I have spent the majority of my life as an audiophile and have tried subwoofer/monitor speaker systems a few times. At college, I had some Realistic/Radio Shack speakers with an NEC subwoofer. Everyone on the dorm floor knew of the system, so when it came time for a dance at the school my name came up as a potential candidate to loan the stereo for the dance. I politely declined; there was no way my rig was going to be pushed to the limit (read abused) for a thinly-appreciative student body.
Once I was out of school and had a bit more sophisticated gear I latched onto a pair of Vandersteen 2W subs that had belonged to a local dealer. I ran them variously with Vandersteen 1C, Magnepan 1.6QR, Chapman Audio T-7, and Eminent Technology LFT-8A speakers. Looking back, I can see that I was yearning for a larger floor standing speaker experience but had not invested enough to get the quality needed to satisfy my desire. I was using sub/speaker systems in an attempt to “fool” my ears into thinking they were hearing huge speakers. Did it work? Not entirely, as is evidenced by the sequence of speakers I plowed through.
Eventually, I graduated to larger tower speakers and have been far more satisfied. However, the experience of reviewing the Tannoy Glenair, which sounded best to my ear with a near-field listening position, caused me to think again about subwoofer /monitor systems. An additional stimulus to this review occurred at RMAF 2009 when I ventured into the Gold Sound room, hosted by a local Colorado dealer for Wharfedale, featuring the top-of-the-line Airedale as well as Opus Series speakers. The Opus 2-2 was playing and caught my attention. By time I returned home and researched the line I was torn between the larger Opus 2-M2 with SW380 subs and the 2-3 towers. I decided it was time to conduct a friendly competition between siblings; why not try both and report on the filial virtues of the different platforms?
Consequently, this report will not only engage the nature of Wharfedale’s current offerings in the Opus line, but also discuss the merits and pitfalls of one’s selection of platform for main speakers. After my previous attempts at finding satisfaction with subwoofer/monitor systems, I had concluded that the ultimate could not be achieved in such a fashion; one had to move to a larger floor standing speaker to achieve the ultimate in performance. Now I wonder, is that absolutely true? Had I really given it a fair shake? Is it possible to achieve every bit as satisfactory results from an alternative platform? What if a properly established monitor/sub set up yielded an immensely gratifying sound? What about all those who say they can afford a full-range speaker but choose not to, in favor of the soundstage generated by a smaller pair of mains? These are the kinds of questions I will seek to explore in this article.
Why one of the Wharfedale speakers is not called the Opus Magnum I cannot speculate, except to say it would be a killer name; they should consider it for the next iteration. Such a name would not be out of place, considering Wharfedale’s tradition of speaker manufacturing stretching back to the early 1930’s, when Gilbert Briggs built his first speaker in the cellar of his home. His fledgling company produced transformers for Marconi during WWII. In 1945, the company produced a two-way loudspeaker which used a 10” tweeter and a crossover so heavy it took two men to lift!
In the 1950’s, Gilbert collaborated with Peter Walker of Quad. Using Wharfedale speakers and Quad amplification they established a series of concerts whereby audiences were able to experience live versus recorded music. In the early 1960’s, the company developed the “roll surround” for drivers, and produced its first speakers utilizing ceramic magnets. Also at this time the company began to expand into production of tuners, amps and even turntables.
In the 1970’s, the bustling company built a new factory which took seven years to complete. Emphasis was placed upon speaker kits, sold under the name Speakercraft. Hi-Fi was hot as a hobby such that Wharfedale’s production reached 800,000 drive units! Development of polypropylene allowed development of micro sized monitors like the popular Diamond.
In 1998, Wharfedale Pro was established to serve the professional audio market. Today, it produces amplifiers, mixing desks, effects modules, equalizers and lighting. After 75 years of loudspeaker manufacturing, Wharfedale now is located in a 1.5 million square-foot facility which produces every element of their speakers in house. It is one of the few companies which maintain absolute control over the development of their speakers from the drawing board to finished product.
Technology in the Opus speaker line
The Opus 2-3 is a three-way floor standing speaker configured with two 250mm “Tri-lam” woofers, 75mm textile dome mid, and 25mm textile dome tweeter. It has a front firing port just below the woofers, and at the rear of the teardrop shaped cabinet are sturdy splayed posts for tri-wiring. The wide offset posts may be a bit of a stretch for short speaker leads, but I like them as they reduce the risk of terminations coming in contact with each other. A triple jumper plate is used to single wire the entire speaker. If it is moved up or down one grouping of posts, so as to service only two sets, then bi-wiring is possible by joining either the Mid/Treble or the Mid/Bass. The Opus 2-3 was finished in the Satin Maple, a bit unusual but appealing with its slightly yellow hue. All the speakers come with well machined stands fitted with huge spikes as well as optional rounded feet for hard flooring.
Shrink the floor stander a bit and you’ve got a pretty good approximation of the 2-M2 large monitor. One bass driver is removed and the other diminished to a 200mm Kevlar design. However, the design of the cabinet, mid and tweeter drivers, and binding posts remain similar. Assuming the different wood associated with the satin finish, the monitors were lighter in color, almost appearing to be a slightly bleached yellow. The attending metal stands for the 2-M2 are approximately 30” tall and are optionally faced with a veneer of the same wood as the speaker cabinet (flat black is standard). The stands I used were solidly built and have a thin rubber protective layer on the top plate to protect the cabinet of the speaker.
