Harbeth Monitor 30.1 Loudspeaker

Ravishing!

Equipment report
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Stand-mount
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Products:
Harbeth Monitor 30.1
Harbeth Monitor 30.1 Loudspeaker

You don’t necessarily have to agree with Shaw that getting voices right gets everything else right, but it’s surely true that if voices don’t sound right, not much else will either. This is because the fundamentals of most instruments fall where voices do— middle C, after all, occurs at 261Hz. Take pianos—at one point during the evaluations, a close friend and seasoned audiophile, who happens also to be one of the finest studio musicians in Los Angeles, dropped by with a new recording of piano music by Sebastian Currier, a composer I’d never heard of before [Naxos 8.559638]. The piano sound is incredibly immediate and close enough that the effect is to put the instrument in the room, which it does quite effectively, with breathtaking transparency, presence, and a really huge dynamic range. Yet there is nothing harsh or edgy about the sonics or soft or mushy either; as rendered by the 30.1s, it sound just “Right!” my buddy exclaimed (which made me laugh because exactly that adjective recurs countless times in my notes).

My wife and I recently had the good fortune to acquire a six- foot Bluthner, the smallest grand suitable for performing venues. The entire lower spectrum of this magnificent instrument is a wonder to hear (not for nothing was Bluthner Rachmaninoff’s piano of choice). Even though the 30.1 falls short in the lowest octave, it is so neutral throughout midrange and upper bass that it goes some distance toward doing this sound justice. Yet I’ve heard speakers several times its size and multitudes its price that don’t, though they will play a whole lot louder and project a bigger image.

Still, this compact speaker continually surprises me with how really big it can sound. A sufficiently powered pair in a normal- sized room will scale many solo instruments and small ensembles like trios, quartets, and vocal groups to virtually lifelike size and they come close enough with chamber ensembles suitable for baroque or classical music. And for full orchestras? Well, one of the first things I put on when the Monitor 30.1s arrived is a recording, again brought over by a good friend and experienced audiophile, of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony conducted by Guilini leading the Vienna Philharmonic [DG]. This beautiful recording—of a magnificently played performance, the strings notably sweet, the brass mellow, the winds mellifluous, with terrific dynamic range—offers a cohesive orchestral sound that allows a good bit of the hall into the mix. Now, as most of you (I hope) know, orchestral music doesn’t get much bigger than Bruckner, with its augmented brass, roaring tympani, and repeated waves of extended, massive climaxes. We were slackjawed by how tremendously the 30.1s reproduced this recording.

Then, out of curiosity, I pulled Bernstein’s with the same orchestra in the same venue on the same label off the shelf. Wow. You’d swear you were hearing wholly different pieces of music. Bernstein’s is more closely miked, but what is really stunning is difference in interpretive vision: Guilini’s, Bruno Walter’s, all old-world melancholy alternating with old-world grandeur, Bernstein’s hardly less lyrical, but with an urgent intensity and a high, tragic drama, the dynamic window of the interpretation considerably wider, more powerful, and almost frightening in the impact of the big moments, qualities the speakers readily revealed in the playing itself. Listen to the sustained climax near the end of the first movement, the way the trumpet soars above the full orchestra and then gives way to the horns. Or take the scherzo—by far Bruckner’s greatest, in my opinion—here feral, ferocious, and terrifying, the passages of massed brass against tympani impressive in their weight, menace, and sheer piledriving force that you can feel in your stomach. I must single out the reproduction of the trombones, which really do in their depth and “blattiness” sound like real trombones. Or go to the last movement and listen through the first big climax to the quiet passage that follows it and note how truthful the dynamic contrasts from very soft to very loud are rendered with finesse and precision. Once my friend and I had recovered from the comparison we had to keep reminding ourselves, one, that this almost shockingly powerful performance was recorded in concert scant months before Bernstein’s death when he was already very sick from the illness that would kill him, and, two, that a pair of speakers 19" x 11" x 10.5" could handle such demanding material at such levels without evident strain.

I do not want to overstate this. When it comes to big orchestral and choral music, the 30.1s do not bring ensembles into your room and they do not project them to life size (or more than life size, if that happens to be your bag). What they do is provide an uncommonly transparent window onto the concert hall. Within the terms of that metaphor, very few loudspeakers of any size or price in my experience are able to reproduce so convincing a simulacrum of an orchestra, albeit at reduced size and amplitude, and even fewer with as much faithfulness to the sound of real voices and instruments. It is in this context that the deep-bass limitations I noted at the outset should be viewed. The Monitor 30.1 is a very honest speaker inasmuch as Shaw has resorted to no trickery with respect to crossover manipulation in order to tease out more bass than it can produce. The driver responds as low as is consistent with its specifications, the port, and the enclosure size, and thereafter rolls off smoothly. If the 30.1 has a naturally warm and full sound, which it does, and if it never, ever sounds thin or anemic, which it doesn’t, this is because it remains flat in the warmth region. And that, finally, is all that’s really necessary to do a satisfactory job on much orchestral music.

