HomeTechTell Review: Paradigm Shift A2 Powered Speakers

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Paradigm Shift A²She was first introduced to me as the Active Atom in hushed tones. Months later, she made her official debut as the A². Then that was simplified to A2, since "<sup></sup>" is apparently too much to type in today’s world of instant-gratification HTML journalism. (Although the packaging and instruction manual dubs her the a². Yargh!)

Honestly, though, Paradigm could call its little powered (and powerful!) digital bookshelf speaker “Eunice” and it would still be a sexy centerpiece to the company’s new Shift brand of digital lifestyle products. Since no one seems to be able to decide what to name her once and for all, I’m going to call her Ava.

The A² A2 Ava, as her original hush-hushed name implies — and as all subsequent names decreasingly allude to — is an active version of Paradigm’s beloved Atom bookshelf speaker, with 2 x 50-watts’ worth of internal amplification (RMS), low-frequency extension down to 30 Hz, and ± 2 dB frequency response from 55 Hz to 20 kHz, with a 5.5-inch satin-anodized aluminum cone woofer and a 1-inch anodized aluminum dome tweeter acoustically suspended in a cabinet measuring roughly 11 x 7 x 9 inches.

She’s also packed with inputs, so you can, for example, just as easily connect her to a Blu-ray player or music server or game console via RCA inputs for a rocking little two channel system in the den as you can connect an iPod via minijack cables for a mostly portable party (a mains connection is still required, but that’s the only barrier of entry to a kick-ass little two channel system that will blow your friends’ minds with its size-to-oomph ratio). There’s also support for a Paradigm-branded Bluetooth receiver, as well as Apple’s AirPort Express, so you can zap tunes wirelessly to a pair of A²s A2s Avas. Me personally, though? I’ve been looking high and low for the right set of computer speaker for longer than I care to think about.

I’ve finally found them.

Connecting the A² A2 Ava to a PC is a pretty straightforward affair on the surface of it, but I’ll admit that making it work requires a bit of common sense. Hookup consists of connecting a 3.5mm minijack cable from the PC’s headphone output to one speaker (on which you flip a switch on the back from the mono setting to L) and running another 3.5mm cable from that speaker to the other (and switching that one from mono to R). Seriously, though, if you’re thinking of using the A² A2 Ava with a computer, there are a few best practices you need to keep in mind. First, throw out the 3.5mm cable that comes with the speakers and upgrade to a shielded cable. There are so many sources of electrical interference around a PC that if you don’t, things are bound to get noisy. Also, turn off any unused audio inputs on the PC to tame extraneous noise a bit more. Most importantly, though, turn down the volume on the the A² A2 Ava! I found a volume setting of about 40% to be the sweet spot, leaving me with way more audio headroom that I’ll ever need via my computer’s volume control.

Paradigm Shift A² back panel

A seemingly unnecessary step, perhaps? It could be argued that it is, but to me, it stands to reason that a little speaker with enough power to rock your face off from across the room is going to be a bit noisy when said face is all up in its grill. With the speakers’ volume set at about 40%, and with my face a comfortable couple of feet away, there’s still a weensy bit of amp noise, which is noticeable when no music is playing, but nonetheless below the noise floor of most digital tunes I’ve thrown at the speakers.

And I’ve thrown a very lot of music at them in the past three weeks or so. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this excited about just sitting and listening to music. And on my computer, no less. Perhaps a comparison with Bowers & Wilkin’s MM-1 is apt here, because despite the fact that there’s an extreme size disparity, a pair of MM-1s will cost you roughly the same as a pair of A²s A2s Avas. In my review of the MM-1s, I lamented the fact that, while the opening notes of the Black Crowes’ "Descending" sound "revelatory: dynamic, luscious, and airy in a way that no $500 speaker has any right to sound, much less a PC speaker," once the track really kicks in, the speakers turn into “a bit of a blivet: compressed, choppy, bloated, messy." That’s so far from the case with the A² A2 Ava that it’s a little ridiculous. If the MM-1s rate about a 10 in terms of fidelity on the opening piano chords and, say, a 3 in their ability to rock out once the song hits its stride at any appreciable volume, I’d rate the A² A2 Ava about an 9.5 in terms of fidelity (actually, let’s bump that up to an 9.7 for the way the Dobro licks throughout the song positively dance out into the room) and an 11 on a scale of 1 to ass-kicking when she’s called upon to kick ass.

I hesitate to call the A² A2 Ava an audiophile speaker, but I don’t mean that as a pejorative. Let me explain… (Actually, no, there is too much to explain. Let me sum up): The speaker relies on sophisticated sound-shaping digital signal processing to ensure that it kicks all of that ass at any volume. As such, bass can be a little forward in the mix. Not bloated. Not boomy. Not unpleasant. Merely emphasized. Which means that I wouldn’t use them for mixing music, but the instant I got a tune mixed down on a more neutral speaker, the first thing I’d want to do is crank it over a pair of A²s A2s Avas to revel in all the ass-kickery mentioned above.