The SW380 subwoofer seems to be the most technologically complex of the speakers under review. Though it uses only one 15” (380mm) Tri-lam driver, it is a powered, configurable sub through its internal remote controlled processor. This is a sealed enclosure sub, with a new class A/B 600 Watt amplifier and, “…an advanced microprocessor controlled analogue low-pass filter section for sonic performance with a low noise floor.” The low pass filter can be disabled for use in high-end audio systems. Customization of the sound comes through the ability to reverse phase 180 degrees, implement low pass filters at 35Hz to 85Hz at 10Hz increments, and establish four memory presets of level, frequency and phase. The remote is simple and well laid out; all functions of the subwoofer must be activated via the remote, including STANDBY, which mutes it.
In’s and out’s of the SW380
The inputs and outputs of the SW380 are worthy of comment, as they allow an unusual set up which can impact results dramatically. The sub receives either SPEAKER LEVEL or LINE LEVEL inputs. The manual shows both Left and Right leads utilized for a single SW380. However, when operating a stereo pair, one set can be used. Mysteriously, I was not able to get either sub to operate via the SPEAKER LEVEL inputs. In that configuration the sub played a full-range signal and was not even able to be muted via Standby mode. Speaking with Bob Springston, Wharfedale’s U.S. distributor, I was encouraged to pull the amp from the cabinet and see if some leads had not been attached to the amp. However, even when the screws were removed the amp held fast, obviously glued into place. I was not about to rip it from the cabinet.
Conversely, the Line Level inputs worked perfectly. Not only were the subs fully controlled, but were able to pass along the signal to the main speakers via their Outputs. Normally outputs are associated with the components sending signals to subwoofers, not signals being passed along from subwoofers tocomponents. However, this is precisely what the SW380 does, and it makes for a nifty solution to the perceived “slowness” of the large 15” driver. My notes while listening state, “No slough in bass… very controlled… no overhang.”
The use of the subs’ Line Level inputs turned out to be a very good method of establishing a system. Directions for this unusual maneuver are shown clearly in the owner’s manual. This document is more like a report, with extensive information on the entire Opus line, complete with extended measurements and graphs of performance. While the manual is information rich, it fails in some respects to be user friendly. For instance, discussion of the use of the SW380 subwoofers involves basic instructions for set up by either speaker level or line level inputs. However, nowhere is there explanation of setting up two subwoofers. Another oversight is the omission of explanation of the line level outputs in a discussion about line level inputs. Granted, the addition of a subwoofer is hardly rocket science, but some people are so loathe system assembly that they really do need all the direction they can get.
I listened to some difficult material for subs to keep up with mains, especially monitors. Brian Bromberg’s It Is What It Is contains some wickedly fast passages which sloppy big drivers will not handle well. Though abysmal in frequency, I detected no lag to the large drivers. Similarly, Christian rapper Toby Mac has some pretty raggedly recorded music, with saturated recording levels making it a real challenge for bass drivers to not overload. “Super Spud Blast” has bass so low you could shake potatoes from the ground (tough to do with a cement floor)! Again, no sloppiness, no hesitancy on the part of the SW380 was detected.
The Opus “Time Delay” System
This feature, the subwoofer “signal pass through,” as I’ll call it, saves the day for the platform of subwoofer and monitor. In other instances, I have used subs, typically stereo, and they invariably lag the quicker drivers of even large floor standing speakers. Consequently it sounds diffused, quite a bit too nebulous. Maybe it was the bottom firing, slot loaded nature of the Vandersteen 2W, but even this triple 8” driver configuration sounded a bit muffled and sluggish to my ears. When I moved up to the larger Legacy Audio main speakers with 12” dual forward-firing bass drivers, I let go of the Vandy subs.
Now, however, with the SW380 I was hearing for the fist time a huge subwoofer cone sounding as though it was completely in sync with the main speaker. By receiving the signal a split second before the mains, the sub had the time needed to get a “head start” so as to be neck and neck with the 2-M2’s relatively small bass driver. The result was very seamless, and the subs were able to disappear quite nicely. If I wanted, I could dial up the level and they would make their presence known by producing noticeably more bottom-end energy than the monitors could muster. As a bass lover, this was far preferable to the plodding of a sub receiving the signal concurrently with the mains.
A lovely advantage to this arrangement is dispensing with attempts to locate the monitors close to the subwoofers, or tougher yet, locating the subwoofers close to you, in an attempt to have them sound time coherent with the monitors. I was able to place the 2-M2 well into the room, 66” from the head wall, while leaving the subs in their respective corners in front, about 1 foot from each corner wall. It should be noted that I have treated those walls with sound panels, so these helped keep first reflections off the head and side walls at bay.
An oddity manifested itself as I was using the Ayon CD-5 player with internal preamplifier and the Pathos Classic One MkIII tube integrateds. Normally, one can select their preamp control, either via the CD-5’s preamp or the Pathos Integrateds. However, since the signal goes directly from the CD-5 to the SW380 subs, then to the integrateds, I could not use the player’s level control. If I did, the subs’ level would be affected and not the Pathos amps. I was able to gain entire system control of the subs and mains by using the Pathos’ volume controls which followed the subwoofers in the audio chain.
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