Paradigm's awesome Atom speakers, which retail for a mere $189 per pair, have earned quite a reputation among aspiring audiophiles on a budget. While the Atoms don't cost all that much, a lot of effort went into their creation: Paradigm's engineers logged countless hours measuring prototypes in a special acoustic chamber, and the company invests a lot of time in scientifically controlled, double-blind listening tests. You're certainly getting a lot of bang for your buck.
The Atom's look is nothing fancy; the speaker is just a simple, 10-inch-tall, seven-pound box with a molded rear panel. You can get yours in light cherry, rosenut, black ash, or white laminate. The accountants saved a little money by making the Atom's grilles nonremovable. Oh well, at least it was a benign decision that didn't affect the speaker's performance or appearance.
Paradigm recommends placing your Atoms so that their tweeters are at ear height and angled in toward the sweet spot (the listening position). The rear-mounted port nixes any possibility of jamming the sats into a bookcase, but you can wall-mount them with a pair of Paradigm's MB 60 swivel brackets, which will cost you $25.
The Atom is at the low end of Paradigm's Performance series. The Micro satellite is even more compact, while the Titan and the Focus are larger bookshelf models.
The Atom's 0.75-inch dome tweeter is made of a ceramic-and-metal composite; its 5.5-inch polypropylene woofer has a die-cast frame. The key to the outstanding value of Paradigm speakers is the company's ability to make all the parts in Canada: by eliminating subcontractors' margins, Paradigm keeps the quality up and the prices down. In contrast, the vast majority of North American speaker manufacturers build their affordable models offshore.
Paradigm extends an extraordinary quality-control effort to every Atom that rolls off the assembly line, measuring each one and comparing it with a reference Atom. Another plus--and a pleasant surprise--is the satellite's beefy, gold-plated binding posts. Inexpensive speakers usually make do with cheap spring-clip connectors.
For our home-theater tests, we set up a complete Paradigm speaker ensemble: the Atoms, asubwoofer, a center speaker, and surrounds. The first thing we noticed about the sound was how seamlessly those four Paradigm models worked together. We didn't have to fuss with positioning or experiment with the sub/sat blend--we completed our tweaks in less than 10 minutes. We then put our old, reliable test DVD, Fight Club, into service. This disc is particularly well recorded, and its soundtrack's realism was immediately clear over the Atoms. This Paradigm posse should be powerful enough to fill even rooms of up to 400 square feet.
Next, we queued up the American Beauty DVD. Interestingly, as the movie leads up to the demise of Kevin Spacey's character, it's raining during most of the scenes, and in each, the rain's character and "wetness" are different. Lesser speakers reduce the sound of rain to a generic whooshing noise, but it was tangible on the little Atoms--we heard a remarkable degree of nuance. These satellites are surprisingly subtle performers.
We next compared the Atoms with our reference NHT, which are 50 percent costlier. The Atoms put up a valiant struggle, but while we wouldn't say that they embarrassed themselves, the SB-1s were clearly more detailed and alive-sounding, reproducing the palpable "fingers on the strings" effect on Jerry Garcia and David Grisman's all-acoustic self-titled CD. The Atoms couldn't follow suit. And the SB-1's slick, piano-black finish looks better.
However, the Atoms bounced back when we pitted them against the similarly priced Energysatellites. The 7-inch-tall Energy sats didn't have as much, well, energy and full-bodied bass as the Atoms. Even after we'd added the Energy subwoofer to fill out the bottom octaves, the Energy ensemble still sounded comparatively tiny. The Atoms also came across as cleaner and less distorted. Yes, folks, size still matters.
In the final analysis, the Atoms offer exceptional bass quality and quantity for speakers of such modest dimensions and price. They may get by without a sub as part of music-only systems in smaller rooms.