You could have probably guessed this from my chosen profession, but I’m a sucker for a good story. Put a cool product in front of me that’s competently designed and delivers good performance, and I’m smitten. Put that same product in front of me and talk to me about the creative impulse behind it, the reason for its existence, the hole in the market that it fills, and my tail wags that much harder.
So when I received an email from SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider, in the lead-up to my review of Paradigm’s new Monitor SE 8000F floorstanding loudspeaker (online April 15), hinting that he was intrigued by the connection between this speaker and popular Paradigm speakers from days past, I had to know more.
I reached out to Zoltan Balla, VP of product development and marketing for MartinLogan/Paradigm/Anthem, to ask if he would spill the tea, and he offered to bring Blake Alty, product manager for Paradigm/Anthem, into the conversation.
Zoltan Balla (left) and Blake Alty
What follows is a transcript of our Zoom call, edited for brevity and clarity.
Dennis Burger: So, let’s start with an obvious question. You introduced the new Monitor SE line of loudspeakers in, what, 2018 if I recall correctly? And that lineup really seemed complete upon release. It was a nice, thorough, but compact four-speaker family—two smaller towers, a bookshelf, and a center.
Blake Alty: That is correct.
DB: And that seemed to be that. Indeed, it was for a couple of years. So why are we getting a new speaker at the top of that line all of a sudden? What was the impetus?
BA: [Paradigm co-founder] Scott [Bagby] came back. It was an idea that had been kicking around for a while based on customer feedback, but right from the beginning, Scott challenged the R&D team with the development of exciting new technologies that have become the foundation of Paradigm’s future design direction.
Simply put, we loved the Monitor SE line as a whole—all of the speakers sound great and, indeed, we know a lot of people use them as reference speakers at their price point. But one thing that was missing was a halo model. After looking at the competition in the sub-$2000 speaker market, Scott challenged the team to develop a product that would define performance and value in the segment. Something that would sound great but also scream in high-performance home theaters and larger rooms.
The 8000F is for really anyone who doesn’t want to or can’t spend the money for something like the Founder 120H. While Founder really looks to the future of the brand, the 8000F is about Paradigm’s heritage—our legacy of great sound at an achievable price.
Monitor SE 8000F floorstanders with a Monitor SE 2000C center speaker
Zoltan Balla: And Dennis, you’re pretty intimately familiar with the Monitor lineup, going way back. So you’ll understand what I mean when I say that the new Monitor SE lineup was, before the introduction of the 8000F, sort of “Monitor minus the Monitor 11.” The 11 was always the big boy in the old Monitor family; it was the go-to full-range speaker for many people. Especially blue-collar audio enthusiasts who wanted high performance but didn’t want to drop $10,000 to $15,000 on a front soundstage. It was something that gave you high-level performance from a bigger speaker, but without breaking the bank.
Over the years, though, looking at speaker sizes and how they’ve diminished, smaller has become the norm even for floorstanders. That’s a design trend that has permeated the market, but it does limit the output unless you move to more advanced and expensive acoustic platforms.
With that in mind, the engineering direction became clear: not everybody wants a big tower speaker, but some people still want a larger tower speaker, and the larger output that goes with it. Especially for someone like Scott, who has always valued speakers that not only sound great but will also play really loud and deliver those big dynamics critical for high-performance music and home-theater applications.
DB: So when was the 8000F speaker originally conceived? Was it during the development of the rest of the line, but just took longer to develop? Or were the 2000C, 3000F, 6000F, and Atom already on the market? Was its development driven by foresight or market reaction?
ZB: Previously, it had been deemed unnecessary to expand the line, but the 8000F aligned with Scott and John [Bagby]’s vision and was something our customers were already asking for. One of the things we’ve consistently heard over the years was that people missed the original, much larger Monitor 11, as well as the Studio 100. The number of those calls we get a month would shock you.
There are people who have bigger homes, bigger rooms, and bigger listening areas, and they want a bigger speaker. So we kinda said, “Let’s see what we can do if our only constraint is price, not cabinet size.”
John (left) and Scott Bagby
DB: So, what else did you have to do in terms of product development, aside from simply scaling it up?
ZB: Well, the 8000F does have some patented technology borrowed from our higher-end lines, but it’s also not as heavily loaded with technology as some of our other products.
BA: Yeah, but it does benefit from some of the advances we’re making. You’ll notice it uses a larger waveguide than the rest of Monitor SE. The deeper waveguide provides some additional output, but more importantly, it gave us the dispersion characteristics we were looking for. We also had to upgrade the tweeter itself in order to keep up with the rest of the speaker.
So we’re working with updated technology. But, you know, while there’s a lot of complicated stuff when it comes to making a speaker, there’s also some very basic stuff. Big drivers plus big box equals big sound. And the principles behind modifying an existing speaker line to fit those needs are pretty basic. When you have a big driver with a lot of surface area in a big cabinet, it means it can achieve great results with a simpler platform. And we can tune them to play loud and play low, and it doesn’t require a lot of new technology to make those kinds of adjustments.
