Harbeth Monitor 40.2 Loudspeaker

Alan Shaw's Masterpiece

Equipment report
Harbeth Monitor 40.2
Harbeth Monitor 40.2 Loudspeaker

Owing to its neutrality and tonal balance and because my musical tastes lean that way, I’ve been talking mostly about the Monitor 40.2’s performance with acoustical music. But while rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t occupy a large part of my listening, the rock I like I really like a lot, and the 40.2 renders it sensationally. I’ve never heard Graceland more excitingly or engagingly reproduced, with more clarified textures and dynamic range, power, and legitimate punch, the same for any number of Rolling Stones recordings. Philip O’Hanlon of On a Higher Note recently gave me a DSD file of “American Pie,” my nomination for maybe the greatest rock ‘n’ roll song ever written (it’s surely one of the few that transcends the genre), which over the Harbeths is stunning in its vitality and emotional affect. I’ve always found it a bit ironic that so many rock fans tend to like speakers that are thin in the warmth region and pitched up top because they like the way that makes the music sound punchier and aggressive. In fact, many rock musicians, notably those of my generation, have been rather vocal in expressing their preference for a lot of energy in the warmth region, as it happens precisely where symphony orchestras also have a lot of their energy. This is one reason so many rockers gravitated toward McIntosh tube amplifiers. I predict that for these musicians, the 40.2 will prove something of a revelation. (If you need further proof, try some Buddy Holly.)

In the sum, the Monitor 40.2 possesses that difficult to define but instantly apparent impression of authority on any and all kinds of music. From the simplest to the most demanding, from a whisper to far louder than you can stand, you have the sense there is no kind of music that it cannot take in easy stride and reproduce as truthfully, beautifully, and faithfully to the source as the current state of the art will allow.

Incidentally, thanks is extended to Pass Labs for lending their XP-10 preamplifier and X150.8 power amplifier so that I could have a representative example of a really high-powered amplifier for the 40.2. I should add that the combination was absolutely superlative, with genuinely effortless performance even with very demanding sources.

The Monitor 40.2 is not perfect, but in any practical sense it has no limitations that matter to me as a music lover and audio consumer. This is consistent with Shaw’s design brief for this and all his speakers, which is to say that each model is designed for specific applications to reproduce music and sound as accurately as possible in rooms, whether in studios or in homes, that fall under the broad category of normal-sized. They’re not intended for sound reinforcement or for use in extremely large rooms of the kind that you might find in baronial estates or castles. Otherwise, its ability to play loudly and cleanly exceeds any reasonable standards in any application or venue for or in which it is designed or likely to be used. If you need more loudness than that, then you must look elsewhere (though I’d be seriously concerned about hearing damage).

As with all true full-range speakers, you must be sure your room can accommodate the bass pressures they can generate. If your room is not large enough to allow you to keep a pair of 40.2s reasonably well away from the front- and side-walls and you still want the Harbeth sound, then the superb SuperHL5plus or Monitor 30.1 would be more sensible choices. My listening room is a little over 2500 cubic feet (8" x 15" x 21"); Robert Greene’s is close to that, but differently dimensioned. Mine are about seven feet from the front wall, Robert’s about five feet (I’d estimate) but only about two feet from either side-wall and aimed at the listening position in each room. The Harbeths perform superbly in both settings. (I’ve never heard better reproduction, and only very rarely as good, of symphony orchestras on any system anywhere than in REG’s dedicated room when he’s got his Harbeths really dialed in.)

If you are a fan of the best planar loudspeakers, such as Quad ESLs or the Sanders Model 10e, as I surely am, the 40.2 will not match their ultimate openness and freedom from boxiness, but it is not far behind, and its performance in these areas is nevertheless superb by any other standard. To my ears the Sanders 10e is even more tonally neutral than the 40.2, but the latter possesses an elusive quality of richness, timbral naturalness, and vitality that I have not experienced even with my beloved Quads.

Although the 40.2 is capable of reproducing a really big sound, what it will not do, if this is important to you, is reproduce the height of performers in your living room the way taller speakers like the Sanders, MartinLogans, Magnepans, Wilsons, etc. do. Mind you, the Harbeths are very good in this regard and with some instruments—like a string quartet, for example, or a piano—they can suggest life-size scale and dimensionality. But if you must have the impression of a six-foot singer standing six feet tall in your room, the 40.2 will come close but it will not get you there, although, like me, you may be so seduced by its reproduction of voice that you’ll never miss the height factor.

Inasmuch as I gave away the punch line at the outset, let me finish by saying that if I were asked to recommend a loudspeaker to someone who loves a really wide variety of music and wants it reproduced accurately, naturally, and beautifully such that he or she truly can listen for hours without fatigue, my recommendation in the here and now would unhesitatingly be the Monitor 40.2. As the review period has lasted several months, during which time I’ve had to evaluate several other components, I’ve also come to appreciate the Harbeth’s value as a tool for reviewing equipment and recordings. This is one speaker that really will tell you the truth about any source or any components feeding it.

As for my 2805s, no, I’m not about to sell them—once a Quad man, always a Quad man—but they must henceforth share house space with the Monitor 40.2 as my idea of how a reference loudspeaker should sound and perform. Now that the evaluations have ended and the review finished, truth in reporting requires I point out I’ve felt no pressing urge to bring the Quads back into the listening room, so satisfying are the Harbeths. The Monitor 40.2 is now my reference loudspeaker, and so it shall remain for a long, long time to come: I choose the speakers I buy for my personal use very carefully and I do not change them capriciously.

Specs & Pricing

Type: Dynamic three-way vented
Drivers: 11.81" Harbeth bass unit; 7.87" RADIAL2 mid; 0.98" ferro-cooled soft dome tweeter
Frequency response: 35Hz–20kHz ±3dB free-space, grille on
Impedance: 6–8 ohms, easy to drive
Sensitivity: 86dB/1W/1m
Amplifier suggestion: 35Wpc minimum
Power handling: 650W program
Dimensions: 17" x 29.5" x 15.27"
Finish: Cherry, eucalyptus, rosewood, tiger ebony
Stands: Approx. 17", sufficient to bring tweeter to ear level
Weight: 83 lbs. each
Price: $14,999 (cherry)

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