Can the rebirth of Castle relive past glories? Looks likely!
A LONG TIME ago (in a land not far away from here – High St, Auckland, to be exact) I worked weekends at a friend’s hi-fi shop. Well, we sold a lot of audio equipment and had a ton of laughs along the way, and I was lucky enough to be exposed to some really great quality gear.
That shop was The Audiovision Centre, and my friend was (and still is) Andrew Simpson.
Not only did he sell great equipment from his tiny shop, but he also imported household name brands such as Musical Fidelity, Nordost, Definitive Technology and PS Audio. He also imported speakers from a Yorkshire-based company called Castle Acoustics, and I was lucky enough to meet the then MD Graham McGee on a number of occasions.
I quickly became very fond of the Castle ethos – exquisite hand-made cabinetry combined with high-tech drive units made in-house at their factory in Skipton. The use of quarter-wave ‘Voigt’ bass loading, tuned to provide musicality and warmth, possibly came at the expense of speed and accuracy, but this enabled long listening sessions without constantly changing CDs or records.
Considering their mid-market pricing at the time they seemed to do everything right, so I bought a pair of Harlech floor-standers, and these were quickly followed by a pair of Richmond 3i’s (as rear HT speakers), the Classic subwoofer and a Bastion centre.
They were fabulous speakers as a package, and still are because in spite of numerous speaker purchases over the last few years I can’t seem to part with them.
Which bring me to the present day: Castle essentially crashed and burned due to financial issues in 2006, and lay dormant for a few years before rising from the ashes under the IAG umbrella. Castle is an iconic British brand that I have quite an investment in (both in terms of financial and emotional outlay), but judging by the efforts put into their new stablemates (Mission/Quad/Wharfedale) I was confident they wouldn’t stuff things up and ruin one of my favourites.
So lo and behold, a pair of spankingly new Castle Knight 4’s ended up in my listening room for a good old four-month review (well, in between seafaring duties, that is). They are a new range for the company, sitting below the Classic range spearheaded by the luscious Howard flagship.
The 4’s are second from the top dog Knight 5 (obviously); the Knight 3’s are the entry level floor-standing model, the 1’s and 2’s both being stand-mounts. Once unpacked I had to attach the plinths to each cabinet, and once I’d screwed the spikes in the speakers were ready to make some music. Nothing seems to have changed for Castle under the new ownership if the Knights are representative – they are sturdily built and beautifully finished. The sample speakers came in a perfect real-mahogany wood veneer, while the plinth, spikes and binding posts were of a very high standard.
The Knight 4’s use 2 x 130mm polypropylene bass-mid drivers and a single 25mm textile dome tweeter in what’s called a ‘twin-pipe’ enclosure (see pic below). Essentially, an internal division is angled towards the front of the cabinet, and these two cabinet ‘halves’ are tuned to different frequencies. The internal air flow travels through a port at the bottom of the cabinet and then hits the solid plinth, creating back pressure and therefore ‘loading’ the cabinet. It’s very similar to the quarter wave design of my Voigt ‘Vofo’s’, and differs from my trusty Castle Harlech’s as the internal division in those speakers completely separates the cabinet halves.
With a fairly high sensitivity of 90db they are also tube friendly and shouldn’t need too much power to drive them – although more power is better than not enough.
So with tech stuff out of the way – I cabled the Knights up to my Audiolab 8200CDQ/8200MB’s and the rest of my cast of thousands (Squeezebox Touch/Pro-Ject RPM12 ‘Studie’ and even my almost forgotten Cambridge Audio Azur 650BD Blu-Ray player for DVD-A/SACD duties)
I gave them a bit of time to run in properly, and over this time I really got to grips with what is a surprisingly good sounding loudspeaker.
They have a laid-back tonal signature common to the Castles of old, maybe a touch loose in the bass (in a warm fashion) and are not overly detailed or ‘fast’ (as opposed to the Linn/Naim sonic signature).
What they are though is very easy to listen to for extended periods. There’s no etchiness or stridency at the top end, and the midrange is clear and openly defined.
The first track I listened to was Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ from his rather good Making Mirrors album. This is a stripped down recording with an enormous amount of emotion and feeling in the song, and the Knight 4’s made a damn good fist of portraying it all.
Both Gotye’s and Kimbra’s vocals appeared in mid-air between each speaker, while the quirky synth sounds (although not all, Gotye makes some of his own instruments) danced between and outside of the speaker boundaries.
An excellent start then, and after familiarising myself with this latest Aussie sensation it was time for a bit of Kate Bush, as I was in a most melancholic mood (it wouldn’t last though).
50 Words For Snow is her latest album, a pared-back affair with mainly piano and Gregorian-type backing vocals. It’s a work of delicacy and requires a deft touch from the electronics and loudspeakers let alone sources. Once again the little Knight 4’s communicated the album extremely well, and Kate’s plaintive vocals were captured with her trademark breathiness and inflection. The piano sound had great timbre and surprising heft at the bottom end, definitely a revelation for a small-ish speaker with 130mm drivers.
Once I’d listened to her album (and I mean ‘listened’) it was time to up the tempo somewhat and bring myself back to life with some rockier stuff. Well, blow me down if I didn’t choose Dire Straits, my most-loathed band of the ‘80s. I actually went to three concerts back in the day and walked out on two of ‘em, but for some reason I seem to have had a change of heart in recent times and have gone out and purchased all their early stuff. That being said, horrific tracks such as ‘Money For Nothing’ and ‘The Walk Of Life’ still produce nausea.
So onto the Squeezebox went ‘Tunnel Of Love’ from Making Movies. It’s a rather dour affair, but somehow it evokes memories of my youth around Auckland city. It’s a decent recording with a rather fat bass and splashy treble, and that’s pretty much what I heard through the Knight 4’s – albeit with one difference compared to a lot of speakers I’ve heard this track through. I could listen through the whole track (and album) without walking away or changing tracks.
So in summing up, it’s a more than favourable review of Castle’s beaut little Knight 4’s. I did have my concerns about the change of owner – would they change what was (to me at least) a winning formula?
Luckily my fears are unfounded. If these are representative of the new Castle sound then they need to be considered if you’re looking for a quality pair of transducers at this price-point.
In fact, the Knight 4’s certainly didn’t sound like an $1800 pair of speakers, they punched well above their weight and didn’t sound out of place on my system. Impressed – hell yeah. Go and audition a pair. GARY PEARCE