Par­a­digm Per­sona 9H Re­view: Sleek, So­phis­ti­cated, Stylish

Let me be­gin with the con­clu­sion. The Par­a­digm Per­sona 9H is a new as­sault on the state of the art in speaker de­sign by one of Canada’s lead­ing com­pa­nies. It may cost some $49,999 a pair, but it’s one of the best speaker sys­tems I have ever had the op­port

SoundMag - - Review / Paradigm - By An­thony H. Cordes­man (The Ab­so­lute Sound)

The Par­a­digm 9H has su­perb up­per-oc­tave and midrange re­sponse, and it can de­liver flat, de­tailed, and room-cor­rected bass that nor­mally re­quires a mas­sive sep­a­rate sub­woofer. Sound­stag­ing and imag­ing are equally ex­cel­lent. As is the case with ev­ery top speaker, the nu­ances of its voic­ing and phys­i­cal style are mat­ters of taste, but this is a truly ex­cep­tional prod­uct that mer­its high praise.

Why be­gin with the end­ing? Be­cause it is all too tempt­ing to fo­cus on the Par­a­digm 9H’s ex­cep­tional bass and room cor­rec­tion fea­tures, and this would be dis­tinctly un­fair to the speaker. The Par­a­digm 9H joins the Legacy V and Legacy Aeris in show­ing that room cor­rec­tion can re­ally work and pro­vide truly ac­cu­rate deep bass, even in a speaker that is rel­a­tively small by ref­er­ence-qual­ity stan­dards.

In re­cent years I have been steadily more im­pressed with the fact that to­day’s speak­ers have im­proved to the point where the av­er­age real- world lis­ten­ing room is more of a prob­lem than flaws in the trans­ducer. Re­ally de­mand­ing ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with speaker place­ment, room treat­ment, and the use of sep­a­rate sub­woofers can get around this, but of­ten at the cost of let­ting the au­dio sys­tem dom­i­nate the dé­cor, mak­ing a ded­i­cated lis­ten­ing room a ne­ces­sity, and still liv­ing with sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems in the mid-low to low end.

Fea­tures and Tech­nol­ogy

Par­a­digm de­scribes the 9H as a “6-driver, 3-1/2way hy­brid floor­stand­ing sys­tem with ac­tive­bass acous­tic sus­pen­sion. Its room cor­rec­tion only ap­plies be­low 500Hz, and there is no room cor­rec­tion or ac­tive cir­cuitry that plays any role in af­fect­ing the sound of your sys­tem in a range from some 40kHz to 500Hz.”

On the face of it, the Par­a­digm 9H’s fre­quency spec­i­fi­ca­tions seem al­most too good to be­lieve: ±2dB from 19Hz–45kHz on axis, and ±2dB from 19Hz–20kHz off axis. My lim­ited home test gear isn’t close to the level of con­firm­ing whether such spec­i­fi­ca­tions are ac­cu­rate, but the 9H does have bet­ter in-home RTA, pink noise, and war­ble tone mea­sure­ments, once it is room cor­rected, than any other speaker I have re­viewed. Par­a­digm also has very ad­vanced test fa­cil­i­ties, and a good rep­u­ta­tion for mak­ing hon­est claims. More im­por­tantly, lis­ten­ing tests also show that the 9H is a su­perbly in­te­grated speaker with­out any au­di­ble peaks or col­orations at any point in its fre­quency range—and not sim­ply at low or mod­er­ate lis­ten­ing lev­els. It eas­ily deals with com­plex dy­nam­ics up to lis­ten­ing lev­els that go far be­yond my taste and tol­er­ance.

While it may or may not mat­ter in your sys­tem, the 9H is also ex­cep­tion­ally ef­fi­cient. Its sen­si­tiv­ity is rated at 96dB in-room—which is high enough to al­low you to use cer­tain low-pow­ered tri­ode tube amps for the treble and midrange (and let the 9H’s ac­tive elec­tron­ics han­dle the bass). The room cor­rec­tion in each of two pairs of woofers is used in con­junc­tion with sep­a­rate DSP-con­trolled 700W am­pli­fiers—pro­vid­ing a to­tal of 1400W RMS (2800W dy­namic peak).

