Achieving a State of Zen for Under $300 Canadian!
by Steve Graham
I was casting about, thinking of small speakers that I could try with the Elekit TU-8340VK amp I reviewed recently. As a last resort, I took down the Radio Shack minis that I had on my workshop walls. I placed them on top of a pair of floorstanders, connected them up and played a track. Man, were they ghastly. Bass was woolly, midrange dull and treble almost non-existent. They had to go.
Wharfedale is a storied name in British hifi. They were known in the early days for really big, real wood cabinets with multiple drivers (some open baffles, too! -Ed.). Then in 1981, they introduced the first Diamond. It was a revelation. A little speaker with full bass and a small price tag. This goes back a few years, but it seemed like every Sam The Record Man store I went into, they were playing music quite loudly over a set of Diamonds – with the bass cranked. I wonder how many people bought records after hearing them on a set of Diamonds.
Wharfedale and Diamond have become so synonymous that it makes me wonder how they can sell any speakers that don’t have the Diamond label on them. Well, obviously they must, they have other lines of speakers as well. Are the Diamonds the tail that wags the Wharfedale dog? I’d love to see a breakdown of sales by market.
Anyway, a promotion popped up in my inbox for various clearance Wharfedales. New, demo and factory refurbished models, being offered at considerable discounts from the suggested list price. Whatever ‘list price’ means anymore. I almost put my hand up for a pair of Diamond center channel speakers to place vertically. 200 dollars US for two speakers, each with two woven Kevlar woofers and a soft dome tweeter, seemed too good to pass up. Unfortunately they would have been too big for the space available in my shop.
Instead I considered the smallest Diamonds, the 210. They sport a 100mm woven Kevlar woofer and a 25mm fabric soft dome tweeter, in a vented enclosure. Wharfedale makes their own drivers in a vertically integrated factory; they don’t just shove somebody else’s woofers and tweeters into a box. I did a little searching online for reviews, but couldn’t really find a legitimate one for the 210. There was forum chatter, dealer reviews and a very curious YouTube review that’s fourteen minutes long in total, with three minutes of Japanese narration to start, followed by some environmental sounds and various music tracks. Helpful? Not really.
The closest I could come to a real review was of the Diamond 225, by Stereophile’s Herb Reichert. Now, I don’t dislike Herb, but his flowery prose can be a bit of a hard slog at times. Herb liked the 225.
So in the end, your faithful audio scribe decided to take yet another one for the team and have a punt, as the Brits would say, on a pair of factory-refurbished Diamond 210s. $230 CDN for the pair plus shipping and tax. Two days later the mail man delivered a small box, light enough that he didn’t complain about his knees while carrying it up my front steps.
No one screws up the English language quite like the English. Well, at least as far as names are concerned. Once upon a time I worked with three great guys from the UK. Wooster became Whoozie, Hitchman changed to Hitchie, and Gary was, and still is by all reports, known as Gazzer. Gazzer is from Manchester and one of the funniest guys I’ve known. People from Manchester are known as Mancunians. Don’t you just love that? I do. I have no problem calling the smallest Wharfedales, “Wharfies”.
Three minutes after receiving the Wharfies, I had them out of the box. As noted earlier, the pair I ordered were factory refurbs. But I don’t see how they could be refurbished, as there’s no way to get inside them. I’ll describe that investigation a little later. The only flaw I could see was a very slight scratch on the back of one of the cabinets. The front is painted gloss white, the other 5 surfaces are semi-gloss white. I figured white wouldn’t show the dust in my shop the way black does. There are two plastic plugs on the rear that can be removed for attachment to a mounting bracket. Be warned, the threaded insert concealed by the plugs is metric, M6, not ¼”-20. If you try the wrong screw, well, let’s just say you’ll hate yourself. Also, the thread is blind, so if your M6 screw is too long and you force it, you’ll hate yourself.
I put some self-adhesive rubber feet on to the bottoms and plunked them on top of my PSB’s. The stereo was already running, so I just disconnected the big speakers, connected up the Wharfies and slipped Kind of Blue in to the CD player. Around the 53 second mark in to So What, a sax plays in the right channel. I happened to be standing near the speaker and it sounded distorted. I freaked out! I’d gotten a bad speaker! I swapped the Wharfies left for right, still distorted. Freaked out even more! Connected the PSB’s back up. Distorted! Freaked out even more still! Bad tube maybe? Then I calmed down. Popped the disc out of the player then rushed upstairs to my headphone rig. Distorted sax again. I concluded two things: the distortion is probably on the disc, and the Wharfies are not low resolution speakers. Calm returned to Casa Graham.
