Paradigm Atom Monitor v.5
In another article this month, "On
Getting Good Sound and Good Value," I talk about products that establish a
benchmark level of performance; that is, components good enough to be used as references
to gauge like-priced products against. For many years, Ive considered
Paradigms various iterations of its Atom loudspeaker to be just that. At its price,
the Atom has long been the one to meet or beat.
The newest version of the Atom, released at the end of
2006, however, has a few new twists. First, Paradigms done away with the Performance
series, of which the older Atoms were members, and has made the new version the
lowest-priced speaker in their Monitor series -- hence its full name, the Atom Monitor
v.5. Second, theyve trickled down technology from their higher-priced series and
poured it into all of the new Monitor speakers, including the Atom. Third, the Atom
Monitor v.5 costs a bit more than the last version, the Atom v.4: $249 vs. $229 USD per
pair. Does the new, more expensive Atom live up to its pedigree?
I saw the first Atom Monitor v.5s come off the line last
November, when I visited
Paradigms factory in Toronto, Ontario. Its where Paradigm makes
speakers, not just assembles them, which is in stark contrast to what happens at other
companies worldwide. Many now outsource production entirely, usually to China. But it says
"Made in Canada" on the Atoms rear panel, and Paradigm means it.
With its grille on, the Atom Monitor v.5 measures
10.5"H x 6.5"W x 10"D and weighs about 10 pounds. Its rather conventional
box enclosure is finished in your choice of cherry, rosenut, black ash, or white vinyl
veneer. One surprise was the look and texture of the rosenut finish on my review pair,
which some might mistake for real wood. Theres nothing cheesy about it.
Under the veneer, however, the cabinet is not all wood.
Remove the grille (something you couldnt do with the older Atoms; more on that in a
bit) and youll see the keyhole tweeter-over-woofer shape that Paradigm is known for.
This portion of the baffle is made of molded plastic, as is the rear-firing port. The
baffle is made like this because it serves multiple purposes: It not only forms the face
of the speaker; molded in it are the woofers basket and the tweeters special
waveguide. This combines a lot of functionality into fewer parts, and thus keeps the cost
down. Its the kind of clever design detail that seems to come only from the bigger
companies, which have the design skills, materials, and manufacturing resources to make
single parts to serve so many purposes.
Now, about that grille. In earlier Atoms, the grille was
permanently attached; you couldnt get past it to see what was underneath. With the
Monitor v.5 you can, and from what I understand from Paradigm, making the grille
detachable (its held in place by magnets, not pins) contributed to part of the price
increase. However, Im willing to pay a few bucks for that; I like to get at the
drivers and see whats going on.
Pop off the grille and
youll see a 1" titanium-dome tweeter nestled in that molded waveguide. Paradigm
says the tweeter is cooled with ferrofluid for higher power handling. The woofer is a
5.5" cone of creamy-colored, injection-molded copolymer polypropylene, with a rubber
surround of the same color. The color deserves comment, particularly when mentioned in the
same breath as the word rubber. On the one hand, the color of the woofer makes
quite a statement when the grille is off. Ive never seen anything quite like it. On
the other hand, the woofer does look as if its -- how can I say this? -- wearing
protection. Merely an observation . . .
As with every Paradigm loudspeaker, the drive-units are
designed and made in-house. Often, high-end companies that offer very expensive
loudspeakers make a big deal out of making their own drivers. Here are proprietary drivers
in a speaker costing only $249/pair. Paradigm says they cross the woofer over to the
tweeter at 2.2kHz, a lowish point that helps to better match the dispersion
characteristics of the woofers top end with the tweeters low end.
Paradigm has been trumpeting what theyre calling the
Monitor series SuperDrive, which is their way of saying that the Monitor series has
high efficiency; i.e., theyll play louder with less power. Paradigm also
claims lower distortion at high playback levels. I suspect that part of what helps achieve
this is the tweeters waveguide, which horn-loads the tweeter a bit, thus increasing
its output level. Paradigm rates the Atom Monitors in-room sensitivity at 90dB (87dB
anechoic), and recommends amplifiers with outputs of 15-80Wpc. And because you can buy
matching Monitor center-channel and surround models to flesh out a full home-theater
system, the Atom v.5 is magnetically shielded for use near a TV.
But while the ability to play loudly is important these
days, particularly with home theater, thats not the most important thing for me. I
dont care if a speaker can play loud if it doesnt sound good while doing it.
