Size: 22″W x 19 5/8″H x 1″D (Panels)
14″W x 19 3/4″D (Subwoofer)
Sugg. Retail: $899 (CAN)
Distributor: Korbon Trading Ltd.,
6800 Kitimat Road, Mississauga, Ont. L5N 5M1
(905) 567-1920, FAX 567-1929
(Reprinted from the Summer/Fall 2000 Audio Ideas Guide)
“It’s a floor wax.”
“No, it’s a dessert topping”
If you’ve seen this old Saturday Night Live skit then you already know the punchline, the product in the spoof commercial (whose name must have been occupying some of the brain cells I killed in university) being both a floor wax and a dessert topping. A similar, if less amusing, argument could revolve around the Wharfedale Loudpanels, which, as you’ve probably guessed from the photo and the name, are both loudspeakers and picture frames.
You may have also guessed that the LoudPanels aren’t really aimed at audiophiles or serious home theatre buffs, but at folks looking for speakers that are going to blend into their decor, and in this case, truly disappear. Now before you start grumbling that such a product would be better off confined to the pages of Audio Video Interiors, the LoudPanels, despite their utilitarian aspirations, might just offer a glimpse into the future of transducers. What makes them intriguing, besides their unique multi-tasking ability, is the fact that they are one of the first speakers to employ NXT technology (see AM’s followup for an explanation of the technology and measurements).
A revolutionary way to go about reproducing sound, NXT panels have some significant advantages over traditional, pistonic transducers. Among them are wide and very uniform dispersion characteristics, reduced room interaction, no need for an enclosure or crossover, and the practicality of a smooth, flat surface which can sit on the wall or even be integrated right into it (promoters of the technology soon envision full size cinema screens becoming NXT panels, for example). In fact, the panels need not be flat, which, with a little imagination, allows one to envision the myriad applications for such a technology. The automotive applications alone are dizzying. As terrifying as it may sound, in the near future, darn near anything could become a speaker.
In the case of the LoudPanels, a flat, white NXT panel is simply enclosed in a black plastic frame 22″ high and 19″ wide. Less than 2″ deep the Wharfedales weigh only a scant few pounds, making them easy to hang on almost any wall. What to put on the face of the panel is, naturally, up to you, although the manual warns that anything heavy like an oil painting is going to seriously compromise performance. For obvious reasons you’re also going to have to forgo glass on top of your picture. In the very detailed section on picture mounting the manual also explains that spray adhesive is the best means of attachment and suggests the possibility of using LoudPanels as whiteboards(!). Since the speakers were on loan I refrained from applying any prints or from composing any original artwork in the burgeoning avant-garde medium of dry erase marker. Since NXT panels this size aren’t capable of response much below 150 Hz the LoudPanels come bundled with a little subwoofer. A small brick shaped box, the sub employs a 6″ inch driver and is entirely passive. Ported at the front, it features speaker level inputs and outputs only, via four pairs of five way binding posts. It’s a very basic sub, finished in a decidedly cheap looking black vinyl.
Once unpacked and wired up, I set the LoudPanels on top of the Energy C-6’s in my small home theatre/office. Here they were driven by a dated but worthy Technics receiver and my Panasonic DVD A310 DVD/CD player, a system on par with what LoudPanel buyers are likely to have. My first impressions weren’t inspiring. The panels sounded thin and seriously coloured, with much of the detail I had heard with the C-6’s now missing in action. Additionally, sibilants had taken on an irritating sizzle and there was enough dynamic compression to make everything sound of roughly equal volume. The sub was decent, blending well with the panels, but, due to its small size, was unable to do much more than hint at deep bass. Imaging and soundstaging, however, were surprisingly good and the LoudPanels sounded pretty much the same everywhere in the room, creating an impressively present, tactile kind of sound. This was a quality which I particularly appreciated when sitting off axis at my desk, the tonal and timbral qualities of the sound remaining consistent and compelling all over the room. If you expect to hear a decent stereo image, however, you had better be in the sweet spot.
