Heavenly Harbeth

The prototype speaker I shamelessly coveted at the 2007 RMAF, the Harbeth 40.1, resurfaced in final form at THE Show’s Alexis Park location. Paired with Resolution Audio’s exceptional-sounding components, it again made my mouth water. Now positioned on new, lower stands (which, in my not-so-humble opinion, look far more attractive, and far less like a funeral casket, when not draped in black cloth), the full-range 40.1 monitors have an immensely detailed, beautifully layered, extremely controlled midrange whose harmonic richness is hard to resist. Toed-in toward the listener, the speakers' high end was equally compelling.

The drum thwacks on Karina Gauvin’s chamber ensemble arrangement of one of Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne were among the most realistic I've heard from this frequently played CD, as was the decay of room resonance. I also enjoyed the beautiful harmonic richness of orchestra and piano on Martha Argerich's live recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto 2 with Claudia Albano.

I also delighted to have an extended conversation with Harbeth's warm, delightfully candid owner and designer Alan Shaw. Shaw acquired Harbeth nine years after BBC retiree Dudley Harwood launched the company in 1977, and clearly loves his work. Most disturbing was his report that the BBC, which dismissed its Chief Engineer years ago in a cost-saving move, has now redesigned its new studios as completely glass-enclosed echo chambers. The resonance is so awful that if you have a panel discussion, with some speakers farther from the mikes than others, it can be hard to understand them. The fabled BBC-studio sound of Harbeth loudspeakers is perhaps wasted on such blockheads. Happily, you and I can appreciate it to the max in our homes.

Alan, who is extremely conscious of environmental impact when building his speakers, has designed Harbeths to last. Because people fall in the love with them, and hold onto them for years, any Harbeth speaker can be easily supported and repaired to virtually sound like new. (Note, however that there are so many changes between the 40 and 40.1 that an upgrade is impossible). The speakers are said to extend flat down to 40Hz, present an extremely easy 6–8 ohm load for tube amps devoid of major impedance peaks and dips, and compensate for their unapologetic boxy appearance with wonderfully open sound. With plenty of new dealers in the US, these are major audition components.

Condre's picture

Hey guys...there is Gene Rubin Audio in Ventura. In San Diego there is SonicCulture.com I just bought a pair of Compact 7es3s and they are incredible. I went from the Spendor S35R (I am a Spendor devotee) which I still dearly love. The Harbeth has much more bass, dimension, and spatial accuracy. But its more than double the price. I was considering the Spendor SP1/2R but there is no local Spendor dealer now.

sarah's picture

I've always been curious about Harbeth--but how different are they from the classic Spendors (BC-1, SP-1) and Rogers speakers? All are said to have that famous "BBC" sound; do they all sound alike?

tonyE's picture

Well... I sure hope they get their dealer act together. I live in the LA/OC area and my nearest dealer is down in Escondido. How can Harbeth not have a dealer near in the metropolitan LA area is truly beyond me. I was planning to buy an M30 last year, but lack of time to drive down there and their recent price increases are driving me toward Maggies instead.

Jay Valancy's picture

If there is one truth in audio it is: "At this level, it's a matter a personal preference". And how true that is when completely different speaker designs (electrostatics, one full range driver, and "traditional" Harbeths)can thrill Jason. Bravo to all the designers who choose their own path (and to the writers, like Jason, who have an open mind). Great coverage!

Rick Becker's picture

Hopefully, we will have a listen to these at the Montreal show in a few months.

Mike Fijne's picture

So if this box is capable of "an immensely detailed, beautifully layered, extremely controlled midrange whose harmonic richness " and if its builder is "extremely conscious of environmental impact when building his speakers, has designed Harbeths to last" one truly wonders about those "gluons" and other ammonites manufacturers who are reshaping their boxes every 2 years! If you guys praise this amateur realization as much as you become extatic in front of some convoluted crafted woodwork, it suggests that 1) the components quality is the key point 2) the rest is expensive marketing.

Jason's picture

I have a pair of Harbeth HLP3ES I bought in 1997. I love them as much, probably more, as when I bought them. I have yet to come across a more natural sounding speaker (though I am saving up for a pair of HarbethP7s). These guys build them to last and I can't help thinking that there's deep integrity in this particular enterprise. Congratulations, Harbeth.

Jeff Stake's picture

Mike Fijne's point that box shape would not appear to be critical is a good one. However, his cynical conclusion goes a bit farther than the evidence warrants. Yes, "quality" of parts matters, but a collection of very high quality parts can sound awful. At least as important as the quality of the parts is the design of the system, including the design of the box, and the design of the crossover, and the design of the drivers.

Doug Muich's picture

Wonderful article about our beloved Harbeth, just a short note to say that we have a Spendor Audio Dealer in Sante California at Blackbird Audio. I thank you for the contact info for San Diego Harbeth............I can not wait to hear the Harbeths in all there glory. I have never heard a pair yet, but as a proud owner of 20 year old "True British made Celestion SL6si speakers- from circa 1989" I am very interested in the Harbeths as only true audio lovers will fully understand.Thanks GreatlyDoug Muich San Diego, CA-USA

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