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W A R N I N G !

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Monday, August 13, 2012

[Beyond the hype (sort of)] Passivized Audioengine A5 vs Paradigm Atom v.1 (repaired)

Surprise, I'm reviewing speakers.

Redundant list of contents
Why I seldom review speakers
About Paradigm Atom v.1
Test setup 1
Subjective listening results 1
Test setup 2
Subjective listening results 2

Next up on the chopping board is the Audioengine A5. Well, sort of. This A5's amp got fried and so I converted it into passive speakers; to be precise I only converted the left speaker because the right is already passive. This means I'm not reviewing the whole of A5, with its included amp and all. But I can argue that I'm taking the amp out of the equation and reviewing just the speakers part. Anyway I'd expect quite a few faulty A5s that can be converted into passive because these things are known to overheat and die. A5+ has that problem solved with huge heatsinks on the backplate.

But first I'd like to talk about why I seldom review speakers.

Why I seldom review speakers
The 're' in 're'-view means 'again'. Dictionary definitions of the term involves looking at things a second time or retrospectively, or at the minimum an inspection.

I knew this since the early days of this blog. So I only review things that I managed to get into my room and play with them for at least a few days. This means I usually only review things that I own. Be glad that this blog is free from financial interest bullsh!t.

If you want to know why going to a shop to listen to something you haven't heard before does not constitute a review, just do this simple exercise -

1) Take your bookshelves or 2.1 you're using for your computer.
2) Bring them to the living room. One speaker on each side of that LCD TV.
3) Hear your speakers sound different.

The effects of room acoustics are real, and make more difference than changing amps and DACs. And it's free and easy to play with. Problem is wave-propagation isn't as thoroughly-studied as electronics; gay-sounding expensive speakers wouldn't exist if so.

So, it is just impossible to compare speakers by going around to multiple places and auditioning them. But what you can and should do, is to find another speaker that is similar to what you know very well. Something you own, for example. A speaker that you've heard multiple times in multiple places works too. With that as the baseline, you compare the new speaker to it, you compare the relative performance, the relative amount of bass, the amount of treble etc compared to the baseline speaker.

But unlike earphones and mini DACs/amps, you cannot bring 10kg worth of cuboids everywhere you go, so you better pray that the shop has something similar to what you own. With computer speakers, it is relatively easy - some Altec Lansing or Creative would do the trick. With bookshelves, most of the time it doesn't happen, unless you go back to the shop which sold you your speakers.

So, if the shop doesn't have both the speaker I know and the speaker I want to review, I'd have to bring both to my place and set them up side-by-side (see talks on positioning above). And that means either a home loan or owning them. And usually home loans don't happen.

And I don't have a lot of budget for reviewing equipment, so owning them usually doesn't happen too.

So speaker reviews usually don't happen.

About Paradigm Atom v.1
Well this time I have the passive A5 side-by-side the Paradigm Atom v.1s. Many of you might not have heard Paradigm Atom v.1 before, Paradigm is at v.7 for this series already, and boy they hardly look the same, except for that cheap wood finish. So some info on the Atom v.1 - they are at least 10 year sold - Stereophile reviewed v.3 in 2002. They are relatively small for bookshelves with 5-inch drivers. They have more treble and bass than average speakers at that price range. The bass hits low with oomph (relatively). They kinda sound like studio monitors, and Paradigm call them Atom Monitor, though personally I wouldn't call them studio monitors.

And the downside of the Atom v.1? It is on the thin line between acceptably-normal-sounding and too-colored on the aggressive side with bright and harsh treble and missing midrange like the v-shape equalizer. On the bright side this means that it has great off-axis performance and sounds good when used as reflecting speakers, Bose style (you do this for a more spacious, airy, "live", reverb effect).

Oh, and the obvious, it sucks compared to today's speakers, against the newer versions of the Atom for example. Bass, though strong and hits low, is uncontrolled and occasionally sounds like the bass drum of a high-school brass band. It sounds "hollow", if you get what I mean.

So I've been looking for replacement speakers for a while now. DACs and amps are easy to upgrade because they don't change the sound signature much while providing better performance, but for speakers, changing one means saying goodbye with the flaws of the old and saying hello to the flaws of the new. Loving the Atom's sound, it is not easy to find something that doesn't sound like a side/downgrade.

Back to A5.

Test setup 1

I arranged the speakers like that so that for both pairs, the distance between L and R is the same. Many people put one pair inside and one pair outside, or one pair above the other. But placing speakers closer or further apart changes the sound.

