Harbeth P3ESR 40th Anniversary Edition loudspeaker

I promise not to tell you that the 40th Anniversary Edition Harbeth P3ESR loudspeaker sounds like a bigger speaker than it actually is. It does not. Likewise, I won't suggest that it offers a large portion of what Harbeth's bigger, more expensive models do—I'll leave that to the happy owners on the Harbeth User Group. But can I tell you it's good value for the money? The current, non-anniversary version of the P3ESR costs $2195/pair (footnote 1), while the souped-up, tarted-up 40th Anniversary Edition goes for $2890/pair—prices I think are chickenfeed, considering all the timeless virtues and musical satisfactions I have discovered in both versions.

Like Harbeth's Monitor M30.2 40th Anniversary Edition, which I reviewed in April 2018, the limited edition of the P3ESR costs more, but it's a distinctive-looking "trophy Harbeth" with bright olivewood veneer, WBT NextGen binding posts, 40th Anniversary badges on the rear panel and under the grille on the front baffle, as well as a metallic black-and-gold badge on the grille itself. (If you think these badges are frivolous, check the prices of vintage "gold badge" LS3/5a minimonitors.)

Beyond Harbeth's pandering to Brit-fi collectors with these badges, there are a few anniversary goodies inside the speaker, including "British-made audio grade poly capacitors" and "ultra-pure OFC internal cable." But are those invisible goodies audible? And why should anyone today care about some old British brand's 40th-anniversay hoopla?

Alan Shaw, Harbeth's president and chief engineer, says he's "not sure exactly when the last true, original LS3/5a was made by ourselves, Rogers, KEF, or Spendor, but the Harbeth P3 family is close to or has now actually outlasted the LS3/5a in continuous production through just three generations: P3, P3ES, P3ESR." The original P3 was designed by Shaw to replace the BBC's venerable LS3/5a location minimonitor (footnote 2), of which I am a notorious fan, and of which Harbeth had been a licensee.

Listening
I shall not forget the first time just recently when I played Harbeth's standard-edition P3ESR in my own system. It took me only 30 seconds to realize that the 12"-tall, two-way P3ESR—its drivers are a 0.75" dome tweeter and a 4.33" mid/bass driver with a cone made of Harbeth's proprietary Radial2 polymer—was delivering more useful information in the 75–300Hz octaves than either my Rogers or Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a's. This extra info makes every day-in, day-out recording sound more naturally toned and satisfying to listen to. I doubt Harbeth's P3ESR would make as effective a studio monitor as Falcon's LS3/5a, but to my ears, the P3ESR was easier to position, and more satisfying with a broader range of music. Every time I put the P3ESRs back in my system after listening to another speaker, I think: Damn! These things sound so . . . right!

The biggest thing the standard P3ESRs did so right was the sound of human voice. The P3ESR made spoken words sound as if they were coming from genuine sticky-fingered humans with names and addresses—not bots or ghosts, as most speakers do.

Today, I began my comparisons of the standard and 40th Anniversary P3ESRs with Lost Train Blues, an anthology of diverse blues performances recorded by folklorists John Lomax and his son, Alan, between 1933 and 1943 (LP, Jalopy LP 003). The first cut, "WPA Song," is a humorous one sung by Clyde "Kingfish" Smith in 1939. The second is "Longest Train I Ever Saw," by Jesse Wadley and friends, which John Lomax recorded in 1934 (with Lead Belly acting as First Assistant). Both performances are a cappella—no instruments. The P3ESRs, driven by Cary's 100W SLI-100 tubed integrated amplifier (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), made both sound like genuine humans speaking and singing—and, simultaneously, like a mechanical recording of humans singing and speaking. The natural aural presences of those real people and the Lomaxes' wire recorder enhanced my ability to engage with both the social culture and the physical context of these unaffected musical documents.

The P3ESR's vocal realism was not simply a product of its exceptional tonal character, but depended to a greater extent on the pair's ability to transmit into my listening room large amounts of spatial information.

Whenever I say that a recorded voice or musical instrument sounds real, I mean that the reproduction of it that I'm experiencing is so graphic and information-packed that my critical perceptions of "detail" are being subtly converted to perceptions of corporeality and presence—of a person, a place, or an instrument. This is a very good thing, because the word detailed cannot be applied to real life, only to photographs, sound recordings, and instructions.