So the story of the development of this speaker—aside from the new waveguide—is largely an updated story of the development of Monitor SE, which happened several years ago. Beyond that, it’s not dissimilar to the development of a subwoofer. If you’re willing to give up a lot of floor real estate, it’s not that hard to make a good sub.
ZB: Yeah, like the Defiance X15 is a monster of a subwoofer. It’s a phenomenal performer and an incredible value, but no one would call it small. So these are the sorts of things you’re always trading off. In a lot of ways, you could say that the 8000F is the Defiance X15 of our speaker line. It’s just about hitting the performance, checking the boxes, but also making sure it’s not costing an arm and a leg.
DB: So how do you deliver the performance without upping the price? What kinds of conversations happen during the development of a high-performance/high-value speaker? How do you decide where you’re willing to cut costs and where you aren’t?
BA: I don’t think it’s a case of cutting costs; it’s about prioritizing what you spend money on. And that really starts with defining who the customer is and tailoring the design to fulfill their needs. At this price point, there are a lot of products talking to the same customer. There’s always a desire to build something that will have broad appeal, which usually means making compromises from an acoustic point of view to achieve the slimmer presentation that has become the norm over the last 20 years.
But the 8000F is for someone who understands exactly what they want and what their priorities are, and in this case it’s performance—high output, high sensitivity, low distortion, and great bass extension—with a clean, simple design.
DB: Let’s loop back around to the waveguide and tweeter, if we can. Specifically, the connection to the waveguide employed in the Founder Series.
BA: The 8000F was where we first introduced a wider, deeper waveguide. This was a long time coming, this tweeter implementation. However, the Founder profile was still in development, so the 8000F uses a modified version of our previous waveguide, just larger. You’ll see us continue to move toward more controlled directivity in future designs, just because it more closely aligns with today’s larger rooms, current furnishings, and modern architecture. You know, audio was in its heyday when everyone had carpet on everything.
ZB: Just soft furnishings in general.
BA: Yeah, but those soft furnishings went away; wood, stone, and glass became commonplace. So by moving to a more controlled-directivity design, we’re better able to control the sound in those environments and maintain better consistency across different environments. Not to mention, it helps to maintain the resolution at larger listening distances. One thing we always consider in our designs is how and where the speakers will be used. At a certain point you have to take the speaker out of the design lab and move it into the real world.
ZB: Yeah, interior design and architecture have changed so much over such a short period of time that it would be foolish for us to think that gold-standard speaker design from the ’80s would perform just as well in today’s homes, when the environments are so incredibly different.
Blake Alty with the 8000F
DB: You know, that brings up an interesting point. One of the things that originally drew me to Paradigm back in the day, in addition to the sound, was the very research-driven approach to speaker design. Despite the fact that we—and by “we,” I mean the industry as a whole, not us three—always talk about the importance of the room, we rarely see much discussion about untreated living spaces and how those spaces are changing, and how that affects the sound that reaches your ears.
So while you’d have a hard time convincing me that the research done at the NRC back in the day is less valid today than it was then, I’d love to talk to you about how you take a research-driven approach to accommodating the changing interiors and architecture.
ZB: The NRC research is definitely just as relevant today. The design principles remain the same. It’s about balancing how the energy is distributed across the different measurement windows.
The best indicator of a speaker’s response in a room is the total radiated power response. That’s what is really going to determine the tonality and balance across the different frequency bands. Every NRC brand keeps this in mind during development. The best-known example of this is going to be the Harman curve, and while similar in many ways, Paradigm has a different target curve based on lessons learned during the Athena project at the NRC, the development of Anthem Room Correction, and research conducted at our facility to expand the work started at the NRC.
As you shift the energy around, you need to make adjustments to maintain the overall tonality. If you fold the energy forward and then drop the overall level, you’ll suddenly be lacking in certain areas—especially in the presence region—and you’ll start to lose “air.”
This is all happening where there is very little content and where the majority of people’s hearing has started to roll off. It’s also well above the frequencies associated with brightness, harshness, or sibilance, which tends to live in the 1kHz-to-5kHz band, with the main no-no zone being 1kHz to 3kHz. So any significant drop in output is going to have an impact on the sound and overall presentation once you’re in a room. But as long as the tweeter can keep up and has low distortion, you’re able to maintain the overall tonality and presentation while also reducing overall room interactions to maintain a consistent sound across the wide variety of environments.
The facility here is designed with two kinds of rooms in mind: one a little bit more traditional, and one that has more of the harder surfaces, more reflectivity. They can be set up in two orientations, and we can adjust the damping in each of them.
These days, everything starts in software if we are developing new transducers; we then move into design iteration development and the anechoic chamber. We refine the performance targets, integrating the components into a design that we take into actual rooms. There are always changes that need to be made. So we test speakers in multiple environments. But there are always tradeoffs. And we prioritize those tradeoffs based on the product and the product line.
