The year 2012 was Paradigm’s 30th anniversary as a loudspeaker manufacturer, and to mark the occasion the firm has chosen to build two very limited edition loudspeakers: a floorstander called the Tribute and a stand-mount monitor called the Inspiration, which is the subject of this review. Paradigm’s intent with these models was not necessarily to create statement-class products, but rather to build speakers that would represent the very essence of the company. What is that essence? In distilled form, I would say Paradigm combines one part meticulous design (leveraging design philosophies originating out of the loudspeaker research tradition pioneered at Canada’s National Research Council), one part advanced materials science, one part build-quality, and one part (one very big part) value for money.
In practice, this means that the Inspiration monitors combine a mix of technologies drawn from two of Paradigm’s Reference Series speaker lines: the top-tier Signature range and the next-to-the-top-of-the-range Studio range. The result is a speaker that merges the sonic identities of these two popular speaker families, yielding a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. What is more, the 30th Anniversary models are treated to one-of-a-kind finishes with walnut cabinets done up in a translucent garnet-red lacquer—a color that is an exceedingly deep, dark (so dark it at first seems jet black) red, polished to a lustrous shine and breathtaking to behold.
The Inspiration is a two-way, two-driver bass-reflex monitor that uses a 1″ pure beryllium-dome tweeter (drawn from the Signature range) plus a 7″ black-anodized pure aluminum mid/ bass driver (patterned after drivers used in the Studio range). The mid/bass driver, in particular, bristles with advanced technologies named, typically, with exotic-sounding three-letter acronyms. Thus, it features a patented (NLC) non-limiting corrugated (TPE) thermoplastic elastomer surround said to allow for smooth, precisely controlled, long-throw driver excursions. Further, both the tweeter and mid/bass are mounted to the speaker enclosure using Paradigm’s so-called “IMS/Shock-Mount” baffle-less technology. Paradigm describes this technology as “a butyl-rubber driver fastening system in which critically placed isolation inserts and gaskets decouple drivers from the speaker’s enclosure.” Paradigm makes no attempt to flush-mount the Inspiration drive units in the speaker’s front baffle, but rather allows the drivers’ substantial metal frames protrude somewhat from the face of the baffle plate. However, to combat potential diffraction problems, Paradigm provides low-profile speaker grilles that deliberately wrap around the driver frames to provide smooth, diffraction-reducing, almost waveguide-like surfaces, said to enable the speakers to deliver optimal sound when they are played with their grilles on.
Attention to detail is evident throughout the Inspiration. Ducted port openings, for example, are fitted with turbulence-reducing “high-velocity, low-noise aluminum” flanges, anodized in black to match the mid/bass driver cones. Crossover networks receive the royal treatment, too, using polypropylene capacitors, precision high-power ceramic resistors, and air-core and laminated steel-core inductors, with driver connections made via “heavy-gauge HPC high-purity copper wire.” Plainly, Paradigm’s aim with the Inspiration is to give customers a very serious high-end loudspeaker, but at something less than the customary high-end price.
For this review, I used the Inspirations with Paradigm’s matching 30″ stands ($999/pair). The stands are beautiful to look at (they sport etched, “30th Anniversary Edition Paradigm Reference” logos on chrome-plated escutcheons), are very heavily built with provisions for bolting the Inspirations to their top plates, and—most importantly—position the monitors at just the right height for seated listeners. The only caveat is that to assemble the stands you’ll need both metric and English hex-head wrenches, plus a fair amount of good old-fashioned elbow grease. Once set up, however, the stands are sturdy and attractive.
The key question, of course, is this: How do all these technical elements coalesce when it comes time to listen to music? As I said above, the Inspirations merge the sonic characteristics of Paradigm’s Signature and Studio Series speakers in a synergistic way. But let me expand on that comment for the benefit of those who may not have spent much time with Paradigm’s speakers in the past.
Paradigm’s Signature speakers are the firm’s flagship offerings—the speakers that use the company’s most advanced driver materials and technologies and are thought to offer the greatest resolution, clarity, transient speed, and frequency extension. Paradigm’s Studio models, in turn, fall just one click down the line, offering near-Signature-grade materials and technologies and providing very high levels of performance at sensible prices, while delivering a sound that is Signature-like, but perhaps somewhat more forgiving and thus subjectively more full-bodied. Given these characteristics, you can probably guess where the Inspiration’s design is headed, which is toward a felicitous mid-point that leverages elements of the traditional Signature and Studio sounds. Here’s how that works.
On one hand, the Inspiration’s beryllium tweeter (which is arguably the driver most responsible for defining the revealing sound of Paradigm’s Signature models), serves up extremely high levels of resolution and transient speed, capturing delicate upper-midrange and treble transient and textural details with sophistication and panache. The tweeter, then, is responsible for giving the Inspirations a delicate, tightly focused, and unmistakably high-resolution sound. You can appreciate these qualities whenever you listen to recordings that feature long, lovingly captured echoes or reverb tails, such as the exquisite reverb-haloed vocals you might hear on Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Come On Come On” from her album of the same name [Columbia], Similarly, the tweeter enables the speaker to capture the lingering and quite essential hall reverberations heard on Silvestre Revueltas’ Sensemayà [Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass Live, CSO Resound SACD], which establish a realistic 3-D context within which the music can unfold.
