|It is assumed that history may be generally viewed in one of two ways – as a straight line with a definitive starting and end point where we talk about development; or as a circle where we deal with a kind of fatalism or historical inevitability where there is no true beginning, no true ending but at most a constant transitional period of a history whose inescapable fulfilment and completion return to its beginning. If two visions describe history well, then Castle brilliantly supports the second view.
The Castle Acoustic company was founded on September 3rd, 1973 as a spin-off from the Wharfedale. The Wharfedale Wireless Company established in 1932 remains one of the oldest still active audio companies. To a large extent this company was responsible for British hifi with its development and bloom. In the 60s and 70s Wharfedale experienced extraordinary growth to change from manual to mass production. This would soon reflect in the quality and looks of their loudspeakers. It’s why a group of directors and managers left Wharfedale to founded their own company Castle Acoustic, locating it in Skipton north from their old firm. They returned cabinet manufacture to manual workshop labor, used natural veneers and such to become their new identification mark. Almost twenty years later two of the founders retired. The younger generation, in fact another group of Wharfedale directors, acquired the company to introduce new blood and a new order but honouring the things which distinguished Castle from other companies.
The beginning of the 21st century was not very kind to Castle. The company teetered on the verge of bankruptcy when their home-grown cabinets with costly veneers no longer competed against cheap Chinese labor (whether the Sino equivalents were better is another story). That’s when Castle was bought by brothers Michael and Bernard Chang, the owners of IAG. Their International Audio Group is one of the most interesting of hifi companies. It was created out of true passion and is led by music lovers and audiophiles, millionaire, who decided to funnel their money into their passion and grow it into one of the biggest such companies in the world today. Their portfolio includes QUAD, Audiolab, Mission, Luxman, Castle, Wharfedale Pro, QUAD Industrial, Apogee Lighting, Coef, FAL, IAG Yachts, Surgex and – yes, Wharfedale. This is how history comes full circle. Two companies so closely bound together once again have a common owner and their loudspeakers are manufactured in the same factory, albeit fully separate with their very own cabinets, drivers, cabling, passive parts etc.
Of course the brothers Chang do not manage Castle alone. The head of the brand is Peter Comeau, the head of engineering a son of one of Castle’s founders. The engineering bureau and executive offices are located in Great Britain, all production has been transferred to China. The politics of IAG are based not only on buying a brand name but also the entire infrastructure to employ the original designers and workers and – wherever possible – buy the original machinery all of which is transferred to China. This maintains the maximum of a given company’s heritage but adds production capabilities. I’ll just add that the Castle marketing and sales departments are located in Huntingdon five miles from the original 1932 Wharfedale location in Yorkshire.
Sound. A selection of recordings used in the test: Daft Punk, Homework, Virgin, 8426092, CD (1996; David Sylvian, Sleepwalkers, P-Vine Records, PVCP-8790, CD (2011); Dinah Washington, After Hours With Miss “D”, EmArcy/Verve, Verve Master Edition, 760562, CD (2004); Jean Michel Jarré, Equinox, Dreyfus/Mobile Fidelity, UDCD 678, gold CD; Jean Michel Jarré, Téo & Téa, Aero Productions/Warner Bros, 2564699766, CD+DVD (2007); Melody Gardot, My One And Only Thrill, Verve/Universal, 1796783, CD (2009); Nosowska, 8, Supersam Music, SM 01, CD (2011).
The IAG aka Castle speakers resemble to a large extent what I remember from the times when I was the proud owner of pair of bookshelf speakers made by that company. Those were my first serious hifi speakers. Theirs is a slightly warm and full but brilliantly mannered sound. We could talk about an English character but in the second decade of the 21st century, any kind of national sonic character is merely a memory of the past.
The Castle loudspeakers are characterized by a few qualities hard to find elsewhere which will determine whether this is your kind of sound or not. They have weaker sides like anything else and particular strengths which often aren’t found even in truly high-end systems.
The sound of the Howard S3 is big and saturated - even over-saturated. It is perfectly audible how a large cabinet with a clever way of woofer loading does not aim to imitate a subwoofer’s boom but simply amending the midrange as the most important and particularly critical part of the audible range.
