I’ve reviewed a good number of speakers in my time here at HomeTechTell, and although the intent with any review is always to discuss and evaluate a speaker on its own terms, we tech writers invariably have a reference speaker system to which we compare everything else. And by “reference,” I don’t necessarily mean “the best ever,” I simply mean an excellent baseline speaker system – a palette cleanser, if you will – neutral in its frequency response, and whose sound we’re intimately familiar with. For years now my reference system consisted of four Infinity IL40 towers and an IL36c center channel. Things I loved about them: their nice, flat frequency response; their dynamics; their lack of distortion. Things I’ve never really loved about them: their big, blocky silhouette; their fussiness in terms of placement; their look, which my mom would have probably described as, “uglier than sin, bless their heart.” But despite their unfortunate looks, and despite the fact that my wife always groaned when they made their way back into my home theater system, I’ve never really found another affordable speaker system that made for such an effective baseline and better fit all of my fussy criteria for what a reference home theater speaker should be. Until, that is, Paradigm’s Studio 100 towers and Studio CC-590 center speaker made their way into my home theater system.
The Studio 100s and CC-590, in their v5 incarnation, have been on the market for a little over four years now, and given Paradigm’s habit of giving their speakers a makeover every few years, I would imagine a v6 revision is due sometime in the next couple of years. Which makes them, perhaps, an odd choice for a review now. But as I said, I wasn’t necessarily just searching for a new speaker to review. I was searching, rather, for a speaker against which to compare every large speaker system I review from here on out. A speaker system I could unquestionably and wholeheartedly recommend to those looking for a high-performance speaker system with an excellent cost-to-performance ratio. A speaker system that worked equally well for music and movies.
And although in a perfect world looks wouldn’t matter, given the fact that I share a home – and a home theater – with my significant other, I wanted a speaker that looked as good as it sounded. In that respect, I probably should let the gorgeous Studio 100s and CC-590 speak for themselves, because one look at the images included here reveals far more about their graceful curves and effortless elegance than my words could ever convey. But one thing you don’t get from the photographs is the way these monolithic speakers manage to disappear into the room. The other day my wife passed by one of the Studio 100s at the rear of the den, stopped, ran her hand along its curved side surface, and looking back at me said, “I always forget that they’re there.” And that’s saying a lot for a four-foot-tall, 78-pound slab of curvilinear wood that you very nearly have to sidestep on the way from the den to the kitchen.
And that’s all well and fine, but what impresses me even more is their ability to pull a sonically similar disappearing act. And I’ll give you two examples of what I mean. A friend of mine stopped by the house not long after I first installed and calibrated the new Studio 100/Studio CC-590 system, and his first reaction was, “They sound really great, but maybe not as meaty as your Infinities.” “Oh yeah?” I said (having gone through a similar reaction at first), and cranked Björk’s “Army of Me.”
His reaction? “Oh, there’s the beef.” Indeed, when called upon to do so, the Studio 100s are fully capable of cranking out some truly ferocious bottom end. The reason that both he and I perhaps expected something different in the bass department at first is because most speakers of this size feature rear-firing bass ports, which tend to interact strongly with the walls behind them and create a resonant bottom end. The Studio 100s, by contrast, feature a front-ported design, which loads the room quite differently, avoiding that resonant quality, and also serving to make them way less fussy in terms of placement. To get the best sound from rear-ported speakers in my room, I’ve always had to pull them way out from the wall, which may be fine for short durations in the course of a review, but not for day-to-day living. Not if I want to stay married.
But the Studio 100s sound fantastic pretty much no matter where I put them, which for now is about a foot from the wall behind them, with their faces aligned with the plane of my 58-inch Samsung plasma. What’s most surprising for me, though, is that I’m also able to cross them over far lower than I would expect to be able to in that location. No matter their size and on-paper bass extension, I’ve traditionally crossed all of my speakers over at the THX-recommended 80Hz, because anything lower than that resulted in bottom-end bloat that no reasonable amount of positioning would really correct. The Studio 100s, though, I’m able to cross over at 50Hz, with absolutely no ill effects.