In the mids and treble, the Par­a­digm 9H is rated for use with amps from 15 to 500 watts, and could take all the power my ears could stand from a pair of PS Au­dio BHK Sig­na­ture 300s with­out col­or­ing the peak pas­sages from mu­sic like Saint-Saëns Third Sym­phony. As for rock, this is a speaker where you would have to push even bass syn­the­sizer and gui­tar sound to ear-dam­ag­ing lev­els to hear col­oration in any­thing ap­proach­ing a nor­mal lis­ten­ing room. Its com­bi­na­tion of power and ef­fi­ciency helps give the Par­a­digm 9H out­stand­ing life and dy­namic re­al­ism even in very loud, com­plex pas­sages.

The treble and midrange driv­ers are also ex­cep­tional and as im­por­tant to the 9H’s suc­cess as its bass driv­ers, power, and room cor­rec­tion.

The speaker has a 1” beryl­lium tweeter and a 7” beryl­lium midrange driver, crossed over with third-or­der slopes at 2.4kHz and 400Hz. It is the first speaker I’ve heard with a beryl­lium midrange, and while I’ve come to be ex­tremely cau­tious about sin­gling out any given driver ma­te­rial or tech­nol­ogy as uniquely bet­ter, these par­tic­u­lar beryl­lium driv­ers do pro­vide re­mark­ably clean and de­tailed sound over an un­usu­ally wide, sta­ble lis­ten­ing area. They are as good at keep­ing solo in­stru­ments and “small mu­sic” nat­u­ral in imag­ing and depth as they are at re­solv­ing the sound­stage de­tails of com­plex op­eras and choral mu­sic.

Once again, I’ve found that en­clo­sure de­sign tends to be like driver de­sign; in­di­vid­ual de­sign­ers may fa­vor one choice over another, but the ex­e­cu­tion of a given ap­proach tends to be more im­por­tant than the par­tic­u­lars. In the case of the Par­a­digm Per­sona 9H, the man­u­fac­turer states that “com­pletely in­ert en­clo­sures be­gin with seven lay­ers of wood com­pos­ite ma­te­rial and vis­coelas­tic ad­he­sive placed in a cus­tom press. The en­clo­sures are treated with ra­diofre­quency en­ergy to ac­cel­er­ate the cur­ing process, which takes al­most a week to com­plete. The re­sult is a strong, con­strained-lay­er­damped en­clo­sure that’s the per­fect acous­ti­cal foun­da­tion to build upon.”

It is well worth look­ing at the Per­sona 9H brochure on the Par­a­digm web­site to get an idea of just how com­plex the en­clo­sure brac­ing and sub­woofer lay­out is. This is crit­i­cal in a speaker that uti­lizes four ul­tra-high-ex­cur­sion 8.5” woofers and re­lies on a bal­anced vi­bra­tioncancel­ing con­fig­u­ra­tion( two front-fir­ing, two rear-fir­ing) to go so low in the bass, uses full room cor­rec­tion, and de­liv­ers even the low­est bass at high lev­els when the mu­si­cal dy­nam­ics re­quire it.

I got bet­ter and smoother bass out of the Par­a­digm Per­sona 9H in a va­ri­ety of room lo­ca­tions than I have with any other sys­tem that did not have room cor­rec­tion. More­over, it out­per­formed any other pair of speak­ers—or pair with sep­a­rate sub­woofers—that did have room cor­rec­tion. It mea­sured bet­ter; it did a bet­ter job with a wide range of bass war­ble tones; and, most im­por­tantly, it sounded bet­ter with or­gan, jazz, rock, and the kind of sonic spec­tac­u­lars you may hate as mu­sic but can’t re­sist us­ing to test your sys­tem.

