Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

I’ve had the good fortune to travel to a number of popular European cities in the past few years. Each has its own distinct personality, but I’ve found none of them -- including Amsterdam, Barcelona, London, and Madrid -- to be as pleasant as Munich. Everything is just so clean and well put together. It’s jarring for someone who lives in Philadelphia to see and experience such cleanliness. Philly is a city where character is really just a euphemism for “there’s an awful lot of trash blowing down the street” and “I just got yelled at in a semi-indecipherable dialect of English for something that wasn’t my fault.” I love my hometown for many different reasons. But between Munich’s cleanliness, the kindness of its inhabitants, and the seemingly carefree lifestyle -- at least around my hotel -- I know it’s a bit out of my league.

Hans Wetzel

This was emphasized by the locals’ choices of clothing -- which exhibit a certain class -- and vehicle. I lost count of the number of BMW M cars and Porsche 911 variants I saw around town, to say nothing of the multiple Lamborghinis I heard, then saw, cruising down Leopoldstrasse.

So it was no surprise that the High End show, at the Munich Order Center, was chock full of obscenely expensive gear. I’m as interested in ogling stuff I can’t afford as the next guy, but when room after room featured systems retailing for well over €50,000, my eyes began to glaze over. There was definitely a paucity of affordable hi-fi gear at High End 2017, but a few speaker makers showed up with the goods, and they looked promising.

WharfedaleWharfedale Diamond bookshelfs

In recent years we’ve reviewed only one Wharfedale loudspeaker -- the Diamond 220 bookshelf, which Vince Hanada called a “gem” in his 2016 review -- but I’m hoping we can secure a pair of samples of the British company’s brand-new Diamond 11 line. Prices weren’t available for the three floorstanders, but the three bookshelf/stand-mount models were priced just right: Diamond 11.0 (€199/pair), with 4” midrange-woofer; Diamond 11.1 (€349/pair), with 5” midrange-woofer; and the sizable Diamond 11.2 (€449/pair), featuring a 6.5” midrange-woofer. Each model uses the same soft-dome tweeter, while all other drivers have woven-Kevlar cones. If the prices are impressively low, the fit and finish are even more so: hidden mounting bolts for the drivers, aluminum accent rings, and high-quality finishes. I don’t usually get too excited about bookshelf speakers, let alone super-affordable ones, but the Diamonds 11.0 and 11.1 look particularly tasty. I intend to contact Wharfedale about a review pair later in the year.

My affinity for KEF products isn’t difficult to spot -- after all, I own pairs of R700s and LS50s. But High End was my first opportunity to see KEF’s LS50W up close, and I got pretty excited about it. This $2199/pair wireless, active speaker looks to be a crazy value, what with amplifiers, DACs, and streaming capability all built in, for less than the price of one Devialet Silver Phantom. The KEF folks confirmed that review samples are in the cards now that they’ve finalized the LS50W’s accompanying software, so expect a review in the coming months. I’ll be curious to hear how it compares with the Devialet Silver Phantom and Dynaudio’s Xeo 2. DSP-driven, wireless active speakers are maturing at a rapid clip, and that’s a very good thing for audiophiles on a budget.

KEFKEF Q floorstanders

KEF also had their updated Q-series speakers, and my attention was drawn to the floorstanding models. Dressed in Satin Black, they looked like Mini-Me versions of Magico’s far more expensive Q models. Their somewhat traditional profiles are to be expected at this price range, what with their squared profiles and monochromatic color scheme (Satin White is also available). When I saw that each floorstanding model had three low-frequency cones, I instantly thought they’d be total bass hounds, but they were on silent display -- so who knows? Each tower model is a two-and-a-half-way design with a full-range Uni-Q coaxial driver and a single woofer; the other two cones are passive radiators. The Q750 ($1499.98/pair), with 6.5” woofer and passive radiators, would be perfect to compare to my reference R700s, as well as to the loudspeakers below . . .

Monitor AudioMonitor Audio Silver floorstanders

. . . starting with something from the sixth generation of Monitor Audio’s Silver Series. Until very recently I owned a pair of Silver 10 towers, the flagship of the fifth generation. They looked and sounded great, but their two 8” woofers per side ultimately proved too big for my narrow listening room. Fortunately, each fifth-generation Silver model has now been replaced, and the generous blokes at Monitor have kept all prices unchanged. The sixth-gen Silver towers include attractive footers for the floorstanders (gen five sat on plinths), and baffles that are subtly more curvy. More important, each driver has been updated, for a claimed improvement in sound quality. My eye was drawn to the three-way Silver 300 ($2000/pair), which has a 1” aluminum-magnesium tweeter, a 4” midrange, and two 6” woofers. With a little luck, I can line up that one for review later this summer.

ElacElac AF-61

Which brings me to Elac. We’ve been trying for a couple years now to review something of theirs, but apparently we weren’t talking to the right people. After being pointed in the right direction by SoundStage! colleague Brent Butterworth, I’ve now been assured that we can get review samples of Elac speakers in short order. A good thing, as the company introduced and demoed at High End the floorstanding model in their new Adante range. The AF-61 (€6000/pair) wasn’t the prettiest speaker I saw in Munich, but it sure is innovative. The three-way design features three 6.5” woofers, each in its own dedicated, vented chamber inside the cabinet, its output feeding into another, larger chamber and coupled to the front-mounted, 8” passive radiators seen in the picture. Passive radiators are very much back in vogue, thanks to the efforts of such companies as GoldenEar Technology and Definitive Technology, and I’m betting that this Elac model is pretty special.

But Elac’s year-old Uni-Fi FS U5 Slim ($1498/pair in Satin Black or Satin White) was the one speaker I saw in Munich that I couldn’t look away from. This three-way tower boasts a 1” soft-dome tweeter concentrically mounted in the throat of a 4” aluminum midrange unit, which sits above three 5.25” woofers. With its aluminum footers and stylishly skinny cabinet, the Uni-Fi FS U5 Slim may be my favorite of the speakers mentioned here.

My hopes are that, in the next six months, we can secure review samples of each of the models I’ve mentioned, and that we can then get Canada’s National Research Council to measure several of them in their anechoic chamber. High End 2017 may not have offered the most comprehensive selection of affordable audio gear, but my goal is to review a cross-section of speakers that will be most relevant to the average audiophile. I’m far more excited about the prospect of reviewing genuinely affordable gear than I was about the €90,000/pair speaker cables and monstrous, several-hundred-thousand-euro speakers I saw in Munich, home of the kempt and the well-heeled. And I was happy to land back in Philadelphia, even as trash swirled gently in the cool air of late spring.

. . . Hans Wetzel