Is the bass shaping always 100% perfect? Well, no. 99%, maybe. But then again, I’m sure even Anne Hathaway has flaws. (And dagnabbit, why didn’t I think of Anne as a perfect nickname before?)

Take the Frames’ Fitzcarraldo as an example: the A² A2 Ava Anne handles the bass lines of "Revelate" with aplomb, delivering a rich, thick underbelly that wonderfully underscores its beautiful delivery of the high-frequency grind of the guitars and the heart-wrenching midrange of Glen Hansard’s voice. Ditto every track along the way — especially the haunting, heavy "In This Boat Together" — until  you get to "Say It To Me Now," which, I assume because of the particular frequencies involved, the A² A2 Ava Anne delivers with a weensy bit too much emphasis on the low end. It’s not unpleasant at all. It doesn’t throw the song entirely out of whack or anything. It’s just a much more noticeably bass-forward delivery of the song than my brain really expects from experience (and not just because I’m more likely to listen to the stripped-down version from the film Once than the original studio track).

Paradigm Anthem A² in Vermilion Red GlossFar from being a symptomatic problem, that’s actually the exception that proves the rule. With all but a few, very rare tracks here and there in my collection, the A² A2 Ava Anne seems to intelligently accentuate exactly the right frequencies to fit the emotional impact of the song. Perhaps that’s not a quality you can quantify or measure, but like with Andrew Bird’s "Masterfade" from The Mysterious Production of Eggs, the delicately picked guitar takes center stage in the mix without fighting for aural territory with Bird’s dulcet vocals, while on Imelda May’s "Johnny Got a Boom Boom," the growling bass slams you right in the gut, yet still leaves plenty of room for for the piercing rockabilly licks and May’s saucy, purring voice. The opening licks of America’s “Ventura Highway” tickle the air with a playfulness that’s hard to believe comes out of the same speaker that eats up the brutal attack of Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” and begs for more.

I could go on and on about the pitch-perfect frequency mix with every track on Kings of Leon’s Only By the Night, but to really get to the heart of what these speakers do to me on a purely visceral, emotional level, I’m going to have to get a little more subjective (and, apologies, a little lewd): with "Crawl," most notably, the A² A2 Ava Anne doesn’t simply pump out a hard-rocking, gorgeously balanced soundscape; she floods the room with 100% relative sexidity and  a strong chance of severe bow-chicka-bow-wow.

So, no, I won’t hold the very rare track that sounds an itsy bit bottom-heavy against the A² A2 Ava Anne. If I have one legitimate complaint, it’s this: I would seriously punch a baby for either a remote control or a front-mounted volume knob (not that there’s a lot of room for the latter on the A²’s A2’s Ava’s Anne’s clean, elegant façade, but still). While the vast majority of the time, it’s easy enough to use my computer’s (or iTunes’) volume slider to make loudness tweaks, there have been a few cases where I wanted a bit more volume out of an action-packed video game, and didn’t want to alt-tab out to get it. And unfortunately, adjusting the volume on the speakers themselves requires an inelegant reach-around. Two of them, in fact, since even if you have a pair of A²s A2s Avas Annes linked, their volume controls are completely independent.

Is it a dealbreaker? Oh, heck no. In fact, find me when I’m holed up in my home office blaring Gnarls Barkley’s "Crazy" at ludicrous volumes, jamming to the sucker-punch bass and Cee Lo’s blistering falsetto, and ask me if I give a good gorram about where the volume knob is located. Spoiler warning: I don’t.

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  • Dennis Burger

    Just a head's up:  Michael Lavorgna at <a href="AudioStream" rel="nofollow">">AudioStream has also posted a review of the A2, which I discovered because he linked to my review. It's worth a read, because Michael found the amp noise I mentioned above to be unacceptable. I don't think he disagree about the facts in the slightest — merely our respective opinions about whether or not it's a deal-breaking issue. For me, it's definitely not. As I said above, the amp hiss from the tweeter is below the noise floor of most of the music in my iTunes library, and the good far outweighs the bad. For Michael, though, it's not an issue he can overlook. So head over and check out our discussion in the comments section of his review. Definitely something to consider.

  • Dennis Burger

    Blargh! No HTML in comments, apparently. The URL is

  • Bradley P.

    I’m eager to hear these things. The way around the independent volume knob issue is simple: get an external DAC with a volume knob (attenuator or pre-amp). Audioengine’s tiny D1–I have one–will set you back $170, and it will likely outperform your sound card significantly. If you are willing to fork over $600+ for the speakers, then treat them to upgraded input and yourself to one volume knob.

  • darryle dunn

    Running an ipod, all music apple lossless, absolutely no noise.Amazing speaker!