Placing the speakers like in the above picture does result in stereo unbalance; I do reposition myself to be between the speakers being tested, however the presence of obstructions changes the sound, and in this case there is more obstruction to one side of the speakers. However at least both speakers are affected by this. Speaking of obstructions, I've discovered that having an LCD monitor or not affects the sound, yeah.

A laptop with Musiland Monitor 01 USD feeds SPDIF to the LJM DAC, which sends the output to the Yulong T-Amp and Fiio E11. Yea, I'm using Fiio E11 to power speakers (It's possible, see proof). Because two of my amps (including the other Yulong T-Amp) are at my other place of residence, and another is connected to the TV. Okay so I'm lazy. But to make sure that the amp won't affect my judgment, I will do one listening with Yulong powering Atom and E11 powering A5, and another listen with Yulong powering A5 and E11 powering Atom. I need two amps so I can switch speakers quickly, and I don't have those speaker cable switches.

Subjective listening results 1
Alright, powered up the A5, and...



Hmm... how should I put it...?

Well, they sound not too far from the typical 5-inch bookshelf, that much is certain.

The Atom v.1 hits lower and has more bass in general than the A5. Some people call the A5 boomy bass, and I understand why - it has a lot of lower midrange, but not enough lower frequencies to back it up. Even the bass guitars are lacking in volume compared to Atom. What I perceived was a like small hump at perhaps 200-400Hz (I guess) region which rolls off at the lower frequencies. Boomy, that's what it is.

Overall, the sound from the A5 seems to emphasize more on the midrange, and not enough extreme treble and bass. And to top it off the treble, while clean, is not super clear either. which one might expect as a trade-off for having less volume and extension. It sounds like a 5-inch bookshelf, but leaning towards the cheap side. A hint of those few-hundred hi-fi systems, but not that bad.

Test setup 2

I decided to give the A5 another chance, in a setup that gives it more distance between speakers and more room to fill with sound. This results in "more room to breath" and less bass reaching the listener, a change that could potentially be in favor of the A5, considering the shop would have the A5 placed wide apart, in a large room, on stands. Plus, when I tried it last time, the living room wasn't nice to the Paradigm Atoms, stripping it of the thumping bass it had in a small desktop configuration.

Similar to the first test setup, I have the speakers arranged like this. Fiio E11 powers the Paradigm Atom while Muse M20 EX3 powers the passivized A5.

Subjective listening results two
As expected, the living room wasn't nice to both speakers, and the huge reduction in bass makes me understand why HT setups have dual 6" drivers and a huge subwoofer.

The Atom managed to dish out more bass than I thought it would, although the thumping was reduced to a small thud, and the free-flow of bass guitar was reduced to a somewhat IMO "more normal" level, thought without enough deep bass to accompany it sounds kind of strange. Treble performance was unexpectedly good - I have thought the greater distance between speakers and from the listener would reduce the treble, but the striking of the instruments and the moving of the lips are as good as the near-range setup, if not clearer.

However, the hollow bass of the Atom was also more obvious here. This setup demanded more out of the speakers and the Atom appeared to be trying to hard, and the flaws of being a cheap speaker came out.

A5 again managed to sound like a 5" bookshelf, though it was just barely hanging on this time. It has less bass than Atom to start with, and after the reduction there wasn't much left. Only a small amount of bass notes were audible, and bass drums fared even worse.

Despite having insufficient bass and treble, A5's presentation of the sound was more solid, the instruments more defined. And, dare I say, more normal. When compared to the Atom's distant, laid-back, ungrabbable midrange of course.

It's like, with the Atom you get lots more treble and bass, which can be said to be the basic essentials. However as you spend more time listening to the Atom, you start feeling that something is missing. On the other hand, if you have not listened to speakers that are better than A5, you would have nothing to complain about A5's sound, and treating the amount of treble and bass as acceptable for a 5" bookshelf.

If I summarize A5's sound versus the Atom's in one word, it'd be "sweet". I never expected this small-ish 5" speaker that is known to be boomy to actually sound "sweet". This may be a good or bad thing, for while it is "nicer-sounding" particularly with certain music, there are audiophilish 3" sealed enclosure speakers that are called "sweet" too. A reminder of the not-so-favorable conclusion at the end of test setup 1.

Choosing A5 or Atom would be up to personal preference. The Atom's extra bass and treble at the expense of midrange is especially tempting, like how the V-shaped equalizer and "enhancements" like X-Fi Crystalizer work well when your setup is not good enough.

There are many speakers active and passive at this price that have good frequency response or/and sound clean/natural. At the very least, later versions of the Atom have to perform better than the v.1, and they are priced rather cheaply. And for some more money, there are Wharfedale Diamonds that are seemingly better than the Atoms, according to measurements and subjective listening done by others. And Diamond 10.1/9.1 costs/costed SGD$399 (or less at some shops, apparently), so that leaves you with $140 for an amp, which is more than adequate for a T-amp.

