Harbeth HL-P3 loudspeaker JA on the HL-P3ES2, April 2007

John Atkinson wrote about the Harbeth HL-P3ES-2 in April 2007 (Vol.30 No.4):

I reviewed the original version of this minimonitor in December 1993, and John Marks commented very favorably on the sound of the ES-2 version in October 2005.

A sealed-box two-way, the HL-P3ES-2 (footnote 1) uses two magnetically shielded drivers: a 5.5" (110mm) plastic-cone woofer and a 0.75" (19mm) ferrofluid-cooled aluminum-dome tweeter, the latter protected by gold-colored wire mesh. Both units are rabbeted into the veneered front baffle, which, unlike the BBC LS3/5a's, is not set into the cabinet. The minimal, metal-frame black-cloth grille fits into a slot around the edge of the baffle so that it does not present an acoustic obstacle to the sound. The cabinet is slightly taller and deeper than that of the LS3/5a. Two pairs of binding posts on the rear panel facilitate biwiring.

Sound: I did all my auditioning of the review samples (serial numbers P32572L and R) with their grilles in place. In my 1993 review, I had described the HL-P3's sound as "In a word, 'stunning.' In another word, 'clean.' In another, 'an astonishing amount of bass for such a small speaker.'" All of those descriptors were just as appropriate for the 'ES-2, although, as with the original, I do have to qualify my use of the word bass. The low E's in my Fender-bass channel-identification tracks on Editor's Choice (CD, Stereophile STPH016-2) definitely lacked the necessary weight (and the presence region was reproduced with a tad too much ping—see later). The third-octave warble tones on Editor's Choice could be heard in full measure down to the 80Hz band, but with then a fairly rapid rolloff apparent (though the 32Hz band was surprisingly audible, thanks to a room resonance).

But compared directly with both the 1978 Rogers and 2006 Stirling LS3/5as, the HL-P3ES-2 had less upper-bass bloom and more true midbass extension. The double bass on Bob Dylan's Modern Times (CD, Columbia 3826 87686-2) sounded less gruff, with better delineation of the sound's leading edges. I could play the Ashkenazy Rachmaninoff Symphony 1 (CD, Decca 411 657-2) at a usefully higher level than on either pair of '3/5as without the lower strings sounded congested.

Forced to swear to a difference at higher frequencies, I'd say that the Harbeth wasn't quite as revealing of recorded detail as the Stirling, but its treble was certainly more beguiling in character. This was only as long as I slouched a little in my listening chair, however. When I sat so I could see the top of the speaker, the mid-treble started both to sound detached from the rest of the spectrum and more forward. The Harbeth's magic seemed to work only when my ears were level with the tweeter. But when that was the case, there was an ease to the speaker's sound, a musically involving presentation that had me reaching for another disc before the first one had ended.

While the Harbeths were in the system I began work on my next Cantus project, a CD of encores (to be released in fall 2007). Some of the works had involved more complicated miking than usual: in addition to the main choir, Peter Hamlin's new setting of Ernest Lawrence Thayer's "Casey at the Bat" calls for a vocal trio, spoken dialog from Casey and the umpire, and shouts from the crowd. I found that the HL-P3ES-2s were superb at allowing me to hear the effects of slight level changes in the mike pairs I had used, as well as to work out the correct amount of equalization to compensate for the mikes' departure from a flat response. Obviously, the speakers were deaf to the sounds of air-conditioning and distant traffic, but for their primary role as monitors, they did a superb job.

At the end of last year, I had recorded two nights of Bob Reina's jazz group, Attention Screen, performing live at Otto's Shrunken Head club on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The first night I had used an ORTF pair of DPA cardioids, the second a spaced pair of Earthworks omnis, positioned closer so that the instrumental balance and the soundstage width were similar. Listening to the two-channel 24-bit/88.2kHz files, burned to DVD-Audio discs with Minnetonka Software's Discwelder Bronze programs, the Harbeths easily allowed me to hear the top-octave differences between the mikes on the cymbals and the lower-frequency differences between the sounds of bass guitar and kick drum, even with the speaker's lack of true bass extension. This is monitor-level performance.

While the HL-P3ES-2 was not obviously colored—in direct comparison, my 1978 LS3/5as sounded a touch nasal—I did feel that the speaker's presence region was a touch exaggerated, and its lower midrange was not quite as transparent as it was at higher frequencies. The former was what had made me feel that the ping on the bass guitar was a bit excessive; the latter occasionally made the sound a little dark when instruments had a lot of energy in the same region—for example, the viola and cello on my recording of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet on Mosaic (CD, Stereophile STPH015-2).

Listening to the Harbeth's cabinet with a stethoscope while the speaker played the half-step–spaced tonebursts from Editor's Choice, there were some major resonances audible between 300 and 500Hz, and the cabinet felt very lively to my fingertips. This behavior had much less influence on sound quality than I would have expected, but toward the end of the auditioning, a rattle developed in sample P32572R that was excited by frequencies close to 200Hz. Obviously, Harbeth needs better QC on their production line (though catching intermittent rattles and buzzes is not the easiest thing to do).

But before the rattle interrupted my serenity, I was playing a CD that demonstrated all of the HL-P3ES-2's strengths: David Gilmour's 2006 album, On an Island (CD, Columbia 2876-80280-2). The Harbeths produced a huge sweep of sound, with enough weight to Guy Pratt's bass guitar to satisfy, enough transparency in the upper midrange and treble that allowed the wide range of instrumental tone colors used by Gilmour (including that King of the Hammond organ, Georgie Fame, on the slow drag "This Heaven") to shine on, and, on the title track, a sense of verisimilitude to Gilmour's reedy lead vocal and Graham Nash and David Crosby's smoothly blended backing voices that sent shivers down my spine. Nice. Very nice.

Summing Up: It looks unprepossessing, but the latest version of Harbeth's little HL-P3 proved extremely satisfying. While not sounding quite as detailed as Stirling's reincarnation of the LS3/5a, it actually sounded better balanced overall in my room, with a more natural upper-bass presentation. I have to agree with what John Marks wrote in his October 2005 "The Fifth Element" column: "Gloriosky, these little speakers are just great to listen to! High 'gotta havvit' quotient; these are speakers I could almost live with indefinitely." So could I.—John Atkinson

Footnote 1: The Harbeth HL-P3ES-2 costs $1850/pair in Cherry veneer, $2099/pair in Eucalyptus, and $2150/pair in Tiger Ebony. Manufacturer: Harbeth Audio Ltd., West Sussex, England. Web: www.harbeth.com. US distributor: Fidelis, 14 East Broadway (Route 102), Derry, NH 03038. Tel: (603) 437-4769. Fax: (603) 437-4790. Web: www.fidelisav.com.