Go to Harbeth’s website and you’re greeted with the company blurb: “the world’s best loved loudspeakers.” An assertion like this obviously cannot be proved, but there’s no question the brand generates a singular loyalty at once fierce and happy: Harbeth owners really do love their speakers, rarely parting with them unless moving to a model higher up the product line. Two years ago I reviewed the latest version of the flagship, the Monitor 40.2, designed, like all Harbeths, by the company owner Alan Shaw and I thought so highly of it I bought the review pair and haven’t looked back.
Earlier this year Harbeth announced “Anniversary Editions” of its 40.2, 30.2, and HLP3ES speakers by way of celebrating its fortieth year in business. No changes in nomenclature were made, apart from appending “40th Anniversary Edition” to the existing name and number of the models in question. (Since then the Compact 7ES-3 has been anniversaried.) Before I get to the differences between the 40.2 stock and Anniversary versions, let me say that one of the practices of high-end audio that I thoroughly disenjoy, even dread, is the announcement of new, improved, or upgraded versions of designs I really like, especially when it comes to speaker systems. A case in point: Not long ago the manufacturer of one of my all-time favorite loudspeakers brought out a new version that is to my ears sonically inferior to the model it replaced despite claims to have improved upon it. The replacement has a rise in the upper presence/lower highs that is not pleasant on any but the very best recordings, and even then the timbral character of instruments is not rendered faithfully. (I am withholding the name, as I did not review the speaker, but a colleague did, and his judgment mirrors mine.)
This tonal characteristic is consistent with most so-called audio improvements in our resolution-obsessed age. It typically takes the form of a rising top end for a more etched, articulated, analyzed, and detailed presentation that is almost always slightly to considerably wrong when it comes to the correct reproduction of voices and acoustical instruments. But it must appeal to thousands, if not tens of thousands of listeners because so many contemporary speakers exhibit it, despite the fact that almost no venue where music is actually performed exhibits it. On the contrary, the response in your typical concert or recital hall drops quite precipitously above 4kHz, and sometimes the drop begins as low as half that frequency (see Robert E. Greene’s invaluably informative TAS essay “Records and Reality: How Music Sounds in Concert Halls” at http://www.regonaudio.com/Records%20and%20Reality.html).
So when a couple of Harbeth dealers told me about the Monitor 40.2 40th Anniversary Editions in the most enthusiastic terms, my first thought was, “Well, I hope they didn’t screw it up.” Not that I would have expected this from a designer like Alan Shaw, who uses the human voice as a reference and remains broadly, though not slavishly, committed to the BBC school of speaker design, with its priority on the faithful reproduction of music—still I greeted the invitation to review them with furrowed brow. (By the way, the “improved” speaker I referred to earlier was not designed by the original designer, who passed away many years earlier after the company had been sold.) The principal differences separating the 40.2 Anniversary from the stock version are special exotic or premium wood finishes; the latest WBT Nextgen binding posts; custom Harbeth internal wiring and Harbeth-branded, British-made, audiophile-grade poly-capacitors; a badge on the back indicating Anniversary version, plus a metallic black-and-gold Anniversary badge on the front (curiously, behind the grille); and Harbeth-branded cotton bags that wrap the speakers.
The initial veneers were walnut, silver eucalyptus, and olive wood. But the importer informs me walnut may be discontinued and replaced by tamo ash, and there are plans to offer the Anniversaries in the stock finishes, which should certainly please those who favor rosewood, tiger ebony, and cherry. Also, “40th” will be dropped in favor of “Anniversary Editions” alone. All this makes sense since the demand for the Anniversary Editions, so my dealer friends tell me, is very high, sales extraordinary even without factoring in the considerable price differentials: at $17,999/pair, the 40.2 Anniversary retails for $3000/pair more than the stock version.
Before addressing sonic differences, I should note that in Harbeth’s promotional literature any and all claims to sonic superiority for the Anniversary Editions are conspicuous by their absence. They are being marketed only as special limited editions with upscale veneers and parts—nothing less, but nothing more either. This is a testament, I think, to Shaw’s essential honesty, since he is on record as doubting or at least being skeptical about the putative sonic advantages of premium parts, including wire (see the interview accompanying my 40.2 review). In common with many classic British designers, including the late Peter Walker (who, when asked if there were special qualities he looked for in cables, replied that it is nice if they pass current), Shaw believes that parts need only meet specification and remain reliable over a very long span (measured in decades rather than years); he remains likewise skeptical about pricey interconnects and speaker cables. Although he doesn’t deny they can result in audible differences that are of great significance to many audiophiles (and most audio reviewers), he also makes “a plea for common sense. If the consumer has the interest and the cash to invest in exotic audio accessories, do so. But do so without feeling compelled to apply what may be pseudo-science.”
I tend to be in Shaw’s camp about these things—my idea of a really long afternoon is one spent evaluating cables and interconnects (not to mention any number of accessories) toward figuring out which one is right when in fact none of them likely is—talk about trying to hit a moving target from an equally moving platform! So I was hoping the Anniversary version would be essentially identical to the stock speakers I’ve been enjoying so much these past two years. And this turned out to be the case—almost. As I was principally interested in differences in tonal balance, which is to say frequency response, since that is the area in which speakers generally differ most obviously from one another, I compared a single unit from each pair using mono sources (and just to make sure I wasn’t hearing sample-to-sample variations, I compared the other speakers from each pair).
On casual listening the two editions are so similar they could be different samples off the assembly line. But on critical listening, I noticed three consistent differences: (1) The Anniversary sounds ever so slightly smoother; (2) the tweeter sounds fractionally—and I do mean hair-splittingly—better integrated; (3) the whole presentation sounds slightly purer, akin to what you might hear from a really good electrostatic such as the Sanders Model 10e or my Quad 2805.
So that this is not misunderstood, the sorts of differences I am talking about here exist on an extremely finely graded scale. This doesn’t surprise me, as the three areas cited are ones in which the stock 40.2 is already quite outstanding. For example, the driver integration of the 40.2 is so good as to withstand easy comparison to the best electrostatics and single-driver dynamics, even if they don’t quite equal them in that regard; ditto its openness vis-à-vis most planar loudspeakers. But in the Anniversary the integration appears to be just that degree more so. Yet the audibility of this is very much source and even music dependent. If you listen to a lot of violin, for example, with its rich overtone structure, you will notice it more than if flutes or human voices are your thing. This improvement could be a function of the crossover, as it is rumored Shaw did a bit of tweaking with it. If true, then what we are talking about here may be “nothing” more than a subtle frequency-response variation—the quotation marks around “nothing” to remind us that the human ear is capable of discerning extremely fine deviations in frequency response, especially broadband, on the order of a tenth of a dB or so. (In my opinion, slightly better overall smoothness and slightly better tweeter integration may be two sides of this same coin.)
As for the increased purity, again it’s nuances and subtleties. On complex music, such as that generated by full orchestras, jazz bands, larges choruses, rock ’n’ roll groups, and so on, it’s scarcely discernable, if at all. But the first thing I played on the Anniversary is “Sweet Baby James” from Jacintha’s new James Taylor tribute on Groove Note (both vinyl and SACD), where she sings the first verse a cappella, and the improvement in the reproduced purity of what is already an uncommonly pure voice is there to be heard, quite small to be sure, but evident. (By no means, however, is the stock version put in the pale.)