In the United Kingdom, the first seeds of perfectionism in audio separates were sown by Goodmans Industries, founded in 1925. Then, in 1930, Garrard (est. 1722) produced its first commercial gramophone. Shortly thereafter, England experienced the Great Slump, the British name for the worldwide catastrophe known in the US as the Great Depression. Near the beginning of this economic downturn, in 1932, Gilbert Briggs founded Wharfedale Wireless Works—and the first British “high-fidelity” audio amplifiers began being manufactured by H.J. Leak & Co. Ltd., founded by Harold Joseph Leak in 1934.But British hi-fi didn’t really pick up steam until after World War II, when Jim Rogers founded his loudspeaker company, Rogers International (1947), and Peter Walker established the Acoustical Manufacturing Co. Ltd., aka Quad (1949).
It wasn’t until 1954 that rationing of gasoline and food ended in the UK. So, not surprisingly, the Brit-Fi flower didn’t fully bloom until the first London Audio Fair, in 1956. This huge show attracted over 24,000 attendees and featured the first UK demonstration of stereo sound, the introduction of the Garrard 301 record player, and a preview of the world’s first production electrostatic loudspeaker, the Quad ESL.
In the US, consumer hi-fi had begun in 1945, with the founding of Avery Fisher’s Fisher Electronics. Paul W. Klipsch founded his loudspeaker company, Klipsch and Associates, in 1946, in Hope, Arkansas. Brook Industries introduced Lincoln Walsh’s legendary 10C and 12A amplifiers in 1948. But unquestionably, the high-fidelity shot heard ’round the world was fired in 1952, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when Edgar Villchur and Henry Kloss established Acoustic Research. AR’s first “acoustic suspension” speakers—the AR1, AR2, and AR3—ushered in a new era of handsome, living-room–friendly designs that traded efficiency for the ability to play full-range from a small box with low levels of distortion (footnote 1).
In the UK in the 1950s, Wharfedale’s corner speakers (with sand-filled baffles) and their flat-panel SFB/3 (1956) were mirroring Klipsch’s successes in the US; but it was Peter Walker’s Quad ESL (1957) that moved British hi-fi into the global market. While Walker’s original electrostatic design remained in production until 1985, Gilbert Briggs sold Wharfedale in 1958. Briggs’s engineering partner, Raymond Cooke, left Wharfedale to found KEF, in 1961. Since then, in the UK and US, perfectionist audio has followed parallel but different paths.
In the US, postwar hi-fi began by making loudspeakers smaller (AR, Advent, footnote 2), but since the 1980s, America being America, the drift has been toward an SUV-like mindset of bigger is better. US audiophiles now seem to favor bulky, heavily damped, glossy-lacquered, floorstanding speakers of low sensitivity and impedance, as well as the massive, high-powered amplifiers needed to drive them.
Meanwhile, the British have refined a more modest approach, favoring smaller, lighter, stand-mounted speakers with thin walls and natural wood finishes.
Wharfedale’s newest Diamond model, the 225 ($449/pair), is a prototypical British loudspeaker.
Wharfedale introduced its first Diamond model in 1981. Short and stout—almost a cube—it was one of the best-selling audiophile speakers of all time. By comparison, the new Diamond 225 is tall and lean and deep, measuring 14″ high by 7.7″ wide by 10.3″ deep. It has a 1″ soft-dome tweeter, a 6.5″ mid/woofer with a woven Kevlar cone, and a wood-veneered cabinet with a volume of 0.36 cubic feet. This reflex-loaded box has a “slot-loaded distributed port” that fires downward through a narrow reveal between the cabinet bottom and the Diamond’s rubber-footed base. Overall, the 225 looks and feels considerably more expensive than its humble price suggests.
Call me a numpty or a sentimental old twit, but I still romanticize those good old days when little British companies were [cough cough] Little British companies in charming brick factories whose workers drove Morris Minors, rolled baccy, and spent their evenings in pubs drinking pints. But in 2017, Wharfedale is part of the International Audio Group (IAG), which also owns Quad, Mission, Castle, and a few others. Today’s Wharfedale is a big-small company that produces in-house its own drivers, cabinets, and even wire—all in China, where the speakers are also assembled.
