It’s hard to imagine an audio world without the name “Klipsch” in the vocabulary. By all accounts, Klipsch founder Paul Klipsch was a one-off – a man with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and discovery that resulted in speaker concepts and designs that still exist decades after inking the first blueprints. In high-end audio, few things last long enough to become buzzwords or achieve classic status. Audiophiles often speak in hushed tones of reverence for Marantz’s 10B tuner, Dynaco’s ST-70 amplifier and Acoustic Research’s AR turntables. That list must certainly include the Klipschorn – Paul Klipsch’s venerable loudspeaker design still capturing the imagination and ears of audio enthusiasts as we approach the year 2010.
It’s a remarkable accomplishment that spits in the face of such technological “upgrades” as Windows 7 and other patches to fix what was never whole to begin with. The Klipschorn has been in production for 60 years and, I hope, for decades to come. I concede the Klipschorns take up significant chunks of space and wattage that restrain them primarily to the audiophile world -you can’t stick such a beautiful beast into a wall (why would you?) or out of sight. But don’t give up on horns quite yet – even as I was ready to. If your listening room or budget is less grand, let me introduce the Klipsch WF-34s. These floorstanding loudspeakers failed to impress me initially, but like some of my dearest friends revealed their true value over time.
The WF-34s are one of five offerings in Klipsch’s Icon W speaker lineup and carry an MSRP of $1,199 per pair. They stand 34 inches tall, and in that respect look like traditional floor-standing speakers, but they are less than 7 inches wide and only 9.5 inches deep, lacking the bulk of many other floor-standers. If you have limited space and want a floor-standing speaker for either 2-channel audio or as part of a surround sound system but have limited space, the WF-34s will fit where other floor-standers won’t.
Klipsch speakers have long been associated with horns, and the WF-34s carry forward that tradition with the new XT Tractrix Horn. The Tractrix is a four-and-a-half inch horn that projects an 80-degree by 80-degree sound image, giving music more dimensionality and wider soundstage. Klipsch asserts the horns also more forgiving of a room’s acoustics and overall placement. A 1-inch titanium diaphragm compression driver is partnered with the horn for optimum high frequency response and performance. The WF-34s feature three 4 & 1/2-inch triple-woven fiberglass cone woofers and a pair of rear-firing ports on the back.
The WF-34s are also extremely sensitive, rated at 95.5 dB at 8 Ohms, so you can drive the speakers at very low volumes, even with low-wattage amps. If you live in an apartment, condominium or other dwelling where neighbors are nearby, you and they will both appreciate keeping the music to yourself.
The speakers look great, too, and come wrapped in a Berlinia veneer from West Africa that Klipsch says is a renewable resource. Two finish options are offered: Cabernet or a darker Espresso. Both feature a beautiful glossy finish, achieved after staining, by applying 10 coats of polyurethane, with each coat being sanded for uniform thickness. The WF-34s sport magnetic grills, making it easy to take the covers on and off without worrying about putting pegs back into holes or having them break off. The WF-34s sport two pairs of binding terminals for optional bi-wiring, and accept bare speaker wire, bananas and spade terminals.
Most speakers I receive for review come with a caveat of, “Please allow ‘X’ number of hours of break-in before critical listening.” The majority require less than the suggested time. When I spoke with Mark Casavant, Klipsch’s Vice President of Product Development, he cautioned against forming any quick opinions about the WF-34s, noting that they needed a full period of break-in before ready. After letting the speakers break in for several days I started listening and wasn’t impressed. The WF-34s sounded shrill and icy to me, with far too much emphasis on the high end. Perhaps I was biased?
I invited some music-loving friends over and we decided to open it up and see if the WF-34 could hold its own against other speakers in the review line. The consensus favored every other speaker, regardless of price or design. That included the Davone RITHMs (MSRP $,5,595) all the way down to Athena’s two-way AS-B1 bookshelf speakers, an over-achieving tandem no longer manufactured but that came to me for $150. Conversations with others in the audio industry outside of Klipsch weren’t encouraging, including one comment, “Yeah, Klipschs will tear your head off.” And that’s just how I felt. I struggled to listen and decided that these speakers just weren’t for me. I knew horns were fast, but speed can be tempered with mid- and low-range balance – something I wasn’t hearing.
Then one afternoon, after hours and hours of break-in, something happened. The speakers came to life, opening up and finally letting the music out, like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, and the difference was astounding. Recordings were presented in a balanced, detailed and flat, yet, compelling musical picture. It all made sense. The shrill trebles faded away; in their place came the full bloom of music, and I liked what I was hearing. Once over that hurdle, the WF-34s performed beyond my expectations and wooed me with their great sound and looks. And my head stayed in place.
Yes’ Open Your Eyes is an overlooked recording full of excellent songs set in a very crisp mix. I liked the WF-34’s ability to firmly deliver transients like Alan White’s cymbal accents, yet keep Chris Squire’s bass from rolling off too soon. The speakers could keep the softness in Jon Anderson’s voice while letting Steve Howe’s angular guitar lines bite hard.
One of my favorite moments with the WF-34s was with The Allman Brothers Band’s Brothers And Sisters. That album will always be a landmark of triumph over tragedy, as the band soldiered on to record its first full studio album after the death of guitarist Duane Allman. Guitarist Dickey Betts assumed a major songwriting role and penned two of the band’s biggest hits – “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica” – but it was the sparkling detail on “Come And Go Blues” that perked my ears. This tune has a deceiving arrangement, sounding sleepy but there’s lots going on and the Klispch’s peeled back each layer for a full reveal.
I remember receiving an enthusiastic e-mail, a few years back, from my friend Martin Popoff – a multi-book author and heavy metal expert – shortly after the release of Deep Purple’s 2005 release Rapture Of The Deep. He recommended the recording as equal to the best of the band’s work, and I didn’t need convincing that the current Purple lineup was capable of greatness. A revisit of Rapture through the Klipschs confirmed Popoff’s assertion. The album is loaded with nuggets, and it was a blast to listen to the nasty funk groove of “Wrong Man,” the sinewy exotic lines of the title track and the plaintive “Clearly Quite Absurd” through the WF-34s. The music was engaging and had a gorgeous stereo image with detailed placement of each instrument. Ian Paice’s cymbals crashed and held that crash, decaying like cymbals do in real life and not tempered by studio tricks. Again, more excellent transient response from the WF-34s. I also really liked Ian Gillan’s vocal presence, which seemed slightly out in front of the other band members, but never overbearing or to the detriment of the song.
While I’m gushing over music, let me share my musical find of 2009: Ireland’s Dead Heroes Club and their sophomore release A Time Of Shadow. With A Time Of Shadow, progressive rock has firmly planted its anchor in Irish soil, following the highest traditions of Genesis and Marillion. Dead Heroes Club has a frontman Liam Campbell, who has a remarkable delivery with lyrics that are topical and thought-provoking; the music is expertly played and arranged. Again, the WF-34s were highly revealing and detailed. They have a monitor-like flatness that keeps music from false colorations or veering toward highs or lows, yet the WF-34s aren’t cold or clinical – just smooth, open and involving.
If you’re looking for a competitively priced floor-standing loudspeaker that looks great, takes up less space and delivers the classic Klipsch sound, the WF-34s just may be your speaker. Give them ample time for break in and you’ll be well rewarded.