Harbeth Monitor 40.2 Loudspeaker

Alan Shaw's Masterpiece

Equipment report
Harbeth Monitor 40.2
Harbeth Monitor 40.2 Loudspeaker

The other is a fascinating recent reissue of Patricia Barber’s audiophile hit Café Blue, released in its original mix-mastered form before the final mastering. The difference is eye (ear?) popping, and not just, or even principally, because it was mixed in the analog domain using Capitol Records’ fabled analog chambers for ambience and reverb. At first you may be struck by how relatively dead it all sounds by comparison to the versions you’re used to; but soon enough you realize that what you’re hearing is the absence of all the usual kinds of processing that goes into most popular recordings. The resultant purity is instructive, even revelatory, and it doesn’t take much comparative listening before the typical colorations and anomalies in the reproducing chain are exposed. Through the Harbeths I heard nothing that I could attribute to the speaker, and the reproduction was extraordinarily “characterless” apart from the intrinsic character of the performers.

By beginning with the midrange, please do not assume I consider the Monitor 40.2 deficient anywhere else along the frequency spectrum. On the contrary, this is one of the very few loudspeakers in existence that can without crossing your fingers behind your back be called a true full-range monitor of reference caliber. So it is hardly a surprise that the high excellence of the midrange extends all the way up through the top end and all the way down into the bottom-most octave. The transition to the dome tweeter is, to my ears, inaudible, a testament to the fanatical care Shaw has lavished upon the crossover. Long-time readers of mine will know that I find the vast majority of current speakers all along the price spectrum entirely too bright because their response rises in the top two octaves (5k–10kHz and 10k–20kHz). There is no equivalent to this in live music, especially music made by acoustic instruments in the usual venues where music is performed, such as recital and concert halls and opera houses. Next to the bright and vaguely glassy or mechanical-sounding tweeters I’m used to hearing even in very expensive loudspeakers, the miracle of the 40.2’s soft-dome is that it is extended without sounding in the least hyped. If you play a recording that is very bright, like Bernstein’s New York Appalachian Spring on Sony, the 40.2 reproduces it that way, but it doesn’t make it any brighter or more aggressive than it already is.

Another recording that is somewhat brightly lit is Von Karajan’s famous mid-Sixties La Mer with the Berlin Philharmonic. The orchestra plays like gods, but the strings are bright enough that I typically employ a treble cut (let’s hear it once more for tone controls!) to make it sound more natural. On most contemporary speakers the treble cut can be considerable, whereas on the Harbeths it is moderate. But the key point here is that the 40.2 reproduces the brightness but doesn’t accentuate it: The Harbeth won’t make a bad recording sound any better than it is, but, as is not the case with speakers that are not accurate, neither will it exacerbate any of the things that make it bad. This is one reason why so many people who hear this speaker are struck by the beauty of the reproduction.

One thing I’ve observed of past Harbeths I’ve reviewed, which is related to the excellence of their high-frequency response, is how well they reproduce ambience. One of my reference recordings is Sing We Noel, the program of Christmas music by Joel Cohen and the Boston Camerata. There is one cut where there is a speaker in one channel, a singer in the other. When the speaker speaks and the singer sings, they remain firmly situated in their respective spots but the way their voices carry across the spectrum should be continuous and seamless, because you’re hearing the characteristics of the acoustical space of the venue. In the closing piece, as the singers recede, you are clearly aware they are moving out of the microphone field and are more enveloped in the ambience of the venue (it’s also evident they’re moving closer to a reflective surface—the back wall, I suspect).

Interview with Alan Shaw on the Genesis of the Monitor 40.2

Please compare the Monitor 40.2 to earlier iterations.
The main improvement in the Monitor 40.2 is its completely redesigned crossover network. The obvious functions of the crossover are the division of the audio spectrum among the drive units and the level adjustment of the contribution of those drive units. The less obvious function is that the crossover overrides the ear’s sensitivity to sound coming from more than one source. In nature, the sounds we hear emanate from point sources that give them directionality. For me, seventy-five percent or so of the total design for any new Harbeth model is precisely this issue of making a convincing junction between the sonic contributions of the drive units in order to simulate a point source. Also, the work in developing the SuperHL5plus opened up techniques that I could weave into the Monitor 40.2. It’s often about small, incremental steps that can cross-fertilize from one model to another if they’re appropriate.

