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...