Its size is also re­mark­ably easy to live with. The 9H isn’t small, and each en­clo­sure does weigh 190 pounds. Its mea­sure­ments of 11.875” x 51.75” x 20.5” are also scarcely pe­tite. At the same time, this is still a size that is com­pat­i­ble with most real-world lis­ten­ing rooms, most decors, and most part­ners and room­mates. Its form fac­tor is par­tic­u­larly crit­i­cal when so much bass power has to be de­liv­ered in a rel­a­tively small pack­age. Talk­ing about a speaker’s wife ac­cep­tance fac­tor (WAF) is now de­servedly “DWM” and po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect. At the same time, most of us are go­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate hav­ing a speaker that does not dom­i­nate the room but does have the abil­ity to use its room cor­rec­tion to equal or out­per­form far larger in­te­grated speak­ers and sys­tems with sep­a­rate woofer tow­ers or pairs of prop­erly lo­cated sub­woofers, and avoid highly vis­i­ble room treat­ment. Un­less you like be­ing a her­mit (her­mitess?) in your sound room or au­dio cave, there is real merit in be­ing able to lis­ten ca­su­ally to mu­sic, and demon­strate your sys­tem to nonau­dio­philes as if the mu­sic were what mat­ters, and you hadn’t turned the sys­tem into an ob­ject of pa­gan wor­ship.

About the only caveat I can think of in this re­spect is that the Par­a­digm 9H has good techno styling, but it also has ex­posed driv­ers with mildly psy­che­delic grilles over its tweeter and midrange driver. Ex­posed driv­ers are scarcely un­com­mon in high-end speak­ers, but some of us work, live, and play with non-au­dio­philes. Many vis­i­tors liked or ig­nored the 9H’s phys­i­cal de­sign, but were more than mildly amused by the tweeter and midrange’s unique driver grilles. These grilles’ un­usual de­sign and ap­pear­ance, how­ever, serve an im­por­tant tech­ni­cal func­tion.

The Mu­sic

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 high­res­o­lu­tion 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 HR71], 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 re­al­world 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 9Hs is the first speaker I’ve heard aside from the Legacy Vs that can 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 toein 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, high­end 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 you 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.

Fi­nally, I’m not sure that a de­tailed ex­pla­na­tion of the tech­nol­ogy be­hind the ARC-2 sys­tem is re­ally needed, and many au­dio­philes will rely on dealer setup. But, peo­ple and speak­ers do get moved, and high-en­ders love to tweak and fid­dle. Ac­cord­ingly be aware that you can read­ily find out the tech­ni­cal de­tails and get some good high­tech re­views by putting “ARC-2 room cor­rec­tion” into your com­puter search rou­tine. (Be aware that the ARC-2 sys­tem in the 9H is de­signed and used in very dif­fer­ent ways than the ARC-2 in An­them re­ceivers, and for home theater.)

At the same time, you should also be aware that Par­a­digm speak­ers and the man­u­fac­tur­ers of the An­them ARC-2 room cor­rec­tion sys­tem are one com­pany, and the Par­a­digm is de­signed around its pro­pri­etary room cor­rec­tion sys­tem. This al­lows it to cor­rect for dips of up to 6dB and peaks of up to at least 30dB.

I’d dearly love to see the An­them aside of An­them-Par­a­digm make an out­board ARC-2 unit that could be ad­justed to suit any given speaker. In the in­terim, how­ever, I’ve found that past at­tempts to pro­vide uni­ver­sal room cor­rec­tion that can­not be tai­lored to an in­di­vid­ual speaker’s de­sign of­ten fall se­ri­ously short of pro­vid­ing the best per­for­mance in dy­nam­ics, power han­dling, and dis­tor­tion. Both Par­a­digm and Legacy avoid this by en­sur­ing the speaker’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties match the room cor­rec­tion and vice versa—al­though they take very dif­fer­ent ap­proaches. The re­sults re­ally pay off in su­pe­rior sound qual­ity.

Sum­mary

One of the best around. Highly rec­om­mended.

Price: $49,999.

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