One difference I immediately heard between the new model and the original is the slightly deeper bass extension of the 40.2 but slightly less overall bass around, say, 100Hz, the so-called warmth region.
The Monitor 40 was originally conceived as a drop-in replacement for the Rogers LS 5/8, a speaker in wide use in the late nineties in the BBC and elsewhere in British broadcasting. It was quite a shock to procure a pair from a disbanded studio and measure and listen to them under domestic conditions, which they were never designed to be used in. The entire frequency response had been tuned to the highly absorptive acoustic environment of “old school” studios of the era. Nobody could foresee how the architectural minimalist trends would become so popular among consumers, and even among studio designers. Since the Monitor 40 project now covers over fifteen years, the bass has been progressively optimized, that is, made drier, for those less damped acoustics. So the 40.2 is better balanced for the majority of modern rooms.

I’ve always found your speakers to be notably coherent, yet so far as I am able to tell, you don’t employ special methods to achieve this, such as physically staggering the drivers so their voice coils line up, etc. Can you comment on this?
Coherency is primarily a crossover issue. Conceptually the difficulty lies in the way the ear/brain interprets the junction between the two or more sound sources. It doesn’t take much of a mismatch in level or phase for the subconscious to needle the brain with awareness that there is something wrong. I was lucky to be sensitive to this matter as a rookie designer some thirty years ago. By trial and error I developed an approach to getting the best out of the drive units, an approach I’ve basically replicated in all subsequent Harbeth designs. I’m sure other loudspeaker designers have their own lexicon of tricks.

Both the coloration and integrality of Harbeth speakers is really low, yet your drivers are not made from the same materials.
Coloration takes many forms. I recall asking my predecessor, Dudley Harwood, from whom I purchased Harbeth, as he handed the keys of the company to me, for a definition of coloration. Taciturn at best, he replied, and I quote, “You will know it when you hear it.” When I started designing, coloration seemed so extremely obvious, to my ears anyway, that even though I didn’t technically understand where it came from, I kept designing until I had eliminated it. Loudspeaker drive units are energized by the music, which causes their diaphragms to be shocked into motion. These shockwaves substantially radiate through the diaphragm and generate sound waves in the room. Unfortunately, a proportion, a very small proportion, bounces around inside the diaphragm itself and interferes with successive musical events. You can imagine that within the first thousandths of a second after the music starts that a background of residual energy will have built up in the diaphragm and will be topped up by successive notes. It’s this sonic mush that at best fogs the overall sound and at worst introduces audible coloration, where some notes are dominant. The pioneering research that we, in collaboration with government funding, conducted in the 1990s proved beyond doubt that all commercially available materials, including all the popular ones, used in loudspeaker manufacturing are really unsuitable for the task. Their molecular structures, particularly the inter-chain bonds, have characteristics that nip energy from the music they’re attempting to reproduce, particularly in the presence and lower treble region. The low coloration that you hear in the Harbeth loudspeakers, especially in that critical musical band, is a direct result of us conceiving, proving, and blending different materials for their acoustic properties.

Do you still employ recordings of your daughter’s voice to do a final voicing of the speaker?
My daughter is now in her early thirties and has quite a different voice to the nine-year-old that I recorded all those years ago. Good news, though—my granddaughter is nearly four years old and I am grooming her for a life in loudspeakers! Seriously, the ear/brain is highly optimized for detecting subtle nuances in human speech. If we guess that our ears have been under development for some millions of years, we know that the first musical instrument appeared around fifty thousand years ago. This is far too recent to have had any physiological impact on the development of the human ear. It follows then that to use our ear as an analytical instrument when grading loudspeakers, it’s the reproduction of voice that can tell us a lot about the mechanics of the loudspeaker. Note that the human vocal tract is a soft tissue structure with plenty of “damping” thanks to being nourished by warm blood and elastic tissue. All of the undesirable characteristics of loudspeakers that are commonly mentioned such as spitty, ringing, wiry, harsh, biting, gritty, bright, brittle, and so on are likely to be the consequence of hard materials in undamped resonance. No wonder then that convincing natural sound is so elusive in home hi-fi.