I hope you see where I am going. This bass, although big, full, strong and just plain nice, is not the main element of the sound. It is used to build up large volume as mass simply to underline the midrange fullness. If I understood this intention correctly, it has been successfully implemented. The voices are exceptional in their saturation and fleshiness. Melody Gardot with My One And Only Thrill is how I started the audition. She was reproduced in a most convincing sensual way. At the same time her vocals were not pushed forward. This type of saturation relies not on underlining the voice to extricate it from the mix and move it closer to us. The sound of the Castle is located on the main line between the speakers and behind it. This in fact is a slightly set back unobtrusive perspective. The loudspeakers build up a large soundstage in the form of a bubble but clearly not in front of them or in front of your nose.
I mentioned Gardot in the very beginning with a purpose. Already with that disc it was plain how small ensembles sounded extraordinarily good with the Howard S3. I will talk about electronica shortly as it got better yet but here and now the first impression is the more important – small ensembles.
It could seem that this is not how it should be. After all here we have a large cabinet, two mid/woofers, a kind of internal labyrinth, all items which should predestine this speaker to a strong dynamic showing that’ll soar with large orchestral like Wagner. I’m saying ‘should’ not because anything else would be an error but because the appearance of the Howard S3 triggers certain stereotypical responses.
I believe that particularly the bass tuning is a careful result of deliberate compromises and goals for the given drivers and cabinet. Senior here was probably the creation of a sound which is very coherent. That’s why the bass isn’t as powerful or energetic as it had been with the PMC OB1i where it dominated the sound as a whole. The Castle has beautiful bass which simply doesn’t extend that low. The true aim was complete saturation of the covered range and full integration with the midrange.
This is why the very low passages of Jarré’s Téo & Téa and Daft Punk’s Homework lacked the raw animalistic power they have with the PMC or my Harbeth. But at the same time there was no booming, as it is usually generated with those discs by other loudspeakers in my smaller space. We could say that this is fantastically controlled bass were it not for the fact that this control is not audible. This isn’t the kind of punctual wiry bass with which such control is usually associated. This rather is a Harbeth-type bass –natural, without drawing attention to itself. This then is the first cognitive dissonance between what the speaker looks like and how it actually behaves.
The second presents itself almost at the same time as the first one - as soon as we notice that there is no subwoofer but a very big bookshelf speaker. I mean electronica. Discs from Jarré, Daft Punk, Kraftwerk & Co. grew wings. They sucked us into their world in a warm quite dynamic and always attractive way. This was interesting because with large ensembles where many instruments play in unison, these loudspeakers get a little lost and relax analytical separation for larger sound spots. I think-though it’s only a supposition- that it is a function of combing a high-mass midband with exceptional stereophony. The latter is not about the creation of sharply separated virtual sources- we won’t get highly palpable voices – but rather about scale and freedom.
This will be the first or second thing we notice. The Castle has a large sound also in terms of sheer space. I got used to this exceptional quality with my top Harbeth but the Castle showed how this can be accomplished for less money. I’ll repeat, this is not the kind of sound one gets from speakers like the German Physiks HRS 120 Carbon. This is a more massive potent way of creating the space. For example take Jarré’s Beautiful Agony about orgasm. A characteristic female voice is heard just behind us while rhythm and melody are in the front. Yet we also hear a stron beautiful sound just behind our head. This of course is a counter phase trick but it’s the kind of thing the Castle renders in a very tasteful convincing way. Maybe the combination of fullness, control, depth and a really large space bubble made electronica so exquisitely, incredibly involving.
So we have a saturated very dense midrange and bass brilliantly merged with it. In fact it’s hard to talk about those two bands separately. Here they have become a single entity. Bravo! But, we now have to note a certain trait which will define the electronics used with the Castle. The tweeter in the Howard S3- a very pleasant ‘un without pins and needles or sharpness-is really not a very high-quality specimen. The large cabinet, splendid craftsmanship and gorgeous sound almost force us to utter statements like “it should cost twice as much”. But I think we (I) must cure ourselves from that kind of thinking. Today everybody tries to have sensible manufacturing, meaning cost cutting wherever possible to invest into only key parts – and this isn’t merely symptomatic for China.
