René gave this review the title: The pure one, a reference to the neutrality and clarity it brings to the party. An absence of character that does wonders for the finest recordings.
Readers might remember how much I fell in love with the Harbeth P3ESR mini monitor loudspeaker last year. So when the chance came up to try the Super HL5 plus from the same company I jumped at it. Christmas might not be the best time to review loudspeakers because of all the shopping and visitors, but it also made time for extra listening and when everybody had left I enjoyed the Super HL5 plus in a private setting. The Super HL5 plus comes from the classic HL5 that was upgraded to the ‘Super’ status and now adds a plus to its name. The latest improvement is the RADIAL2 cone used for the bass/mid unit. This generation of Dudley Harwood's original monitor is still engineered in the BBC tradition of removable thin-wall panels, and the cabinet relies on the two cubic foot proportions found in a lot of the BBC monitors. In this case a vented two-way system with 200mm woofer and 25mm main tweeter is augmented by a 20mm super tweeter. Harbeth explains the use of RADIAL2 material on their website in detail, in short it’s designed to reduce loss due to (over) damping at higher frequencies, while at the same time maintaining stiffness for lower notes. Harbeth developed their own RADIAL2 cone material and manufacture the woofers in-house.
For the best listening results Harbeth recommends you keep the Super HL5 plus away from side and back walls, with the tweeter at ear level, preferably with Custom Design open stands. Although it was designed with the grille in place I like the Super HL5 plus slightly better with the grille removed. The speakers were place 95cm away from the side walls, 80cm away from the back wall and 210cm apart, measured from the centre of the baffle. They were toed-in to cross behind the listening position.
One of the best records to show the purity of the Harbeth Super HL5 plus is an old recording by the late Ira Gale (of Gale Audio). In 1976 he brought us J.S. Bach’s Complete Flute Sonatas performed by Christopher Taylor on flute, Leslie Pearson on harpsichord and Dennis Vigay on cello. This recording is outstanding for technical reasons, great care has been taken in microphone set-up and neither compression, limitation nor equalization is used before recording to two-track tape. Gale was a perfectionist. The Super HL5 plus reproduces the flute outstandingly well, bringing joy and excitement to the listener. The harpsichord is very clear next to the flute, both are natural and detailed, and nuances are easy to enjoy. You don’ think about soundstage, frequency range, distortion or any of that at all. You drown in the music itself, eyes closed, almost afraid to take a breath as if it could disturb the performance. No matter how beautiful Gale recordings are, they are no longer available and therefor I moved on to more recent work. Sara K. on Stockfisch is a fine example of digital recording techniques. Sara K.’s Water Falls is impressive for her voice and piano, recorded alongside a deep bass, one place where the Super HL5 plus has its limitations. Being used to large transmission lines I know how deep this bass extends and how it rolls over the floor like a wave. The Super HL5 plus gives you the impression of the bass notes, but they don’t go all the way down. On the other hand, Stockfisch is well known for adding too much bass energy so the Harbeth’s bass roll-off might be considered a relief by some listeners.
Apart from the deepest bass notes, please note bass notes are present, I have no other comment on the behaviour of this Harbeth at all. Voice is free from any coloration, very human, very present against the band, just the way it should be. Another female voice, Barbra Streisand and her recording Love Is The Answer, might be better known. This recording has been over polished I admit, but nevertheless it sounds too good to leave alone. The orchestra is fluid in the background and some percussion gets into the spotlight, but most of all it’s Barbra that attracts attention. It’s funny to hear little cracks in this 2009 vinyl that is a lot softer than that of the Gale pressing, even more funny to notice a flute on Smoke Gets In Your Eyes that is so far away from the purity on the Gale recording. It’s hard not to notice such things on a speaker like the Super HL5 plus, it works like a magnifying glass. But after a short while I only listen to the music, the Harbeths have a way of dragging you into the emotion itself and repressing the nasty bits.
No head banging
I am not a fan of AC/DC or the like (are you sure? Ed.) and the days that I drove my parents crazy with Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin are far behind me, but one band from that era that still plays an important role in my record collection is Pink Floyd. Their latest album The Endless River was a Christmas gift and of course I asked for the vinyl version. I do not consider any Harbeth the best loudspeaker for head banging, but Pink Floyd should be no problem. Some parts of this new album remind me of earlier work that goes all the way back to Meddle, it has the same impact on me. Winding up the volume still leaves out the deepest bass notes, but the rest of the music shines. One criticism of the Super HL5 plus with Pink Floyd and other music relates to the stereo image. I find it hard to get really good depth and to make the Super HL5 plus fully disappear from the stage. Height is fine, width is OK, but getting the sound to extend in all directions seems impossible. Room acoustics and placement will be part of the problem, but other loudspeakers produce better images in my room. This restricts the pleasure with The Endless River and again I find Harbeth not the ultimate choice for pop music. (Note: I have heard these loudspeakers at a Belgian show, much further from the back wall and producing excellent depth). I ripped Alicia Keys The Element Of Freedom from CD and it sounds like rubbish. Because of the recording itself but also because I am sure that Harbeths are not designed for this type of music. But the more relaxed tracks sound better. So I moved on to some of Linn’s high resolution downloads of Claire Martin, now we’re talking. The Man Who Sold The World is well balanced, brings out the tiny details that make listening fun, contains natural bass lines and shows that contemporary recording technology is not the limitation. Also on the Linn label is Ian Shaw whose voice is lifelike, clear and free standing, with piano in the background as you would expect. Feed the Super HL5 plus with quality (Stacey Kent, Dreamsville) and it will reward you by bringing a lump to your throat. The final test is TV series and movies, here voice clarity is excellent, music sounds great, but the deep bass that is used for dramatic effect will not be yours without the help of a subwoofer. The new year concert broadcast from Vienna gave a lot of pleasure, but episodes of Homeland lack the full excitement of the soundtrack.
Throughout this review the Harbeth P3ESR kept popping up In the back of my mind, I was really impressed with that little gem (René ended up buying a pair, Ed.). Especially the way it made my heart jump for joy. The Harbeth Super HL5 plus plays in a different league. In the weeks past I have found the Super HL5 plus to be the better speaker compared to the P3ESR, but also one that needs higher volume levels and a less relaxed sounding amplifier than my Class A Strumento to liven it up. My restrained enthusiasm may be due to the fact the Super HL5 plus is less spectacular. Indeed it is beautifully neutral, very pure, made for classical music, jazz and easy listening pop, but it will never really jump in my system. Listeners used to acoustic instruments and those who relate what they hear directly to live concerts will find the Super HL5 plus a blessing. The timing is right, voicing is above the highest standards, and the reflex port only there to help the bass unit and not to impress with false notes. My own classical vinyl collection sounded great to say the least, but I still enjoy pop music a lot, and even TV series and movies. So for me the Super HL5 plus is not the most suitable speaker for the living room. For those who love the Harbeth sound I can firmly recommend the Super HL5 plus, the same applies for lovers of classical music.