Its like being served a huge portion of lousy food -- who needs a double portion
when you dont want to finish a single one? However, I know Paradigm well enough to
know that they dont just build speakers to meet specs -- each design goes through
extensive listening tests; the ears are the final arbiters. This is why Paradigm
doesnt just claim that the Monitor series plays loud; they also claim that its
"authentically high end," meaning that its supposed to sound good,
too. And the only way to judge that is through listening.
The first thing I did was place the Atom Monitor v.5s atop
26"-high stands and hook them up to my reference-level system, which currently
includes Simaudios outstanding Moon i-7, a 150Wpc integrated amplifier; Theta
Digitals Data Basic CD transport; a Stello DA220 D/A converter; and cables by
i2Digital, Nordost, and Nirvana. Such high-priced, high-end gear was overkill for the
Paradigms, but I wanted to see what these inexpensive speakers could deliver in my large
listening room with the best possible ancillary gear.
The result nearly bowled me over. Id never expected
such a big, bold, vibrant sound from such small boxes. They also came through on
Paradigms promise that theyd play loud. They charged up my large listening
room with sound -- something that other, much more expensive two-way, stand-mounted
speakers have failed to do, even as they distorted and made nasty noises in the process.
The Atom Monitor v.5s, though, held up extraordinarily well to such abuse. (Small speakers
such as these are best suited for rooms of small to medium size, not the cavernous space I
set them up in.) And while I was able to push the Atoms until they finally began to fail
-- the midrange began to congest and the highs got hard, and then the bass went awry --
they played louder and cleaner than any small speaker this inexpensive could be expected
to. You might not want to play Springsteens "Born to Run" through them at
a block party, but when I wanted to impress some friends with what $250 can get you these
days, they held up extremely well to U2s Achtung Baby [CD, Island 510 347-2].
The Atoms also sounded superb playing quietly -- they were
surprisingly full in the bass, and astoundingly clean through the midrange and highs. In
fact, when I heard how wonderful they were, I knew theyd be able to give far more
expensive speakers a reason to sweat. It was also apparent that the Atom Monitor v.5 was a
step above the older Atoms. Those earlier versions had sounded polite enough, but I
dont remember any of them sounding this pure through the midband, particularly with
female vocals. When I played Marizas Transparente [CD, EMI 9047], I reveled
in how the Atoms conveyed her voice with a hint of tube-like glow. The mids were rich and smooooooth,
which was totally unexpected for a speaker at this price. I would have expected some sort
The highs, too, sounded terrific -- ideally extended, with
a cleanness and detail Ive never heard from speakers costing under $300/pair. Bruce
Cockburns guitar, on his all-acoustic Speechless [CD, Rounder 3250], can
sound a little brittle, steely, and etched even through the tweeters of quite pricey
speakers; through the Atom v.5s, his guitar sounded exceedingly natural, with none of
But while the Atom v.5s bass and mids were excellent
in terms of refinement and cleanness, it was how they delivered the bass that really
fleshed out this speakers special sound. The Atom Monitor wouldnt go
super-deep -- Paradigm rates its -10dB point at about 50Hz -- but it sounded so generous
down low that I never found myself itching to hook up a subwoofer. This was a total
surprise, given that this small speaker has only a 5.5" woofer. The drums on the Deluxe
Edition of Cockburns Humans [CD, True North TND 317], for example, have a
roundness and heft that pulsate in the room. I was awed by how authoritative the little
Atom Monitors sounded playing this album. Earlier Atoms had had some of this quality,
sounding much bigger than their size or price would indicate -- but I dont remember
any of them sounding so robust at the low end.
Thats not to say that the Atom Monitor delivered truly
deep bass. A subs big woofer is big for a reason: to move big-bass air. But the Atom
Monitor did achieve something quite special down low, something I attribute to the way
its been voiced. I suspect that Paradigm achieved the Atom v.5s big, weighty
sound by first ensuring that their woofer was up to the task of moving a lot of air
without falling apart -- odd-looking as it is, the Atoms little 5.5" woofer
seems something of a miracle worker in that regard. They also ensured that the port was
implemented properly. Ive listened to the rear ports of many speakers at all price
points, and Ive been shocked at the nonbass noise they produce. The Atom Monitor had
none of that -- I heard no noise or chuffing at moderate to high volumes. What bass the
Atom Monitor delivered, it delivered with good control. Thats important.
