Harbeth Audio P3ESR
Price: 5900 zł (pair)
Manufacturer: Harbeth Audio Ltd.
3 Enterprise Park, Lindfield, Haywards Heath
West Sussex RH16 2LH, England, UK
Tel.: (44) 1444-484371
WWW: Harbeth Audio
Text: Wojciech Pacuła
Photos: Wojciech Pacuła
Translation: Krzysztof Kalinkowski
The original loudspeaker HL-P3 were designed by Alan W. Shaw to replace the loudspeaker LS3/5A built on BBC license. The history of that one is rich and surprising – we can learn it reading the test of the anniversary version of those loudspeakers HERE. And you should read the text of John Atkinson, which is one of the more complete compendia of knowledge about those loudspeakers (HERE). Additional information can be found in one of the basic books for audio - Sound Bites. 50 Years of Hi-Fi News by Ken Kessler and Steve Harris, the chapter The BBC influence (IPC Media, London 2005, s.116.). So here and now we have to say, that the P3ESR is a two-way bookshelf speaker, which predecessor was designed for the BBC studios as a near field loudspeaker. This is a two-way design in a tiny, closed cabinet made from MDF. The tweeter was bought from the Norwegian company SEAS, with modifications ordered by Alan Shaw, the owner and boss of Harbeth, while the midwoofer was manufactured by the company itself. Its diaphragm is made from a material called Radial, now in the newest version with a “2” in the name. The wire terminals are singular. The loudspeakers are made in Harbeth’s own factory in England. The basic version in natural veneer costs 5900 zl, while other finishes are available for 6300 zl.
To date we tested:
Discs used for the listening sessions:
Japanese versions of the discs can be found on CD Japan.
The listening session of the Harbeth started untypical, because not with the reference system. Usually I start to make my opinion about a product connecting it to my system, replacing the corresponding component. This gives a clear picture, because I replace only one element in the system and I immediately know what that change brought. But this time on the Pro Audio Bono platform, which I just bought, I had the QUAD II Classic Integrated amplifier, tested for the same issue of “High Fidelity”. One glance of an eye was enough to have the loudspeaker cables run to it – not so big, nice design, noble birth – those are the common characteristics from both brands. Combining those two British (well – one half British) brands gave such fascinating results, that I stayed with it longer than needed by the procedure. If not for the need to conduct a classic test, to learn how the Harbeth sound, and not the Harbeth + QUAD combo, I would have stayed with it forever.
If you read the test of the Classic Integrated amplifier, you know, that it is characterized with a warm, even “scorched” sound. Its treble is rather withdrawn, while the bass is muscular and strong. The midrange is in the center of attention, but it does not reign unanimously, because the mid bass together with the midrange gives a strong basis for all instruments and makes the sound stage big and expansive. With the Harbeth all those elements were clear, I could make the test using only them. I would not be able to tell much about the lower bass, because we don’t get any from the 3PESR, but I would have quite a clear picture of the amplifier. Yes, I know, the amplifier is not the object of the test. But you have to know, that it was the QUAD, which imposed the general character on the set, and it is the “significant” element here. The British loudspeakers approached it synergistically, communicating well with the electronics and the listener. Discs from the 50-ties sounded just phenomenally, I was pressed into the sofa (I plan on exchanging it, so additional damage did not impress me). Not only those, about that in a minute, but they shone like stars. I am aware, that there are not many lovers of that kind of music, from labels like Savoy, Bethlehem, Prestige, Mode Records, Tampa Records etc. Not so many. A pity…But there is something I have to start with, and the impressions I had based on Carmen McRae Carmen McRae or Moody Marilyn Moore Marilyn Moore transposed to other genres, also absolutely modern one.
This set sounded in a very nice way. The description “friendly” would go a bit too far in the direction of unification and too far from neutrality. QUAD with Harbeth was, in its beautiful timbre, closer to neutrality. This was a warmed sound, but not mudded. I had no impression of any lack of dynamics, nor “closing” of the sound in some boundaries. The treble was not especially resolving, but at the same time not so withdrawn. In fact it was only an addition – an essential one, a creative one, but only an addition – to the midrange and bass. Yes – bass. The British loudspeakers are miniatures in all aspects of the word. There is no lower bass in them. But the art of making loudspeakers means, that you try to act against the restrictions, try to overcome them – this is an ongoing fight to give sense to the sound. In the end it is still the most imperfect element of the sound path. The Harbeth communicate perfectly with the listener. But they need help – that does QUAD. Its strong bass allowed to reproduce most of the discs with unexpected might and bass (without its lower part of course). The flaws of small speakers are obvious, but in this case they were alleviated for a moment, loosened for a while, so it seemed, that the loudspeakers are bigger than in reality.
