The Entry Level #4

Dinner with Natalie and Nicole was still three hours away and, thanks to the Okki Nokki record-cleaning machine that I wrote about last month, I had a half-dozen newly cleaned LPs begging to be played. A gray and listless day had somehow blossomed into a clear, brilliant night filled with promise and anticipation. Outside, tattooed against the dark violet sky, a strange, enormous moon hovered over Jersey City, and flooded my listening room with enchanting white light. It was time to enjoy my new records and better acquaint myself with the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 loudspeakers ($350/pair), and the only way to do that would be to compare the latter to a known quantity: the PSB Alpha B1 ($279/pair). John Atkinson had reviewed the PSBs in our May 2007 issue, and admired their naturally balanced treble and superb midrange. Soon after, the PSBs won our "Budget Product of the Year" award, and I could not resist the urge to buy a pair. I've lived happily with them ever since, most appreciating their ability to make sense of the densely arranged, sometimes poorly recorded noise- and psych-rock albums I tend to lust after. How would the Wharfedales compare?

On this occasion, because I was especially curious to go back in time to Robert Wyatt's days with the Soft Machine and hear the sound of his strange voice 40 years younger, I decided to start with that band's Volume Two, originally released in 1969 (LP, Probe/ABC CPLP 4505). I placed the PSB Alpha B1s where the Wharfedales had been, on 24"-high stands, secured by small globs of Blu-Tack, and positioned exactly 27" from the sidewalls, 5' from the front wall, and 7' from my listening position. The rest of the system comprised the Rega RP-1 turntable, NAD PP 3 USB phono preamp, Cambridge Audio Azur 340A integrated amplifier, and RadioShack Megacable speaker wire (which, I now confess, I ache to replace). With the PSBs connected in phase and angled so that I could see nothing of their cabinets but their clean front baffles, I turned down the lights, cued up the record, and raced to my seat.

Side 1, Rivmic Melodies, opens with "Pataphysical Introduction, Pt.1": In unison and without warning, drums, bass, and piano strike a couple of odd notes and then, in a sort of Joycean maneuver, pause—as if the band is starting at the end of a line—before moving forward with a jaunty, rollicking sway. Cymbals splash loosely, the bass riff descends, the piano offers a catchy little jingle like the theme to some Saturday-night sitcom, and Wyatt's voice emerges from the right channel to wish us "Good evening." He's playing emcee, introducing us to something, but I found his words difficult to comprehend. Too many years and too many plays of this used LP are blocking my way to Wyatt's meaning, but now the band is heating up—as Wyatt recites the British alphabet, from A to Zed. As I grope through the veils of age and use, the band comes to a sudden halt, and I'm struck by a guitar lead that emerges at center stage. How did Hugh Hopper get such a fuzzy tone? The sound is almost disturbing—a buzz saw in a funhouse—but it's solidly placed in the center of a wide soundstage, and it's captivating.

The system conveyed that momentary break in the music with clarity and precision, so that when the full band returns, I'm swept up in what has become a funk explosion. Swift brushwork against snare drum and agile guitar leads are anchored by Hopper's bass guitar, which now mirrors Wyatt's voice, reflecting every lilt, rise, and fall. Though I can't quite make out Wyatt's lyrics, I can easily follow the sound of both voice and bass guitar. The PSBs bring the voices to the front of the stage while allowing the bass guitar to settle in the rear. In "Hibou, Anemone, and Bear," a misty cloud of cymbal spray seems to hover above the speakers, while a metallic tapping keeps time at center stage. And finally, in "Out of Tunes," I can almost see Wyatt running back and forth between the speakers, a naughty child with a drumstick in one hand and a crash cymbal in the other, setting off alarms. Rivmic Melodies ends with purposely indecipherable voices shooting across the stage, banging about the walls of a madman's skull, and the sound of Wyatt's howls fading into darkness just as the jaunty music tries to return. It's kind of crazy, and I wonder how it was received back in 1969. Even for today, and perhaps more today than then, the Soft Machine's Volume Two is an adventurous, confounding, enchanting trip.

In a slight daze, I got up from my orange couch, cued up the side again, and listened through to the end. I then switched from the PSB Alpha B1s to the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1s and once more returned the stylus to the beginning of the groove. Through the Wharfedales, I was surprised to hear greater overall clarity and resolution. I could more easily hear the reverb around Wyatt's voice, and the ringing, fading trails left in the wake of percussion strokes. Similarly, guitars sounded more expressive, with more tonal color and subtle harmonics shining through the mix. There was slightly less bite and rhythmic snap to percussive sections, but more body—those metallic taps in "Hibou, Anemone, and Bear" were made of more wood and less steel. Bass guitar, too, was more fully expressed, which made more apparent subtle nuances of technique, such as Hopper sliding his fingers carefully along the fretboard from note to note. Happily, I could make better sense of Wyatt's first few spoken words: "And now we have a choice selection of Rivmic Melodies . . ." Spatial effects were just as thrilling through the Wharfedales as they'd been through the PSBs, if perhaps a bit less precisely rendered, but in general, the Wharfedales presented a better behaved, more relaxed sound.

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COMMENTS
zachisawesome's picture

Do you know where they sell wharfedale speakers online in the US? I'm really interested in a pair of the 10.1s after reading this because the nearest dealer to me is outside Philadelphia which is about 3 hours away. I couldn't find anything online in my searches.

