Paradigm Founder Series 80F Loudspeaker Review: The Audio Microscopes

The Founder series replaces Paradigm’s Prestige series as its second-highest line of stereo/ home-theater speakers, just below the flagship Persona series. The Founders sell for real-world prices, but they are significantly advanced in design and cosmetics. The 80F’s are not only in the middle of the Founde price range, which varies from $ to $ per pair, but also in the “mid-price” region of all high-end gear. There is a lot of competition in this segment, and to stand out from the crowd a speaker must offer very fine performance.

Muse Kastanovich

Paradigm Founder Series 80F Loudspeaker Review

I’ll wait to reveal my judgment until the end of the re­new, but will admit to being fond of the brand. I purchased a pair of Paradigm Premier 800fs to use as my main refer­ence speakers late last year. Though I’d auditioned pricier models from other companies, I chose the 800fs for their sound. They have proven to be a great bargain, and will serve as a perfect reference for this review, showing you exactly how much more you get for about twice the price.

The Founders series includes a bookshelf model, two center-channel/surrounds, and three floorstanders, among which the 80F is the smallest and most affordable. A 2.5- way system, it includes a 1″ dome tweeter, a 6″ mid/bass cone, and two 6″ woofers. There is a large down-firing port in the base, which the outrigger feet elevate to the proper distance from the floor. Frequency response is rated at a tighter-than-normal +-2dB from 50Hz—23kHz.

Engineering Advancements

There are a wealth of technological, material, and design advance­ments in the Founders series. Starting with the drivers, Paradigm says they are “completely new, as is their mounting hardware, the cabinet’s internal structure and shape, and even the feet.” The 1″ tweeter is an AL-MAC (aluminum, magnesium, and ceram­ic) high-frequency unit. Paradigm claims this unique blend of materials is cutting-edge technology, with an ideal combination of strength, weight, and anti-resonance properties. The tweeter also has a large, low dis­tortion magnet assembly, is  ferro-fluid-cooled for high power-handling, and mount­ed in a proprietary Oblate Spherical Waveguide (OSW), similar to a wide-flared horn. The OSW’s purpose is to control dispersion into the room at various angles, rath­er than to increase sensitivity. Another thing it does is al­low the tweeter to be located slightly back from the other drivers—to help time align­ment. The AL-MAC tweeter is also covered by a Perforat­ed Phase-Aligning (PPA) lens, like those found on the tweet­ers of the Premier and Pres­tige series. Paradigm claims this, and the larger PPA lens covering the mid/bass, are able to “smooth output with­out coloring the sound.” The PPA lenses serve to keep sound waves coming from different parts of the driver from interfering with each other at high frequencies.

The 6″ AL-MAG (alumi- num-magnesium alloy) bass/ midrange driver is perhaps the most important part in the system. It has to handle the full frequency range up to 1.8kHz. At the periphery of the cone is the “Active Ridge Technology (ART) sur round with Vertical Mounting System.” Claimed to achieve greater excursion, 50% less distortion, a 3dB gain in use- able output, and more stability. over time, these patent- thermoplastic-elastomer surrounds, now in their third generation, are made in­house and over-molded directly onto each woof­er. All the woofers are held in place by the new ‘Advanced Shock-Mount system,” which mechanically decouples the drivers from the enclosure. The feet are also shock-mounted, to min­imize vibration transmission  to and from the floor. At first glance, the pattern of holes on the PPA lens for the mid/ bass looks identical to the one on the Premier 800f, but on the Founder it is made from metal (aluminum) instead of plastic. This allows it to be thinner, and more acousti­cally transparent. Both PPA lenses also protect their driv­ers from accidental damage when you’re listening with the grilles removed, which is re-commended for best sound.

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The other two drivers in the tower are ultra-high-excursion Carbon-X Unibody woofers. Paradigm says their single-piece construction adds strength while keeping their mass low, which is particularly helpful at high volumes. Adhesive wizardry is used to attach the voice-coil former to the cone without the cylindrical “overlap” of a typical design. The woofer cones look like they have radial-oriented carbon-fiber strands. These 6″ cones are the same size and motor design as the mid/bass, so three woofers total are working in tandem below 500Hz, in a single enclosure, with a single large port. These drivers also employ the Gen3 ART surround, Shock-Mount isolation, and a 1.5″ high-temp multi-layered voice coil with ventilated apical former. All these woofers are slightly larger than a typical 6″, with a cone area close to most 6 1/2″ drivers. This is enabled by the compact footprint of the Vertical Mounting System, where the surround is actually keyed into a groove in the basket, rather than just glued to a flat surface.