Today, most affordable audio products are designed not by independent pioneer innovators such as Henry Kloss, Gilbert Briggs, and Peter Walker, but by seasoned audio-industry professionals. The design of the Wharfedale Diamond 225 was supervised by Peter Comeau, IAG’s director of acoustic design. Before joining IAG, Comeau cofounded Heybrook (1978) and was a director of engineering at Mission Electronics—two more UK companies with long histories of making quality loudspeakers.
Their down-firing ports made the Diamond 225s easy to place in my small listening room (13′ long by 11′ wide by 9′ high). As I experimented with speaker positions and stand heights, I heard very few room-bounce colorations. In my room, the sweet spots for small speakers are about 27″ from the front wall. That’s where I put them, and I did my critical listening with the Diamonds sitting on both 24″- and 26″-high stands. Very early on, I switched from using single AudioQuest GO-4 speaker cables (a rich-sounding match) to biwiring the Wharfedales with AudioQuest’s Type 4 cables. Both arrangements let the music flow easily and generated excellent piano tone, but I thought the Diamond 225s spoke more openly and transparently when biwired—which was how I did the rest of my listening.
Listening with the Line Magnetic LM-518
Gilbert Briggs described the reproduction of the sound of an acoustic piano as the “sternest test” of a loudspeaker. The best way I know to get acquainted with a new speaker is to use a familiar amplifier and play recordings of solo piano that I’m very familiar with and understand. As the Diamond 225s relaxed and began to sound broken in, I reached for a disc that I play frequently, one I treat like a pilgrimage site with a spring of healing water: the Pierian Recording Society’s very first release, Claude Debussy: The Composer as Pianist (CD, Pierian 0001). This disc includes all of Debussy’s known recordings: four acoustic recordings with soprano Mary Garden, made for the Gramophone and Typewriter Co. in Paris in 1904, and 14 piano-roll recordings made for M. Welte & Söhne Recording Piano Co. in Paris in 1913.
With the Diamond 225s driven by Line Magnetic’s LM-518 IA integrated amplifier (22Wpc), Debussy’s approach was easy to appreciate. Golliwog’s Cake Walk, from his The Children’s Corner, displayed highly sensuous, richly colored piano tones whose fleshed-out textures commingled with surprise-filled cadences that delighted my heart. The 225’s ability to deliver the essential but subtle features of Debussy’s art was extremely impressive for a speaker costing only $449/pair.
This is an exquisitely recorded production. Every bit of Debussy’s poetic fingerings and soft-pedal expression captured on the paper Welte-Mignon rolls was “re-animated” on a carefully restored 1923 Feurich-Welte reproducing piano and recorded with a stereo pair of vintage Neumann KM 83 microphones. Through the Diamond 225s, Debussy’s piano sound was larger than I expected, tangibly solid and surprisingly three-dimensional. To the Wharfedales’ great credit and my pleasure, I enjoyed wooden hammers, metal strings, and some little sense of the piano’s soundboard.
Listening with the First Watt J2
Forget cake walks and froufrou Parisian modernists—bring us now the timeless teen thrash and hard-raking boogie machine we call Metallica. If you can’t get on and ride their explosive 1986 album, Master of Puppets (CD, Elektra 60439-2), I feel sorry for your cheesy lounge-singer soul. Metallica’s guitar sounds and hyper-drivin’, amped-up rhythms never fail to cut me through to the gut.
I wanted to find out if the 25W of First Watt’s J2, designed by Pass Labs’ Nelson Pass, would be enough power to make me, Metallica, and the Wharfedale 225s skip, mosh, and fist-pump through some densely vibrating air. I cranked “Battery” to old-man loud, and holy effing shit—these shiny little Brit boxes lit a hot flame that belied their size. They sawed fast and pounded hard. They got me up. I felt loose and free like I was 23. With easy clarity and ambitious drive, they powered my small room to average levels of 89dB and peaks of 96dB. No overcompressed muck. No congealed textures. No distortions of grainy hardness or stuttering vagary.