On the active side, the two speakers that come to mind are KRK Rokit G2 and M-Audio BX5a (now at D2 version, but many places are still selling the first version). (And also Yamaha HS50M but I'm not so impressed by it.) I know that these speakers have their own hater group each, but they are being compared to more expensive monitors. Compared to the A5, I won't say that these monitors would win outright since it boils down heavily to personal preference, but they sure would put up a good fight. A very good fight.

Since my A5 has no amp, I'll also have to look at it as passive speakers that cost less. I've been told that the amps in active speakers are 1/4 to 1/2 of the total cost, so to give the A5 more chance I'm going to assume the passivized A5 is worth SGD$300. At this price it'll be fighting against 4-inchers such as Diamond 10.0 and Mission MX-S (although if you want to buy MX-S I'd suggest topping up just a bit more and get MX-1 instead), so the A5 has a size advantage.

And if you feel that A5's amp is worth less (so that the speakers themselves are worth more), there are the abovementioned Mission MX-1, Diamond 10.1 and Atom, and the not-yet-mentioned Infinity Primus series and Aegis Neo One, these all are SGD$400 and below if you can find them. Some of them you can only find their old versions, or only their old versions are selling below $400, but they are still worthy deals. BTW when I wrote this review PAR Audio is selling Mission 760 at $339 and 762 at $439.

Well that was quite a few speakers, and not mentioned are a few more that you can find in Singapore if you search hard enough and the many more that you can find in the United States and China and etc countries. And I didn't bother talking much about studio monitors, for Singaporeans just go to Sinamex, Luthermusic and Hung Brothers and look at what they have, and for the west you guys have so many I don't even know where to start.

In short, there are so many alternatives in this price range, and the A5 doesn't score a clean win when compared against them.

Verdict: Go and listen to other speakers first before deciding
And I really mean it.

I have to say it, A5 is too hyped. If we ignore that, A5 is a good pair of speakers with it's strength being "no complaints" - If you are forced to use a pair of speakers for a long time, and if that pair is A5, you may find that the bass and treble are not the most that you've heard, but over time you'll come to accept this limitation of 5" bookshelf, and after that you'll find nothing to complain about. That's the sound of A5. With the Atom v.1 I've wondered if the tweeters or crossovers or woofers are spoilt (and I even upgraded the capacitors), and with the Diamond 8.2 I've thought that it has polarity issues (but confirmed it to have none) because the sound is too unfocused (a DAC solves the problem though). I can list more - with Creative T3 it's like the entire midrange is missing, Rokit G2 5" is aggressive and fat, HS50M is thin and distort-y. Even Adam Audio A7... but that one I believe could be due to the sources so I'm reserving my comment. But I've heard two Adam A7s in separate locations so it might be the speakers. But then both sources were bad...

But the strength being "no complaints" also means that it has "no strengths" either. There should be many speakers that can beat the A5 in the areas that these other speakers are good at, if you can live with the drawbacks. Even in "natural" and "no complaints" category, I believe A5 isn't the best either. Plus, what I feel is natural to me may not feel natural to you. In view of this, I conclude A5 to be heavily hyped and isn't the unquestioned choice of speakers in the SGD$500 price range, although it still is a decent speaker at this price, with its own advantages and disadvantages just like everything else have theirs. I strongly recommend auditioning other speakers, and if after this you still prefer A5's sound, then buy it. It's definitely not a bad choice.

I can understand why there is the hype. Take a group of computer users who have been using "computer speakers" all their lives. Tell them there is an awesome 2.0 5-inch bookshelf system at SGD$500 (or USD$300 for you USA residents) that can blow their MX5021, Promedia, Aego M and Bose into space. Which is true. There aren't many 5-inch bookshelves marketed as "for computer (and iPod)"; many studio monitors and passive speakers exist, but from talking to people on the internet and in real life, I learnt that many people don't know that you can use studio monitors and passive speakers + amps with their computers. (Evidence: Just look at the number of help threads involving 3.5mm to RCA converters.) Combine this fact with the "no complaint" sound of A5, you will get people who think that A5 is the best choice out there. This is a marketing win. And explains why so many consumers are recommending it.


movetolearn said...

can you describe how you passivized the A5? - I have a pair and the amp has blown - took that one apart and it's not clear to me how to rewire it - I'm not sure what is crossover circuitry and what is amp circuitry

wwenze said...

Hi, see here:


Anonymous said...

great - thanks!!!