Soundbars are making more and more sense for a growing group of buyers who want much better performance than they get from the speakers in their flat TVs. Right now, there are three main groups of soundbars: entry-level products under $500, the more feature-rich $800-ish products, and the more audiophile-grade, often passive soundbars in the $1,000-and-above range. Priced at $799, Paradigm's 2.1-channel Soundtrack System is solidly in the middle category.
The Soundtrack System is an active soundbar that lives up to the hype when it comes to features, as it makes an AV receiver somewhat unnecessary. It can accept optical digital audio (one input) or analog audio (one RCA and one aux in) directly from sources like a cable/satellite box, a Blu-ray player, a Roku media player, or an Apple TV. It lacks video inputs, so video switching must be handled by your HDTV, many of which now offer up to four HDMI inputs. If you need more input options, you need to look for a more complex soundbar or likely should look to a simple AV receiver for your switching needs.
The Soundtrack System subwoofer is of the wireless persuasion, meaning that it connects to the wall for AC power with a wire but talks with the soundbar over a wireless connection, which allows for a multitude of placement options. Paradigm highlights an under-the-sofa location that's pretty cool if you've got room under your sofa. The subwoofer has an eight-inch laminated polypropylene driver with a 1.5-inch aluminum-wire voice coil. The Soundtrack System subwoofer is dual ported and, amazingly, can be installed in an equipment rack. There is an internal 100-watt class-D (digital) power amp under the hood that gives this sub-that-roared the power needed to rock big movies in a small form factor.
The Soundtrack System soundbar is packed with two 4.5-inch midrange drivers, two four-inch passive radiators, and two ferro-fluid cooled dome tweeters. Paradigm packs in 25 watts of digital amplification and DSP that allows management of the soundbar's power handling so that it can keep up with the output demands when (as we all do) you are pushing a small soundbar to act like a pair of big speakers.
I don't keep a lot of media on my phone, but I've got tons on my iPad. The Soundtrack System is compatible with Paradigm's BD 1 Bluetooth receiver ($59.99) if you want to wirelessly stream music from audio sources. This is something that is becoming increasingly common in AV receivers, and it's nice to see the option appearing in more soundbars, too. Apple's AirPlay is not included in the Paradigm Soundtrack System.
Getting the Soundtrack System soundbar up and running is pretty easy - well within the reach of the end-user AV enthusiast. The products are packed beautifully, and the package is loaded with the templates needed to wall-mount the soundbar above or below your TV (snap-on feet are also supplied if you want to set it on a stand). In my case, we needed to do some pulling of wires from the floor level up to the HDTV's level on the mid-wall. Once the Panasonic 60-inch ST60 plasma was mounted and installed, it became pretty obvious where to put the soundbar. It's highly important that you use a level to balance the soundbar and a measure to position it evenly under your HDTV; otherwise, your installation will look screwy.
The subwoofer's installation is about as easy as finding a place to stash it and an outlet to plug it into; however, getting it to blend sonically with the soundbar takes the most time in the system setup. You can't get Barry White deep bass from a small soundbar, nor should you expect it, which is why these systems include a subwoofer. However, unlike with a pair of bookshelf speakers like the Paradigm Atoms that we recently reviewed, the Soundtrack System soundbar needs the subwoofer to cover low octaves that you actually can hear, thus placement and level setting are key to sonic success. I recommend that, if you can, you should keep the subwoofer on the same wall or plane as the soundbar. This is a "do as I say, not as I do" situation, as I put my Soundtrack System subwoofer on the back wall of my new master bedroom. It took me a few days of tweaking to get the blend right between the volume on the subwoofer and the soundbar. For a while, I could locate more bassy voices coming out of the subwoofer. After some adjustment of the levels, this was no longer an issue; but, as with any subwoofer, placement and levels are key to success.
Read about the performance of the Paradigm Soundtrack System on Page 2.
I recently sold my home in Los Angeles, which included a 7.1-channel home theater, complete with Paradigm's world-beating Signature S8 speakers. Now I'm going all the way to the other end of the spectrum of Paradigm's line for a 2.1-channel sound system for the master bedroom of my temporary apartment that my wife, son and I will live in until we build a new home nearby. Even with high expectations and tastes acclimated to the best Paradigm has to offer, I must say that I was impressed right out of the gate with the Paradigm Soundtrack System. It's not finished in glossy piano black or blinged out with fancy mounting hardware, but sonically it fits right in with the pleasing, dynamic and accurate Paradigm sound.
I tested all sorts of sources on this system, from the Apple TV to the Roku 2 to DirecTV. Through a DirecTV Mini Genie, television sound was night-and-day better with the Paradigm Soundtrack System in the loop, as opposed to the in-TV speakers that I listened to on both a 55-inch Vizio M-Series TV and the Panasonic ST60 plasma. Let's put it this way: you would have to be deaf to think that TV speakers are okay when comparing the possible sound quality that you can get with the Paradigm Soundtrack System soundbar. In listening to traditional two-channel music through the Apple TV, the most noticeable effect you get is that "Paradigm Sound," which I was scared might have been lost in such a cost-effective, mass-market product. When playing "YYZ" (a song named after the Toronto airport, of all things) in AIFF format via a second-generation Apple TV, without fancy external DAC, I could hear the hard pan of the chimes go far to the left and right of the speaker in the room. The syncopated bass and drum parts had heft to them and, when balanced correctly, sounded full, not disjointed. The whip cracks later in this instrumental track had snap to them, as they do on Paradigm's better speakers.
