If you happen to live in Yorkshire, you'll know that Wharfedale is one of the incredibly beautiful Yorkshire Dales.
The rest of us will recognise 'Wharfedale' purely as the name of one of the first British specialist loudspeaker manufacturers. The famous proselytiser for great sound, instinctive engineer and professional Yorkshireman Gilbert Briggs founded the company way back in 1932. Wharfedale (along with the likes of Celestion and Tannoy) was there for the birth of high fidelity.
The firm was eventually acquired by a Far Eastern company, and moved lock, stock and barrel to Shenzhen in southern China. But although it has a fairly low profile in the UK right now, it's very much alive and kicking.
It manufactures 600 different drive units to support current and discontinued models. There's very little buying in of components or enclosures, which is how many supposedly all-British companies operate. Wood, steel and reels of wire go in at one end of the factory, and finished loudspeakers emerge from the other.
Now here's a trick question. What image do you have of Wharfedale (the company, not the landscape)? The sheer numbers of Diamonds, Lintons and Dentons it sold in the 1970s and 1980s mean that most people think of it as a producer of cheap and cheerful - if good-value - loudspeakers.
But that's only part of the story, and the manufacturer has a long tradition of building upmarket audiophile products - a tradition that continues today.
The Airedale Neo is the second-largest model in the Wharfedale range (after the Airedale Heritage). It's an ambitious design, in part an attempt to underline that Wharfedale is every bit the modern manufacturer, but also a celebration of Wharfedale's past, being named after one of its seminal early models. The biggest market for the Airedale range is Japan, and it was voiced in part for consumers there.
The design is retro down to the soles of its feet. There's something reassuringly artless about the way this speaker has been put together, apparently with few of the hi-tech accoutrements one might expect - the hi-tech diaphragms and enclosures of the latest diamond-tipped flagship B&Ws, for example.
It's a three-way bass-reflex design, housed in a huge box, like a gently sloping wardrobe. The flagship Airedale Heritage is bigger still.
The enclosure is centred around a large (75mm) soft-dome midrange driver. This has a hard aluminium former, and boasts very low distortion over its operating range (a typical rating of less than one per cent at 100dB at 1m is claimed).
The midrange driver is partially horn-loaded by the profiled die-cast mounting plate to help match directivity with the tweeter at the handover point between the two.
Wharfedale (along with ATC and Dynaudio) is something of a specialist when it comes to dome midrange units: this one, unique to the Neo, has a soft textile dome and a bandwidth of 800Hz-3.7kHz.
This is virtually the whole of the frequency range covered by the human voice, which is where the hearing process is at its most discriminating. Normal speakers split the voice across two units, one of which has an intrinsically heavy and slow-responding diaphragm/voice coil.
The area above 3.7kHz is handled by another soft dome ("A better choice than metallic-based domes that seem to add their own character to the treble," suggests Wharfedale), and again low distortion is claimed, along with wide dispersion.
In common with the other drive units, the magnet structure uses Alnico (an extremely expensive alloy of aluminium, nickel and cobalt), which has fallen into disuse elsewhere since the development of ceramic magnets after WWII. The tweeter bandwidth is said to extend to 45kHz.
The bass driver is a 300mm cone unit whose Alnico motor system is supplemented by a flux-stabilisation ring and a structure behind the cone that's as open as possible to reduce noises that would otherwise be reflected back through the cone.
The compact Alnico magnet helps in this respect. The voice-coil former bears on a robust and well-damped dual-spider arrangement. The cone itself is a three-layer sandwich (reminiscent of the high-end designs of Focal and B&W), consisting of glass-fibre outer layers encasing a carbon-fibre core, with extra stiffening around the rim. A similar tri-laminate is used for the dust cap.
The Neo is a reflex-loaded design, with two large front-facing ports to reduce air velocity well below Thiele-Small recommendations, and wind noise is consequently low.
