Harbeth HL-P3 loudspeaker John Marks, October 2005
The HL-3P-ES2 ($1595/pair, stands required) is Harbeth's drop-in replacement for the BBC's LS3/5a broadcast monitor (see The Fifth Element," October 2002 and JA's recent essay on the LS3/5a). Stands were the Sound Organisation's sturdy, affordable, 24"-high Z570s, a bargain at $245/pair. Walter Swanbon of Harbeth's US importer, Fidelis, graciously hand-delivered the HL-3P-ES2s and set them up, using some Mortite I had on hand. After hearing about an hour's worth of music, Walter pronounced himself satisfied with the setup and with my listening room.
Gloriosky, these little speakers are just great to listen to! Over and above that, their elegant size, first-class fit'n'finish (the veneers are mirror-matched left to right, including the front and the rear panels), and the sense of participating in the continuation of audio history that they provide, made the time I spent with them immensely pleasurable. High "gotta havvit" quotient; these are speakers I could almost live with indefinitely.
The drawback is that they lack low bass. (Quelle surprise—their woofer is the size of a CD.) A good subwoofer might almost bridge that gap, keeping in mind that a good subwoofer (one that can play musical tones, as distinct from reproducing the artificial footsteps of artificial dinosaurs) is not going to be cheap, and your low bass will then be in mono. But I cheerfully admit that, in certain rooms, the satellite/sub approach can be the most affordable way to get around speaker-placement and bass-mode problems.
About listening to music through the HL-3P-ES2s: Sometimes I think we may deceive ourselves. We think of certain tracks as "test tracks," yet are such tracks (I have my favorites, as longtime readers will know) really more likely to point out flaws in the speakers, or are they more apt to flatter the speakers, to make them sound good?
Here's an example of what I mean. My friend Jeff Mitchell was, on balance, skeptical of Dynaudio's 25th-anniversary loudspeaker's value proposition (you can read my comments on this speaker here). But after I'd played for him John Atkinson's recording of Cantus singing "Shenandoah," from Let Your Voice Be Heard (CD, Cantus CTS1201), he turned to me and said, "John, if that had been the only track I'd heard, I'd say these were the best speakers in the world."
In the same vein, Bob Saglio, a dealer chum, calls my desert-island pick of Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter's "Easy to Love" "God's gift to the high-end audio industry." He has never heard it sound anything less than listenable. There perhaps is something to be said for having some not-very-good tracks in one's listening pile; an accurate system should make them sound not very good. Suggestions invited.
Be that however it may, Harbeth's HL-3P-ES2s were nothing short of brilliant on a trio of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab SACD/CD hybrids of mono jazz reissues from 1956, '57, and '58: Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (UDSACD 2019), Sonny Rollins' Plus 4 (UDSACD 2006), and John Coltrane's Soultrane (UDSACD 2020). SACD playback was via Esoteric's X-01. (Yes, I know; it should go back. Breaking up is hard to do.)
Interestingly enough, while listening to these three mono jazz recordings from the 1950s (each, of course, with an upright double-bass) through the Harbeth HL-3P-ES2s, I felt that I was not missing much at all in the low bass, whereas on large orchestral works and rock I very much missed the bottom octave. What follows is merely a partially educated guess, but: perhaps a hollow-body acoustical string bass has an even more harmonically rich frequency spectrum than that of an electric bass guitar.
As JA has pointed out in his online annotations to Stereophile's Test CD 2, an electric bass guitar's lowest note is E=41.2Hz, but the overtone at the first octave (82.4Hz) is 11dB louder than the fundamental. That is, that overtone has nearly four times as much energy as the fundamental. If that's how an electric bass works, and if a string bass has even stronger harmonics compared to its fundamental tones, then it would indeed be easier to follow the bass lines on these recordings, even though the HL-3P-ES2s were not doing justice to the fundamentals. Hmmm...—John Marks