The Wharfies were plunked on top of the PSB’s and connected up again, this time spinning some Loreena McKennitt. They sounded nice. My wife came in, she said they sounded nice. Over the next two weeks or so the Wharfies ran 24/7, either playing some music for non-serious listening, or connected to my late father’s 40-year-old Pioneer receiver, tuned to a classical station.
My listening room isn’t really set up for small speakers. I don’t have stands and the room is too big for small speakers. I connected them up and put one on the ARC line stage on my left equipment rack and the other on the DVD player on the right side. Sitting on the floor so that the speakers and I formed an equilateral triangle, the Wharfies do the mini-monitor, 3D, big-screen imaging thing. I find this sort of listening interesting, but fatiguing. All of my energies go in to processing the soundstage “magic”. and there’s none left over to just enjoy the music.
With any overachiever, you want to push it to (or past) its limits just to see, or in this case hear, how it will perform. Unreasonable from a system matching point of view, I connected the Wharfies to two different amplification chains. First to my own Audio Research line stage/power amp, and secondly to the Elekit TU-8340VK power/Aikido linestage combo. The Elekit had the KT77 tubes I really liked in the recent power tube shootout.
Also on board the Elekit were the optional Lundahl output transformers. A TU8340VK update will appear soon on WoS, detailing my thoughts on the Lundahls, as well as a pair of floor standing speakers from Triangle, and listening to the Elekit in triode mode.
With the ultralinear/triode switch on the Elekit set to triode, the Diamonds played cleanly at a louder level than I expected they would, though this was nowhere near concert-level Def Leppard, obviously. The Wharfies noticeably resolved the differences between the two amplification chains. The ARC pair imaged better, with the sound stage extending past the outer edges of the speakers, and with more definite positioning, especially the center fill between the speakers. There was also another small layer of detail revealed, with the ARC gear. The Elekit/Aikido was still enjoyable; there was a bit more excitement and intimacy to the sound than I heard with the more reserved ARC pair.
This is a pretty stunning achievement for a little pair of speakers that cost less than a family of four might spend for a day at an amusement park. And don’t think that big-buck amplification is required to enjoy these speakers. As you’ll read below, they were also a lot of fun connected up to my highly suspect kitchen system.
Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to have a look inside. Not an easy proposition. All I could do was remove the terminal cup and have a peek. The crossover is not just a capacitor and an inductor. Three caps, two of them film types, two inductors and at least two resistors were visible. The front on mine appears to be glued to the rest of the cabinet. I suspect that my Wharfies were not internally refurbished. The near-microscopic blemish, I’m assuming, was the reason for the lower price.
While my wife was out at yoga, I removed a small set of ancient speakers from atop our kitchen cabinets. The Wharfies were connected up and music, supplied by an old Rotel receiver and a CD player of questionable pedigree, poured forth. I spun some Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bob Marley and Lee Ritenour. I danced around the kitchen, not a pretty sight I’m sure, enjoying everything I played. The 210 doesn’t do the thing with the highs that some small speakers slip up on, notably make the treble too bright. On a speaker with limited bass extension, flat or especially raised treble response can lead to an off kilter sound. Wharfedale strikes a good balance between detail and extension in the higher octaves.
I took a few pictures, see below, but wasn’t watching the time. My wife got home when the Wharfies were playing Am I Wrong from Ritenour’s Six String Theory. My wife said, “They look nice, I like the sound too. They can stay right there.” What could I say? She not only tolerates my audio hobby but encourages it. It seems like I’ll be looking for another pair of speakers for my workshop.
Are these serious speakers for an audiophile? Yes and no. If you are an impoverished audiophile, or one with severe space limitations, they are worth every penny. If you can manage it, going one or two notches up the Diamond food chain would no doubt be beneficial. It you can’t, don’t sweat it, the 210 has very satisfying fidelity and a fun-to-price ratio that’s off the charts. These would also be fine speakers for a bedroom, kitchen or other “second system” as well. They’re also a great go-to speaker when a non-audiophile friend or relative asks for a recommendation.
I’m sure there are lots of other small speakers out there worthy of recommendation too, but I don’t regret buying the Wharfies for a minute and I don’t think anyone else will either. Just don’t let your significant other hear them until they are securely attached to the wall of your choice.
On a personal note: As I write this, it was about a year ago that I contacted Noam and inquired if he was looking for another equipment reviewer. I have to say this past year has been fun, but what astonishes me is the number of things I’ve learned. I hope I’ve been able to pass a few of these on to our readers.