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I had a memorable experience of this sort of real presence with the P3ESR 40th Anniversarys sitting 30" out from my front wall on TonTräger Audio's Reference P3s: light wooden stands made in Germany and costing $1485/pair (footnote 3). It was a delight-filled musical-aesthetic moment. The bright-olivewood Harbeths looked exceedingly delicate on the black stems of the slender TonTrägers. The Cary SLI-100 integrated amp drove the P3ESRs with nuance and finesse.

With Pepe Romero playing Bajando de la Meseta and other works for solo guitar by Joaqu°n Rodrigo (LP, Philips 9500 915), everything was perfect: the poetic Rodrigo compositions; the size, weight, resonance, and tone of Romero's guitar; his expressive but understated playing; and, especially, the transparent character of this Philips recording. This was as close to a real guitar as I have ever experienced in my little room. The TonTräger stands looked so good, and the music sounded so natural, that I wanted to lug my unpleasantly dense Sound Anchor stands out to the curb.

A surprising moment
As some of you know, I like high-powered sopranos. While driving the standard-edition, 83.5dB-sensitive P3ESRs with the 100Wpc Cary SLI-100, I listened closely to the voice of one of the highest-powered singers in recent history: the late Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson (1918–2005). Nilsson was administering her preternatural force to an aria from Richard Strauss's Elektra: "Allein! Weh, ganz allein" (Alone! Woe, all alone), with Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (24-bit/96kHz FLAC, Decca/Qobuz). It begins with a battalion of floor-shaking low strings: a heavy storm of dense energy below 200Hz that makes little speakers crumble. Minutes later, Elektra's blood-colored story begins, and Nilsson's sublime voice causes the listener to crumble.

As I say in my review of the Cary, the P3ESRs "choked noticeably in the high-energy low-frequency opening, and gurgled some in the ensuing deep-bass passages." They choked at only 90dB (at 2m) peak SPLs, which told me that I should clarify for my readers the little Harbeth's limitations.

I removed the regular-issue P3ESRs and installed the Falcon LS3/5a's. The Falcon puts out less energy below 100Hz—therefore, it never gurgles or gets thick in that region, as the Harbeths just had. Instead, the LS3/5a gets thin and "airy"—to a fault—as the pair of them did when playing this same passage from Elektra. Because their sound didn't thicken, the LS3/5a's let Strauss's masterpiece come through with more focus and bright transparency. This recording sounded surprisingly dark through the P3ESRs, while the Falcons showed off their famous, BBC-authorized 1kHz peak—which made Strauss's dramatic music seem more open and well sorted than through their Harbeth counterparts.

I then switched from the Falcons to Harbeth's 40th Anniversary Edition P3ESRs.

Before this I had heard no difference in sound between the regular and 40th Anniversary P3ESRs. But playing the Anniversarys after the Falcons and the standard P3ESRs showed me what I think was the Anniversarys' greater separation of instruments, and a fleshier texture to Nilsson's voice. While extremely subtle, Harbeth's upgrades of caps, wire, and binding posts might possibly translate into greater listener satisfaction.

Better or not, I still needed my Birgit Nilsson to be bigger. So for comparison, I let her sing Elektra through Harbeth's larger, more expensive Monitor M30.2s ($6495/pair). These medium-size two-ways each have an 8" mid-woofer that outputs at least 60% more energy into the 50–800Hz octaves. Consequently, the M30.2s played more of the entire opera—horns, deep strings, and timpani—with a full eight octaves of legitimate force and exquisite balance.

Meanwhile . . .
My small (14' long by 12' wide by 9' high) room let Harbeth's P3ESR 40th Anniversary Editions play medium-size music at satisfying volumes without distracting levels of distortion. If your room is the size of mine or smaller, you're not a bass freak, and you seek a modest but exquisite and keep-forever loudspeaker, Harbeth's P3ESR 40th Anniversary Edition is the best-built, most natural-sounding small speaker I have ever heard.—Herb Reichert



Footnote 1: John Atkinson reviewed the original Harbeth P3ESR in the August 2010 issue. His Follow-Up appeared in October 2010. Brian Damkroger's Follow-Up appeared in July 2011.

