Wharfedale Pacific Evolution Series Speaker System
I remember when Ferraris and Maseratis topped out around 400 ponies, but, nowadays, that much oomph is available in Ford Mustangs. Blisteringly fast rides have never been cheaper, and, over in the consumer electronics world, the speed with which technology migrates from bleeding-edge surround processors to $500 A/V receivers demonstrates the benefits of trickle-down engineering. But the quality gap between high-end and affordable speakers hasn't appreciably narrowed, until now. Wharfedale's real-world-priced Pacific Evolution Series speakers are engineered like far more expensive speakers.
Beauty That's More Than Skin Deep
I imagine that a lot of audiophiles who eyeball the Pacific Evolution models for the first time will note their more-than-passing resemblance to B&W's exalted Nautilus 800 Series and Sonus faber's oh-so-sensual Cremonas. Those speakers' complex curves are no doubt pricey to fabricate, but the appeal isn't merely cosmetic. Generally, curved structures are stronger and stiffer than slab-sided, right-angled designs, so gently rounded cabinets are less likely to compete with the drivers as sound sources. What's more, the curved panels of the Evolution speakers' medium-density-fiberboard cabinets reduce internal standing waves that could potentially color the speaker's sound. That's one of the reasons we're seeing more and more high-end models boasting seductive curves. But indulging in said curves can severely flatten your wallet. The Evolutions, however, will make a far smaller dent in your finances than most.
How did Wharfedale hold the line on pricing? First, while they still design everything in England, they now have a factory in China where they build virtually every speaker part, right down to the floor-leveling spikes. Wharfedale also bypassed the normal distribution channels in the United States to eliminate hefty importer fees. It's this level of vertical integration that allows Wharfedale to sell high-quality speakers for a fraction of the price. For example, while most similarly priced speakers get by with vinyl finishes, the Evolutions come decked out in stunning real-wood veneers. Instead of a plastic terminal cap, the Evolutions' connectors are fitted to a cast-metal housing; the speakers' burly biwire gold-plated posts can accept the thickest of cables. The Evolution 40 tower is 9 inches wide, and its curved side panels taper down to just 3.25 inches on the rear panel. The skinny speaker stands on a dedicated plinth—that's British for "base"—that uses tall spikes to stabilize the speaker on thick carpets or rugs. The tweeter is mounted near the top of the front baffle to minimize reflections and provide a more open sound. The Evolution 40s' woven Kevlar woofer and midrange drivers are housed in optimally sized internal compartments. I'm not exactly sure how they did it with just one 6.5-inch woofer, but the Evolution 40 managed to deliver seriously deep bass (down to what sounded like the low 40-hertz range) in my room.
The Evolution Center speaker's front-mounted port won't suffer any bass-stifling indignities if you place the speaker in a cabinet or up against a wall. The Evolution DFS surround speaker's softly rounded pyramid shape looks unique but sure makes a lot of sense for a bipole, side-firing design. Since the Evolution DFS doesn't have a flat bottom, you can't just plop it on a stand or shelf—wall-mounting is your only option. If that's not possible, you should opt for a set of Evolution 8 or Evolution 10 bookshelf monitors for surround duty. For the Evolution DFS, Wharfedale's designers nixed the wood veneers in favor of a black or white cloth covering.
The rounded SW 300 subwoofer not only picks up on the Evolutions' smooth look; it offers couch potatoes the ultimate luxury: a remote control. Not just for the sub's volume level, but also phase and crossover settings (or crossover bypass). Since I've found that most SACD/DVD-Audio players' subwoofer output levels are a good deal lower than their Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS levels, I goosed the bass level up when I played high-resolution discs. Whenever you change the settings, the SW 300's LED display lights for 10 seconds and then disappears. How very elegant! The SW 300's 12-inch Tri-Lam woofer incorporates a mix of fiberglass and carbon-fiber layers, and, since the sub is a sealed-box design, its bass is tighter, with better transient response than more common ported designs. Wharfedale's engineers resisted the temptation to use an off-the-shelf digital amp and instead designed a 300-watt-rated Class AB analog amp.
I explored the Pacific Evolutions' performance envelope with two sets of electronics: first with my reference Sunfire Theater Grand III surround processor and Ayre V-6x power amp, all wired up with Analysis Plus' Silver Oval cables. To get back in touch with reality, I also auditioned the Evolutions with a $300 Onkyo TX-SR503 A/V receiver (I used both systems with my Pioneer DV-45A DVD player). Yes, the big rig was better in every way (duh!), but the sound with the Onkyo was pretty amazing, too.
The very first DVD I played, Birth, floored me. The score's massive tympanies and throbbing low strings provide a foundation for the film's brooding atmosphere; the Evolutions' sound was huge, weighty, and had the poise of a well-bred system. The Machinist, a paranoiac thriller par excellence was next, and the DVD's naturalistic sounds—especially the metallic din in the machinist's shop—added to the high anxiety of the experience. Oh, it didn't hurt that this film uses nightmarish music to keep you on edge, and the spooky-sounding theremin was especially effective. Christian Bale shed 63 pounds to get down to a ghastly 110 pounds for the lead role, and yet the rail-thin actor's voice was resolutely full-bodied. Silly me, I was worried that the smallish center speaker wouldn't be able to keep up with the big Evolution 40 towers, but the Evolution Center totally surpassed its modest dimensions.
Contemporary soul singers had left me cold until I stumbled onto Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings' Naturally CD. Whoa, Ms. Jones can wail with the best of the 1960s shouters, and the Dap Kings' funky big-band arrangements have Isaac Hayes/Stax fingerprints all over them. Through the Evolutions, you'll feel every last bit of the band's soulful swagger in your gut. More subtle music from the Eels' shadowy new CD, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, demonstrated the Evolutions' nuanced dexterity over this two-disc set's epic journey. These fragile tunes creep under your skin—their melancholy melodies evoke Beck's Sea Change—but, for my money, the Eels' music is deeper and richer. In stereo, the Evolution 40's soundstage is comfortably big and wide, if lacking a slight degree of pinpoint precision. The Police's rock-steady beats on "Roxanne" had plenty of kick, maybe even a little too much. The big Evolution 40's low end can sound a little extra-plump at times, but that extra fattening tends to flatter music and movies, so I'm not complaining. If you want cool accuracy, the Evolution Series might not be right for you. I don't mean to suggest that the Wharfedales are right up there with the world's best speakers; they're hardly the last word on resolution or transparency, but the Pacific Evolutions are immensely satisfying speakers.
• Extraordinary build quality
• Big, warm sound
• Remote-controlled subwoofer