Listening with the Rogue Audio Sphinx
Every time I pull out Rogue’s 100W hybrid (tubed/class-D) Sphinx integrated amp, I’m blown away by how ridiculously musical, authoritative, and transparent it sounds for $1300. The Sphinx, and Schiit Audio’s Ragnarok ($1699), continue to be the two most satisfying integrated amplifiers I know for less than $2000.
You know me: I believe that, subtly or obviously, an audio product expresses the resonant character of whatever stuff it’s made of. One day, with the Rogue Sphinx, I realized I could hear the slightly inorganic Kevlarness of the Diamond’s mid/woofer cone. (To my ears, all speakers sound like their cone, magnet, and cabinet materials.) The Wharfedale’s Kevlar quality was most noticeable with timpani and massed strings. It was least noticeable with jazz, zydeco, or blues. The effect I’m talking about was minuscule; I had to listen extremely closely to hear it.
I don’t need synthesizers, pipe organs, or fast-plucked four-string Fenders to suss out a speaker’s bass performance. I just need 100W of class-D and Pepe Romero playing his bewitching performance of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Bajando de la Meseta on his Miguel Rodriguez guitar (LP, Philips 9500 915). The degree to which a loudspeaker can reproduce the physicality of an acoustic guitar is usually a good indicator of its resolution and transient control. The beauty and verity of any speaker’s sound is anchored in the four midrange octaves from 80 to 1280Hz, and the splendor of these four octaves depends entirely on the wizardry of the speaker’s design. The meeting of Romero, Rodrigo, and the Diamond 225s was beyond revealing. It was splendorous. This beautiful Philips recording showed me the Wharfedale’s true nature.
The body of Romero’s guitar was the same size as my chest. I could sense the surface of the soundboard, and where the instrument’s neck overlaps and is connected to the body. I listened for the sound hole but couldn’t quite find it. Then it got spooky. Suddenly, I realized how good the 225s really were: Sitting on my couch, I could practically see the microphone, about 22″ from the air pulsing off the soundboard’s surface. The Rogue Sphinx and Diamond 225s were doing everything right. The bass was clear, despite a noticeable softness below 120Hz. Guitar tone was fantastically accurate. Romero’s tempos were hyper-noticeable and pleasantly intoxicating. Right here is where my audio-critic DNA shifted and I fell crazy in love with the Diamond 225s. My experience of this excellent recording was profoundly good. My listening notes said, “What? How can this be?”
Raising Kane with the Schiit Ragnarok
I don’t like high-end audio that sounds like high-end audio. What does high-end audio sound like? It sounds like recorded information being pinched out at me in fake, hard, bas-relief detail and exaggerated three-dimensionality. The “black” spaces are really gray, but in a strangely unnoticeable way. To me, hardness represents distortion, as does opacity. Bad high-end audio feels distinctly inorganic—as if everything vital and mammalian has been leached out.
A mechanic can sharpen a file by soaking it in dilute acid. This procedure works well—up to a point. Eventually, the file’s teeth get too sharp, and become all weak and pointy and bent over, like witches’ teeth. That’s what bad high-end audio (and a lot of re-mastered high-resolution digital) sounds like to me.
Driving the Wharfedale Diamond 225s, Schiit Audio’s Ragnarok didn’t sound at all like pointy witches’ teeth. It sounded smooth, sharp (but not too sharp), and liquid. It played big orchestral compositions, such as Bernard Herrmann’s Welles Raises Kane, with the composer conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LP, Unicorn UN1-72008), with the supplest, non–hi-fi, nonmechanical sounds imaginable. Herrmann called this five-movement, 15-minute suite “a musical frolic… a portrait of Orson Welles at the time of his creation of the films Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.” It features a fearsome orchestral mash-up that careens through a dozen musical genres.