To be sure, bigger speakers with a bigger woofers, like Harbeth’s own monitor 40.1, will reap considerable rewards when it comes to bass drums, pipe organs, tubas, and so forth, and their large baffles will project greater weight and force from the likes of string basses and tympani, qualities that will be especially welcome in larger rooms. That kind of projection these Harbeths will not manage nor will they provide anything like the sense of real bottom-end weight and deep, deep foundation. But I’ve never heard any compact speaker that can or does do these things. If you demand them—and they certainly constitute a reasonable demand—you should pass over the 30.1 for something larger or more extended or else investigate a subwoofer. (One good candidate would be RELs, as they seem to match up especially well with speakers in the BBC mode; I would also take a good listen to those from HSU Research.)

If I’ve been concentrating on a specific area of reproduction in this review, it is because it’s an issue I’ve been wanting to address for some time now, and the 30.1, so outstanding in the midrange, has provided an occasion to do so. But the speaker is similarly outstanding throughout the rest of its range. The original 30 exhibited a mild trough in the presence region, which has been so substantially reduced in the new version that you really have to listen for it and even then it’s evident only rarely. The sound in the topmost octave is smooth and natural with only a very slight bit of extra “texture,” for want of a better word, on exhibit in the 8–10kHz region. The only reason this “texture” is occasionally perceivable at all is that the slight residue of remaining presence “politeness” subtly accents the return to flat around 8–10k. But it is so benign that most of the time on most music it is not noticeable at all, and there is absolutely no edginess, snap, crackle, pop, tizz, or sizz, instead an entirely natural presentation of the way percussion instruments, cymbals, hi-hats, bells, etc. really do sound when you hear them live. One cut I often use is Christy Baron’s “Mercy Street” cover from her Steppin’ [Chesky, SACD] because it features, along with several other high-pitched percussion instruments (like bells), a rain stick. I happen to have a collection of rain sticks, and while none sounds quite like any other, this one as reproduced by the 30.1s sounds recognizably plausible. And these speakers do ambience superlatively (as does every Harbeth I’ve heard). As I am writing this I am listening to a program of Christmas carols sung by the Huddersfield Choral Society (it’s the Christmas season), a large chorus accompanied by an orchestra and organ in a big hall. The presentation is uncannily realistic, with the chorus and orchestra occupying the entire soundstage from side to side, the chorus extending behind the orchestra, the vastness of the space convincingly reproduced.

As for resolution, perhaps the most revealing test I know is the a cappella introduction to title track track on Jacintha’s Autumn Leaves [Groove Note SACD]. I attended these sessions, where the lid on the piano was closed and damped with blankets and the singer, wearing headphones so she could hear the pianist playing notes to help her stay in tune, was placed in an isolation booth. Despite these heroic efforts, tiny amounts of the piano still bled through her headphones and made their way onto her vocal tracks. All of these are extremely low in level, a few, including one near the beginning, close to inaudbility. Yet the 30.1s revealed every single one without requiring earsplitting levels to do so. Better resolution than this you can rarely get.

Hardly inexpensive at $6000 a pair, the Monitor 30.1 is so beautifully voiced, balanced, and natural sounding as to make it one of the most completely satisfying speaker systems I’ve ever used. To give you some idea of just how much I like it, most of the time when I review or otherwise evaluate speakers I can’t wait to get them out of the house and return to my Quad 2805s or 57s. The occasion of this review is the first time in I can’t remember when that I’m perfectly happy to keep listening to the speakers under evaluation. I don’t know how much longer the 30.1s will be allowed to remain here now that I’ve finished, but I fully intend to keep them up and running until the deliveryman knocks at the door. And he can bloody well wait while I box them up!

SPECS & PRICING

Type: Two-way vented
Frequency response: 50Hz–20kHz +/-3dB free space, 1m with grille on
Impedance: 6 ohms
Sensitivity: 85dB 1W/1m, 25Wpc minimum power recommended
Power handling: 150W program
Dimensions: 11" x 19" x 10.5"
Finish: Cherry, tiger ebony, eucalyptus, maple, rosewood, gun grey, arctic white, jet black
Weight: 30 lbs. each
Price: $5695–$6390 (per pair, depending on finish)

Fidelis AV (U.S. Distributor)
14 E. Broadway
Derry, NH 03038
fidelisav.com
(603) 437-4769

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