Some things will never change and we have little need to alter them. An instrument played in 1977, the year Dudley Harwood started his loudspeaker company, will sound the same in 2013 given the same room and the same conditions. So, if we were able to reproduce the instrument plausibly on a Harbeth loudspeaker then, we should be able to do the same with today’s design. Although we are now able to come closer to the original sound since we have better materials, better design techniques, better production plants and superior measurement equipment. We still use a magnet, a voice coil, a cone, a surround and a basket to assemble drivers and we use our ears to voice them and make loudspeakers far better than any computer could do. These thoughts come to my mind reading the words of the current Harbeth owner Alan Shaw on the company website whilst listening to his P3ESR monitors. The speakers kindly lent by the Dutch distributor Beter Beeld en Geluid in Hilversum.
I see little point in telling the Harbeth story since that has been done in detail on the Harbeth website. It’s interesting stuff if you want the whole story about BBC designs and the work of Harwood and Shaw. But it’s more interesting to look at the P3ESR design and its capabilities. The beautifully finished cabinet is just over a foot high and contains a 19mm tweeter with ferro fluid cooling and a protective HexGrill. The woofer is made by Harbeth and in this latest version of the P3 has a cone material called Radial2. This driver is mounted behind rather than on the baffle as is more common. The monitor is easy to drive with its nominal impedance of six Ohms, but is does need some power since the sensitivity is only 83.5dB. The low sensitivity is partly due to a large crossover that almost fills the rear baffle of the cabinet. Harbeth is convinced that deviations in frequency response should be solved with a filter and that you also need to correct the baffle step within the crossover. The sealed box doesn’t help to improve efficiency either, but now that power is relatively inexpensive this isn’t such a big issue. Any Harbeth should be used free from the side walls and away from the back wall. In my case they had a lot of freedom since I moved them away from the sidewalls by placing them on the long side of the room, about 70 cm from the back wall, measured on the front baffle. I used 60cm stands made by Target and filled with sand. To drive these cute little monitors I used my Audia Flight amplifiers, they are a bit OTT of course but more than capable and ever so smooth sounding. But we will get back to listening experiences later. Just a few more words on the cabinet, although it is small Harbeth has done everything to remove unwanted resonances and to tune the cabinet the same way an acoustic instrument is tuned. Harbeth even considered the grilles so there is no need to take them off during listening. I must admit that the grilles make them even cuter to look at, maybe that’s why Harbeth uses black screws on the baffle side and the luxurious looking gold coloured ones only on the back panel. Available cabinet finishes are cherry, black ash, maple, rosewood, eucalyptus, gun grey or jet black. All real wood veneers.
Alan Shaw took over Harbeth in the CD era and it must have upset him that CD in those days was far worse than LP. CD playback has improved and nowadays I stream my music in FLAC, ALAC or WAV formats from my NAD/Esoteric player. When the system reached optimum working temperature I sat back, tweeters at ear level, and threw on Agnes Obel’s Philharmonic recording. The song Riverside spreads a large stage, far larger than one would expect from a speaker this size. Voices are the top priority of any Harbeth, but even the piano sounds lifelike and genuine. I notice that in my room there is a sweet spot to sit in but when you sit on the right side of the right speaker you still have a reasonable stereo image. With Dee Dee Bridgewater playing Slow Boat To China on her CD Live At Yoshi’s the tambourine scared me, I had just increased the volume since the intro is very soft and wow! The dynamics exploded into the room with enormous ease, which was very different to some monitors I have heard in recent weeks.
The Harbeths cannot help being limited in the lower registers, the lowest frequencies are simply not there. Where other speakers boost the low end with a port, introducing coloration and distortion to some extent, the P3ESR is very, very clean. Not clean sounding but free of distortion. They remind me of a studio monitor, a very good one indeed. The P3ESR is used as a studio monitor under the name Monitor 20.1, but it’s even more special that it performs so well under domestic conditions. To preserve the live vibe I played Mary Black’s Live on Tour. Again the voice is overwhelmingly good while the acoustics of the concert hall are obvious. At first the tweeter seemed rounded at the top end, but playing a CD loud enough to hear every nasty bit, the P3ESR holds its own. There is enough detail to make me happy, a wide open window and a polite balance with bite. Normally I lower the volume with this CD, but it’s not necessary now.
