Wharfedale's original Diamond bookshelf speaker was introduced in 1981 in England, and the little darling made a big splash on our shores a few years later. The Brits dominated the worldwide market for pricey minimonitors, but the Diamond was heralded as a breakthrough design, mostly because it was the first truly affordable British minispeaker. The current, ninth-generation, models are not only holding the line on relative affordability, they're built to higher standards than ever before. The sound has evolved too, and as a result the Wharfedale Diamond 9.5 tower ($799 per pair) may be the best speaker we've heard for less than $1,000. The Wharfedale Diamond 9.5's sexy curves were probably inspired by some of the better British and Italian speakers--this tower might be the most beautiful speaker we've ever seen for less than a grand. The details in the build quality are exemplary. We noted that the speaker's terminal "cap" supporting the biwire binding posts is a cast-metal housing (even expensive speakers usually make do with plastic parts). The rounded cabinets are fairly inert and finished to a high standard. The only obvious cost-cutting move is the use of vinyl-wrapped finishes, but at least it's a sonically benign compromise. That said, we were most impressed with our samples' distinctive brushed-silver finish, and the speakers are also available in black, cherry, beech, or rosewood (the last two are not imported into the United States). The Diamond 9.5 measures 15 inches wide, 40.5 inches high, and 11.5 inches deep. Considering its big-and-tall size, the tower weighs a manageable 40 pounds.
The Diamond series also includes two more towers, three bookshelf models, three center speakers, a dedicated surround model, and two subwoofers. The same tweeter is used on all Diamond 9 models, so you can mix 'n' match within the line with no loss of sonic consistency. The Wharfedale Diamond 9.5 features woven 6.5-inch Kevlar midrange and bass drivers that resemble the ones we see on B&W speakers, except that the Diamonds' are black, and the B&Ws' are a pale yellow. The midrange's and woofer's cast-alloy metal frames are extremely strong and thin (the frame is the structural part of the speaker behind the cone). Many competitors rely on thick plastic or stamped-metal frames that can restrict airflow inside the speaker--a bad move because it tends to muddy the sound. The 9.5's treble range is handled by a 1-inch soft-dome tweeter with a neodymium magnet and a machined aluminum faceplate.
The deeply curved sides of the 9.5's cabinet reduce internal standing waves that invariably add a resonant coloration to flat box speakers' sound. A large port in the rear enhances the speaker's low bass extension. Wharfedale includes a set of leveling floor "spikes" to provide a stable foundation on carpeting or rugs.
The 9.5's binding posts deserve special mention. These all-metal, gold-plated connectors are pretty enough to be audio jewelry and versatile enough to easily accept the thickest bare wire ends, spades, or banana jacks. Two sets of connectors are provided for those of you who would like to biwire your 9.5 for slightly better sound. We'll cut right to the chase: the Wharfedale Diamond 9.5 sounds like the big speaker it is, and we thoroughly enjoyed exploring its potential. For our home-theater listening tests, we used a system comprising a Diamond 9.CS center speaker ($350 list), a pair of Diamond 9.1 bookshelf speakers as surrounds ($350 per pair), and a Diamond SW150 subwoofer ($450). The White Noise DVD is an updated voices-from-the-dead flick that relies on "electronic voice phenomena" pseudoscience to advance its plot. The surround mix in particular was extremely effective, building tension whenever voices of dead people emerged from waves of dense static. In our darkened home theater, the Diamond towers utterly disappeared as sound sources, and their imaging was sharply focused.
Elvis Costello's new Club Date: Live in Memphis DVD felt absolutely live; the sound of the band's keyboards, bass, and drums was exceptionally crisp and clear. The vocals from Elvis's duets with Emmylou Harris cut through with a vengeance, and we could easily hear the timbre of EC's voice change as he bore down on the mic or backed off a bit. We've played this DVD on a few HTIBs and small speaker packages and come away unimpressed, but we decided to give the disc one more chance on the Diamonds, and we're glad we did. This music needs to be played loud, and it helped the 9.5s sound better and better as the dBs piled on without causing any signs of strain.
Speaking of volume, the 9.5's punchy bass had us scrambling to check the spec sheet. Yup, it's just a 6.5-inch woofer, but it sounds like an 8-inch woofer. Bass was deep and still nimble enough that we could discern every note slamming out of Davey Faragher's bass guitar. The 9.5's bass brawn is on a par with that of the big and Infinity towers we've tested here at CNET, and might even be superior in terms of definition and low-end clarity. The 9.5's balance creates a very exciting sound, so movies and rock music have an undeniable immediacy.
Listening to CDs in two-channel mode, we felt that the bass and treble ranges sometimes sounded a little pushy or aggressive. We were able to tame that brightness a bit when we didn't "toe-in" the speakers and just aimed them straight ahead. When we brought the Diamond 9.CS center and Diamond 9.1 surround speakers back into the fray with Dolby Pro Logic II, the sound was smoother and more laid-back.
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