A note on sensitivity: 93dB in a typical room (90dB anechoic) for 1-watt input is quite high. Sure, there are horns with higher sensitivity, but these Paradigms are sensitive enough to be used with low-powered amps such as SETs (my solid-state single-end­ed amps put out only 15Wpc). Paradigm achieves this gain in ef­ficiency with large magnets (almost the full diameter of the cone), multi-layered voice coils, advanced lightweight cone materials, the special ART surrounds, and relatively simple crossovers. Those with average-powered amps will also benefit, as they won’t get close to distortion levels when turning up to party volumes.

You may have noticed from the photos that the enclosure is special, with facets at gentle angles. Paradigm calls it Cascade-Fu­sion Bracing, engineered to increase rigidity and break up inter­nal standing waves. Looking at the cutaway view of the 120H model on the Paradigm website as an example, one can see all the internal “sub-chambers” are not only different sizes, but also different shapes, and not perfect rectangles. That will ensure no two chambers are encourag­ing resonance of the same frequency. Not only that, but the small sections of outer panels in-between braces and corner/side joints are all dif­ferent sizes and shapes, too, which ensures that no more than two of these panel “sec­tions” will vibrate at the same resonant frequency. On the front panel is a metal plate that is more than just deco­ration. I did some fingernail and knuckle rapping tests on it, and it seems well damped against vibration. Such so­phisticated, complex cabinet construction is common in upper-end speakers, but rare at accessible prices.

Some may believe that 3-way or 4-way speakers are inherently superior to 2 1/2- ways, but a 2 1/2-way has its advantages. For one thing, it is closer to the ideal of “an optimized mini-monitor with built-in stand and subwoof­er.” Millions of mini-monitor owners can’t be wrong; some of them pay megabucks for those diminutive wonders for a reason. To have a high-perfor­mance tweeter and full-range woofer in close proximity on a narrow baffle, with cabinet walls that simply can’t vibrate much due to size and bracing, can result in nearly holograph­ic imaging. Also, it results in a more coherent overall sound due to better driver integration at close listening distances (I prefer 6—7 feet). But someone who is as much of a rock fan as I am does not want to do without that bass, however, which is where a 2 1/2-way’s woofers come in.

Paradigm Founder Series 80F Loudspeaker Review

Also, 2 1/2-ways can keep male vocals (other instru­ments, too) more sonically of a piece, since the mid/bass driver’s range covers the area where the handoff between drivers in a 3-way would be. Then you have the economic concerns. A 2 1/2-way can in­clude higher-quality parts than an identically priced 3-way, since you can get away with fewer of them. The crossover needs no high-pass filter for the midrange, and you can use one fewer woofers, as well. And simpler crossovers tend to sound better. It’s no coincidence that my old long­term reference speakers were the B&W 804, also 2 1/2-way designs. One perceived draw­back might be lower pow­er handling. Paradigm gets around this by making the mid/bass an ultra-high-ex­cursion unit, like the woofers, with high-temp-tolerant voice coil and former. It can han­dle huge signal levels without distorting; the whole speaker is rated to handle 180 watts. That may not sound like a lot in this day of 500W+ Class D amps, but do a little math with the Founder’s high sensitivity, and you’ll see that it will produce max SPL levels about 115dB in your room. (Please don’t listen that loud!)

Specs & Pricing
System type: 4-driver, 2.5-way floorstanding, ported loudspeaker
Driver: 1″ (25mm) AL-MAC ceramic dome tweeter; 6″ (152mm) AL-MAG metal cone mid/bass; two 6″ (152mm) CARBON-X cone woofers
Crossover: Second-order electro-acoustic at 1.8kHz (tweeter), second-order at 500Hz (bass)
Frequency response: 50Hz to 23kHz (±2dB) Low-frequency extension: 28Hz (DIN)
Sensitivity (room/anechoic): 93dB/90dB
Impedance: Compatible with 8 ohms
Maximum input power: 180W
Finishes: Walnut, black walnut, midnight cherry, piano black
Dimensions: 11.7″ x 38.2″ x 14″

