Thirty years ago most audiophiles thought everything old was rubbish, and all we needed was modern technology and fresh thinking to shape our brave new world. Of course this was only true up to a point, and now we are re-examining past ideas too. The new Wharfedale Linton Classic does just this; being a large, wide baffle standmount speaker it’s very much in the mould of big nineteen seventies designs, and totally out of fashion compared to the small footprint ‘tower’ floorstanders of today.
Yet designer Peter Comeau tells me, “this is not a throwback to days of old, far from it. This is simply good engineering practice. The broader baffle and larger than normal bass and midrange units not only elevate sensitivity but also are aligned to a baffle step that is lower and broader in frequency than modern, slimline systems.” In other words, by not following the vagaries of fashion, he can do the right thing as far as the physics of speaker design are concerned.
Trouble is, the vagaries of marketing are also critical to how modern loudspeakers are designed. Peter says that the company’s eighty fifth anniversary has given him the chance to do something more than slightly different. “As we found when we launched Denton 80th Anniversary (and then Denton 85), there’s a strong customer base for this style of speaker. Retro maybe, but more likely a response to good quality furniture appearance allied to the full-bodied sound of speakers designed from the nineteen fifties to eighties.”
The name Linton will ring like a bell to audiophiles of a certain age – myself included, as my father had a pair of 3XPs in the seventies. It was the poor man’s high end loudspeaker; a true three-way with a real wood cabinet and a warm, musical sound. The new one is far larger however and instead of paper and polymer for its bass and mid drivers, it uses woven Kevlar in 200mm and 135mm sizes respectively. Also, the old soft dome tweeter is now a 25mm fabric dome with a metal grille over it. Crossover frequencies are 630Hz and 2.4kHz.
The sizeable 565x300x330mm cabinet is reflex-loaded via twin rear-mounted ports, unlike the original’s infinite baffle design, and this confers dramatically better sensitivity (90dB up from 86dB, says Peter) and bass extension (35Hz down from the final Linton XP2’s 60Hz). “It uses a sandwich of high density chipboard with MDF skins that scatters panel resonance more effectively than the almost ubiquitous modern use of MDF alone”, he adds. “Finally the crossover has now been designed with the aid of computer software together with hundreds of hours of listening tests and refinement”.
So big and heavy is this 18.4kg speaker, that it makes the original feel like a toy – and the real walnut or mahogany veneered cabinet is done to a much higher standard than of yore. The grilles are removable but unlike the originals the speaker actually sounds worse with them off; they’re specially designed to aid dispersion of the tweeter. Interestingly, the speakers are handed, and should be positioned with the tweeters inwards. I can’t overstate how much better made these are than their ancestors, so the price of £999.95 per pair is all the more surprising. There’s also an optional pair of dedicated stands for £279.95 per pair, but if you buy both together the total cost is just £1,099.95. Together they look very good, but I’m not totally convinced by the stands’ wood inserts which look more than a little cheesy.
The problem with nostalgia is that it isn’t what it used to be, as the old gag goes. Yet actually this speaker sounds strangely modern – far more than you would expect by looking at it – whilst avoiding the pitfalls of both classic and new designs. The Linton Classic sure is quite different to your average modern ‘tower’ loudspeaker, with a sense of physicality and heft to the lower registers that’s really something special. I started the audition period with ELO’s Mr Blue Sky – a classic late seventies slice of pop – and this speaker belted it out with relish. There was the uncanny feeling of lots of air moving around the room, yet despite this it still sounded really relaxed. Totally absent was the sensation of having music squeezed out at you through a metaphorical toothpaste tube. Instead, it showed tremendous grace under pressure, never breaking into a sweat.
Thanks to this relaxed, insouciant character, the music saunters along happily and everything the big Wharfedale plays sounds fun – whatever musical genre you choose. For example, Rush’s Subdivisions is an early eighties digital recording that’s both dense and compressed, yet the Linton Classic made it seriously special. As the song powered along, this speaker separated out the individual elements of the mix with surprising ease. I could enjoy all the musicians playing together really tightly, hearing them coming together to make one cohesive whole. It also seemed uncannily easy to peer right into the mix, severing things out with ease.
Although it gets the thumbs up for its ease, scale and musicality, the Wharfedale isn’t totally blameless. Listen hard and you can hear a slight opacity to its upper ranges – and this is most obvious with shiny, super-clean recordings like Scritti Politti’s Perfect Way. This eighties classic showed up the tweeter’s slight lack of delicacy, although it never sounded coarse. At the same time, it was clear to hear that the midband softens things out a bit, lending its own – admittedly subtle – sonic fingerprint to the proceedings.
For example, this speaker failed to resolve the chiming sound of the track’s early digital synthesiser in all its glory, and brought just a touch of nasality to vocals in absolute terms. Given its very modest price, this is not a criticism but merely a remark. Yet the great thing about the Linton Classic is that it covers its tracks so well. Although not the greatest speaker ever made, you never find yourself dwelling on this point. Instead whatever you play, you always get into the musical groove and enjoy yourself.
Providing you have toed-in the speakers at the correct angle – and it’s quite a fine balance – you’ll doubtless be impressed by their stereo imaging. It doesn’t have the pinpoint precision of some rivals with coaxial tweeter/midrange drivers, but it’s still pretty good and gives the lie to the claim that wide baffle speakers can’t image. Indeed every recording I played sounded surprisingly large and expansive. Haitink’s superb reading of Vaughn Williams’ Symphony No.2 sounded wonderfully atmospheric with a great sense of the recorded acoustic, for example. Depth perspective was a real standout strength for this loudspeaker, too.
Another pleasing facet of the Linton Classic is its dynamic headroom; it’s able to track musical crescendos really well for a speaker of this price. When the music builds to a peak, this speaker fails to buckle, compress or break-up. This, allied to its more than decent timing, makes for a lively, vibrant rendition of anything you care to play through it. Rather like some other recently re-imagined and/or re-released JBLs and Klipsches, it isn’t a super neutral speaker – and nor does it set out to be. Yet it’s still unalloyed fun and instead offers a large-scale, bold and gutsy presentation but still with a goodly amount of subtlety and smoothness. This speaker has excellent table manners so to speak, yet is never a boring listening companion.
The new Wharfedale Linton reimagines the past, rather than recreates it. It brings so much of what was great about old school wide-baffle loudspeakers – the ease, the effortless musicality and the room filling physicality – yet consigns the oldies’ problems of vagueness, dynamic compression and poor transient response to the dustbin of history. It’s a really special speaker in its way, but what I most like about it is that it offers all this to relatively cash-poor audiophiles. Think of it as modern budget esoterica that just happens to look retro, rather than just another seventies throwback trying to cash in on nostalgia.