Wharfedale Diamond 225 loudspeaker
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" speakersthe AR1, AR2, and AR3ushered in a new era of handsome, living-roomfriendly 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 stoutalmost a cubeit 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 wireall 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 Electronicstwo 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 biwiredwhich 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 modernistsbring 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.
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.