In this recipe the tweeter is the cheapest part. Its reverb is not very long and the attack is slightly hardened. This is why it sometimes attracts attention to itself not with sharpness but a harder texture that’s not present anywhere else. This is why I would recommend linear electronics to drive the Howard S3, perhaps even slightly warm ones. I then would not worry about undue overlap between the character of the amplifier and loudspeakers. This won’t be an issue. Good electronics and the Castle will support each other, not fight. The loudspeakers are not very resolving or selective but even a warm tube amplifier – this can be divine! – won’t muddy up the sound. This will never become a boomy soggy sound.
Perhaps there won’t be too many details but believe me, you won’t miss ‘em. These speakers offer something else instead - fullness, breath and depth. I would listen to them with a Music Hall 70.2, an Ayon Audio Orion II, Hegel’s H70 or the splendid Linear Audio Research IA-30T. I would think twice about using lower-power amps with small current output. In this case the more the better. These are beautiful very well crafted speakers with a surprisingly even response. Their main assets are a brilliant midrange combined with fleshy bass, lack of annoying booming and rumbling and despite limited LF extension a wonderfully dense sound with exceptional stereophony. The drivers, especially the tweeter, are not the last word in resolution and selectiveness where Dynaudio for example goes much farther. Yet in terms of driver integration and their application in the cabinet I give my full respect.
Review conditions. The loudspeakers were placed on Acoustic Revive RST-38 anti-vibration platforms next to my Harbeth M40.1 which I moved aside. To counteract the movement of the M40.1 woofers I shorted out their terminals. The tweeter of the Howard S3 ended up at the same height as the Harbeth midrange, i.e. a little higher than my ears. The loudspeakers were turned inwards such that their axes crossed behind my head. The tweeters were positioned on the inside. The top grille was in place, the front one removed. I used the supplied jumpers.
Description. The Howard S3 from Castle’s Classic Series is the biggest speaker from the company. This is a floorstanding 3-driver model in a 2.5-way configuration. Two mid/woofers of 150mm diameter mate to a 28mm softdome tweeter with coated diapgragm loaded into a short broad waveguide to control directivity. The former two use a woven carbon fiber diaphragm with a phase plug and cast basket. Their voice coil is made from copper-coated aluminium. Custom-made for this driver are specially shaped pole pieces to increase dynamics. Two drivers mount ti the front baffle the tweeter below the midwoofer and shifted away from the central vertical axis.
The frontal mid/woofer loads into a quarter-wave labyrinth. The second mid/woofer fires up from the top. Together they create a “twin-pipe quarter wave” with the mouth at the plinth, between cabinet walls and base. Each line is tuned to a different frequency. This is done with an MDF divider that runs the entire length of the enclosure to from two sections, front and back. Near the back sits another panel this time placed at an angle to form a folded line for the top driver. This section is barely damped.
The forward-facing mid/woofer loads into a small sub-chamber which is heavily damped and from beneath open to the remainder. The overall enclosure is 18mm MDF reinforced by cross braces and the internal line divider. The veneer is beautiful natural issue. My loaner came in ‘ancient oak’. The box is supported on large spikes with integral swivel protectors.
The crossover mounts to a removable plate on the back. The manufacturer explains that the connections are point to point and that the caps are ICW issue The internal cabling is CasWire made by Castle. I spooted large and very large polypropylene capacitors with the Castle logo on them, an air coil for the tweeter and two very big core coils on transformer frames for the main drivers. All elements of this assembly are made in the Chinese IAG factory. The company also specified WBTterminals which look very good and come in biwire configuration with nicely cabled jumpers with spades made from the internal hookup wiring. These jumpers are worth noting as they transcend the usual massive gold-plated awful sounding metal jumpers..
Technical data (according to manufacturer):
Frequency response: 35Hz-20kHz
Nominal impedance: 8Ω
Amplifier power: 25-175W
Dimensions (HxWxD): 1000 x 210 x 335mm