On the other hand, the aluminum mid/bass driver gives the Inspiration a full-throated and robust sound—a sound that, while offering substantial amounts of resolution, manages never to step over the line into clinical sterility. It is great fun, then, to hear the Inspirations hold forth on relatively large-scale and dynamically demanding materials, such as the William Walton Crown Imperial Coronation March, also found on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass Live disc. When the big brass section swells and the intense low-percussion moments arrive simultaneously, the Inspirations rise to the occasion while keeping faith, in a tonal sense, with the distinctive timbres of each orchestra section. But the Inspirations also work beautifully on pop/rock material as I discovered when listening to the at times blistering track “Satori in Chicago” from Noah Wotherspoon & The Stratocats BuzzMe [APO Records]. Something there is in me that loves the sound of a Fender Stratocaster playing the blues at full howl, though it is a sound that is harder to reproduce than you might think (especially for certain “polite” high-end speakers best suited to playing dainty chamber music at no more than moderate levels). The Inspirations, however, never backed down from the challenge, so that as Wotherspoon’s Strat screamed, crooned, stuttered, and snarled, the 30th Anniversary monitors simply followed suit with nary a complaint.
Put these Signature and Studio-like qualities together in one speaker and you truly have a best-of-both-worlds solution, which I think is exactly what Paradigm had in mind. Driver integration in the Inspirations, while perhaps not quite up to standards of certain planar-magnetic or hybrid electrostatic loudspeakers, was generally very, very good. Perhaps the only trace of any discontinuity that I could hear involved scenarios where, when playing less-than-ideally-recorded material, the beryllium tweeters would somewhat pointedly expose recording flaws for what they were. But frankly, if you want the kind of resolution that Paradigm’s beryllium tweeters put at your disposal (and I, for one, certainly do), then this is simply a sonic tradeoff with which the listener must be prepared to make peace.
The Inspiration’s imaging and soundstaging capabilities are likewise very good, with particular strengths in rendering soundstage width and depth. For an example of this quality in action, try the track “Tribute” from Ross William Perry’s It’ll All Make Sense [Kid Blue Music], where you may find, as I did, that the guitar sometimes plays from the far left side of the stage and from a position well behind the plane of the loudspeakers. My point is that the Inspirations do—on good recordings—a very fine job of creating a believable sense of place, a stage upon which the music can breathe.
Even so, I still hold some reservations regarding Paradigm’s use of diffraction-reducing grilles. My take is that this system works to a point, and better on the Inspirations than on most other Paradigm speakers I have heard, but that there is nevertheless an even higher level of three-dimensionality that might be achieved if Paradigm would explore some of the diffraction-minimization techniques competing speaker manufacturers have found beneficial (e.g., flush-mounted drivers, very gently radiused waveguide flanges where needed, cabinet faces with deeply radiused, smoothly curved, “fall-away” front-baffle surfaces, etc.). To be clear, the Inspirations never overtly draw unwanted attention to themselves, and their drive units are superb, but they are still not quite class-leaders in the sonic holography department.
Like most Paradigm speakers, the Inspirations are neutrally voiced and for the most part free from obvious colorations. With that said, however, I should add that, while the Inspirations deliver solid and satisfying midbass output, they offer relatively limited deep bass. Depending on your listening tastes and preferred types of music, you might not notice or particularly care about this characteristic. However, if you have your heart set on enjoying bass response reaching into or below the mid-30Hz region, then you might want to step up to Paradigm’s similarly voiced, but more full-range Tribute floorstander. (Indeed, a Paradigm marketing team member who shall remain nameless once quipped that the Inspiration, though a fine speaker in its own right, is probably “inspired to grow up to be a Tribute.”).
On the whole, I think listeners will find the Inspirations represent an awful lot of speaker for the money. For me, the dead-sure indicator of this was that, whenever I pictured possible sonic competitors for the Inspirations, I found I was automatically thinking of more costly speakers.
The Inspirations do a fine job of representing the whole spectrum of values for which Paradigm stands. They give us advanced materials and technology (e.g., the beryllium tweeter and anodized aluminum mid/bass driver with its distinctive corrugated surround), fine build-quality (the dark garnet-red Inspirations on their matching stands are a sight to behold), and great value for money. But most of all, they provide an accurate, engaging, high-integrity sound, which is what has attracted so many followers to the Paradigm brand for the past thirty years.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Two-way, bass-reflex, stand-mount monitor
Driver complement: One 1″ beryllium dome tweeter, one 7″ anodized aluminum mid/bass driver
Crossover frequency: 2kHz
Frequency range: 54Hz–45kHz +/-2dB, on axis
Sensitivity: 92dB (in room), 89dB (anechoic)
Nominal impedance: 8 ohms
Dimensions: 8.25″ x 14.625″ x 13.125″
Weight: 24 lbs. each
Price: $2599 (optional Inspiration stands, $999)
Paradigm Electronics Inc.
205 Annagem Blvd.
Mississauga, ON L5T 2V1 Canada
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