by Dennis Burger
One thing I never quite understood as a kid was whether or not the reveal of Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs working the gears and gizmos of the Great and Powerful Oz was supposed to be disappointing. Even as a squirt, I’ve always found what’s actually behind the curtain to be more fascinating than any fantasy I could concoct in my head. So when I got the chance to tour the Paradigm/Anthem facilities in Mississauga, Ontario last week, I jumped at the chance.
I’ve always sort of imagined that my beloved D2v was cobbled together by a handful of deerstalker-and-lab-coat-wearing wild-haired gurus in a shack littered with empty Molsons and adorned with stuffed moose heads whilst “YYZ” blared from a wall of Paradigm Signature S8s. So, yeah, maybe I was a little disappointed when I climbed the stairs in a non-descript building not far from Toronto Pearson International Airport and gazed out over what looked like pretty much every massive industrialized factory you’ve ever seen. Viewed from a distance, it all looks so generic: no Molsons, no moose heads, just stacks and rows of gadgets and doodads and big impersonal-looking machines.
Blargh, I thought. Somebody pull the curtain closed, please.
A full view of one of the factory's work cells. That little space contains everything that three workers need to assemble, fully test, and package a Studio Series speaker. Click here for a full slideshow of photos from the tour.
But much as the initial “My parents did what?!” shock eventually evolved into a lifelong fascination with the wonders of biology after a closer examination, descending another set of stairs and exploring the actual workings of Paradigm and Anthem’s facilities left me with a deeper appreciation of the company’s unusual approach to designing and manufacturing its award-winning speakers and electronics.
As it turns out, there’s a good reason the Paradigm facility looks like a big production-line factory: it actually used to be, before Tim Valters took over as president and COO. The space that used to house those Model T-style lines is now packed with little manufacturing cells, each dedicated to the complete assembly, testing, and packaging of one product (or product line) by three dedicated employees. It’s a neat approach that’s not only more efficient (not to mention more personal), but it also allows Paradigm to be a more nimble company, quickly adapting when necessary.
This mean, green folding machine delicately bends and glues the cabinets for Paradigm's subs.
As we traveled the factory, my perception of the company went through several paradigm shifts (see what I did there?): as quickly as my illusion of the little Canuck Company that Could was shattered by the scope of the factory itself, it was replaced by an appreciation for a large company that manages to operate like dozens of little dedicated teams within a larger whole. It’s a flip-flopping dichotomy that permeates the entire complex: sneak into a room at the back of the plant, and there’s a whiz-bang little ZPrinter 650 cranking out prototypes of upcoming remote control revisions. Turn around and there’s an ancient-looking machine carving out the metal bits that end up in the amplifier sections of one subwoofer or another. Forms for pressing the ear hook accessories for Paradigm Shift’s brand-spanking-new earbuds are cranked out on an old die sinker dubbed the Roboform 4000, which still operates on old 3.5-inch floppy drives and carves out metal bits on a molecular level to a tolerance of ±0.005 millimeter. The amazing, high-precision machine that folds up the bits of wood comprising Paradigm’s new subwoofers was, director of marketing Mark Aling boasts, purchased at an auction years ago without an instruction manual, and had to be figured out without the benefit of literature.
Somehow, though, none of that adds up to a factory that’s in any way outdated or behind the times. Instead, one can’t help but appreciate a company dedicated to using the best tools for the job, whatever that job may be. Walk behind the fancy contraption that applies powder coating to Martin Logan grills on a mass scale and you’ll find a little paint room with one artist meticulously spraying the finish on a Studio bookshelf speaker by hand. Which is really representative of the way the entire factory works: machines doing what machines do best and humans doing what only humans can do.
I nearly had to be dragged out of this room by security. Every Paradigm speaker currently in production in one room! Yum! (I'm kidding, actually. No one called security. I did get made fun of for petting the Studio CC-590 center channel, though.)
You’d really expect a facility of this size to be weighed down by unavoidable inertia—a sort of “this is the way we’ve done it for 20 years” approach. Especially when you talk to employees that have been doing the exact same job for a couple of decades. But with all the on-site innovation, with the cell-based manufacturing practices and small teams of artisans, one can’t help but leave the floor with the impression that you could come back in a week and things would look completely different.
After we left the floor, we took a trip upstairs for a visit to Paradigm’s anechoic chamber. I was told that it is the largest privately owned anechoic chamber in North America used for speaker measurement. Having never been in an anechoic chamber of any sort, I can’t really offer an erudite comparison, but I will say it was a freaky experience when Aling slammed the massive space’s equally massive metal door, yet we on the inside only heard a wimpy little thump. Within the chamber, speakers rest on a spinning table that allows techs outside to measure samples of each model (over the entire course of its run, I might add) from every direction, with a critical eye toward off-axis response. We also got a peek at the mannequin that Paradigm used to model the sound of its Monitor, Studio, and Signature speakers for voicing its new earbuds (one of the few Paradigm products not manufactured in the Mississauga facility.) Acoustical engineering manager Oleg Bogdanov shared a funny story about dealing with the overseas manufacturer of the earbud drivers. The manufacturer is used to offering different companies a small buffet of EQ curves to choose from and couldn’t quite grok Paradigm’s insistence upon applying much more specific curves.
Acoustical Engineering Manager Oleg Bogdanov walks us through the measurements for the Studio bookshelf speaker in the anechoic chamber behind us, with special attention paid to the speaker's off-axis response.
From there, we got a sneak peek at a couple of super secret Paradigm projects that I unfortunately can’t tell you about, but suffice to say, the company isn’t stagnating in the slightest. In addition to the new Paradigm Shift line, which promises to hook a whole new generation of listeners on the brand, the company is focusing its efforts on staying nimble and relevant without losing a bit of the quality and attention to detail for which it’s known.
So, yeah, maybe things behind the curtain didn’t quite look like how I would have imagined, but as is usually the case, the reality of it all was even more fascinating. I really do wish there had been a moose head or two about the place, and maybe a little less Shania Twain and Avril Lavigne pumping out of the speakers (seriously, guys, would a little Rush kill you?). I’m just hoping my fellow journalists and I didn’t make complete asses out of ourselves; I’d love to go back in five years or so to see just how much has changed.