Paradigm Shift Active Atom A2
Device Type: Powered Desktop Speaker
Input: (1) 3.5-mm stereo mini jack, (1) pair RCA, AirPort Express interface (AirPort Express not included)
Output: (1) 3.5-mm stereo mini jack, (1) pair RCA
Tweeter: 1" Pure aluminum done
Woofer: 5-1/2" Satin-anodized pure-aluminum cone
Frequency Response: 55 Hz - 20 kHz
Amplifier: 100W Dynamic Peak, 50W RMS
Dimensions: 11" x 6-5/8" x 8-7/8"
Weight: 11.6 pounds
Availability: through Authorized Dealers
Price: $279/each Ash Black Grain (as reviewed), $329 Premium Finishes (Vermillion Red Gloss, Polar White Gloss, Gunmetal Grey Gloss, Storm Black Satin)
The Loudness Wars Won
Packing 100 Watts into a desktop speaker with aluminum drivers strikes me as message in and of itself. The Paradigm Shift Active Atom (A2) pack two 50W amplifiers into each cabinet so each driver gets its own dedicated power source. The A2s are sold as a single speaker but they can also be bought and played in stereo pairs which is mainly how I listened. Although I must say that the idea of a mono desktop setup did cross my mind.
When using a pair of A2s, you use the included 3.5-mm stereo mini cable to connect from one of your A2s Output to the other A2's Input. There's also a small switch located next to the Outputs of each speaker that reads "L", "M" and "R". When using a stereo pair, one speaker becomes "L" and the other "R". You can probably figure out what the "M" setting is for. Once you've connected your A2s to your device of choice via 3.5-mm stereo mini, RCAs or Airport Express interface (AirPort Express not included), just plug each one in, turn 'em on, set the volume level on the rear-mounted controls and you're ready to roll.
I did make use of those RCA inputs by connecting a Wavelength Proton USB DAC to the A2s. More on that experiment shortly. The A2s also include an AirPort Express interface (AirPort Express not included) so you can stream from your iDevice of choice (I did not use this feature) and a pair of RCA Outputs which I did not make use of either. Paradigm also adds in the "Tech Specs" that come with the A2s, "Digital Signal Processing Design: Sophisticated mathematical algorithms shape frequency response so that weven when you are listening at louder levels, not only is bass intense, the overall sound is unbelievably accurate, clear and musical."
Maybe They're Just Angry
When you first power up your A2s, the first thing you'll notice sonically is a pronounced hiss coming from the tweeters. Now you can minimize this hiss by backing down on the A2s volume but when set at a usable level whether connected to an iMac, PC, iPhone or iPad I could not get that hiss to go away. Seeing as I was listening nearfield on my desktop at roughly 39" from ear-to-tweeter, this hiss was a near-constant annoyance. When music was playing that offered no lulls it was masked but play anything that includes quieter passages and the A2's hiss is plainly audible. As if they're daring you to turn 'em up (hotter?) and stick to music whose waveform looks like its pegged at perpetual high tide.
I'm sorry to say that for me this hiss is a deal breaker for a desktop speaker. No matter how well the A2s do the other things they do, and yes they play music very well and are capable of playing it really loud!, I cannot see living with a hissing speaker. I did find that getting the A2s up off your desk helped with the overall presentation - improved bass definition and clarity but I'd suggest this holds for nearly any desktop speaker (the A2s have very attractive optional stands). And getting those tweeters above ear-level also reduced the perceived level of hiss but that meant lying my head on my desk which is strictly prohibited in my employment contract.
I must say I cannot imagine why a company with such a prestigious track record for quality and value would let this steed out of the gate in such an angry state. Especially seeing as the Active Atom is based on their popular and well-reviewed Atom monitor. So the issue here lies with the "active" implementation: the amp to speaker interface is always a tricky issue when building a system but a self-powered speaker is supposed to eliminate that issue not hand it to you hissing. While I'm wondering and complaining, I'd also add that I'd like to see that volume control mounted on the front of the speaker so it can be used as a volume control as opposed to a set it and forget it kinda deal.
Using the Wavelength Proton USB DAC to connect from my iMac to the A2s did offer a lessening of that hiss but it did not eliminate it all together. And seeing as I just added about $1,000 to this desktop system between the Proton and associated cables, I'd say we've moved into the unrealistic combo area. Especially seeing as anyone looking to invest nearly $2k in a desktop setup will not want to live with hiss unless its coming from their Kiss Alive! WAVs. I also tried out my Fender Strat via one A2 set to "M" which proved a few things; that hiss is there regardless of the source but it is certainly aggravated most when connected to a noisy computer (it is also present with no source at all so it is a product of the A2), and I really suck as a guitar player.
To end on an up note, I'm generally a fan of Paradigm's speakers and I'm also a fan of the concept behind the Shift A2 speakers as well as the idea that marketing better sound quality to the younger generations of iUsers is a very worthwhile endeavor. We just need to make sure we deliver on that promise.
For another take on the Paradigm Shift A2s, see Steve Guttenberg's review on his Audiophiliac blog over on CNET.