The voices had an incredible intensity. I mentioned the two vocalists recording for Bethlehem records, but the same happened with Frank Sinatra and Savage, to show you the spectrum. With the last disc I was surprised with the extraordinary dynamics, extraordinary in general, but given the dimensions – astonishing. Those are disco recordings, requiring rhythm and “progressive” dynamics, about which I wrote in the test of the loudspeakers Terra II Pro EBTB (in this issue of HF), so it is dance music by definition. And the rhythm, drive and swing, or whatever we will call it, is at best, limited in small loudspeakers. Here I did not hear anything like that, quite otherwise – everything sounded like coming from big, well balanced loudspeakers. Without lower bass, without explosive dynamics, that is obvious, but I did not miss it really, let alone cry about it.
It would be exaggerating to claim, that returning with the Harbeth to the complete reference system, with an amplifier twenty times as expensive, ten times as expensive preamplifier, the magic had gone. No, it changed at most. But I have also to say, that I started to listen to music more mercenarily. This was a much better sound – much more resolving, with better kept tonal balance, incredibly better drawn soundstage, etc. And yet, the better audible limitations of the loudspeakers bugged me a little. Those were still classy bookshelf speakers, in all meanings of that description, transparent, true, etc, but they do have their weaker sides, which disappeared with QUAD like in a circus act. The trick made by Tim de Pavaricini, the maker of Classic Integrated, depending on underlining the medium bass and warming of the sound, fitted in the not so forgiving character of the loudspeakers, perfectly. Were the prototypes of the amplifier tested with them? I would not exclude that possibility… Those reservations faded out in time, as soon as I got used to the new sound, but did not disappear completely, they were hidden in my head all the time, just waiting to surface. But we need to return to reality first./p>
To start the description as objectively as possible, I should start as follows: those are incredibly accurate loudspeakers. Their lower bass is nonexistent, but subjectively, with appropriate amplification, its lack will not be perceptible. The impulse characteristics of closed cabinets are known, but here those are not only repeated, but the shortcomings those have, are not audible. Bass is not dry and anemic. There is as much of it, as was recorded on the disc, and even if we do not “feel” the low passages, the higher harmonics will inform us about them, integrated in the sound. Their selectivity is perfect, and even very low passages, on which the piece Sleep from Anja Garbarek from the disc Briefly Shaking is built around, did not destroy the emission.
The lower we go, the softer the bass is presented, but it does never lose contents or contour. But this is not “contoured” sound. Some elements of the sound, related to plastic diaphragms, can also be heard here (similar to Dynaudio and Vienna Acoustics loudspeakers). I mean a slight rounding of the attack and subjectively slightly warmer sound, than from coated paper diaphragms. But I say “subjectively” on purpose, because in reality such a sound is more natural, more conform with our experience, than contoured sound of many woofers. It is ideally connected to the sound of the midrange and treble.
Treble is slightly stronger than in the earlier version of those loudspeakers, or even in the Spendor SA-1, which continues the BBC license in some way. The vocals are not sharpened, the sibilants are in good relationships to the rest of the sound spectrum, but you can hear, that there is more of the upper midrange and treble here. Looking at the measurements in “Stereophile” we can see, that the frequency response curve is more even than before, what would confirm my findings. This is a step further in the direction of accurate reproduction of sound. But paradoxically it requires also more from the accompanying units, electronics and cables. They need to have more skill. The mentioned Spendor sound better with electronics more expensive than they are, but do also fit seamlessly in systems from the same price level as they are, or even a less expensive one. For the Harbeth it is not so obvious. The P3ESR will sound well with any system, as long as it will not cover up its weaknesses too heavily. Those will be shown first on the upper midrange. The voices of vocalists, and Sinatra, may sound too much from the throat, and not the diaphragm, when the loudspeakers are paired with a subpar system. This will result in a thinned sound of the voice, what will negatively influence the tonal balance of the whole. Because bass will not be underlined – those are true bookshelf loudspeakers – trying to show the lower part of the spectrum.