I suspect that a frequency-response graph of the Atom
Monitor v.5 would reveal something of a rise at about 120Hz -- in other words, a boost in
the upper bass. Speaker makers often do this so that a speaker that cant go down
super-low will still give at least the impression of a fuller, weightier sound. I
can forgive a little speaker such as this that small departure from strict neutrality --
after all, if you dont want to use a sub, and you dont want a speaker that
sounds thin, youll need a fuller sound.
One thing I feared in partnering the Atom Monitors with an
amplifier as exceptional as the Simaudio Moon i-7 was that I might have helped the
speakers too much. After all, no one is likely to use $249/pair speakers with a
$5600 integrated amp. So I replaced the Moon with Flying Moles CA-S3 integrated,
which sells for only $850 and delivers far less power -- just 20Wpc into 8 ohms, which is
barely above the minimum amplification of 15W that Paradigm recommends for the Atom.
However, this not only allowed me to try the Atoms with something inexpensive that
theyre much more likely to be paired with, it also allowed me to test
Paradigms claim that the new Monitor series could deliver appreciable output with
Much to my surprise, the Atom v.5s sounded pretty much the
same being driven by the little Flying Mole as when I partnered them with the big Moon.
The bass sounded just as big, the midrange just as pure, the highs as clean and clear. The
biggest difference was that those highs werent quite as extended through the Flying
Mole. (When I reviewed the CA-S3, I pegged it against the Moon i-7 and found that the
Flying Mole sounded slightly stunted on top in comparison with every speaker I tried.)
Furthermore, even with the piddly CA-S3 in charge, I could
crank up the Atom Monitors to pretty-loud levels, and neither the amp nor the speakers
gave out. Sure, I could have pushed them until one or the other broke, but I was
pleasantly surprised to hear the Atom Monitors play so loudly with such a small amp. This
sort of performance could help make these speakers a bargain-hunting audiophiles
dream. They delivered absolutely superb sound with very little power; as a result,
prospective buyers can pay far more attention to the sound quality of the partnering amp
than to how much power it delivers. Heck, I suspect you could drive this little speaker
But even with all the positive things I can say about the
Atom Monitor, it wasnt perfect. While the speaker did nothing that was flat-out wrong,
there were a couple of areas that didnt bowl me over in the way the things Ive
already mentioned did.
First, even after Id played with the setup quite a
bit, the soundstaging and imaging were just average -- no better than what youd
expect for the price. Music leaped from the Atom Monitors and never sounded confined to
the speaker positions, but I couldnt get as precise a soundstage, or the same kind
of illusion of depth, that I can with some pricier speakers.
Second, in terms of resolution and detail, the Atom v.5
wasnt extraordinary. Other, more expensive speakers can open a clearer window on the
recording, letting through every nuance of the music. The Atom Monitor sounded
extraordinarily clean from top to bottom, and uncannily smooth in the mids, but it
didnt reveal the microscopic details of recordings. However, you cant expect
the world from a speaker that costs $249/pair, particularly one that achieves what the
Atom Monitor did.
Our reviews usually include a comparison with a similar
product. However, comparing the Atom with anything of similar price was difficult, if not
impossible -- I havent found an identically priced speaker that delivers an overall
sound quality to rival it. If you come across a speaker that meets or even beats the Atom
v.5 at the price, then I suggest you just buy it -- if it can do that, its not just
good, its great.
More than likely, though, if you want better sound quality
-- deeper bass, more resolution and detail, improved soundstaging and imaging, etc. --
then youll have to pay a bit more money, whether the speaker is from another
manufacturer or one of Paradigms own. For example, the next model up from the Atom,
Paradigms Mini Monitor, costs $379/pair -- almost 50% more. Yes, theres still
reason for pricier speakers to exist; but for $249, theres none I like better than
the Atom Monitor v.5.
In the article mentioned at the beginning of this review, I
talk about getting good sound and good value. The Paradigm Atom Monitor v.5 defines
that combination of criteria. It is a masterpiece of modern-day speaker design, and a
benchmark against which other low-priced speakers should be judged. Its one thing to
produce a great-sounding speaker when price is no object; its quite another to do so
for a low price. No other speaker I know of for $249/pair sounds better.
Although the Monitor v.5 is the most expensive Atom yet,
its worth it. Given that Paradigm has built its decades-old reputation on delivering
sound that many manufacturers cant match even at multiples of the price, $249 is a
pittance to ask for whats one of the best speaker values around today. It may be the
best entry-level speaker that Paradigm has ever produced.
Price of equipment reviewed