Footnote 2: For the history of this classic design, click here and here.

Footnote 3: TonTräger's ultra-elegant, all-wood stands contain no metal or plastic fasteners and are made, in the most organic and environment-friendly manner, by Eva-Maria Weichmann in the foothills of the German Alps. They're designed to be the optimal, Alan Shaw–approved supports for all Harbeth speakers.

COMPANY INFO
Harbeth Audio Ltd.
US distributor: Fidelis
460 Amherst Street
Nashua, NH 03063
(603) 880-4434
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Ortofan's picture

... Tim de Paravicini has been using stacked pairs of Falcon LS3/5a speakers (with the second speakers set upside down on top the first ones) to demo his products.
If HR still has both pairs of Harbeth P3ESR speakers on hand, perhaps he could give such an arrangement a try - possibly as a solution to the "choking" phenomenon that was mentioned.

ok's picture

..english amplification and associated ear is mostly a joke.

johnnythunder's picture

Back up your snarky statement with examples and facts! What are you basing that on? You obviously never listened to and enjoyed a Beatles LP. Or a classical recording from EMI? Or one of the zillion records recorded and mixed in the UK during the 50s/60s/70s/80s etc. Your statement is one of the more ignorant statements I've seen posted on a Stereophile blog. And EAR is a joke too? Maybe one can argue with the style or the slightly inflated costs but EAR equipment is not only almost unanimously well reviewed but used in some of the greatest recording studios in the world. Ignorant statement. Bsck it up or go home.

tonykaz's picture

I was an Importing Dealer of EAR gear.

That tall lanky gent impresses Print People but egads, the gear was not impressive compared with any of the Conrad-Johnson, Audio Research, Audible Illusions, Electrocompaniet Gear I stocked, sold, represented.

EAR gear is beautifully reviewed duds.

I carried the entire Product Line ( Range as they say in UK )

Tony in Michigan

ps. I'm being more charitable than the Amps deserve, reviewers lied about EAR

ok's picture

english gentlemen: some 95% of global “hi-end” gear and supporting hype is also a joke – a good 99% of autistic british audio hardware shouldn't have made any actual difference.. “Ear” was merely meant as “ears” by the way. Heading home is such an idea, thanks for the tip!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Home" .............. Daughtry :-) .............

ok's picture
Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Postcards from Paraguay" ............. Mark Knopfler :-) ...........

Ktracho's picture

How well do these speakers sound at basically arms' length? I am thinking it may not make sense for me to try to optimize the sound in my home theater, because it is a more public room, but I have much more privacy in the room where my computer is. Magneplanars wouldn't work due to my desk's shape and placement in the room.

Herb Reichert's picture

years with various LS3/5a on wall mounts or on the shelf above my desk - I feel pretty certain the little Harbeths will shine close up - but I have not yet tried them that way

hr

tonykaz's picture

They probably are quite good but....

Should Reviewers say things that tend to have all inclusive interpretations?

The ProAc Tablette is a proven, why is it consistently ignored?

Richard Girburg is turning over in his Grave, poor soul.

Stereophile should have a Small Loudspeaker Authority evaluating All the High-performance Contenders.

Mr. HR should be that person.

Who else?

Of course, Darko and Audiophiliac are already at it.

Tony in Michigan

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Elac Adante AS-61 bookshelf speakers are approx. the same price as the Harbeth P3ESR .......... AS-61 Speakers were very favorably reviewed by TJN for Sound & Vision ............

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be HR could review the new JBL Stage speakers? ............ The bookshelf Stage speakers are priced at $250/pair :-) ............

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The (gene-edited) Chinese are taking over :-) .............

badger748's picture

I have the very same P3ESR in Olive Wood Anni's being reviewed here.
I also have them on the Tontrager stands. They are marvelous.
Thinking about some Falcon LS3/5A's as well which I have heard on big heavy filled stands. Herb - did you try the Falcons on the Tontragers? What was that combo like? Thanks! Lee

Herb Reichert's picture

worked well with the Tontrager; but sounded a little less solid. However....

I must pass the Tontragers on to the next reviewer and I am missing them already. You are lucky to have the P3ESRs and them skinny-leg stands. Enjoy.
h

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