But in a good environment we will get amazing resolution. I mentioned the slight rounding of the bass, and the midrange, but those are just brushes, nothing serious. The treble is almost as good, as from the best speakers I ever heard. The cymbals, even from a percussion hidden behind the vocalist, like on the piece Ill Wind from the Moore disc, were clear, and we could hear, how they are being hit. And at the same time they were not underlined or sharpened – they were just heard behind the vocalist, as if they would be there. We can clearly hear the quality of the treble, so we could no longer pretend, that the percussion cymbals from the Kings of Leon disc aren’t rather lousy – washed out, without a clear edge. On the other hand, we could confirm, again, the mastery of Mr. Lipinski, who prepared the Tonight Savage, because this disc sounded like a dream. Nevertheless the loudspeakers do not underline the mastering flaws. I cannot really understand how that happens, because their precision should shatter my re-master of the disc So from Peter Gabriel, and it did not happen. I can only suspect, that the slight rounding of the woofer attack and slight warming of the lower part of the sound spectrum could have something to do with that, but this is only my speculation, this is not heard directly. The Peter Gabriel disc sounded a bit light and too bright, but there was no tragedy. Surprising dynamics and clarity of the midrange-bass breach, allowed this locomotive to start – a locomotive which got faster and faster, regardless of the tempo of the individual pieces.
Startling loudspeakers, with a genealogy longer, than many champions have. We can pair them with very good electronics, also much more expensive, than they are. Not that they are priced too low – I think, that they were fairly priced. With them it seems, that a lot of electronics is too expensive, hence the disproportions in price. With the QUAD II Classic Integrated the sound was magical. But you do not have to spend that much to get a satisfactory sound, and in some aspects maybe even better one. The Leben CS-300 X(S), or – maybe better – the Linear Audio Research AI-30T will be ideal. You should also try the Harbeth with the power amplifiers Audiomatus AS-250 or AS-500. But you should take care of a good preamplifier – the Manley Jumbo Shrimp would be ideal. But you can also try the Audiomatus with a CD player having a preamplifier built-in, like the ISEM Audio eGo Phase3, or (cheaper) Ayon Audio CD-07. And in the future you can – eventually, and not necessarily – buy an external preamplifier. The power of the amplifier is not so important, as long as it is not too low. Ha, ha – that is obvious… My Leben, despite the 8W per channel, was quite OK, but here other aspects were decisive, like the saturation of the sound spectrum above average, etc. The classic version X(S) should be just fine. The loudspeakers have a friendly impedance, and despite their very low efficiency, work nicely with low power amplifiers, as shown by the QUAD. It will not sound very loud, but in a room with a surface around 25m2 the volume levels will be completely satisfactory. But when we use amplifiers, that delivers more power, and sounds stronger – like the Audiomatus – then we will get a much better controlled, although still not unpleasantly contoured, bass. Yes, those loudspeakers are a chunk of pure history. But it is disturbing, that the competition is still lagging behind, despite the fact, that the idea behind those loudspeakers is older than most readers of “High Fidelity” and almost all readers of “CD Action”…DESCRIPTION
On the first page of the Harbeth manual we can read:
The loudspeakers have classic proportions (I would say “golden” ones) and look like their predecessor, the BBC LS3/5A a few dozen years ago. This is partially because of the nicely looking, natural veneer, but most of all due to the grilles, spread on a metal rack, inserted in special grooves milled in the front baffle. And when you remove the grille, which is by the way not recommended by Alan Show, this impression only gets stronger, seeing the bolts attaching the front baffle to the rest of the cabinet. The back panel is mounted in the same way. In Poland we had an episode, I think that this is a fitting description, a company which copied this solution in their loudspeakers CM-11. You can see it HERE. On the back you can see a single pair of medium quality wire terminals. The earlier version featured double terminals, enabling bi-wiring. So the approach to bi-wiring changes – Alleluia! That way it will be better for everybody.
Like I said, to see the front baffle you need to remove the grille. It is made from a thin, black material, which changes the timbre of the loudspeakers significantly. The Harbeth come in handpicked pairs, where the logo should be closer to the outer edge. The front and back sides of the cabinet are bolted with long tap screws – the front baffle using black ones, the back plate using golden ones. The cross-over is mounted on a big PCB and placed on the back panel, using bitumen matte and soft washers, which should minimize the vibration coming from the cabinet. The PCB is big, as it has to make place for many elements – very large polypropylene capacitors, five core coils and a lot of resistors. The connecting wires are quite thin.
After unscrewing the back, we can see, that the cabinet is made in the following way: first the top, bottom and side panels are glued together, then the strengtheners are glued to the frame (rectangular wooden elements), and then the front and back panels are bolted to those elements. The enclosure is made from not so thick MDF, and covered with natural veneer from outside and inside. This makes the dampening of the back plate with bitumen especially interesting, because Harbeth always claimed that the cabinet walls should be as thin as possible, and the cabinet should “co-sound” with the drivers. Anyway the inside was damped with white polyurethane foam.
The company collects measurement data of all units leaving the company, what is confirmed with an entry on the nameplate, placed on the back of the cabinet: ”Details of this loudspeakerare recorded in our Master Log Book”.
Technical data (according to manufacturer):
g a l l e r y