Let me again stress that the Paradigm 9Hs have far more going for them than superb bass performance. I used them as well as my own reference speakers—the Magico S7 and Legacy Aeris—in trying the new PS Audio Directstream Memory Player. I had some initial doubts about the ability of any new disc player to reveal more of the music on CDs, SACDs, and high-resolution discs like the Reference Recordings HRx series of 176.4kHz/24-bit discs—as well as some high-resolution discs made by my friends.
The tweeter and midrange in the Paradigm 9Hs did a superb job of revealing fine transient details in the midrange and highs, and making it immediately apparent that the PS Audio Directstream Memory Player did make real—if subtle—improvements in the sound of virtually every type of disc, in a direct comparison with transports like the Oppo BDP-105D and the earlier PS Audio. The improvement in life, detail, and upper-octave clarity was most striking with CDs, but it was also apparent with SACDs and even with the 24-bit/176.2kHz versions of number of Keith Johnson’s (and other Reference Recordings) discs that will be familiar to many audiophiles—Exotic Dances from the Opera [Reference Recordings HR-71], Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances [Reference Recordings HR-96], Arnold Overtures [Reference Recordings HR-48], and Crown Imperial [HR-112].
I’m not sure that rediscovering the sonic improvements made by today’s most advanced digital transports will lead to a rebirth of optical and digital discs in the way that better hardware and software have led to the rebirth of the LP. Nevertheless, it did make me think hard about shifting fully from disc to digital storage. More importantly, the ability to make these nuances audible showed just how good the Paradigm 9Hs could be in resolving depth (when the recording has such data), preserving soundstage integrity and image size, and handling the full range of instruments—strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion, and organ. There is no way to adequately describe the differences in nuance and voicing between three great speakers like the Paradigm 9H, the Magico S7, and the Legacy Aeris without writing a whole new review, but even if one ignores the bass, the 9Hs are clearly competitive. And no audiophile can ever really ignore the importance of bass or the impact of a listening room. The Magico S7 has truly excellent and deep bass, but it does not have room correction. I have to use them with a pair of carefully calibrated Golden Ear XXL subwoofers so I can place them where they provide the best soundstage and midrange and treble performance. The Legacy Aeris has a separate DAC-preamp-room correction system called the Wavelet that provides both bass and full-range correction and equalization features. It does provide a wider range of correction that includes room reflections, but the speaker does not go as deep with as much power as the Magico or the Paradigm. Life is filled with trade-offs.
The Paradigm Persona 9Hs not only provided the best overall bass response I’ve had in my listening room, it did so when playing back deep bass at subwoofer frequencies and loudness levels. It virtually eliminated the mountain-sized bass resonance peaks that are inevitable in most real-world listening rooms, and it filled in much of the equally deep valleys in bass response. I’ve been listening to room-correction systems since the days when loudspeaker manufacturer Snell began to experiment with the technology and when Tact introduced full room correction. The bass from the 9Hs is the first I’ve heard aside from the Legacy Vs that could really provide full correction of the bass and do so with extraordinary detail at almost any rational listening level.
I do have some cautions about the result. If you are not familiar with flat full-range bass, you may initially feel that room correction slightly reduces the apparent bass performance of a speaker. We are accustomed to hearing the impact of the resonant peaks in our speakers, and their sudden absence takes some getting used to. It is only when you listen to the entire range of bass music over time that you realize how much more lower-octave detail is available, and that bass peaks are no longer adding at least a slight one-note character to the low end and no longer partly masking the midrange and treble. It is also only when the bass truly extends to frequencies you sense more than hear—below about 35Hz—that you realize how much the deep bass can contribute to musical life and realism. It is only when low-end response is truly smooth that you realize how many minor room resonances and vibrations are no longer being excited by the bass. Put simply, there is far more to the low end than 1812 cannons, bass drum whacks, excessive synthesizer and bass guitar bass lines, and organ notes that vibrate the walls and the couch.
The Realities of Bass Room Correction
There also are several points about the realities of bass room correction you should be aware of. First, it in no way affects the need to place your speakers in the best spot to provide a realistic soundstage and the best overall mix of bass, midrange, and treble. If anything, the more revealing the overall response, the more placement details matter and the better the bass response will be after room correction. Good placement without correction means less correction is required, and better results when it is applied in the bass. (The room correction software does provide a quick measurement setting to allow you to measure different speaker placements and minimize the amount of room correction.)
Second, the lack of bass peaks does affect the apparent level of midrange and treble energy, and the 9Hs have relatively flat upper midrange and treble response. This can give the impression of a slight hardness or of excessive energy in the upper midrange with violin, harpsichord, soprano voice, woodwinds, and brass—particularly with many recent recordings where the miking is too close and the production values apparent detail over natural musical warmth.
Engineering purity is all very well, but I want to listen to the music and not the equipment. This is why I like the full-range correction features of the Legacy Wavelet, although the Bohmer room correction in the Wavelet DAC/preamp/room correction electronics emphasizes different aspects of sound quality than the bass-oriented ARC-2 system used in the 9H. The Paradigm 9H does not have such options, but you can accomplish a great deal by experimenting with different placement of the mic when you set up the room correction, by finding just the right toe-in and spacing for the 9Hs, and by experimenting with minor adjustments in the distance of the speakers to side and rear walls to minimize any excessive upper-midrange energy.
A number of reviewers question whether speaker midrange and treble energy should measure flat or be rolled slightly downwards. As a classical music and jazz fan I have mixed feelings about older recordings, and many more modern recordings that emphasize natural musical warmth. Speaker voicing of any kind will favor one set of recordings, cartridge, DAC, preamp, amp, and set of wires over another.
I don’t believe that this is a problem that should be solved at the speaker. Loudspeaker crossovers are complex enough as it is, and a speaker designer can really only voice the non-active circuits inside in one way. It is a problem that needs to be solved by making more musically realistic recordings and/or by providing some form of equalization in the preamp or some outboard unit, rather than in the speaker. As far as I’m concerned, high-end electronics designers really need to rethink their design goals. They need to get away from the “less-is-more” approach to front ends and DACs and/or digital preamps.
I’d like to see high-end electronics designers provide the ability to “tilt” the overall frequency response up or down over the entire frequency range—or at some point from the upper bass to the highest frequencies—by at least several dBs from “flat.” I’d also like to see the option of being able to slightly dip the upper midrange. Apparent musical realism, not specsmanship and simplicity, should be the real goal of high-end sound.
Third, for all these reasons, be careful if you visit a dealer to hear the 9Hs. Listen with and without room correction. Make sure the speakers are properly placed in the showroom, and—if you decide to buy—make sure the dealer has the skill and willingness to help you with an initial setup that really suits your ear and taste. Bring your own favorite bass spectaculars, but also bring at least a couple of your best recordings of music your really love. This is a remarkably coherent, detailed, full-range speaker, and you should judge it accordingly.
Fourth, if you plan on doing your own setup of the ARC-2 room correction system used in the Paradigm 9H, be aware that it requires the use of a PC—devices that approach the work of the Devil and/or embracing the dark side of the Force to a Mac user like me. The instructions in the manual also are only “acceptable,” and I’d check for updates to both the instructions and the software at the Paradigm website before running the program. At the same time, downloading the software is easy, setup is quick once you get the hang of it, and the display shows you the before and after measurements. As for Mac users, many online software and black magic stores do sell an application that allows you to run Windows on your Mac.