Wharfedale Diamond 9.1 loudspeaker

Following in the footsteps of my August 2005 review of the B&W DM603 S3, the second stop of the Bob Reina British Invasion Tour is the latest revamping of Wharfedale's affordable Diamond series.

My experience with Wharfedale speakers is limited. In my college days, my old MIT fraternity house (think Animal House with differential equations) was fairly evenly split between the Advent (footnote 1) and JBL camps, save for one colleague's large Wharfedale bookshelf speakers, which played Emerson, Lake & Palmer quite nicely at earsplitting volumes at 2am.

The last time I heard a pair of Wharfedales was 25 years ago, when I was living in London. I'd get my haircut during my lunch hours down on Fleet Street (yes, I actually had a barber on Fleet Street), and after the cut I'd wander over to Lasky's Hi-Fi and check out the latest speaker designs. I was always struck by how many musical and inexpensive speakers were available in the UK—much more than in the US at that time—and Wharfedales always featured prominently in my listening sessions.

Talking 'bout my new generation
The latest generation of the Diamond series consists of seven two-channel models ranging from $300 to $800/pair, as well as three center-channel speakers, two rear-channel models, and two active subwoofers for home theater systems. When I began reviewing speakers in the 1980s, the tiny Wharfedale Diamond was the subject of an inside joke among audio reviewers. (I can hear those heart palpitations starting at Wharfedale's UK headquarters. Calm down, gentlemen, and finish the paragraph.) It went like this: Two audio reviewers are struggling to set up a pair of large, unwieldy speakers. After many grunts, groans, and curses the speakers are at last in place, and one reviewer turns to the other and says: "I've had it! Next time I'm asking to review a pair of friggin' Wharfedale Diamonds." Of all the audiophile designs available at the time, the Wharfedale Diamonds weighed the least.

Some things don't change—the tiny Diamond 9.1 weighs only 12 lbs. A two-way shielded bookshelf model with two front ports and biwire capability, the 9.1 features an open-back, die-cast chassis for its Kevlar bass driver. This is intended to reduce the amount of information reflected back toward the listener, in an attempt to reduce blurring. All Diamond models share the same 1" soft-dome tweeter, which has neodymium magnets and ferrofluid cooling. The cabinets are of curved MDF with extensive bracing to reduce resonances. Given the 9.1 woofer's open-backed chassis, the designers felt the speaker would have more rearward energy than usual firing into the cabinet. Thus, a curved cabinet was used to control and disperse these acoustic waves. As the radius of the cabinet wall's curve is continuously changing, this is intended to prevent the buildup of internal standing waves.

Having reviewed several dozen speakers in my time, I've got some pet peeves: 1) shoddy packing material, 2) flimsy binding posts, 3) negligible or confusing owner's manuals, and 4) ugly appearance. I've had speakers arrive intact from halfway around the world despite shoddy packing material, only to have UPS demolish them somewhere in the 23 miles between my house and John Atkinson's when I've sent them to him to be measured. And as I routinely must disconnect and reconnect speakers, it bugs me when speaker designers think "budget speaker" is an excuse for cheap, afterthought speaker connections.

The Wharfedale Diamond 9.1 is a reviewer's dream—it scores a perfect 10 in avoiding all four problems. I removed the speakers from their robust and logically laid out packing and spent some time reading the thorough owner's manual, which is as informative for the audiophile as for the neophyte. The 9.1 has fairly rugged, gold-plated dual binding posts with clear plastic covers, and its cherry finish is gorgeous (despite the fact that a cabinet made of curved MDF dictates the use of vinyl rather than real wood veneers). Two other finishes are available. I tested the 9.1s on Celestion Si stands loaded with sand and lead shot. I auditioned them with the grilles on and off; as Wharfedale suggests, the speaker sounded slightly more transparent with its grille off.

