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.

deckeda's picture

The built-in AC outlet? You and Steve both mentioned it.

I'd imagine I'd need black electrical tape to conceal the frikken' blue LED. If I had a nickel for every piece of electronics in my home with a tiny blue LED set to "stun" I'd be rich. Almost as rich as whomever makes tiny blue LEDs.

Pity about the hiss. They clearly dropped the ball. It takes a pretty shitty amplifier design these days, or a good one poorly implemented, to produce that result in the home.

I like the other decisions regarding making each box identical.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

..into a wall AC outlet, will your wall play music?

It seems to me the A2s are working a balancing act in terms of gain and Paradigm opted for 'hot' so they can play loud. An unfortunate by-product in this case being self-noise. I actually came across another review today where the reviewer, Dennis Burger of HomeTechTell, isn't bothered by the noise although he does mention it.

deckeda's picture

... because there is no such thing as an "Airport Express interface" per se. It was the mention of it in two publications, without question, that caused me to wonder why the term's use wasn't questioned.

Perhaps what Paradigm was referring to in their marketingspeak was that the AC outlet was intended for an Airport Express, much like AudioEngine does on their amplified speakers.


I once had a philosophy professor who railed against miss use of terminology intended for another, specific situation, e.g. describing things other than airliners circling an airport as being in a "holding pattern".

"But we know what they mean" wouldn't fly with him, as an acceptable excuse.


Michael Lavorgna's picture


I should have clarified that those RCA plugs are not in fact phono inputs.


Dennis Burger's picture

Heya, Michael! I hope you don't mind my invading your territory here, but I found your review via your link to my review, so I though I'd pop by to discuss. Apologies if that's out of line.

There's no denying that the noise is there. Even with the volume knob turned all the way down there's still some amp noise. But I've managed to find a volume setting at which there's no additional noise above that at zero volume, and at a little over two feet away, it's less than the noise coming from my PC's cooling fan (which is about three feet away), but still leaves me plenty of headroom on my PC's volume control to crank my tunes way louder than I oughta be listening to them.

I wonder: if  you completely disconnect the A2s from any and all sources, and dial the volume down, is the hiss still more than you find acceptable? I was discussing the A2s with an industry friend, and she too found the baseline hiss to be intolerable, so you're certainly not alone!

If, though, you find the amp noise to be forgiveable with the volume down and with no sources connected, drop me a line and I'd be happy to offer what help I can in taming some of the noise originating from your computer itself. 

That's assuming you wanna fuss with it.

That's one thing I hope I emphasized sufficiently in my review: it took me some not-insignificant tinkering to get rid of the noise coming from my PC, and I don't want my unmitigated love of their sheer rock-ability and detail to cloud the fact that it very well may be more effort than many people want to put into a pair of speakers.

I think they're worth the effort, but I certainly won't hold it against anyone who doesn't!

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Thanks for commenting and this is very much open territory so no apology needed.

Re: hiss - I simply cannot recommend a speaker that generates noise on its own. It's really that straight forward especially when we're talking about a desktop speaker.

But if you want to share some tips to reduce the A2's noise when used with a computer, I'm all ears. 


Dennis Burger's picture

If that baseline amp noise with all  sources disconnected and the volume all the way down is more than you find acceptable, then I'm sure there will be a plenty more listeners who feel the same way. I'm hesitant to tinker with a review after eyes have been on it (although, confession time! I did go back and add the words "music server or game console" after "Blu-ray player" in the fourth paragraph about five minutes after hitting "Submit." I felt dirty doing even that!), but I'm going to add a comment to mine linking readers to your review, too, just to let them know that the baseline hiss is too much for some folks.

Like I said, though, if, with the volume all the way down and with no sources connected, you think, "I could certainly live with that amount of hiss," I've found that keeping the volume knob on the speakers at about 40%, disabling all unused audio inputs on my PC (in Control Panel>Sound>Recording tab), and using a thick, shielded minijack cable brought the noise down to that level even when connected to my PC with the Windows volume cranked.

I don't mean to come off as defending the hiss. I certainly wish it weren't there. I'm just of the opinion that the good of these speakers outweighs the bad. As long as we're on the same page about the facts, though (and there's just no denying the fact that some amp noise is present), it's all good!

Michael Lavorgna's picture

> I'm just of the opinion that the good of these speakers outweighs the bad.

That is a very valid point Dennis and I agree that some might agree 100% (I considered saying 110% but that might cause some to perceive an overload ;-)

wgb113's picture

Any chance it's due to a wonky volume pot?  I'm surprised that Paradigm, who has both an excellent track record with it's speaker designs and who has produced active speakers in the past, has put forth such a flawed model.

Perhaps they were trying to hit too low a price point?

I've experienced a slight his from the tweeters of a pair of Quad 12L Active speakers that each had volume controls.  I've now got a pair of Dynaudio BM5A MKII in the same system configuration without volume controls and there's no hiss.


Michael Lavorgna's picture

I think its an issue of too much gain to the tweeter. Especially seeing as the noise is coming from just the tweeter. And I'd imagine, and I am guessing, that Paradigm hit what they felt was a acceptable balance. And we can see that some people, like Dennis, agree. Others, like me, do not.

In the end, the question isn't whether or not the A2s exhibit self-noise from the tweeter since everyone agrees that it exists. The question is - is this noise level acceptable. I'm not so sure we'll find anyone who prefers a noisy speaker so ideally it wouldn't exist. Whether or not it is possible to eliminate the noise in the A2s while allowing their other positive traits to remain intact is a question I cannot answer.