I have always been curious about this whole matter of voicing. How do you “voice” a speaker system without the use of, say, an equalizer, whether analog or digital?
“Voicing”—I don’t like this word and don’t use it. All it means in a fancy way is of setting the contribution of the drive units so that they are blended adequately to fool the listener’s ear into thinking that he is actually in front of the performers, live. Present one hundred loudspeaker designers with a cabinet fitted with drive units and a box of crossover components and you will end up with one hundred different voicings. Which one is correct? That’s a tough question because those one hundred designers will have two hundred different ears. They also evaluate sound differently, different instruments will appeal to them or not, they’ll be sensitive to different colorations and some may see themselves as wizards with the power and right to “interpret” the recordings. Some may use test and measurement equipment that will guide them towards a relatively neutral contribution of the loudspeaker, others may voice entirely by ear. Whatever the strategy, expect a wide variation in sonic performance. If, however, a degree of objectivity is introduced, those speakers could be graded. One attack would be to record a human voice under non-reverberant conditions and to switch between that human sitting next to the loudspeaker and his or her voice reproduced over the loudspeaker. My experience is that ninety percent of the candidate loudspeakers would be dismissed as having characteristics not at all present in the live voice. It’s a great pity that the word “voicing” is rarely associated with the concept of listening to a human voice over the loudspeaker!

Also, how do you control the dispersion of the response?
In reality there is not much that can be done to control the dispersion of loudspeaker drive units unless they are fitted with horns or similar diffusers. The BBC’s view was that it’s the on-axis response that’s paramount. This has merit, providing the listening environment can absorb the off-axis sound that is splashed onto the sidewalls. In the domestic environment often the sidewalls are untreated, even though there may be snug carpet on the floor. We’re back to the issue of careful selection of crossover frequency and contouring the fade-out and fade-in of drive units so that off axis, where they are becoming beamy due to their diameter relative to the frequencies they are reproducing, the transition is smooth.

You still use a relatively thin-walled enclosure with lots of bracing for support and stability, but no heroic measures, so far as I can tell, to dampen resonances as such with the use of synthetic materials or super-rigid construction.
Cabinets: We do indeed live in a world where visual impressions seem to count for so much. The physics of panels—those forming a loudspeaker cabinet—say very clearly that thickness and stiffness do not guarantee low sonic contribution. Indeed, rigid panels can move the latent resonances away from the bass region and up into the midrange where they are energized by the music and can sound extremely objectionable. After extensive research the BBC concluded that a relatively thin-walled but sturdily braced cabinet could be steered by the application of damping into a state of relative inertness, in a way that no thick panels could be. This gives the thin-walled cabinet designer a whole armory of tricks for better sound.

One of the arguments you make in Harbeth literature is that exotic parts and wire are not necessary for state-of-the-art performance, merely parts and wire of requisite specification that will be reliable under dynamic conditions and for a very long time. I’m sure you know that many, perhaps most, Harbeth users ignore this when it comes to selection of speaker cable (and interconnects).
During my teenage years, music was my escape, and my interest in radio and broadcasting led to an involvement with the local BBC radio station. It was then that I was introduced to the BBC monitor. What impressed me was the pragmatism of the BBC designs, a total focus on simplicity, cost-effectiveness, and real, solid, honest engineering. I’m well aware that consumers can select whatever they like, but I worry when the hardware becomes more important than the music and seems to trap consumers in a cycle of dissatisfaction. Having said that, I’m acutely aware that it’s the ongoing sale of accessories to consumers, who rarely change their core system components, that helps keeps the audio dealer in business. I’d just make 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.

The 40.2 is among the first Harbeths to use drivers made from Radial2, a new formulation of your proprietary RADIAL material. What’s been changed?
A small few-percent adjustment of the ratio of the key elements in the diaphragm polymeric compound.

What do you say to those audiophiles who ask, “Well, if you had no constraints as regards price or size, what would an all-out, no-holds-barred Alan Shaw speaker look and sound like?”
Looking back I can see how fortuitous it was that the BBC control rooms are approximately the same size as a typical British living room. Had the BBC control room been three or four times the size of the home listening room, the magic simply wouldn’t have been translatable. But your question is about my so-called “Magnum Opus.” Assuming I had the time to develop a speaker for myself, with no need to be concerned about commercialization, what would it look like? Actually, now that I have dictated that sentence I can’t actually answer my own question. What I do know is that the speaker would unquestionably sound like a Harbeth of today, but I can’t decide what to sketch on that blank sheet of paper when it comes to its physical configuration. Perhaps things will become much clearer after a couple of pints—they usually do! 