Having no idea whether an NXT speaker could or would break in over time, I listened to the LoudPanels while I worked for about a week, hoping they might improve. Fortunately, they did, gaining greater transparency and a little more body. While they still lacked detail, they now sounded much better on vocals, which were extremely veiled at the outset. Sadly, that was the only area in which the LoudPanels improved, and though they could play quite loud, dynamics were still very limited and, although slightly less distracting, the sibilant sizzle remained. Keep in mind that I’m subjecting the LoudPanel to the kind of scrutiny reserved for gear designed for serious listening, which, clearly, any product meant to do double duty as a wall hanging, is not. Sure, most budget mini-monitors will slaughter it sonically, but the LoudPanels will represent exactly the kind of alternative to black boxes many less sonically discriminating, design conscious music lovers are looking for. Additionally, there’s the “gee-whiz” factor of showing off the speaker/picture to your guests. In a casual dining room or office setting the LoudPanels will provide perfectly acceptable, and invisible background music, exactly what non-audiophiles in the mass market are looking for.
I think it’s also important to note that NXT is a very young technology, an infant in the transducer world compared to the coils, cones, and domes we’ve been listening to for so long. A little more development and refinement, combined with a concerted attempt to employ the technology in a serious hi-fi loudspeaker, could yield a very interesting product indeed. With the company responsible for developing and licensing NXT technology being owned by the same company that owns Mission, Quad, Wharfedale, and Roksan such a product can’t be too far away.
AM Comments On The Measurements, & More:
Given the design of the LoudPanel and the NXT design brief, I didn’t expect a lot in terms of measured performance. The basis of the vibrating hard, rigid surface is a pair of closely spaced activators (read “voice coils”) that vibrate the flat sandwich surface. Naturally, we’re dealing here with materials science, just as we are with cones and diaphragms; but unlike such pistonic reproducers, the NXT panel vibrates in an incoherent manner; that is, the various parts of the surface are pushing and pulling at the same time, as the graphic below (supplied by the NXT development team) depicts. One result of this is that the radiation patterns of such a flat panel are quite unlike those of standard speakers, in that level does not drop off at the same rate with listening distances, hence the ability to hear both panels from almost anywhere in the room. The incoherence means they will never image really well, but this also ensures that they will be heard better over a wider listening area. This alone makes the NXT technology attractive for institutional use in such places are airports, stadia, and other large spaces.
To make them vibrate with any kind of decent frequency response in the home is the trick Wharfedale engineers have been working on: getting the right (proprietary) sandwich (of materials they’ll never tell us about) that will vibrate with some uniformity from about 200 to 20,000 Hz. Well, as the chart shows, they’ve done a pretty good job!
The LoudPanel is a remarkable +/-2 dB from 200 to almost 12,000 Hz on axis in our Pink Noise Sweep, and PNS curves below show it also at 15 and 30o off axis, where it’s, at most, down only 6 dB at 10 kHz. We did not subject it to the other standard measurements because of its essentially incoherent nature, which can be seen in the impedance and electrical phase curves.
The contribution of the subwoofer section can be seen at left, and its absolute level can be varied with placement (there are no controls on this passive box). Ideally balanced (as seen with the axial curves), the sub tends to leave a bit of a hole around 200 Hz, but this can also be minimized with placement. And a word about Aaron’s findings as we look at the impedance/phase chart: I, too, listened to these panels, but drove them with our Bryston 3B ST amplifier. When you see the large 300 ohm peak in the midrange, and the 4 ohm low at 150 Hz, you can see that this is not an easy load for an old Technics receiver. And the phase angle is rather extreme between 1 and 3 kHz, which could definitely lead to a pretty edgy sound quality.
I’ve heard a number of NXT demos over the years, and never expected and never got high end audio fidelity. In this case, understanding the technology means knowing its limitations. That said, I was surprised by how pleasant and lively the LoudPanels did sound in our listening room propped up against the back wall, and the subwoofer, which is down only 5- to -10 dB at 30 Hz (depending on where you place it), did a nice job of filling in the bottom octaves.
Imaging was almost a non-issue, but there was a sense of stereo just about everywhere in the room; and it could be said that with some parts of the panel radiating forward and some backward at the same time, that transient snap was also not a real factor in the sound. But these Wharfedale flat panels were far better sounding overall than I expected.
I can see these wall-hanging panels becoming a real alternative as side and rear speakers in home theatre systems, where a little lack of imaging precision might be an asset. Artists could have a great time painting different designs and pictures on the white surfaces. Think of the possibilities!
When more of us out there in Audioland do just that, I think Wharfedale will start to sell lots of LoudPanel systems.