No longer: Wharfedale has found Antwerp in China, and the result is a speaker best described as revolutionary. And which has nothing to do with Chairman Mao.
Sharing no components whatsoever with its utterly charmless predecessor, the Diamond 8.1 is a completely brand-new design reminiscent of its immediate forebear in dimensions (and name) only. Actually, the 8.1 is some 2in shallower, so its 11.75x7.75x7.2in (HWD) measurements are similar only in width and height. Neither, though, is this a return to the '82 original, which older readers will recall was even teensier in comparison by being 2.5in shorter.
According to Wharfedale, the Diamond 8 Series, of which the 8.1 is the smallest, is a complete departure for the company, a return to audiophile values of yore. Funny, then, that the best speaker they've made in decades is manufactured entirely, bar the woofer cone material, in a country which has of late been regarded by its (envy-motivated) detractors as similar to Japan in the 1950s: nice price, shame about the quality.
But China's quality curve is improving even faster than Japan's, which took some 20-25 years from the end of WWII until it reached the point where 'Made In Japan' was a benefit rather than a demerit. If you consider that China has, in real terms, only been open to the West for a decade, then you have to agree that Wharfedale and countless others have trained their Asian staff well. In this case, if there was no 'Made In China' sticker, you would think that the Diamond 8.1 came from Denmark.
Let's not be coy about this. Wharfedale uses Chinese manufacturing facilities for the same reason as everyone else: to keep prices down. When you learn how inexpensive is the Diamond 8.1, though, you'll be grateful that China is entering the 20th, if not quite the 21st Century. Yes, KK has now found a bigger bargain than the still-luscious Tandy LX-5 Pro...
Competition and Comparison
To compare Wharfdale's Diamond 8.1 speakers against other speakers please read our reviews for the Rogers db101 speakers and the Opera Platea speakers. You can read more by visiting our Bookshelf Speaker section.
It's not all good news, though: the Diamond 8.1
Although coloured in the sort of subtle champagne worthy of vintage Marantz or current Quad tube gear, the Diamond 8.1 suffers because of its gilded Allen bolts, a tawdry injection-moulded-on-to-the-baffle, gold-plated Wharfedale signature/log, unnecessary grooves and the sculpting around the front port. I know: there are consumers who think that Caesar's Palace d cor is subtle and that Elton John dresses down; I'm not among them. But maybe simple boxes with nice wood and plain grilles are too Last Century for today's market. The 'artiste' who fashioned this has been watching way too many anime cartoons, and those who approved it clearly forgot that the 8.1 was supposed to be a break away from the previously-mined trailer-park-trash/moron market with its taste determined by running shoes which look like they were stolen off of a Power Ranger. Opt instead for the all-black version, and forget about cheap'n'nasty, let alone cheap'n'cheerful maple/gold version. Maybe, if this sucker is a big a hit as it should, Wharfedale will release an 8.1SE, with the baffle stripped of frippery...
Not that anything else needs changing - far from it. This speaker is (sonically) so close to perfect as to be upsetting. It will, if the retailers realise what they have on their hands, destroy the entry-level sector for all other brands. Unfortunately, no retailer in his or her right mind wants you to leave the shop wholly satisfied with something which costs 'X', some absolute steal of a purchase which delivers the performance of something costing eight times as much. Remember: retailers are the only ones in the UK who don't complain about rip-off Britain, �16 CDs and cars costing 30 percent more than they should.
Continue to Page 2 for Critical Listening and the Conclusion
At the top of the 8.1's baffle in the central position is a 1in ferrofluid-cooled, silk dome tweeter - no metal tizz here - fitted with a neodymium magnet. It rests in an orifice with flared edges to prevent diffraction problems. Directly below it is a 5.25in long-throw mid/bass driver with genuine Kevlar cone, distinctive in that its raw yellow colouring and clearly visible weave tell you that you're not looking at paper or plastic. This driver boasts 'Flexaural surround rim resonance control', a nitrile rubber inverted surround (which had one visitor from a rival firm prodding it and sighing), vented dual layer voice coils on an aluminium former, an 'excursion-limited' spider and a profiled phase plug to further reduce resonance and improve off-axis performance. And off-axis performance is one of this masterpiece's special party tricks.