But when it comes to our design, we do have the facility to do that. We do have different listening rooms to be able to do subjective listening—blind, of course—in very different settings. After those tests, it’s back to the measurements to correlate the results and work on refining the design, then back into the listening rooms.
Another thing that we use to our advantage is Anthem Room Correction. Over the years we’ve had access to thousands of ARC measurements, so we’ve been getting tremendous data from measurements of real listening spaces, and we can see how they’ve changed. Those are real-world measurements of real-world environments, and it has definitely opened up our eyes and helped drive some of our design direction, while still being rooted in the core of the research done decades ago.
DB: Hang on . . .
BA: Let me just jump in: with regard to ARC measurements, our customers send those measurements to us; we’re not watching them measure their rooms via a backdoor.
DB: Whew! OK, I got paranoid for a second. I know I’ve done some funky stuff with ARC just to understand it better—to try and break it, for lack of a better word—and I’m sitting here worried you guys think I live in the weirdest house in the world or just have no clue what I’m doing.
BA: No, it’s a completely closed-loop system, and we’re entirely dependent upon people sending us those files. Another thing is, though, I want to be clear about this: rooms aren’t changing. They have changed. We are fully in this new era of design, and we have been for a while. So as Zoltan said, we invite people to send their ARC files in, and we look at tons of them and see how our speakers perform in a ton of different rooms. When people send their measurements in, they’ll almost always describe their speakers and setup in detail, meaning we can see how Paradigm in-room measurements compare against other brands, and that has been invaluable.
But it’s gotten to the point where you have to say, “This is just what rooms are like now.” And you really don’t need much research to discover that. Every home you walk into now has hardwood floors, and every plane is a hard surface. So we need to make sure we’re accounting for those types of environments during the design phase. If we were designing speakers to be placed in the perfect location and room every time, we would have very narrow design criteria and developments would be a lot more straightforward.
ZB: That would be very easy to do! We could make a perfect speaker every time. But making them sound good in a variety of rooms—that’s the real art.
DB: Is there anything you had to do differently in terms of, say, the crossover between the tweeter and mid?
BA: It’s a different tweeter, different waveguide, and different midrange, so the crossover was really designed from scratch. The topology we use is relatively consistent across our models, but the unique character of each individual speaker needs to be accounted for. We don’t have a set crossover point. But you could say that our philosophy on mid/tweeter crossovers has been the same for quite a while.
DB: We’ve touched on changes in interior design and architecture, but we really haven’t discussed the changing marketplace. One of the things I’m trying to do with SoundStage! Access, in addition to spotlighting great gear that doesn’t cost a mint, is figure out how to appeal to people my daughter’s age. And I haven’t figured that out yet, but I’m trying.
ZA: Yeah, we’re totally aware of the next-generation customer in the marketplace today. They’re buying headphones and computer speakers and Bluetooth speakers, but we also know there are some out there who actually want a great entry-level dedicated stereo system or home-theater system, and I think the Paradigm Monitor line has always been a fantastic gateway into the world of hi-fi.
The 8000F is just a continuation of that. Blake and I would be so happy if a bunch of late-twentysomethings were actually buying high-performance/high-value audio and then, you know, down the road stepping up to the next level, when they’re ready or when they get to the point in their life where they need something that’s more of a design statement.
The bottom line is, I’d like to see more people getting the full experience rather than listening purely on wireless headphones. But it is what it is. Part of the problem with audio is that it tends to get discounted until you experience it for yourself, and that’s when people start to fall in love.
BA: With the advent of streaming, people are listening to more music, and a wider variety of music, than ever before. They’re not necessarily buying traditional high-performance audio gear like they used to, but they’re definitely listening to more music. And what we really need to do is let them know that the music they’re loving could sound a whole lot better than what they’re currently experiencing. If you can get a person to buy a nice pair of entry-level speakers, and they realize they’ve set foot into a larger world of high-fidelity audio, you’ve got them hooked.
Scott Bagby on the Paradigm factory floor
DB: I really hope you guys figure it out.
ZB: Well, it’s not about one or two individuals; it’s about everyone at Paradigm. You know, as we’ve hinted at, we had the acquisition a few years back, and the company’s back in the hands of the Bagbys, which is great. The 8000F was officially the first project where Scott kinda came in and said, “We’re doing this.”
BA: Yeah, Scott was heavily involved in this one. We’d been toying with this, but Scott said, “This is what we’re doing.”
ZB: “And if we’re doing it, we’re going to do it right.”
I think it was a fun project for him to cut his teeth on being back at the helm of the ship. And it was something that was happening at the same time as the Founder development. So you can see where we’re going—you can get a sense of the direction of the leadership—going back and focusing on our core a little bit. And also focusing on the values that made us who we are. That’s always been the performance/value relationship.
Scott always says, “There’s no value in the absence of performance.” That’s a quote that resonates with all of us. Because if the performance isn’t there, where’s the value, no matter the price?
BA: It’s just cheap at that point.
. . . Dennis Burger