The latest incarnation of Castle’s Howard S3 floorstanders is the best yet according to Andrew Baker
IT MUST HAVE been a huge sigh of relief when, last decade, popular English loudspeaker company Castle Acoustics, struck down by hard financial times, were bought up by Chinese audio giants International Audio Group. Owned by millionaire audio enthusiast brothers Michael and Bernard Chang, IAG is surely the best place for a struggling company to be, especially when the factory – overseen by Director of Acoustic Design Peter Comeau – is shared by the likes of Mission, Quad and, perhaps ironically, Wharfedale.
Yes, ironically: in the year 1973 (back before IAG and financial strife) six senior members of the Wharfedale design team decided they had a different vision for speaker development and thus broke away to found Castle Acoustics, vowing to use the finest audio quality materials, woods and veneers to create furniture standard loudspeakers. Many an audiophile cut their teeth with a pair of Castle speakers and the company created a rather impressive catalogue, now being improved upon and reworked (usually using the original machinery and staff) in China using the same – if not better – approach to quality design and build.
The Howards are part of the Classic Series range, which includes names such as the Warwick, Stirling, Harlech and Richmond speakers, each coming in real wood veneer with eight choices of finish (although it appears only two – Cherry and Mahogany – are currently available in New Zealand). The review pair came in a striking deep mahogany which was rather delicious, and even drew positive comments from other members of the family.
Build & Features
Featuring a slightly more compact cabinet than the Howard S2s, the S3s share their little brothers (the Harlechs) up-firing bass driver and twin pipe internal design, a horn like “quarter wave” which ports underneath, between the speaker cabinet and the plinth, thus creating the loading. They have the traditional driver arrangement in front with 150mm mid-bass driver and 28mm tweeter, albeit inverted, a la Mission speakers, but with the addition of a 150mm upward-firing bass driver. The two carbon fibre mid/bass drivers are tuned at different frequencies – apparently the upward one is rolled off above 250 Hz – athereby reinforcing the lower bass registers while leaving the forward facing driver to deal with the lower midrange – giving the S3s an overall frequency range of 35 Hz – 20 kHz. Not too shabby at all, and add to that a sensitivity of 90dB (into 8 ohms) and these floorstanders aren’t too difficult to drive: recommended amplifier power is 25 – 175 watts per channel, so most users won’t have any trouble, and even some lower powered valve amps will do a good job. The S3s have a hardwired crossover using high quality ICW capacitors, as well as WBT terminals for the best possible connection to speaker cables.
Each cabinet weighs 26kg and measures 1000 x 210 x 335mm (h, w, and d) while standing on their own spiked plinths. The Howard S3s are a very handsome speaker indeed. They are a traditional boxy shape but the rounded edges, beautiful construction, sturdy plinths and gorgeous wood veneer give a truly modern aspect to that classic look.
Setup & Sound
Once removed from their boxes, it’s just a matter of following the instructions and attaching the plinths and spikes to the speaker bases. Castle recommends using only bi-wire speaker cable with the S3s, but quality jumper cables are supplied for those who don’t use (or believe in) bi-wire. Care should be taken with positioning the S3s in order to avoid any potential bass boom or rattle, and of course to create the best possible stereo image. I settled with them a foot or two from the rear wall and angled in slightly towards the listening spot. The Howards were hooked up to my Unison Research valve hybrid integrated (with single-wire speaker cable) and, as usual, music was delivered via my Well Tempered/ Analogue Instruments/ Benz Micro/ A23 SUT/ Trichord vinyl front end combination. I also had the opportunity to use my computer, playing digital FLAC files via the impressive new Perreaux Audiant DP32 DAC/Preamplifier and Audiant 100p power amp combo (currently under review).
I forgot to ask the lads at Capisco whether this particular pair of S3s had seen any current so for the benefit of the doubt I gave them some time to run in before sitting down to listen. In saying that, if they were indeed “freshies”, then from what I heard when I first fired them up, they sounded great right out of the box.
Straight away I noticed a lovely, smooth and warm sound with a nice rich and controlled bass response, and it struck me that anyone thinking that IAG are just churning out the same speakers but with different respective badges need not worry. As far as I’m concerned, there is no “IAG sound” – while sounding distinctly modern, each brand retains its own characteristic sound. This was evident with the latest range of Missions (a review of the SX2 bookshelf speakers is also currently underway) and the Castles are no exception. Care has evidently been taken to ensure the Castles retain something of their original character – that which made them distinct and popular in the first place all those years ago.
