Wharfedale is an iconic British loudspeaker brand whose heyday was arguably the nineteen seventies, at the peak of the British hi-fi boom when it was owned by the Rank Organisation. Founded by Gilbert Arthur Briggs in his Ilkley home in the valley of the River Wharfe in 1932, the company designed and built all its own drive units, or at least latterly shared them with other Rank organisation products. This gave them a distinctive sound, and one that proved exceedingly popular.
His famous book, Loudspeakers: The Why and How of Good Reproduction, was published in 1948. It proved a popular reference work for budding speaker designers and hi-fi enthusiasts alike, and was reprinted many times. Written in plain English, it made the black art of loudspeaker design surprisingly accessible. Aged sixty eight, Gilbert Briggs sold Wharfedale Wireless Works to Rank in 1958, and retired seven years later. By this time he had overseen two major breakthroughs – the pioneering use of roll surrounds around paper cones, and the launch of the first ever speakers using ceramic magnets. The company went from strength to strength, and in 1967 announced its move to a vast 170,000 square foot factory in Highfield Road, Bradford. In the nineteen seventies, Rank took the brand slightly downmarket, appealing to the sort of people who wanted decent sound on a budget.
The range that really caught the public’s imagination was the XP series; these were affordable budget boxes that offered real value for money compared to competing products. Launched in the autumn of 1975, the range started off with the £40 Chevin XP. This small cube shaped, teak veneered box sported an eight inch paper cone woofer with a small paper coned tweeter fitted concentrically at the centre. The £60 Denton 2XP offered the luxury of two full sized, discrete drive units, including a large paper dome tweeter of an unusual design, mated to an eight inch mid/bass. The figure prefixing the ‘XP’ in the name referred to the number of drive units that the speaker had.
The £80 Linton 3XP was the cheapest three-way in the range, a junior high end design. To the Denton’s driver complement, it added a three inch paper midrange cone. Topping the range was the £110 Glendale 3XP, a serious big hitter by most people’s standards. Whereas the Linton 3XP only had an eight inch bass unit, the Glendale had a ten, giving a claimed frequency response of 50Hz to 20kHz and a power handling of sizeable 40W RMS. It was quite sensitive by the standards of the day at 86dB, but by today’s standards this is poor for a largish 356x610x305mm, 12kg loudspeaker. This is partly due to the fact that like all the XP series, the Glendale is an infinite baffle design. Despite giving a tighter bass, there are real trade-offs with this method; for a given size you either get less bass extension or efficiency, and there’s a chance that the speaker’s nominal impedance drops.
By today’s standards, the Glendale 3XP is everything that modern speakers are not. It’s a wide-baffle, boxy design without bass reflex loading. Its a true three-way with the drivers crossing over at 800Hz and 4,000Hz, and it has a large and poorly braced teak veneered cabinet that looks positively Paleolithic. The internal wiring isn’t of the best quality, the crossover components aren’t particularly good, and the insides of the cabinets are not well damped. All the same, this loudspeaker is still well built and finished by the standards of its day. It neither looks, feels or sounds cheap – which is why it proved popular.
As soon as you set ears on the big Wharfedale, you know it’s a long way from what would be considered desirable nowadays. It’s as mid-seventies as polyester flared trousers. Somehow though it manages to be a rather enjoyable experience. It has a slightly dreamy, diffuse sort of sound that is relaxed yet assured. It’s quite big and spacious, meaning that it happens to work extremely well when you feed it some music of that period. Elton John’s Benny and the Jets, for example, takes you right back. Sat atop 30cm high frame stands, this speaker sounds big, wide and gutsy, with a large bass response that’s less lumpy than you’d expect considering the size of both its woofer and the cabinet. Actually, the Glendale proves quite tuneful in the bass, and will have many tapping their feet pretty quickly.
Tonally, this loudspeaker sounds warm and soft. It throws a comfort blanket over everything. Treble seems a little rolled off right up top, but before this is doesn’t sear out at you. It crosses over smoothly down to the midrange driver, which itself is quite floaty and vague. Again, it hands over smoothly to the bass unit, which offers a decent thump from the sealed box cabinet, and one that’s fulsome yet rounded. Yet it still manages to arrive at the listener at pretty much the same time as the rest of the music. Bass extension isn’t great but it still makes a serious pass at the bassline from The Bee Gees’ How Deep is Your Love?, which is likely to be a song it spent much of its early life playing…
The Glendale has so many problems, yet still manages to be fun. You can wax lyrical about the poor stereo imaging and relatively two dimensional sound, yet it willingly pushes images far left and far right if called upon so to do. You can criticise it for the veiled midband, but it’s rather beguiling in a way – rather like looking at an impressionist painting. Overall the Wharfedale proves to be an amiable and engaging partner, because it sounds – and there’s no other way to put this – nice. Many lament the good old days of hi-fi when everything had a “nice tone”, and the Glendale 3XP personifies this.
The new Glendale XP2 – the 2 suffix denoting the second XP range, not the number of drive units – got a black grille instead of a cigar brown coloured one. The cabinet was subtly redesigned with a new wood finish and drive unit compliment; the new cone tweeter being the biggest change. It may have measured slightly better but was a less pleasant thing to hear; it sounded tighter and tauter but seemed to lose some of its predecessor’s richness and charm.
The nineteen eighties saw Wharfedale lose its magic touch. The Laser series effectively replaced the Chevin/Denton/Linton/Glendale line-up and although it looked far more modern, was more cheaply made. The top end Total Sound Recall range was good, but outclassed by price rivals from other brands, and it was only the spin-off from this – the Diamond – that really became a hit in this decade. The world had moved on though, and five years after the Glendale 3XP was launched, it looked like it had come from another century. Such are the fickle fortunes of the domestic loudspeaker market.
These days, Wharfedale Glendale 3XPs can be had for pennies. They’re incredibly cheap; this pair cost just £25, because they’re terminally unfashionable. But if you’re looking for something for your period/classic/retro system, then you could do a lot worse. Get a well preserved pair of these, and you’ll be basking in a louche, warm sound – ideal for a high end seventies music centre, stack system or even quite decent mid-price hi-fi separates. The usual caveats apply though – buy carefully, shop around and don’t expect an almost forty year old loudspeaker to sound like your brand new high end KEFs.
Speakers are not made of magic materials that go on forever, so your first concern should be starting off with a decent pair in the first place. Speakers with tatty cabinets tell a story about the treatment they’ve had, but it’s not necessarily the end of the world. If the cab has chunks gouged out of it, then the speaker is best avoided, but if there are light surface scratches to the wood, or fading or stains – but no indentation – then this is easily rescuable. The easiest thing is to treat the wood with Danish oil, and this will perk up many classic seventies speakers, but if it’s worse then you could sand of the varnish and reapply it, or simply wax the wood or treat it with oil. It’s possible to bring many classic speakers back to near-new condition this way, and well worth learning more via any of the various YouTube videos on speaker restoration.
Buy the speakers with the best drive units you can find. Even so, the foam roll surrounds may well be on their way out, but there are specialists who can renew them, such as Anapeach [07941 460050, www.anapeachloudspeakerrestoration.co.uk]. You should also contemplate replacing the capacitors and resistors in the crossover, as they tend to degrade with age, and you might even like to rewire the speakers with high quality cable. This is all simple stuff for these handy with a soldering iron, and dramatically improves the sound – giving a tighter stereo image, better bass definition and superior midrange detail.