Brian Damkroger July 2011
Brian Damkroger wrote about the Harbeth P3ESR in July 2011 (Vol.34 No.7):
My first exposure to high-end audio involved Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark played through a pair of the original Rogers LS3/5a minimonitors. Like many encountering an iteration of the BBC's LS3/5a for the first time, I was amazed that so small a speaker could cost more than $600/pair, then shocked that so small a speaker could sound as it did. Actually, I was shocked that any speaker could sound like the LS3/5a: Instead of like "a stereo," it sounded like a performance. The very existence of the High End, and its reason for existenceto reproduce the sound of a live performancehit me like twin lightning bolts. I was hooked.
I've heard many loudspeakers since that day, and some of them have been spectacular, but it's likely that none has had the impact on my consciousnessmy lifethat those unassuming little Rogerses did. But oddly enough, I'd never owned or reviewed any version of the BBC's LS3/5a. When, in the August 2010 Stereophile, I read John Atkinson's words about a similarly sized descendant of the LS3/5a, Harbeth's P3ESR ($2195/pair) I decided that I had to hear it.
Who, What, When, Where, Why
I positioned the 12"-tall Harbeths 30" from the sidewalls, about 7' 6" in from the front wall, and toed-in so their axes crossed at my listening position. The speakers sat on the same sturdy, sand-filled stands I use with the Audience 2+2s, with StillPoints under the stands and short Tiptoes between speakers and stands. The stands put the centerline of each speaker at about 36", which is the height of my ears when I sit in my listening chair.
In his August 2010 review, John introduced the P3ESR by noting that different aspects of reproduced sound are important to different people; some are willing to forgo deep bass, but can't live without the fine detail that lovingly paints a picture of the recording space. Others can live without ultimate loudness but insist on a flat tonal balance. For still others, it's all about fast, clean dynamics, and if that's associated with a cool tonal balance, so be it. And, as JA also noted, some are willing to give up a little bit of everything because of space and/or budgetary concerns, so long as most of it's there and all is in balance.
Designing a sealed two-way speaker the size of a small shoebox and retailing for $2195/pair will entail some compromises. Because the LS3/5a was designed as an on-site monitor speaker for the BBC, the top priorities were small size, midrange clarity and detail, and timbral neutrality: The engineers in the broadcast booth had to hear exactly what was going on in the recording space (footnote 1). These goals resulted in a small sealed-box design and, as a consequence, low bass was sacrificed, as it has been in the Harbeth P3ESR. But as JA noted, other speakers may play deeper or louder, or might produce dynamics with more impact, the little Harbeths did a really great job of getting out of the way of the music.
I found this to be the case with recordings of smaller, more intimate performances. I cued up "Car on a Hill," from Mitchell's Court and Spark (LP, Asylum/Nautilus Superdiscs NR11), for example, and was again completely mesmerized by the realism engendered by the inner details in Mitchell's voice andespeciallythose of the backing singers. It was a refresher course in what high-end audio is about, and what it can accomplish when done well.
Another album whose reproduction by the Harbeths completely satisfied me was Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar's West Meets East (LP, Angel 36418). The sitar, violin, and tabla all sounded tonally correct, with "in the room" presence. The Harbeths even did a credible job of reproducing Hephzibah Menuhin's piano in Enescu's Violin Sonata 3although, admittedly, this work does not at all stretch the piano's range. The P3ESR had a lighter, airier tonal balance than I remember hearing from the LS3/5a, and there wasn't the phantom low- and midbass, but the overall balance worked well with West Meets East as it had with most of Court and Spark.
What's Not There
With many recordings, however, I found the Harbeth's bass shyness to be less satisfying than more full-range designs, even ones without the P3ESR's incredible midrange clarity and detail. The arrival of Parasound's Halo JC 3 phono preamplifier, with its Stereo/Mono switch, had me pulling out some of my favorite old mono LPs. One was Holst's The Planets (LP, Westminster WL5235), with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra and London Philharmonic Choir. The work spans a wide range of dynamics, tempo, and frequency, of course, and the power resident in this mono recording is incredibleusually. It wasn't quite so through the Harbeth. The celesta, woodwinds, and violins were all lovely, but with the double basses all but absent and even the cellos severely attenuated, much of The Planets just didn't work. JA admitted that the P3ESR had him playing recordings of smaller, more intimate works, as opposed to Mahler symphonies.
Nor would I recommend the P3ESR to someone whose tastes run to rock'n'roll. My beloved Johnny Rivers albums, chronicling several shows at the Whisky A Go-Go (LPs, Imperial LP-12264, -74, and -84), sounded intolerably thin through the Harbeths, and didn't have the incredible live feel that these albums normally do. Emmylou Harris, the Stray Cats, Lucinda Williams, Corey Stevensthese aren't huge, bass-driven recordings, yet all sounded thin through the Harbeths. As JA noted, "Low bass was missing in action, as was most of the midbass." And without them, none of these albums was as musically satisfying as I know it can be.
But You Are There
Where I found the Harbeths to be most successful, beyond the smaller sorts of works that John discussed, was with recordings in which location and ambience cues played a large role. Again and again, I found myself pulling out my favorite opera recordings, as much for the incredible ambience surrounding the singers as for the performances themselves. With perhaps my favoriteAlain Lombard and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra-Comique's recording of Delibes' Lakmé, featuring Mady Mesplé (LP, Seraphim SIC-6082)it seemed as if the hall was larger and more detailed than I'd heard in the past. It was like going from a stark, modern hall full of straight lines and hard surfaces to an elegant, baroque shoebox of a hall full of wood, tapestries, and ornate carvings.
The Harbeth's resolution of detail and midrange neutrality also resulted in richer, more completely assembled images. All of the singers in Lakmé had more body and presence than they do with most other, similarly priced speakers, and were more clearly and firmly located in the soundstage. Plusand most important, given the Harbeth's heritage as a broadcast monitorsingers and instruments simply sounded more like themselves than like electromechanically re-created facsimiles.
The Last Word
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Harbeth P3ESR. Cuing up Joni Mitchell's "Car on a Hill" reminded me why I was so impressed with the original LS3/5a all those years ago, and why I got into high-end audio in the first place. The speaker's midrange beautifully showed what good high-end audio is capable of, and why the industry exists. On the other hand, the P3ESR's lack of low bass and most of the midbass disqualifies it, for me, as a speaker for a main system. With my musical tastes, I'd be better served by a more full-range, ported designsuch as the Spiral Groove Anima ($2600/pair and originally Sonics by Joachim Gerhard), reviewed by Wes Phillips in the July 2007 issue; or, if I had the room, the Magnepan MG1.7 ($1995/pair). But neither of those speakers can match the Harbeth's incredible midrange realism. As Michael Fremer's grandmother used to say, 'You pay, you get.'" For people short on space, and/or who place a high priority on a true-to-life, you-are-there midrange, the Harbeth P3ESR will be a great choice.Brian Damkroger
Footnote 1: For details of the LS3/5a's design and evolution see John Atkinson's 1993 review of the original Harbeth HL-P3.