Harbeth M40.1 loudspeaker Page 2

In one respect, the M40.1 actually was unsurpassed: I've never heard a speaker reproduce the sounds of voices and acoustic instruments with less timbral distortion or more textural realism. Brass instruments had almost shockingly believable color, and just the right balance of bite and natural decay. The sounds of fretted instruments such as guitar, mandolin, and banjo—things I hear almost every day in real life—were convincingly real and consistently enjoyable. Violins, solo or massed, never sounded righter to me than through the M40.1.

But the Harbeth delivered more than pretty sound one frame at a time: With virtually every type of music on hand, it also reproduced lines of notes with excellent flow and an acceptably believable sense of momentum (although some loudspeakers do a better job of conveying the sense of musicians leaning into or against the beat). Playing the Joseph Eger, Henryk Szeryng, and Victor Babin recording of the Brahms Horn Trio in E-flat, Op.40 (LP, RCA LSC-2420), the M40.1 combined the utmost tonal fidelity with an unexpectedly high level of sheer musical involvement. The same was true of Blake & Rice, the 1987 duet album by Tony Rice and Norman Blake (LP, Rounder 0233): I know their singing voices and the sounds of their instruments from firsthand experience, and the Harbeths did them justice—while preserving the music's temporal qualities. The performances sounded lively and spontaneous, never mechanical. Only the sounds of certain reed instruments—oboe and English horn, primarily—were handled better by my Quad ESLs, and then by only a small margin. The electrostatic panels seemed capable of pulling those distinctive and texturally complex sounds into even greater relief against their surroundings.

The Harbeth's ability to resolve very-low-level details was on a par with that of my much-loved Quad, although the M40.1 wasn't quite as detailed in the very lowest frequencies as elsewhere. For example, during the quiet post-fanfare measures of the first movement of Mahler's Symphony 3, performed by Georg Solti and the London Symphony Orchestra (2 LPs, Decca/Speakers Corner SET 385-6), the Quad and Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE speakers were both more explicit in showing where the drum rolls start and stop. Throughout the rest of the spectrum the M40.1 had excellent resolution. Complex arrangements were handled explicitly well, song lyrics were intelligible—even tape splices were made clearer than usual, though not to an unmusical extent.

Bass depth and weight were exceptional—I was never less than satisfied—and bass clarity was quite good. It was a pleasure listening to favorite studio rock creations from the 1960s and early '70s—Procol Harum's A Salty Dog (LP, A&M SP 4179) comes to mind—and hearing electric bass guitars and kick drums as they must have sounded to the engineers and players: deep and impactful, with lots of color and richness. Even with classical recordings of less than audiophile quality, timpani and orchestral bass drum were deep and timbrally colorful, eg, Alois Springer and the Luxembourg Radio/Television Symphony Orchestra's 1974 recording of the overture to Wagner's obscure early opera Das Liebesverbot (LP, Vox Turnabout TV-S 34497).

I'm as far from a stereo-imaging fetishist as one can be, yet I couldn't help being impressed by the M40.1s' spatial performance. The big Harbeths threw a deep, wide soundstage, with exceptionally good distinctions between the sizes of different sounds, if a bit scaled down overall as compared to the biggest horn systems I've heard. Image placement was surprisingly good for a loudspeaker with such a wide front baffle; more important, image wholeness was much better than the high-end average. This was not the phasey, airy-fairy imaging preferred by some high-end aficionados: Through the Harbeths, even the spatial component of recorded music had some serious meat on its bones. All for the better.

The M40.1 was equally satisfying with single-channel recordings: something that, among contemporary speakers, eludes a great many stereo-imaging champs. Again, the Harbeth's ability to convey substance was the key. The review pair gave an especially believable and altogether full-bodied "image" of singers Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe on the latter's "Toy Heart" (78rpm, Columbia 20552). My reference Audio Note AN-E/SPe HEs were only slightly better in that regard—and then, I think, only because of the way they load the corners of the listening room.

Over the years, a handful of loudspeaker manufacturers have suggested that active and, presumably, ongoing comparisons to real, live music are at the foundation of all their design efforts. That principle seems noble, even unassailable—but it can lull designer and consumer alike into a blinkered perspective in which flat frequency response is assigned greater importance than anything else. The fact is, a loudspeaker must be more than just sonically pure: It must be musically competent as well, inasmuch as it should communicate the momentum, flow, and sheer rightness of pitch relationships that distinguish music from sound. A very good loudspeaker should also convey the drama, scale, and sense of touch that contribute to holding the listener's interest: Not only is it possible for a speaker to sound "natural" and "uncolored" and yet make a hash of those other things, it's depressingly common.

Harbeth Audio is among the specialists whose efforts are driven by the quest for "natural" sound: unsurprising for a company that got its start making studio monitors. (I'm told that Alan Shaw is known to record his daughter while she's at play in their garden, and to use those tapes to assist him in voicing his speaker designs.) Yet as their new flagship loudspeaker so ably demonstrates, Harbeth has the rare ability to bundle tonal neutrality with excellent performance in virtually every other regard that matters. To put it more plainly: Here, finally, is a loudspeaker that achieves flat frequency response without sucking all the life out of recorded music.

The Harbeth M40.1 doesn't push the envelope in any one particular respect; instead, it breaks ground by being the first loudspeaker of my experience to excel at so many things. The M40.1 is a commendably nonfussy, nonfragile loudspeaker that's reasonably easy to install, reasonably easy to drive, and allows music to sound colorful, present, and fun. And while it's far from cheap, I daresay a greater number of serious hobbyists could stretch to afford this one than they could for a great many other contenders. Again, to be blunt: There's a depressingly high number of loudspeakers out there that sell for more than $20,000/pair and make music sound like chrome-plated plastic.

There are more sensitive speakers than the Harbeth M40.1, as there are speakers with more drama, or momentum, or bass weight, or overall sonic clarity. But I've never before had a speaker in my home that offered such generous measures of all of those qualities at once. Before my time with the Harbeth M40.1, I could think of exactly 13 loudspeakers, past and present, that I could picture myself owning and enjoying. Now there are 14.

Harbeth Audio Ltd.
US distributor: Fidelis A/V
14 East Broadway
Derry, NH 03038
(603) 437-4769