That’s controversial, I know. And to be honest, the benefits of this lower crossover point aren’t always obvious with most movies. But one film soundtrack in particular really emphasizes the benefits in my room: Man of Steel. The opening notes of the score are positively cavernous, with lots of delicious peaks in the 50Hz range, and with the Studio 100s handling these frequencies (which they’re more than capable of), and the CC-590 handling frequencies down to 60Hz (more on that in a moment), I find that the overall effect is smoother, more cohesive bass performance, and I’m inclined to attribute a lot of that to those front-firing bass ports – not just their orientation, but their fantastic tuning.
Two of the subwoofers in my system, by the way, are Paradigm’s own Studio SUB 12s, which aren’t ported at all—nor is the Sunfire SubRosa Flat Panel Subwoofer that complements them. And all wonderfully handle the deep, tactile, 20 Hz bass that the Studio 100s can’t. So my findings shouldn’t be read as a knock against any of these brilliant subs. But the Studio 100s simply deliver their bass in a different way – a way that works wonderfully for me in my room, not merely integrating seamlessly with the subs, but synergizing with them in a way that sounds more musical, less “speakery” to my ears.
There’s a lot more to say about the Studio 100s, but let’s take a moment to step back and look at the CC-590 center channel. Typically, Paradigm’s Studio CC-690 would be the likelier and more logical match for the Studio 100s, given its similar design, but at 37.25 inches wide, the larger center in the lineup simply wouldn’t fit in the AV stand atop which my display sits. I had some concerns about moving to the smaller CC-590, given that the center speaker is one of the most important aspects of a home theater system, but those fears were allayed after only a moment’s listening. No, I can’t quite cross it over with the subwoofers as low as I can the Studio 100s. And yes, its rear-firing ports did give me concern that it wouldn’t be as easy to place. But neither of those factors end up being a problem in my system. Perhaps it’s the fact that the CC-590 is shallower than the 100s, and thus its ports are further from the back wall. Maybe it’s just careful tuning. I dunno. But at any rate, the Studio CC-590 sounds positively spectacular, even in a cramped cabinet.
During installation of the speaker, I did raise my eyebrows a bit at its plastic feet, which serve in lieu of stands if you don’t have room for such. By contrast with the build quality of the speaker itself, and all the accoutrements of the rest of the Studio speakers, the feet seem a little unrefined, for lack of a better word. They’re thin. They feel mass produced.
But they do aim the center channel perfectly in my system (despite the fact that they’re not adjustable). And they also do an amazing job of isolating the Studio CC-590 from the surface on which it sits. In fact, they reduce the surface area of contact to practically nothing. All of which makes this one of the least resonant center speakers I’ve ever had the pleasure of integrating into my room.
The Studio CC-590 also isn’t plagued by the egregious dispersion problems from which many horizontal center channel speakers suffer. My old Infinity IL36c, for example, sounded quite nice from my main listening position, directly in front of the screen. But moving over to my wife’s preferred seat closer to the edge of the room, it was a bit of a mess. Not once since installing the Paradigm Studio system, though, has she leaned over to me and asked, “What did he say?” Dialogue clarity isn’t just exquisite; it’s exquisite from pretty much anywhere in the room.
The second chapter of the new Extended Edition Blu-ray release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is, I feel, a fantastic example of that. In fact, it’s a fantastic example of so many things that this system does so well. Bilbo’s voice – “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” – sounds incredibly, exceedingly effortless, not so much reproduced as revealed in the room. As Frodo steps outside Bag End to check the mail, the sounds of nature in and around Hobbiton sound, quite frankly, natural. And in this scene, the speakers exhibit a quality that I’ve grown to love about so many of Paradigm’s speakers over the years: their ability to deliver rich audio at virtually any loudness level. The most delicate sonic elements sound just as rich as the raunchiest of sound effects from later in the film.