Below the woofer is a front-mounted port, so those using the 8.1 in small rooms will be able to use them near the wall without restricting its flow. But that would be a mistake, because, when positioned 24in or more from all walls, the 8.1 makes such good use of free space that you'll swear you were listening to a dipole made by Wharfedale's sister brand.
At the back, there are multi-way binding posts in sufficient numbers for bi-wiring, with quality smacking of serious audiophilia. These rest in a recess, and are fitted in a row of four, rather than one pair above the other. They're linked by stout bridging bars, and mounted, with a minimalist crossover, to an integral PCB assembly. I should mention here that I actually preferred them single-wired; bi-wiring mode seemed slightly more open, but openness is never an issue with this speaker. Conversely, they sounded more 'of a piece', or more coherent in single-wire mode, which is therefore the trade-off I found least compromising.
Although the price and the specs of 100W power handling, 86dB sensitivity and 6 ohm impedance clearly point to use with 'a classic 40W solid-state integrated amp', I cared not about their minimum performance. I wanted to hear the max. Although I agree wholeheartedly that components MUST be assessed in the context in which they'll be used, I wasn't in the mood for low-fi. Instead, I hooked them up to the 2995 Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista M3 integrated amp, with a couple of hundred watts per side and sound one the right side of heavenly. I fed it with the Nu-Vista 3D CD player and the Transfiguration Temper/SME V/SME10 cartridge/arm/turntable combination.
It was immediately apparent that the Wharfedale Diamond 8.1 was no normal speaker. Even though the first sounds I fed it were mono (Louis Prima's 'Just A Gigolo'), I was struck by a solid-central image which I had never experienced before. So disconcerting was it that I played it for a rival brand's designer who confirmed what I was hearing. It had transformed mono into something considerably more palpable when, for years, we've been seduced by mono reproduction of a diffuse nature which almost provides the illusion of stereo. Instead, with these the speakers spaced 7ft apart and with a tightly defined image at dead centre, there was the deliriously baffling deception of no sound whatsoever emerging from those two boxes to either side of the musical image. The image floated in front of me, truly holographic, utterly vivid, wholly involving. Yet still purely mono.
Moving onto superior recordings of a two-channel nature, especially Classic Records' better-than-the-original vinyl reissue of Crosby Stills & Nash, Shirley Bassey with Nelson Riddle, and Willy DeVille's 'Assassin Of Love', the 8.1s continued to astonish with a soundstage so wide and so deep that one listener thought he was hearing the massive Apogee Scintillas sitting behind the Diamonds. Image height was superlative, if not quite the best I've experienced. What bordered on 'sounding like 10,000 per pair' was the overall stage width, depth and image placement within the sound stage. Whatever way you cut it, the speakers did the best disappearing act I've EVER heard from a box-type speaker, including the LS3/5A. They sounded unreservedly gargantuan.
Wharfedale suggests stand-mounting the 8.1 with the speaker facing the listener rather than firing straight ahead, with enough toe-in so that you don't see the sides of the enclosure when you look at each speaker. This created a triangle of, as I said above, 7ft between the speakers, with the hot seat 8ft from the speaker line. Turning one's head or moving off-axis resulted in less of a change than I expected, despite the array being set up for a hot seat. What was constant regardless of where I sat or stood was astonishing clarity, top-to-bottom cohesion, so much bass that one visitor thought I had a subwoofer in the room and a naturalness in the midband which recalled the old Quad ESL.
A downside? If you hammer them to threshold-of-pain levels, you will detect some sibilance on vocals and strings. That's it. But believe me, these go loud enough - even with 30W solid-state integrateds - never to need be driven to that point. Unfortunately, mid-fi integrated amps will not show you what these can do because of the lack of refinement and dynamic capability which you only get from high-end amps. But let's see you try to arrange a demo with a retailer who'll let you audition a speaker of this price on the finest system in the store. If you can, he will be embarrassed because of the havoc the 8.1 will wreak on his carefully plotted upgrade path for regular customers.
Wharfedale's Steve Hewlett has designed a work of genius. As the
Diamond 8.1 sells for 119.95 per pair, you could run down to the
nearest Wharfedale outlet and buy a pair just for the sheer hell of it,
instead of your next 10 CDs or six DVDs. It will do justice, in a
14x22ft room, to 50,000 worth of electronics. Just don't blame me if
whatever other speaker you were using ends up gathering dust. The
Wharfedale Diamond 8.1 truly deserves to be described as 'astonishing'.