Paradigm PW Amp Play-Fi Networked Two-Channel Amplifier Review

The Paradigm PW Amp ($500) is an all-in-one, compact, networked integrated amp. It’s part of the company’s Premium Wireless lineup and supports DTS Play-Fi, which means it is interoperable with a wide variety of wireless products from multiple manufacturers that are part of an expanding ecosystem.

The purpose of a connected integrated amp is to power passive speakers while adding streaming and multi-room audio capabilities. These are numerous competing products—at similar price points—from companies such as Sonos, Denon, Yamaha, Definitive Technology, Bluesound, and others. What these devices have in common is small size, a modest price, wireless connectivity (including support for various streaming services), and a subwoofer output. But there are also many differences, including which wireless system they work with.


The Paradigm PW Amp and the Prestige 75F speakers used to review it. Photo by Mark Henninger

Many competing systems are proprietary and only work with one brand’s products—Sonos, Yamaha MusicCast, and Denon HEOS are examples of such systems. But even within the Play-Fi universe, you’ll find significant product differentiation. So read on to find out if the Paradigm PW Amp is the right device to satisfy your streaming, hi-res, 2-channel amplification needs.

Features and Specifications

Old-school audiophiles may scoff at the lightweight, plastic-encased PW Amp. But it’s a mistake to underestimate what its thoroughly modern design offers critical listeners. Thanks to its efficient class-D amplification (courtesy of Anthem), the PW Amp can output 50 watts per channel into 8 ohms and 100 W/ch into 4 ohms. That’s enough juice to get most speakers going, especially if a subwoofer takes care of the deep bass.

The PW Amp is small and light, weighing only 3 pounds and measuring 3.125″ (high) x 5.75″ (wide) x 8.625″ (deep). If you want a metal box, you’ll have to look elsewhere; the PW Amp is proudly made of black plastic and looks like a compact desktop computer. The front of the unit features physical buttons for input selection, mute, volume, and power.

You’ll find all the connections on the back of the box. The speaker-wire terminals are spring-loaded and easily accommodate 12-gauge speaker wire. There’s an Ethernet port for wired network connections and a USB port for attaching an external drive with media files. A pair of RCA terminals offer stereo analog input, while a third RCA jack serves as the subwoofer output. Finally, there’s a Wi-Fi setup button. The two other USB ports are both for “factory use” and not for attached storage. Also, the two-prong power cord is detachable and easily replaceable.


Rear panel view of the Paradigm PW Amp. Photo by Mark Henninger

The DTS Play-Fi interface handles setup, setting adjustments, and music streaming. Play-Fi supports hi-res audio up to 24-bit/192 kHz (unlike Sonos, which tops out at CD quality). A dedicated Play-Fi app is available for iOS, Android, Amazon Kindle, and Windows PCs.

I love that you can control the system with a laptop or desktop computer, not just a phone or tablet. The free PC app can be upgraded for $15 to an HD version that supports hi-res audio and lets you stream sound from specific apps (including video sound) to specific speakers. I got the upgrade, which allowed me to use Room EQ Wizard to send test tones to the PW Amp wirelessly—very handy.

The PW Amp uses Anthem Room Correction 2 for bass management as well as room correction and EQ, but this feature is only available using the Windows PC app. The amp comes with its own USB calibration microphone. The system is very effective, and it allows an almost absurd level of user tweaking. For example, the subwoofer crossover point is selectable in single-Hz increments, and you can choose any slope you want—from 1st order to 16th order. The software also lets you set minimum and maximum EQ frequencies, and it provides clear graphs of the measurements.

Thanks to the combined power of DTS Play-Fi and ARC software, the feature set of the Paradigm PW Amp is remarkably deep. The main catch is that you will need a Windows PC to take advantage of ARC and the included mic. Alternatively, Paradigm just released Anthem ARC Mobile, which lets you use an iOS device to create room correction profiles. I did not get to test this feature prior to returning the review unit, plus I’m an Android user.

Setup

A lifestyle-audio product like the PW Amp isn’t going to succeed in a crowded marketplace unless setup is easy and intuitive. On the hardware side, all you have to do is connect the speakers and (optionally) a subwoofer—a process that took me only a few seconds to complete.

On the software side of things, I was able to connect the PW Amp to my home network without incident. I followed the clear instructions for adding a new device using the Play-Fi app. It only took a minute to connect to the PW Amp and add the Wi-Fi network password, at which point it became available as a device in the app.

When arranged to review the PW Amp with Paradigm, the company suggested it could send a pair of speakers to accompany the unit. I wasn’t expecting those speakers to be the gorgeous Prestige 75F towers ($2600/pair), but that’s what I got. A stand-alone review of the 75F towers is forthcoming, but it’s worth mentioning here that they are very good speakers. Paradigm did not send me a subwoofer, so I used a SVS SB13 Ultra for that part of my testing.