The Howards’ bass didn’t go super low and nor did it move air around the room in great gusts like the impressive Mission SX5s did a few months back, but there was a rich tunefulness to bass lines, good definition – and without nasty boom – and a good solid thump to bass drums which had me quite satisfied. There is no weird phasing from the up-firing bass driver either; being cut off above that 250 Hz mark, they certainly give a good impression of mini subwoofers without throwing sound up towards the ceiling.
The superb midrange gave piano and guitars a natural edge and tone, though vocals – while believable – did tend to have a slight “cuppy” sound, although this wasn’t usually distracting. The tweeters don’t exactly overdo the detail and in some ways are somehow slightly restrained, not as clear and open as one may wish; but they are very pleasant to listen to all the same.
I found myself listening more to rock-based music, as the Howards’ warm and somewhat forgiving nature lent them nicely to that genre. Take Sonic Prayer by psychedelic three piece Earthless: not exactly an “audiophile recording”, more a captured-in-the-act jam session recording, but boy it can grab one’s attention. The album consists of two 20-odd minute songs (on red vinyl no less) with a real jam feel and hints of Sabbath, Zeppelin, and 1970s psychedelic garage rock, and the S3s revelled in the chunky repetitive bass lines, banging drums, heavy riffs and cosmic, convoluted stoned-out fretwork. With the lights off the Howards took me on a wild ride, a journey, accompanied by furious extended guitar solos and heavy riffs. The sound was well-rounded and never fatiguing and the sometimes searing high notes never became too much to bear.
On ‘At Least That’s What You Said’ from Wilco’s magnificent A Ghost Is Born LP, the bass that kicks in after the mellow piano/vocal intro really pummelled me to attention, just as it should. The bottom end was swift and meaty, notes stopping and starting or decaying naturally without overpowering the piano, which was duelling furiously with Jeff Tweedy’s feedback-drenched guitar work. The song remained focused and unmuddled throughout with great imaging and a suitably wide, deep soundstage. It was quite breathtaking. Likewise, the Howards brought out the get-up-and-dance-till-the-floorboards-shake enthusiasm of Auckland’s illustrious The Drab Doo Riffs’ latest release (on 10-inch vinyl only) the Aquatic Ape Theory EP. It’s fun and silly (in a perfectly good way) but without the quick to date novelty factor, and there was a real live feel, thanks in no small part to the speakers’ portrayal, with stomping bass lines and a kind of sci-fi “surfabilly” rock sound; the kind of music I can actually imagine a cultured bunch of actual apes dancing to. Fast and dirty party music for the hip and cool, it was a pleasure to listen to, endearing me to the Castles even more.
But don’t think that these are strictly rock speakers. They’re a musical speaker which will appeal more to music lovers with a slight audiophile tendency than hardcore audiophiles, and while rock was particularly enjoyable, other genres could still impress, if not entirely convince.
With the jazz, soul and gospel of Cannonball Adderly, Nina Simone and Mavis Staples respectively, performances were breathtaking and I could still often hear some of the ambience of the recording environment; those little hints of echo and reverb that can really make a recording seem more lifelike. Yet, with Nina Simone’s Pastel Blues LP, despite the colourfully toned and expressive piano, the S3s couldn’t quite get the full visceral emotion from her voice or the outright inner detail which can bring life and clarity to a performance. Adderly’s Somethin’ Else was smooth and relaxing with great scale and imaging and Staples’ new One True Vine LP intimate, heartfelt and uplifting, each album displaying those lovely Castle attributes ( warmth, fluidity and richness), but without that “open window” quality that can reveal every little scrap, every crumb of detail. There was always a great sense of depth of field and instruments extended well beyond the realms of the speaker cabinets, extending to the far left and right of the speakers while rhythm and timing were always superb.
Overall, the Castle Howard S3s are fun and rewarding speakers which potentially blur the distinction between the music lover and the casual audiophile. There is plenty to love about them, despite the fact that there will be those who may well require a more transparent sound and more detail in terms of subtlety and nuance. I should say, I found giving them a star rating was really quite tricky: five stars for musicality (which could well cover the vast majority of speaker buyers), and four-and-a-half stars for the more discerning listener, or audiophile, is my best offer. Either way, that really is a damned good score.
The S3s look like pieces of quality furniture which will still look good many years from now and they play music without frills – for many consumers out there they are bound to please.
Audition a pair immediately. AW BAKER