I was also wondering if you had any plans to switch out the Cambridge Audio Azur 340A, for a different integrated like the Marantz pm5004? As a fairly poor recent college grad I really dig these "Entry Level" articles, because they cover products within my price range, some of which I own, like the RP1.

Stephen Mejias's picture
Hey Zach.
Thanks for reading. I'm glad you're enjoying the column.

Music Direct is selling the Wharfedales for $299/pair. In the July issue, I'll be discussing the NAD C316BEE and Jolida FX 10 integrated amplifiers.

zachisawesome's picture

Thanks, I don't know why music direct didn't come up in any of my searches.

I'm excited I'm really interested in the Jolida, are you going to be pairing it with the wharfedales?

Stephen Mejias's picture
No, I no longer have the Wharfedales on hand -- Bob Reina is using them and will provide a complete equipment report in an upcoming issue. I'll pair the Jolida with the Klipsch Synergy B-20 and PSB Alpha B1 loudspeakers.
zachisawesome's picture

I was really curious to see if the jolida could drive the wharfedales since they don't seem to be particularly efficient speakers. Did the Azur have enough power to get a decent volume level?

Stephen Mejias's picture
Did the Azur have enough power to get a decent volume level?

Yes, it did. The system played very loud with no sense of strain in my small (13 x 11 x 8) room.

maxmelvin19's picture

Hi Stephen,

In a comment I left under one of Michael Lavorgna's articles over on audiostream, he suggested both your Entry Level column and contacting you with respect to my question. I know your time is limited, so I don't want to waste it, but I have done my best to find the answer to this question from respected online sources but I'm not getting a very clear picture at all. Here goes:

In the budget hifi arena (say sub $400 for a speaker/amp system in your money) does one get better sound from an active/powered desktop speaker or the traditional bookshelf passive and separate amp? (That is, keeping the variables to a minimum.) I'm making my first foray into high fidelity and I my research gives me the following options:

1) Audioengine A5+

2) Tannoy Mercury V1/Q Acoustics 2010i & Marantz/NAD/Yamaha lowest end amp

Lots of erm...impassioned forum members have been pushing low end professional studio monitors but I'm after smooth, tone-centric, detailed and *forgiving of track/mix quality* speakers so I assume home audio audiophile products are the way to go?

Btw, I won't be listening nearfield but in a small attic (loft) flat (apartment) with the speakers on the edge of a counter top or on a bookshelf with some space behind it (because of the slanted roof) and my gf and I will sit 6-8 feet from the speakers. My sources are just a laptop and maybe the TV and I hope to get a DAC lile the HRT microstreamer in about 6 months time.

Any advice/direction would be very much apprecieted. I care about listening to music and money's very tight (I have a useless masters degree to thank for that!) so I want to make the right descision.

Thanks,

Max

SNorene's picture

I have a 7.1 system using the PSB Alpha 1's - T1 x2, B1 x2, C1 x1, LCR x1 and an i5 PSB Sub. Absolutely amazing quality and sound for the money. I listened to a lot of speakers, and was very tempted to buy Definitive Tech's, but was twice the money for not much of a difference. I do wish to audition the new Golden Ear surround setup...but would keep the PSB's just move them into the bedroom.

LOVE PSB's !!!!

ack's picture

Very excited to see a review of the Jolida FX 10 and looked at buying the NAD C316BEE before someone gifted me a Marantz receiver.

Any plans on reviewing any of the entry-level universal disc players?

This might make sense for someone in a smaller space who uses a 2 channel system for playing music and enhancing their experience watching movies.

I am seeing people in the forums doing this more and more out there in that real world space.

Stephen Mejias's picture
Any plans on reviewing any of the entry-level universal disc players?

I really haven't thought much about the smaller variety of discs at all, so I have no immediate plans to cover any universal disc players, but, in the future, I'm sure I'll get around to it.

ack's picture

Then I should point you to Needledoctor.com for their new Pro-Ject Essential for $299 which Pro-Ject to my knowledge never sold in the USofA before. Entry-level phonographic goodness.

TNtransplant's picture

If you're exploring the music of Robert Wyatt, presumably you've already come across his excellent first post-accident album "Rock Bottom" and even ventured further to discover his shortlived post-Softs group, Matching Mole (the first album was excellent ... I'm less inclined to recommend the second). If you want to check out some off-the-beaten track releases, a 2009 CD from France's Orchestre National de Jazz called "Around Robert Wyatt" is a fascinating collection, including the participation of Wyatt and a few other notables. Wyatt's also prominently featured on several Carla Bley and Michael Mantler albums and (Pink Floyd drummer) Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports album, which was really a Carla Bley set under the PF's drummer's name.

BlueSteelAudio's picture

If you're aching to replace those speaker cables, I have heard good things about Paul Speltz's "Anti-Cables." A six-foot spade-terminated stereo set costs just $60, so I assume they're fair game for review in The Entry Level. I am also very curious about the Anti-Interconnect (with Eichmann Bullet Plugs), but I don't know anyone who has them. Any chance you'll check them out?

http://www.anticables.com/

MrWatermelonMan's picture

Hi Stephan,

I enjoyed your review. I'm interested how you thought the RP1 stacks up against the P3? I'm currently thinking of purchasing the RP1, but I'm also considering buying a clearance P3-24 that I've seen for GB£75 more (without a cartridge) but not sure if I can justify the extra expense (especially to the Mrs). I'm also aware of a second hand P3-2000 (I think) being sold privately that I might go check out. Any thoughts?

Thanks

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