Maybe it's coincidence, penance or simply market forces. Whatever the cause, I seem to be spending a lot of time lately with speakers competing in that 'difficult' price bracket: just above budget level. As this could also be called the 'first upgrade bracket', its importance is increasing as people relegate their cheapo-cheapo speakers to rear-channel duty once they bite the home cinema bullet. After all, they have to replace those speakers, now stuck at the back of the room, with another speaker, so why not move up to one a little bit -- or a whole lot -- better?
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You probably already know that something like 90% of all the loudspeakers sold in the UK sell for under �150 per pair because people in this country are so damned tight-fisted. (Remember: �150 = one month's worth of ciggies for a 40-per-day smoker, a month's beer for a casual pub denizen or three Indian mealsfor-two-plus-wine.) You probably also know that most of the so-called �99 wonders are audibly bettered by the models in the next category. After a brace of excellent �400-ish per pair models, the JM Labs Micron Carat and the Linn Tukan, I've been commanded to review a speaker selling for �279.90 per pair, and I'm at a loss to understand why two-and-a-half C-notes hasn't become the entry-level for 'serious' loudspeakers, replacing the '�99 wonder'.
Castle's Durham 900, though, suffers as do cheaper speakers costing only as much as a month's fags because those rock-bottom entry-level speakers are so good. The '900, then, must offer something to which cheaper speakers cannot aspire without their price tags increasing accordingly. And the most obvious details which separate the Durham 900 from lesser systems are the superbly finished, real-wood veneer cabinet, mirror-imaged enclosures with offset drivers and mirror-imaged grilles completing the aesthetic bonuses denied to (most) rock-bottom systems. Castle appears to be covering all the bases with this model, knowing that its mdeium size -- 400x215x243mm (HWD) -- and medium price will suggest both bookshelf and floor stand use, the former possible because of the forward firing port. The mirror imaging means that the speakers can be turned on their sides, too, with sonic and aesthetic symmetry retained.
Remove the grille and you uncover the port, a 130mm polypropylene-coned woofer with a massive double-ring magnet and a 25mm hard dome tweeter. The woofer incorporates a vented pole piece and its nitrile rubber surround is graduated in thickness to minimise non-linear distortion. When the Durham 990 is used vertically (on stands or on shelves), the woofers are situated toward the top with the tweeter nearly in the centre. Shelf-mounting with the speakers turned on the sides works well with the tweeters toward the centre, but this could vary with room size; in tiny rooms, the listener might prefer the tweeters on the outside.
For further proof that Castle is leaving nothing to chance, the double ring magnet structure eliminates stray magnetic flux leakage, so the Durham 900 is 'video safe' and a wise choice for those upgrading just because of home cinema. Another refinement is the use of three kinds of internal damping, with foam and BAF wadding used to eliminate internal reflections and standing waves, while damping pads are fitted to all internal surfaces.
Despite the audiophile's desire to make everything difficult and complicated -- and the Durham 900 will benefit from whatever brand of tweakery you care to employ -- this speaker delivers the bulk of its performance with minimal effort. Plunked onto a pair of 24in stands with positioning by instinct and wired whatever cables happened to be in use, the Durham 900 did not betray the integrity of the 'British, two-way, floor-stand mounted' loudspeaker genre. Its immediately evident virtues, though, were quite un-British because the Durham 900 complemented its Beeb-ish coherence and lack of boxiness with terrific dynamics and a liveliness associated with American speakers of a certain vintage. The neat trick, though, is that the added sparkle and 'hi-fi-ness' are exactly the hooks that allow speakers to win battles in A/B demonstrations in front of non-critical listeners, e.g. video addicts and penny-pinchers.
But it would be unfair to portray the Castle Durham 900 as some cynical, market-driven boom box designed to cash in on the home cinema boom. That it most certainly is not. Hey, even with new management I reckon that Yorkshire-based Castle -- one of our most traditional of speaker makers -- is incapable of cynicism. These fillips necessary for survival at the '900's price point, like video-safe drive units, a slightly forward sound, 90dB/1W sensitivity, a nice 8 ohm impedance and overload protection up to 300W smack more of common sense and a grasp of reality than of sleazoid marketing. Why? Because the Castle Durham 900 can behave like a thoroughbred when used as per an audiophile product. Which is the way I'd expect experienced hi-fi magazine readers to employ it. This is not, after all, Which or What Video.
Taming the '900 is accomplished mainly through amplifier selection, simply by using any amp above the level of the garbage which passes for entry-level or home-cinematic. Power isn't the issue; the wee Unison Reseach Simply Two, with but a dozen watts per channel, works wonderfully with the '900. No, it's a matter of sound quality, the Durham benefitting from the extra transparency, coherence and control not offered by nasty little integrateds or most five-channel cine-amps. Because the Durham 900's character lies somewhere inbetween audiophile standards and the demands of the marketplace, there's a fine point where the performance offers the best of both worlds and few of the demerits.
It's unlikely that you'll ever rid the '900 of its mildly exaggerated treble 'excitement', break away from its in-your-lap presentation. Nor should you want to if that's the kind of sound you prefer. In this respect I was reminded of the Linn Tukan which -- even when driven by laid-back, recessed vintage tube equipment -- rams the sound down your throat; such forceful presentation is its signature and exactly the reason why its fans will adore it. The '900 isn't quite so Ivor-like, but neither is it shy in the British box manner of the 1960s/early1970s period which set the tone.
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