The Schiit-Wharfedale combo reproduced this dynamic recording extremely well, except when the timpani and giant cymbals pounded hard in the climaxes. On the 98dB peaks I felt sharp cymbals cutting my forehead. The timpani sounded opaque, compressed, and distorted. The Ragnarok can put out 100Wpc into 8 ohms, so I doubt that it was clipping. It sounded to me as if the drivers themselves were stalling and skipping—exactly what I imagine cone/dome breakup sounds like. After failing during the Overture of Welles Raises Kane, the Diamond 225s carried on sweetly and engagingly until the Finale—Pursuit and Happiness, when things got a bit crunchy again. I can’t believe I forgot that small speakers like the Diamond 225 sound best in small rooms when music is played at moderate levels. (I venture to say that anything over 90dB is likely to have some distortion. Overall, though, the Ragnarok and Diamonds sounded enjoyably lucid, so I turned down the volume and tried some other big orchestral works.
A longtime fan of Martha Argerich, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Claudio Abbado, I’ve always collected and used their DG recordings as tests for system musicality. Any system that makes DG discs sound hard, opaque, or less than charming is not for me. So I was pleased when the “not-full tulip” recording of Bartók’s Piano Concertos 1 and 2, with soloist Maurizio Pollini and Claudio Abbado conducting the Chicago Symphony (LP, Deutsche Grammophon 2530 901), was reproduced with excellent tone and surprising transparency. Piano and percussion were fairly strong and present for such small speakers, and the space occupied by the orchestra’s sound was remarkably deep. Pollini’s keyboard playing is usually a bit inexpressive for my taste, but he really revs it up emotionally to lean into these edgy works and nail them down. Bravo, Maurizio! Bravo, Claudio! Bravo, Wharfedale!
Every day I listened to the Wharfedale Diamond 225s, part of me wanted to write, “Hey, these new speakers are nice, musical, even-tempered, and easy to live with. But they’re nothing special. They’re not designed in a wizard’s shack behind a British row house and manufactured in some quaint Station Road factory with a pub down the way.” I almost wished I could say, “The 225s were created by some secret war-room consortium of Dr. Strangelove imperialists,” or to declare something like, “They play music just pleasantly enough—in a general, average sort of way—to fool the scruffy underclasses.”
But none of it was true.
Forget the Diamond’s modest price. This humble wooden box is actually a connoisseur-level audio component. It could satisfy any sane music collector for decades. I liked the way the Diamond 225 played music more than I did the Elac Debut B6 (now $229.99/pair—reduced from $279.99/pair), which I reviewed in the March 2016 issue. The Elac is extremely good, and it does many things, including soundstaging and resolution, better than the Diamonds. But the Diamond 225 played music with more blushes and warm-blooded charm than the Debut B6. The Wharfedale felt more soulful and relaxed.
The Diamond 225 had a pacey, easy-flowing transparency that made my KEF LS50s sound slightly thick, my Technics SB-C700s sound slightly dry, my Falcon Acoustics LS3/5as sound a mite bright. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to say those things, but that’s what I heard.
The Wharfedale’s biggest faults seemed to be a modicum of puffy vagueness in the lowest and highest octaves, and a little recession in the presence region. Together, these traits robbed the Diamond 225 of some precision, sharp focus, and punch.
At the beginning of my listening, I was impressed by the easy-flowing naturalness of the Diamond 225’s sound. Then I thought its Kevlar cone was too audible. Then, while playing Pepe Romero’s album of Rodrigo compositions for solo guitar, it was as if the speakers had walked over and kissed me. And then, when I played the Bartók piano concertos, I leaned back, smiled, and let out my breath. I’ve been smiling like that, and dreaming, ever since. Highly recommended.
Footnote 1: See John Atkinson’s discussion of efficiency vs sensitivity here. Sensitivity can be converted into efficiency, and vice versa, using this on-line calculator.
Footnote 2: That was the trend on the east coast, but to some west-coast companies, bigger was better, and remained so for years.