I decided to begin my testing with an interesting challenge. Having just experienced Tom Hooper's Les Misérables (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.