That much sound from these little boxes?
I have not yet mentioned the Diamond 9.1's retail price. After the first week or so of listening, I was struck by two aspects of the speaker's performance that I felt placed it in a league apart from other affordable speakers. I then realized that it had been so long since I'd requested the review sample that I'd completely forgotten the 9.1's price. (In my original call to Wharfedale, I'd left it up to the company to choose which of the seven Diamond models best exemplified good value for money, and had since forgotten the price they mentioned.) I thought, These speakers probably cost $500–$600/pair. They're well worth it, despite the number of worthy contenders in that price range. I fired off an e-mail to the company requesting an update on the speaker's US retail price. The response: "We apologize, but we needed to raise the price of the 9.1. It's currently $350 a pair." Hmm.

The Diamond 9.1 had two attributes that floored me:
1) Extraordinary resolution of detail in the midrange, with no trace of coloration. Low-level dynamic articulations in this region were subtle and linear, and the speaker's ability to render soundstage cues, ambience, and hall sound were what I would expect from a speaker costing $2000/pair or more.
2) A refined, delicate, and detailed presentation of high-frequency articulation, with no trace of either hardness or softness and with a perfect replication of transients.

JA's recording of Kohjiba's Transmigration of the Soul, from Festival (CD, Stereophile STPH007-2), put all of those attributes in place. The breathy, airy piccolo had the requisite metallic bite but without hardness—all of the instrument's upper partials were intact and uncolored. The solo harp passages had perfect string attack, the decay "so natural and so long," say my notes. The high-level dynamic attack and transient articulation of the marimba's "thunky" wood was the best I've heard from this recording. Those massed violins in the fortissimo passages can be grating through the wrong speaker; the 9.1 rendered the violins with warmth and wood, but with bite and sweetness and, again, no trace of hardness. There may be something extraordinary about the Diamond 9.1's tweeter, which is identical to the tweeter used in the $999/pair flagship Diamond 9.6. I'm curious to see what JA's measurements reveal about it.

George Crumb's Quest (CD, Bridge 9069) was another showcase for the Wharfedale. About the Diamond 9.1's rendition of this disc's room ambience, my notes say: "Decayyyyyyyyyyyy" and "I've never heard this much decay from acoustic instruments on a recording; the gradations of low-level dynamics are startling" and "Can't have a more natural triangle than this—damn, what a tweeter!" Crumb is a master of unorthodox percussion; the 9.1s reproduced his bowed cymbal with such metallic scraping that I could almost count the rivets. The inner transients of the rain sticks (or is it actually water running into some metal receptacle?) had me staring forward with my mouth open.

In John Rutter's Requiem (CD, Reference RR-57CD), the cello and flute were as natural as I've heard from any budget speaker, and the male choir was layered across the wide, deep soundstage as realistically as I've heard from any speaker at any price.

The Diamond 9.1 also revealed gobs of detail in electric music. Listening to the opening guitar riff of Aimee Mann's "How Am I Different?," from Bachelor No. 2 or The Last Remains of the Dodo (CD, Super Ego SE-002), I could almost tell where the guitar amp's tone controls were set, could almost measure how far the mike was from the speaker cabinet. On Mighty Sam McClain's "Too Proud," from Give It Up to Love (CD, JVC 0012-2), it seemed I could ascertain the precise drawbar settings of Bruce Katz's Hammond B-3 organ. For the first guitar blast of "MovieTheater," from Ultra High Frequency's Sun Never Sets in Dramaville (CD, Mugshot MUG0001), my notes read: "Telecaster." The driving rhythm section gave me the same chills I remember from seeing the band live.

