The Fifth Element #12 Page 3
Harbeth's "unique selling proposition" is their claim of significant materials improvements for their best midrange driver over the usual polypropylene—slightly ironical, in view of the fact that Harwood himself patented the use of polypropylene in speaker cones many years ago. Harbeth not only makes their own midrange driver, they formulated and manufacture the patented "Radial" plastic from which it is molded.
Despite a small coterie of enthusiastic owners in the US, reestablishing Harbeth in the US market after several years of no official presence has been slow going, in part due to the BBC's having ordered large numbers of new speakers to upgrade World Service News facilities post-September 11. Indeed, inducing North American agent Garnet Lewis (footnote 6) to part with a review pair has been a three-year campaign, demand always having outstripped supply. He ended up shipping me his personal pair.
So, we have a defiantly anti-trendy, relatively inefficient (86dB), expensive ($6949/pair), and unusually large box loudspeaker that needs robust stands. Driver complement is a 1" silk-dome tweeter, an 8" midrange, and a 12" woofer. The sturdy, handsomely veneered (cherry) cabinet has two small front ports, and triwire terminals on the back. Does the Monitor 40 sound as if it's worth the money? Should you add it to your audition list? "Yes" and "It depends."
Without question, even the briefest auditions of favorite recordings tell me that, true to its heritage, Harbeth's Monitor 40 combines articulate detail with context and continuity to fashion a very engaging and musical presentation. The high frequencies are all there, but do not call attention to themselves as such. The bass is adequate when called upon, but does not make its presence known as an overall coloration (the 12" woofer rolls off above 200Hz).
Playing a CD of high-quality radio commercials demonstrated enviable midrange timbral trueness on speaking voices. Female vocals—from Ella Fitzgerald to Frederica von Stade to Mary Black to Anita Baker—had natural richness and warmth that soon became addictive. The (human) speaker's voice on that most English of works, Vaughan Williams' An Oxford Elegy (EMI 5 67221 2), was spellbinding. Harbeth claims that the perception of a very even power response through the midrange and treble is attributable in part to making the voice-coils of the tweeter and midrange the same diameter. Fascinating.
Well-recorded orchestral music was equally involving. Well-recorded piano was clear but not fatiguing. The Monitor 40 strikes what feels to me like the right balance between musical phenomena and epiphenomena—Gould's piano playing vs his singing.
Is it for you? I can't say. Pros: Class-leading midrange, wonderful overall musical presentation, quality of craftsmanship, and taking part in a great tradition. Cons: It's not cheap. Good stands required. The 40 requires at least 100W of clean power with adequate current and damping factor. (I used Plinius' splendid new SA-102 power amp and CD•LAD line stage, and was captivated.) The Monitor 40s also tend to visually dominate even a large room, especially when placed to obtain the most even bass response.
All that said, there's something organically satisfying about the Monitor 40, especially on classic female vocals such as Ella Fitzgerald "Easy to Love." The Monitor 40 has been the ticket off the equipment-upgrade merry-go-round for many experienced listeners. At the end of the day, whether or not it's the speaker for you may just depend on whether or not you're the kind of person who can take "Yes" for an answer.
Footnote 6: Winter Tree Audio, 6967 Bayers Road, Unit 1115, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada B3L 4P2. Tel: (902) 454-9253. Fax: (902) 454-0766. Web.