Examination

When you listen with audio microscopes, it’s all about examina­tion and investigation. And the better the recording, the higher level of magnification you can use. One such recording that I discovered is Mark Isham’s jazzy Blue Sun [Qobuz 16/44]. I have been a fan of Isham’s since the 80s when I fell in love with his soundtrack for Never Cry Wolf. With the exception of Mark’s trumpet, which is a little too bright and forward, Blue Sun offers some of the most natural, realistic instrumental sounds I have heard—wonderful sax, electric bass, and drums. But my favorite instrument on this album is David Goldblatt’s piano, with its su­per-rich chords, interesting progressions, and great relaxed feel. Piano is one of the hardest instruments to reproduce convinc­ingly, and the Paradigms get extremely close to live sound.

I set up the Founders in an equilateral triangle 6.5 feet from my ears, 12″ from the backwall, and toed in so that I could see both of the facets of their inner wall. The owner’s manual rec­ommends having your ears on the tweeters horizontal axis. At this height, individual instrument become even more solid and fleshed out; the imaging becomes even more pinpoint; and tim­bres sound very natural and holistic. Even the bass is better af­ter raising the front feet a bit—smoother and more in balance with the rest of the frequency spectrum.

Next, I put on October by U2 [Tidal MQA]. Since the al­bum was remastered in 2008, the streaming version sounds much better than what I re­member of my CD (not to mention the improvement from MQA). The Founder 80F strutted its stuff again, keeping the balance between different frequencies and dif­ferent instruments just right. Then you had the dynam- ics…wow! I’m not sure if it is due to the special driver materials and design, or the high-quality crossovers, or the vibration-insulated and resonance-free cabinet design (likely all the above), but the Paradigm Founders’ ability to start and stop on a dime at all frequencies, with very little hangover or ringing of any kind, served rock, jazz, and dance music of all kinds. Drummers suddenly sound as if they are hitting their drums harder, guitarists as if they have faster fingers, pianists are nimbler, too. This power and impact took me a step closer to a live performance. And the communication of rhythm and timing subtleties was off the scale.

In the interest of thor­oughness, I tried the Founder 80F in a medium-sized living room with my head about 10 feet away. I started out listen­ing to my Paradigm Premier 800fs here, for close-in-time comparisons back and forth.

On Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, with Mogens Woldike con­ducting [Vanguard Classics SVC 85/87], the Founder 80F had a more precise sense of space. I could hear exactly how large the hall was. I could also hear the most minute inflections in soprano soloist Teresa Stich-Randall’s voice. The Founders seemed to make her a better singer than she was through the 800fs —such was the unveiling of every tiny detail and emotion.

In many ways full choir with orchestra is the ultimate acid test. So I kept going and try an even better recording, the Vivaldi Gloria CD [Naxos 8.554056]. Switching back to the Premier 800fs, I was reminded why I liked those speakers so much. However, there was a persistent box- iness to the sound, which I never before noticed until the Founders came along. I have performed this piece with choir, so I know exactly what the real thing sounds like. The Founders came much closer to reality, almost fooling me completely with precision and transparency in the tre­ble, agile attack and decay, and amazingly warm and resonant reverb from the hall. The depth of the soundstage was also better, as was the speci­ficity of image location. The overall impression of being in a real church, with living breathing musicians, was on a whole different level. What more do you get for twice the price? A lot more.

Conclusion

I was unable to find any significant weaknesses in the perfor­mance of the Founder 80F. One shortcoming others might per­ceive in certain systems is that they are incredibly transparent and revealing of everything that is going on upstream. If you have a mediocre element in there somewhere, you will hear it. Neverthe­less, I found I enjoyed even mediocre recordings through them more than through any other speaker I have had in my home. Also, they are not very finicky about the room they are placed in—one of Paradigm’s stated design goals.

Competition near this price? You could find a few models in the same league. However, if you narrowed the list down to only those sharing its deep bass, high sensitivity, high power handling, and amazing dynamics on rhythmic music, it would become a very small group, indeed. I have personally heard two of the finer examples at the $ price points with my amps, and they did not surpass the Founder 80F. In fact, they did not equal its sonic performance. It is extraordinary what Paradigm has been able to achieve at this price point.

It should be clear at this point that I was extremely impressed with the Paradigm Founder 80F. After becoming familiar with what they are capable of, I simply can’t do without them. So, I am purchasing the review pair.

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