I use the same audiophile-approved equilateral-triangle arrangement for all my listening. I set the various systems up in my 2-channel listening room following the same formula—speakers four feet from the front wall, two feet from the side walls. That puts the tweeters seven feet apart, and I sit seven or eight feet away from the speakers. The room is an open floorplan in a Philly row house, so the back wall is about 25 feet behind my head.

I used the Anthem Room Correction PC app to create a profile for my listening position and sent that info to the PW Amp over the network. The process was automated, save for moving the microphone to five different positions. It was a largely automatic and painless process. When that was done, I signed into to streaming services I use for the bulk of my listening, namely Tidal and Spotify Premium.

A $15 upgrade to the Play-Fi app on PC enables nifty features like a choice to stream to specific Play-Fi devices from iTunes, Spotify, Windows Media Player, or all audio sources (Windows sound). A drop-down menu lets users decide the source app.

Performance and Listening

As long as a modern solid-state amplifier has good specifications in terms of distortion, noise, linearity, and frequency response—and is operating within its performance limits—then you can expect it to be very transparent. The class-D amps used in this unit were silent, ran cool, and provided the fidelity needed to appreciate the speakers they powered.

The Paradigm PW Amp was music to my ears. With 2-channel audio, it was on par with—and likely indistinguishable from—an AVR-based system featuring sophisticated room correction and bass management. While 50 W/ch is not as much power as most AV receivers provide, I found that it was more than enough to push the Prestige towers to very gratifying volume levels.

When I fed the speakers pink noise and cranked up the volume, I measured 103 dB of output from my seat (C-weighted, both speakers driven). I tried to squeeze more juice out of the amp, but at that point its auto-limiter kicked in. You probably could squeeze 3-4 more dB out of the Prestige 75F speakers using a big amp to drive them, but there’s little doubt the PW Amp has the torque needed to push those towers to something approaching their performance limit. While pink noise played, the woofers were approaching their excursion limits without any sign of stress from the amp.

The Prestige 75F towers measured quite nicely without any EQ, which translated to engaging, transparent, and dynamic sound with almost no effort. While I commend Paradigm for designing such well-behaved speakers, ARC room correction is one of the features of the PW Amp that sets it apart from the competition. So, after enjoying a few albums without EQ, I fired up ARC on my PC, connected the USB measurement mic, and let it do its thing.

Very little correction was required to achieve strikingly good linearity with this system. Once profiled, the speakers exhibited a textbook-perfect in-room response, as measured from the main listening position.


The Prestige 75F speakers measured well before ARC EQ was applied, and essentially perfect afterward.

The main audible difference with ARC running was an improvement in bass response, with slightly more extension and definitely smoother response up to my room’s Schroeder frequency (300 Hz). There was also a slight improvement in overall clarity, likely the result of correcting a dip in high-frequency response around 3 kHz. These improvements were subtle, but they were all desirable.

Although this is not a review of the Prestige 75F towers, I really want to complement the speakers for how smoothly and engagingly they transduce modulated electricity into sound. As long as the music I played did not dip under 35 Hz, everything I’d hope to hear from great speakers was present. When I played well produced tracks such as “Trapped Here” and “U.R. Sound” by Adrian Sherwood, the system conjured a deep, wide, luscious, expansive soundstage.

As good as the Prestige 75F towers sounded on their own, adding the SB-13 Ultra sub took the system to the next level of performance. ARC zapped the usual peaks and dips in the deep bass zone that are caused by room modes, and I was able to fine tune the crossover to my heart’s content. The result was impressively linear for a 2.1 system in that room—smooth all the way down to 16 Hz.

Staring at the PW Amp as it delivers a full-throttle rendition of Datsik’s album Vitamin D, I could not help but feel some cognitive dissonance. “Fully Blown” wasted no time giving the sub a workout, and “Bonafide Hustler” absolutely banged. Dubstep is a physical experience; if you can’t feel the music, you are not doing it right. The PW Amp equipped with a capable sub absolutely gets the job done.

Conclusion

When I first unpacked the Paradigm PW Amp, I was dismissive. It was too small, too light, and too affordable to take seriously. After all, big-time audiophile sound quality is supposed to require heavy amps, and stacks of pricey gear—but not in this case. There was never a moment when I felt I was compromising the listening experience because the PW Amp was handling everything from streaming to decoding, DSP processing, and amplification.

I can’t commend Paradigm enough for providing the flexibility in bass management and room EQ that ARC affords; this is the only networked amp I am familiar with that offers such sophistication, which is crucial if you want to achieve true high-fidelity. I also applaud the company’s choice to go with DTS Play-Fi since that ecosystem encompasses products from many companies, unlike the proprietary systems offered by some other vendors.

While the specific system in this review is perhaps a bit over the top in terms of the total price, it proved the point that a $500 box can fully and properly power $3000/pair tower speakers and deliver a performance that—especially when bolstered by a good subwoofer—provides as engaging a listening experience as space-heater stacks of audiophile gear. Welcome to the future of 2-channel hi-fi, folks.

REVIEW SYSTEM

Paradigm Prestige 75F tower speakers
SVS SB13-Ultra Subwoofer
Windows 10 PC