And so we come to the bottom end. The original Monitor 40, which remains one of Robert Greene’s reference speakers, employed a twelve-inch driver that Harbeth outsourced. Without warning, the manufacturer informed Shaw the driver would no longer be available, hence the reason for the 40.1 modification. Along the way, Shaw changed some of his ideas about bass behavior in small rooms—by small rooms, I mean even large listening and living rooms, since referenced to concert halls, opera houses, stadiums, etc., all domestic rooms, even pretty large ones, are considered small, and small-room acoustics present a very different set of problems, notably in the bass. The original Monitor 40 exhibited a quite appealing sense of bloom and warmth throughout the bass region. But because its bass response was so expansive, even robust, it could prove difficult to place in some rooms. In the 40.2 Shaw judiciously reduced some of the mid- and upper-bass response while extending the low-end a bit more, the -3dB point now 35Hz, which means that with boundary reinforcement the -3dB point will approach 30Hz in most rooms. Yet the speaker retains the warmth and overall musical balance of the original, nary a trace of that thinness in the warmth region—what friend of mine likes to call the “baritone” range—of so many current speakers that bill themselves as full-range. In other words, Sinatra, Fischer-Dieskau, and Belafonte sound like the baritones they are, not optimistic tenors.

This in turn translates into an ideal mediation among warmth, definition, extension, and power. These last few years I’ve taken a keen interest in the great conductor Leopold Stokowski, who favored a symphonic sound picture weighted toward the cellos and doublebasses. It’s fabulously rich and voluptuous, sumptuously on display in his famous recording of The Moldau and Liszt and Enescu rhapsodies, not to mention his several symphonic syntheses of music from Tristan und Isolde and the Ring, which the Monitor 40.2s reproduce in all their storied glory. Indeed, there’s not another speaker I’d rather listen to orchestral music on than the Monitor 40.2, so true is it to spectral balance to the real thing.

Is a subwoofer necessary? I would say that in any practical sense, no, at least for most kinds of music. Even the 32Hz organ pedal point at the beginning of Also Sprach Zarathustra is reproduced with as full a volume as the recording will allow (assuming the note is really on the recording). But that isn’t to say it won’t benefit from a subwoofer. Subwoofers, like equalization, are most successfully used when a speaker already has excellent bass response, and all you’re after is the reinforcement necessary to give a greater sense of weight and ultimate extension with organ recitals or augmented orchestras in music like the Berlioz and Verdi requiems or Mahler symphonies (or maybe you just want to hear the subways running under the cathedral in the St. John’s Choir’s Christmas recordings?). A good subwoofer that reaches into the bottom octave, especially the bottom half-octave, can also often capture a sense of the spaciousness of these venues in a way nothing else can quite manage. The 40.2 is an ideal candidate for subwoofer reinforcement precisely because its bass response is already so excellent. But be sure you get a subwoofer that goes really deep and that allows you to set its crossover really low, at least as low as 40Hz. Otherwise you’ll just mess up the 40.2’s superb bass response. (Harbeths are especially well matched to REL subwoofers because RELs are designed to be less subwoofers as such than true sub-bass systems. For more on this, see my review of the REL Series R528SE at theabsolutesound.com.)

So far I’ve emphasized the 40.2’s essentially flat frequency response, tonal neutrality, and natural tonal balance. But it is outstanding in several other ways as well. For one thing, it’s extremely transparent, rivaling without surpassing my Quads. Its resolving capability is equaled by few speakers in my experience and surpassed by none. Its resolution is as high as the most detail-oriented speakers I’ve heard, but it will keep detail in its proper perspective and it is never merely analytical: To give an exhausted metaphor a little more work, it’s not a missing-the-forest-for-the-trees presentation, rather a forest-and-the-trees presentation. Its imaging capabilities are essentially determined by the source or the source component, its perceived distortion is extremely low, and it is vanishingly low in coloration. It is also astoundingly clean and clear, obvious testimony to Shaw’s masterly implementation of the BBC’s philosophy of thin-walled panels, sturdy bracing and damping, and also the RADIAL compound he’s developed for his midrange drivers. There is, moreover, a coherence, a tonal integrity, and the ability to speak as if of one voice that is unsurpassed in multiple-driver loudspeakers of my experience, while its dynamic range and loudness capabilities exceed anything you are likely to be able to stand in any appropriately sized room the speaker will be used in. As important, if not more so, is its ability to play at near-whisper levels without the tonal dropout typical of so many dynamic speakers when played at very low levels—getting close to my Quads in this respect (though nothing surpasses Quads for ultra low-level listening).