Moreover, the dwarves’ song “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold” from Chapter 8 of the film, is positively breathtaking through the speakers. Richard Armitage’s deep, bellowing voice sends shivers down my spine when cranked out of the Studio CC-590 crossed over with the sub at 60Hz. There’s no strain. There’s no struggle. There’s no real overbearing sense that I’m listening to a collection of woofers and tweeters and wires. And that’s true of virtually everything I’ve thrown at the system.
Friends often complain that I listen to everything too loudly. (And by loudly, they mean reference level.) It’s a habit I’ve gotten into because many large speakers just don’t sound their best until you get them near reference levels. With the Paradigm Studio system, though, I’ve actually found myself dialing down the volume when I watch sitcoms or The Weather Channel. Not because they sound bad when cranked. Hell, they sound fan-freaking-tastic. But they sound just as nice when tamed to loudness levels that most people deem acceptable for regular TV viewing.
The Studio 100s and CC-590 do have a sparkle to the high end that, at first, I was worried would result in a bit of harshness with certain listening material, particularly the Tool albums I return to so often. But that hasn’t been the case in my experience. Granted, the speakers rely on traditional dome tweeters (okay, perhaps “traditional isn’t the right word, given that they’re gold-anodized pure-aluminum, with ferro-fluid damping and cooling and a die-cast heatsink chassis), rather than the Heil air motion transformers I’ve grown to love so much over the years. But in selecting a new reference speaker, I intentionally opted for dome tweeters, simply because so many of the speakers I review rely on them. If I acclimated myself to air motion transformers entirely, I feel that I wouldn’t be able to give speakers with dome tweeters a fair and objective assessment.
The result of this, though, is that the Studio 100s and CC-590 don’t have what I would describe as the deepest of soundstages. But they do deliver an incredibly wide one that works brilliantly for movies and music alike. In fact, at times I take a sort of silly pleasure from just closing my eyes whilst listening to music and trying my best to point toward where the speakers are located. I often guess wrong.
In truth, what I love best about them, though, is their sumptuous, articulate midrange. That, combined with their excellent dispersion and off-axis consistency, is a big part of their success with rendering dialogue, but it also plays heavily in their excellent rendering of music. The Beatles’ LOVE DVD-Audio is a fine example of everything these speakers do right when it comes to musical reproduction. With this compilation’s remix of “Get Back,” I’ve heard many an otherwise fine speaker struggle with the cacophony that builds between the 15- and 30-second marks, but the Studio system ably renders all of the disparate musical elements in such a way that it builds excitement instead of tension. And by that I mean that each element, each instrument, each beat, each sound effect retains its distinct identity in the mix, making it less of a cacophony and more of a mélange. It’s not as if you’re waiting for the built-up to end. It’s just all the more satisfying when it does: when those iconic two chords ring out at the end of it all and Paul belts out “Jojo was a man”… well, I don’t know any other way to put it than to say that this is what the song always sounded like in my head, but rarely resulted in such a resoundingly satisfying musical release via most of the speakers that have crossed my threshold: deliciously dynamic, richly resolved. Powerful, yet controlled. Cohesive, but not constrained.
As I said in the beginning, this shouldn’t be read so much a typical speaker review as it is a lengthy and laborious explanation of why I chose Paradigm’s Studio 100 towers and Studio CC-590 center speaker as my new reference home theater speakers. And I grow more confident every day that this was the right decision. They’re beautifully neutral, they integrate wonderfully into my room with no fuss or muss, they hit a perfect performance-to-price ratio for me, they’re a lovely match for my Anthem D2v AV processor and A5 amp, oddly enough, they actually sound better when clothed, and quite frankly they make an exquisite benchmark against which to compare all other speakers I review going forward. When a speaker excels in one more more areas, it’s easy enough to spotlight those points. But with speakers like this, which excel in every area, I probably could have summarized these 2500 words with but one pithy sentence: This is what speakers are supposed to sound like.
And my wife thinks they’re gorgeous. You’d be amazed at how important that can be.