The enclosure is styled similarly to the Airedale of the 1960s, with period touches and a classic, luxurious oiled-walnut-veneer finish with matching grilles and trims. Corners and edges are radiused, using solid walnut fillets to control edge diffraction, and the enclosure is constructed from extensively braced and damped 25mm MDF panels.
The front and side panels are tilted inwards to discourage internal reflections, and the system has a massive internal volume of 125 litres. Internal wiring is Monster XP, and the bi-wired crossover is hard-wired.
The Neo features very middle-of-the-road sensitivity and power handling. The bass isn't massively extended given the enclosed air volume (a specified -3dB at 25Hz).
Usefully for those who don't live in massive homes, the balance has been optimised for perceived Japanese-market tastes, which means a well-damped, almost polite bass in listening rooms that aren't excessively large.
The speaker is on sale through a bare handful of dealers in the UK, where it goes up against such designs as the Tannoy Westminster and the JBL K2. All three models are distinctly retro in appeal - sonically as well as visually.
The Neo has an easy, relaxed and fairly neutral tonal presentation, and a very 'broad' quality when dealing with dynamic, wide-bandwidth material. It stops just short of being 'lush'.
It's all but impossible to put the Neo under any apparent strain; it never sounds hard or edgy, and there's no hint of aggression in the sound. It's almost (note the qualification) too relaxed, though the Airedale is unusually axis-dependent, so it can be tuned to deliver the balance you prefer simply by changing the orientation (see Positioning).
The soft-dome mid and tweeter also bring something interesting and distinctive to the party. As Wharfedale suggests, there's nothing metallic about the way midband and high frequencies are produced, and the bass is well (but not extravagantly) extended.
Overall, the speaker breathes in a very natural, open way. The Neo is notable for its consistency across a broad frequency and dynamic range: it's very 'together' and even-handed in its voicing, although there is a low level of residual coloration, identified in listening notes as a kind of 'big box' feel.
This contrasts with the harder-edged, more highly tuned quality of some contemporary high-end designs. The Neo is the very opposite of 'in your face', and if anything the midband sounds recessed, and the bass warm.
To misuse a motoring metaphor, it has more of the quality of a big, relaxed American V8 than that of a highly tuned, small-bore Italian powerplant. It's not that one kind is intrinsically more capable than the other. If you like, it's a question of personality.
Those personality differences have some very tangible outcomes. The Airedale Neo's forte is large, expressive performance with equally large instrumental groups - bands or orchestras, for example - whose sound is reproduced with a scale that's unusual from a hi-fi speaker.
There's also a hint of warmth that stops short of being overhung. At the opposite extreme, very small-scale material - solo speech, for example (try listening to a Radio 4 news broadcast) - can sound heavy-handed.
These effects appear to be only distantly related to the active part of the design, and more to do with the enclosure. The cabinet has a 'hollow' feel when subjected to the 'knuckle rap' test.
The Neo isn't as tightly constructed or as inert in feel as the best large enclosures from other sources, and the result is a large loudspeaker that sounds large, almost irrespective of the type of music being played. The paradigm of a small, fast-responding loudspeaker isn't part of the Airedale Neo's DNA.
The preceding comments aren't intended as criticism. No loudspeaker to our knowledge handles all types of music-making equally, and in this respect the Wharfedale is no exception.
It's just that its personality traits are a little unusual, albeit not entirely at odds with the Tannoy and JBL models mentioned earlier, and users of horn-loaded speakers will certainly be used to larger departures from absolute, literal accuracy than the Neo delivers. In any such comparison, the Wharfedale is almost certain to be more transparent and accurate.
We greatly enjoyed our all-too-brief spell with the Airedale Neo, but there are distinctive features about its sound which necessarily require some acclimatisation.
In particular, if you're used to the small-speaker feel of a highly tuned modern speaker - one that can respond at lightning speed to changes in musical dynamics, tonality and focus - then you'll definitely find the Airedale Neo hard work at first.
But we quickly grew accustomed to the sense of image scale, the intrinsically very musical quality and above all the unusually coherent, fluid midband. All of which make this Wharfedale time machine worth setting your clocks back for.