In the interests of full disclosure I need to preface what you are about to read with a couple of facts about me. First, as you can see in my bio on this website, I am a Harbeth owner, and have been since 2014. My main loudspeakers are Harbeth Super HL5+ 40th Anniversary editions and I also own a pair of standard P3ESRs. The second is that for the past three years I have run one of the Harbeth rooms at the Bristol Sound and Vision Show in Bristol – the one with the P3ESRs playing. This past February therefore I spent 3 whole days playing the 40th Anniversary P3ESRs, a pair of which (not the same pair) is the subject of this review. However, a Marriott hotel bedroom is, as anybody who has attended the show can attest, a challenging room for audio. Despite all that, I have tried to conduct an evenhanded review for you here. I hope you enjoy it!
The first thought which crossed my mind the first time I saw a pair of P3ESRs was that they are tiny. Based on the original BBC LS3/5A design, these are truly a bookshelf loudspeaker. Inside there is a 110mm main driver, constructed, like all Harbeth main drivers, from their proprietary RADIAL material, and a 19mm ferro-cooled tweeter. This is the only non-ported design in the Harbeth line-up so is a sealed box. The Anniversary olive real wood veneer deserves special mention too – it is absolutely gorgeous. Every pair of Harbeth loudspeakers is carefully pair matched. Often that means that the veneers match. For Harbeth though that is just the start. Each and every drive unit is tested and pair matched for the same sound output, and that information is then recorded by serial number before dispatch, so that in the unlikely event of the speaker requiring a repair even in the distant future the exact match can be supplied. Now that is attention to detail.
As I said in the first paragraph, I own a pair of P3ESRs and so I have a pair of HiFi Racks stands to use for this review. They are made of oak and match the olive wood veneer pretty well. I sited the stands in the same position as I use for my Super HL5+s and that turned out to be ideal for the smaller boxes. I use three Stillpoints Mini SS isolators under my big loudspeakers and have tried the P3s with and without them. I prefer the sound with them in place, so that is how I have listened to them throughout the review period. As the review pair were brand new when they were shipped to me I let them run for hours every day while trying to avoid critical listening in the first week. What I can say is that right out of the box they sounded good but after a week or so they had really warmed up and that is when I started listening closely.
My preferred source is a Linn Sondek LP12, so a lot of my listening has been through that. I have also listened to CD and SACD through the Yamaha CD-S3000 and Tidal and WAV rips via the Naim NDX and Unitiserve. I also use my system to provide TV sound, so have listened to that as a source too.
What has struck me most about the P3 sound was the extraordinary imaging and the huge soundstage which they create. The old cliché about the loudspeakers ‘disappearing’ is actually true in this case. Whether playing a really well recorded jazz trio, solo cello, a full orchestra, electronica, blues, rock or pop or a movie shoot out, I am pretty sure that the P3s convey exactly what was captured in the studio. Voices have an amazing realism, which I suppose is the least one should expect from a design born of the BBC’s desire to monitor exactly what was going on in their studios.
What about bass, can such a small driver and cabinet create credible bass? Emphatically I can say that they most certainly can and do. The official specification says they go down to 75Hz and I have no reason to doubt that. Subjectively however, the bass seems full and tuneful. YoYo Ma’s cello sounded incredibly lifelike, the wonderful timbre and harmonics of it filling my room. Likewise, Roger Water’s electric bass on the various Pink Floyd albums I played via every medium sounded full bodied and of course tuneful too. I have a recording of double bass and church organ, and I played it several times at Bristol during this year’s show. Two bass heavier instruments would be hard to find. In my room the sound of this CD was nothing short of astonishing. I accept that the very lowest notes cannot have been present but the P3s made such a beautiful sound I really didn’t miss them!
Having said that, I wanted to see if adding a subwoofer would somehow ‘beef up’ the sound. So I carefully dialed in my REL R305SE. When I use it I try to ensure that it contributes subtly to the sound, so that it is only really noticeable by its absence when turned off. Undoubtedly this did produce a weightier result – shut your eyes and you imagine a beefy floorstander is in the room, not these tiny little things. If you buy a pair of P3ESRs, will you need to buy a subwoofer too? Emphatically no. If you already have one, try it and see if you like what it does. A lot of film soundtracks have serious amounts of bass energy and the REL certainly helped with that. For music replay alone though the P3ESRs coped admirably on their own.
Because I could, I also compared the 40th Anniversary P3ESRs with my standard pair, in the eucalyptus veneer. Visually the colours are not dissimilar but the olive wood definitely has the edge, at least in this household’s opinion! The other obvious differences are the single wire binding posts – the WBT versions on the limited edition models are much more substantial looking. And on the grilles, the Harbeth logo is in the same gold script used on all the anniversary models. Internally, the main changes are to the capacitors used in the crossover and the wiring. Does all this make the Anniversary edition sound better? Actually, I found the differences to be subtle but audible. A little more punch perhaps, in fact just a little more of everything the P3ESR does so well already. Speed, musicality, the soundstage and clarity are all perceptibly improved in the Anniversary edition. In either guise the P3ESR is a brilliant communicator. If the limited edition 40th Anniversary version is sold out by the time you decide to buy, you will not be disappointed with the standard version. If you are in the market for a small standmount loudspeaker the Harbeth P3ESR deserves a place at the top of your shortlist.
What about amplification? You will see that I have a Yamaha integrated, the A S-3000. This is a hefty device, and adorned with a pair of VU meters on the front. If I am home alone I try to listen to music at an average of 83-85dB, as measured by the SPL app on my Android mobile. I know that is not exactly a precision instrument but it does seem to be consistent. To get the P3ESRs playing at that level the VU meters were hard over to the right, indicating that they need an amplifier with some serious current delivery available when they call for it. Most modern solid state amplifiers will do fine but I would hesitate to pair these loudspeakers with a modest output valve amplifier if you want them to play at higher SPLs.
I have some good friends in the hi-fi world who tell me that Harbeths “don’t do rock”. Frankly, they are mistaken, perhaps because like far too many people they haven’t actually heard them. Harbeths look a bit old school for sure, but that is because they are true to their BBC heritage. Are they brilliant at producing small scale classical music, jazz trios and female vocals? You bet! But did they have a hissy fit and sulk when I played Pink Floyd, Disturbed or Halestorm and all the rest? Of course not! They made a joyous noise, far bigger and more involving than you would ever expect from such tiny boxes. Do not judge these books by their rather elegant covers – as the late lamented George Michael said ‘listen without prejudice’.
So now comes the question which my wife posed to me earlier today. With these being so good why do we need the much bigger Harbeths back in our room when the review pair of P3ESRs return to Sussex from South Devon? My answer, which didn’t totally convince her I have to say, was that there is really no substitute for cubic inches when it comes to loudspeakers in my opinion. My SHL5+ loudspeakers are astonishingly good and I shall not be parted from them, for their effortless presentation and the sheer scale which they convey.
Having lived with the 40th Anniversary P3ESRs for a while now though, I take my hat off to Alan Shaw, the owner of Harbeth and the designer of their amazing range of loudspeakers, and his team at the Harbeth factory. These loudspeakers are a magnificent achievement, not “for their size” or “for the price”, just for being so good.