Skipping one track ahead to "Limelight" on Rush's Moving Pictures, this time via a 24-bit Blu-ray, I was impressed with the richness of Alex Lifeson's guitar tone, as it sounded warm, coherent and full in ways that I simply hadn't heard from a soundbar - even the ones costing $2,000-plus.
The space of the soundstage was notably wide when listening to the impeccably recorded "Deacon Blues" from Steely Dan's Aja. The jazz-like shuffle allowed you a good chance to hear the details of the snare drum being stroked. The Chicago-like horns sounded layered and full. The overall depth of soundstage isn't what you get from, say, Paradigm Atom speakers but, at the same time, those speakers aren't screwed into the wall with one-inch-thick screws. Soundbars do have their limits.
Kicking out the classic-rock jams are always a good test for any speaker being reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com but, let's face it, soundbars go into rooms where people watch TV. Most people aren't likely to run Blu-ray Rush albums or SACDs from Pink Floyd into their soundbar. They are going to be watching CNN. I religiously watch Fareed Zakaria's Sunday program on CNN and used it to test the audio via my DirecTV Mini Genie DVR/receiver. While Fareed doesn't get too crazy with the Mad Money-like effects, his voice during his monologues was dramatically improved, compared with how it sounded over the internal speakers of the M-Series Vizio and Panasonic plasma. When he was interviewing Nobel Prize-winning Princeton economics professo and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, you could hear so much more weight in their voices. Also, the addition of a subwoofer makes for a more open sound in the highs.
One refreshing element of the 2.1 Paradigm Soundtrack System is that it never gets too harsh, even when you are pushing it. In the opening scene of The Dark Knight on Blu-ray (Warner Bros.), the crash of the Joker's school bus into the bank was both bombastic and resolute, even at high levels. Earlier in the scene, the shattering of the glass from the window of the high-rise building also captured the detail of the event without being shrill. The shotgun blasts from the bank manager captured the needed blunt force of the event, but you still felt like you could hear said shotgun get jammed up.
Beyond CNN, the Soundtrack System has the ability to make other lesser-quality audio formats sound fantastic. Last week, I heard nationally syndicated radio personality Howard Stern talking about how much he loved the number-one song in the country, "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke. When I listened to the track over satellite radio, it sounded like a suitably fun summer hit. However, when downloading the unrated video and playing it back through Vevo (NSFW), I gained a whole new appreciation for the track. Forget Robert Palmer; Thicke knows how to make a supermodel sell a song for him through the art of a music video. Hell, if all videos today were this good, I might watch more MTV. A lot more.
The remote for the Paradigm Soundtrack System is pretty weak. It has no backlight, it's small and easy to lose, and its operation in comparison to an aftermarket RF remote like the Aeros that I ultimately switched to was not fantastic. The system can learn commands from your TV or cable/satellite remote, so you can choose to use a different remote that's already in your home, if you don't want to invest in a universal one.
Soundbars always suffer from problems relating to the depth of the soundstage. If you are expecting Wilsons' six-feet-out-in-the-room depth of field, then you are going to be disappointed with the depth of field of the Soundtrack System. The Soundtrack System does make up what it loses in depth with soundstage width if your room will play along, and mine will.
Bluetooth is nice, but Airplay is better for the hundreds of millions of us in the Cult of Mac. I'm sure the cost of adding Apple's Airplay might have jacked the cost of the Paradigm Soundtrack System above key price points, but it would be cool to have the same kind of Apple-centric connectivity that you get from, say, a Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin desktop audio system.
Comparison and Competition
The Paradigm Soundtrack System has strong competition from both below and above. Those looking down-market will find players from the likes of Panasonic, Onkyo and LG that are all major upgrades over internal TV speakers. Vizio's S4251w-B4 soundbar is another key player in the affordable market at $329.99 but more consumers looking at Paradigm are going to be likely looking upmarket to products ranging from the Soundtrack System's bigger brother, the Motion Vision from MartinLogan, the Sonos soundbar, GoldenEar's Super Cinema 3D, Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 2, Definitive Technology's SoloCinema XTR 5.1 soundbar (and sub) or Outlaw Audio's OSB-1 soundbar with their H-PAS technology. A sneaky good option in the soundbar space is the Episode brand, which makes a host of different-sized, powerful soundbars, such as the Episode 300 reviewed here.
The soundbar space is filled with solid competitors. For a full list of top performing soundbar reviews, check out this resource.
I've loved the time that I spent with my Paradigm Soundtrack System, and I was able to compare it with its bigger brother, the $1,500 Motion Vision from MartinLogan, as well as the $1,000 SuperCinema 3D Array soundbar from GoldenEar Technologies. The GoldenEar and MartinLogan are different types of soundbars and are apex predators for their categories, but guess what? The Paradigm Soundtrack System can hang - not just on your wall, but performance-wise, with soundbar/sub combos costing well more than twice the price. And isn't that the Paradigm model - to deliver twice the performance for half the price and watch the consumers spend their money. Coming from someone who's owned the top speakers that Paradigm makes, I can say that the Paradigm Soundtrack System is both a steal and a top performer. I can also tell you that I am cutting the check to own the sucker, as it is just too good to take off of my wall, even if I had over $1,000 more to invest.