At the time I discovered Mary Black I also encountered Loreena McKennitt, who is very special on stage. Playing The Highwayman from an older album the stereo soundstage was excellent, the voice was great and the mostly acoustic instruments are separated from the singer and from each other. The lack of deep bass is the only bit that gives me the feeling that I was beamed down into the concert hall by Captain Kirk. But I am not missing the low end like I do with many speakers this size. Harbeth made the better choice, do not feign bass if the laws of physics do not permit them. Maybe that's why you are able to listen to music on any Harbeth for hours and hours. To the end of the digital session I put on a male voice, I honestly didn’t choose a live concert on purpose when I started Luciano Pavarotti for War Child. It turns out that what the Harbeth does with female vocals, so it does with men. Their superiority in the midrange means that they are made to reproduce the human voice in the most honest way. You soon forgive the fact that the band on Holy Mother is just not that big, some limitations are inevitable and you either accept them or buy a bigger system. But the performance is impressive given the cabinet size and cone area.
Music on vinyl
After all these voices it was time, dear reader, to turn to instrumental and classical music. I own a box with the Complete Works of Chopin For Piano And Orchestra by Claudio Arrau and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In the first part, the Allegro Maestoso, amplifier and speakers need power to deliver every part and in this case it’s apparent that the P3ESR is a small system. But as soon as the orchestra plays the softer parts you forget that. Suddenly the piano comes in and brings me back to reality. I tell you this, if you like the sound of a piano and floor space is limited, look no further and buy a pair of P3ESRs. Just close your eyes, sit back and enjoy rich sounding piano with real dynamic range.
Francesco Geminiani composed his Six Cello Sonatas a long time ago. I have a Decca recording of them from 1976, which suffers from rumble but the original instruments played by Hogwood (harpsichord), Webb and Pleeth (cellos) sound very fine. The P3ESR’s low end limitation takes away the rumble and plays the music as it was intended. Cello is excellent on the Harbeth, just the right size with a nice balance between the strings and the wooden body. I believe the term is accuracy of timbre. At the same time the harpsichord is always easy to follow with its tingling sound. This makes me happy like the piano did on last album. I keep getting music from the shelves and this is always a good sign, as I am curious to explore what these speakers will bring me. I love their neutral sound, the ease on the ear and the way that there is enough detail to produce an utterly convincing performance. Music arises in front of me, it’s smaller than on large transmission lines, yet still I notice the pure quality. Do you want to be entertained? Search for Soular Energy from the Ray Brown Trio featuring Gene Harris. Be prepared for a pair of speakers that seems to enjoy the records as much as you do. Fast and dynamic, pretty dry and what a relief, the over heavy bass is controlled by the small woofer. Drums explode when Gerryck King hits them and Ray Brown meets Gene Harris in a stimulating journey through evergreens like Cry Me A River or Take The ‘A’ Train. Boy am I glad I picked this record just before I was going to switch off the system and start cooking a family meal. Dinner will be late tonight, blame Harbeth if you feel the need, but not me.
Every trick in the book
Yes, these speakers are small, will always be small and will never grow. I like them just because they are small. I like a good monitor but there are not many around that sound convincing enough to overcome the limitations of their size. I like the incredible stereo image, the speed they often have on offer, the low distortion of a sealed cabinet and forgive them the limited low end. Let me tell you, the Harbeth P3ESR knows every trick in the book to make the listener accept its small size, because they sound a lot bigger than they are. Harbeths are well known for their midrange performance and Alan Shaw has preserved the quality of the larger models is this speaker. Voices are truly excellent and an instrument like a piano is reproduced in an amazing way. You can’t have it all though, heavy orchestral works are better played on larger systems, same goes for heavy metal and rock. But the P3ESR tries to extend its boundaries with every note played. Move a step down on the ladder to chamber music, jazz or the great American songbook and you’ll love the P3ESR for what is has to offer. Harbeths are made in England to very high standards so they do not come cheap. Look at the crossovers and you’ll be amazed at how much work has been put into them, they cost a whole lot more than 6 and 12 dB types with cheap coils and capacitors. Harbeth also took the time to develop their own cone material, not to cut cost but because they want their loudspeakers to bring back the high standards the term high fidelity once stood for. Yes the P3ESR should be considered a musical instrument and instruments never come cheap. They are worth every single dollar, pound or euro.