As expected, the speaker's midrange qualities rendered Madeleine Peyroux's voice on Dreamland (CD, Atlantic 82956-2) silky, seductive, and tactile. I pondered a recent debate in downbeat magazine: "Is Peyroux channeling Billie Holiday or does she speak with her own voice?" The Wharfedale's ability to reveal a singer's dynamic subtleties indicated the latter. The lower register of Joni Mitchell's voice on "Urge for Going," from Hits (CD, Reprise 46326-2), revealed the speaker's one noticeable coloration: a slight thickness that ranged from the upper bass to the lower midrange and gave Mitchell's voice a slightly husky quality. I noticed this thickness on no other vocal recording, regardless of the vocalist's gender, but it gave a slight warmth or ripeness to many rock recordings with prominent electric bass or synth passages, such as Sade's Love Deluxe (CD, Epic EK 53178), without detracting from any midbass linearity or clarity.

Not all electronic recordings exhibited that upper-bass thickness. In preparation for a recent performance in New York by Kraftwerk, a concert I'd been anticipating for 20 years, I spun the band's greatest-hits remix, The Mix (CD, Elektra 60889-2)—at 95dB, of course—and noticed that the lower-register bass and drum synth passages sounded natural, with quite respectable high-level dynamics and no sense of strain or compression. Of course, the lower register of the electronic bass drums didn't exactly shake the room.

Which led me to ponder the Diamond 9.1's low-bass extension. It never sounded bass-shy with most material, but I suspect the little Wharfedale has what JA has called the "LS3/5a British upper-bass bump trick"—a slightly tipped-up upper bass to give the impression that the speaker goes deeper than it actually does. We'll see what his measurements say.

The timpani on the Kohjiba track sounded startlingly natural, even from the next room, though the bass drum in Stravinsky's The Firebird (LP, Mercury Living Presence 90226) sounded somewhat reduced in volume. Moreover, the lower-register organ-pedal notes in the Rutter Requiem were missing in action.

The Diamond 9.1 was an outstanding jazz speaker. Listening to the Jerome Harris Quintet's recording of Duke Ellington's "The Mooche," from Editor's Choice (CD, Stereophile STPH016-2), I noticed for the first time the way Steve Nelson's vibes play off Marty Ehrlich's alto sax as Harris's upper-register bass fingerings provide counterpoint. My notes: "Vibes are the acid test for a good tweeter, and this is a great tweeter."

My comments about that upper-bass thickness notwithstanding, at no time did any recording of acoustic double bass deviate from naturalness of sound through the Wharfedales. I do feel, however, that Shelley Manne's drum solo on "I'm an Old Cowhand," from Sonny Rollins' Way Out West (CD, JVC VIC60088), has a greater sense of bloom through most of the larger speakers I've tried.

And the competition...?
I compared the Wharfedale Diamond 9.1 ($350/pair) with the Paradigm Atom ($189/pair), the Infinity Primus 150 ($198/pair), and the Epos ELS-3 ($350/pair).

The Paradigm Atom had a warm, rich midrange with less detail and less extended highs. Its warm midbass was not as deep, clean, or as extended as the Wharfedale's. I also noticed that the otherwise balanced Paradigm tended to get a bit tense in the upper midrange during high-level passages, unlike the Wharfedale.

The Infinity Primus 150 was a bit cleaner in the midbass and upper bass, but with no more bass extension than the Wharfedale. The midrange was natural, the high frequencies more extended but less detailed and delicate than the Wharfedale's, which also had slightly better high-level dynamics.

The Epos ELS-3 had a dead neutral presentation from the midbass to the upper midrange, with high frequencies that were more extended than the Wharfedale's but not as delicate. The ELS-3's midrange, though quite detailed, was not as rich or as holographic as the Diamond 9.1's.

A winner?
Wharfedale has a winner with the Diamond 9.1, a diminutive and attractive satellite speaker that does almost everything right and is a superb value. In its midrange and high-frequency resolution it behaved more like a speaker with a four-figure price tag. What more can one ask of an affordable speaker? Well done!

Footnote 1: An original pair of small Advents from my fraternity house is still kicking. I will evaluate them in the context of current affordable designs for a future issue.
US distributor: IAG America
15 Walpole Park South
Walpole, MA 02081
(508) 850-3950