing about the PW Soundbar: even without surround speakers (or tacky and weird-sounding faux-surround processing), you don't feel like you're missing much in the moment. Adding surround speakers to the PW Soundbar enhances the cinematic effect, for sure, and the combined system even surpasses the quality of many smaller surround sound speaker systems I've auditioned. However, the soundbar alone (with the help of a sub, of course) performs so ably that you don't realize you need surround speakers until you actually add surround speakers.
A lot of that simply boils down to the way the PW Soundbar gracefully thrusts its sound upward and outward and into the room, creating a big, deep, rich soundfield even in two-channel mode with stereo recordings. It's an effect that sounds delicious with tracks like Sarah Jarosz's "Mansinneedof" from her debut album Song Up In Her Head (Sugar Hill Records). The song is a study in dense and contrasting textures: Sarah's lightning-fast picked mandolin, punctuated by plucky harmonics from the same overdubbed, dancing on a bed of slow, low, bowed double bass, with a playful fiddle sneaking around the cracks and crevices of the track. It's not an easy mix to get right, but the PW Soundbar more than does it justice, giving it tons of space to breathe and capturing the timbre of the acoustic instruments wonderfully, without muddying the rapid-fire staccato of the main melody. Major kudos there.
If there's one thing the PW Soundbar doesn't excel at, especially in two-channel mode, it's precise imaging. "Hey Ladies" from Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique 20th Anniversary Edition (Capitol Records) starts with a slowed-down sample from the middle of The Commodores' "Machine Gun," which goes all out of phase at around the 10-second mark. It's not that the song sounds bad through the PW Soundbar. It sounds pretty great, actually. It just doesn't sound correct. At all. That funky phase shift doesn't get super-wide and wall-to-wall in the way that it should. Instead, it just gets bigger, taller, fatter, and thicker ... more amorphous.
I feel that a subwoofer is necessary to get optimal performance, which will add to that $1,299 price tag. The nice thing is, you do have the flexibility to use any subwoofer you want (maybe one you already own, in fact). The addition of surround sound speakers--which isn't as crucial, in my thinking--will also add to the bottom line. You can use any Play-Fi speaker from any manufacturer; the PW 600 speakers I used in this review sell for $599 each. Add up the total cost of this system as reviewed, and you're getting into the $3,500 range. You could build a heck of a component surround sound system for that kind of money; but again, as I said in the intro, this system is really more for people who can't or don't want to go the full-blown component-system route.
Comparison and Competition
A couple other high-end, high-performance powered soundbars that we've reviewed include the Focal Dimension ($1,399 without a sub, $1,500 with it) and the Monitor Audio ASB-2 ($1,649 without a sub). Neither of these older soundbars is as fully featured and/or up-to-date on the latest HDMI standard as the PW Soundbar.
Integra's new $1,200 DLB-5 3.1.2 Surround Bar system is an intriguing option. As far as I can tell, it doesn't do the whole "Play-Fi wireless surround sound speakers" thing, but it does feature two upward-firing object-based speakers and supports both Atmos and DTS:X. Decoding and power are provided by a super discrete slim-line receiver that features four HDMI ins with HDMI 2.0a, HDCP 2.2, and all that jazz. A subwoofer is also included. With its outboard receiver, you don't quite get the all-in-one convenience that the PW Soundbar offers.
Yamaha's YSP-5600 ($1,599) is a one-box solution that simulates a 7.1.2 Atmos/DTS:X soundfield using Yamaha's Digital Sound Projector technology. It doesn't come with a subwoofer or wireless surround-speaker support, but it features Bluetooth and four HDMI 2.0 inputs (no HDR pass-through, though).
Mention a soundbar with wireless streaming capabilities and the capacity for wireless surround sound support, and most brains probably gravitate toward the Sonos PlayBar. It's certainly more affordable solution than the PW Soundbar, with the PlayBar itself selling for $699, the add-on Play:1 speakers retailing at just $199 each, and the Sonos Sub adding another $699. In terms of connectivity, though, the PlayBar isn't in the same league as the PW Soundbar, and in terms of performance it isn't even playing the same sport. It also doesn't decode DTS.
If you're intrigued by the PW Soundbar's performance but are not interested in the Play-Fi/networking capabilities, Paradigm also offers the $899 Soundplay that uses the same nine-driver design and includes Anthem Room Correction and Bluetooth.
Paradigm has packed a lot of features and performance into its new PW Soundbar. Its connectivity is second to none--with aptX Bluetooth, AirPlay, and Play-Fi on the wireless side and HDMI 2.0a with HDR/3D pass-through, optical digital, and analog ins on the wired side. Combine that with its Anthem Room Correction capabilities, which allow you to tune the PW Soundbar, as well as a connected subwoofer and wireless surround speakers, to compensate for the exact acoustic peculiarities of your room, and you can understand why I'm more inclined to compare it to a full-blown component surround sound system than other soundbars. There are trade-offs, to be sure; however, purely in terms of audio performance, it more than holds its own with any number of highly regarded small-to mid-sized speaker systems.
• Visit the Paradigm website for more product information.
• Check out our Soundbars category page to read similar reviews.
• Paradigm Premium Wireless Series PW AMP Stereo Amplifier Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.