Harbeth Super HL5plus Loudspeaker

British and Beautiful

Equipment report
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Harbeth Super HL5 plus
Harbeth Super HL5plus Loudspeaker

During the review period, I happened to hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney Hall in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, arguably the composer’s most devastatingly expressive work, with an augmented orchestra and those notorious hammer blows in the last movement. Mahler himself specified no instrument for these, only that he wanted a sound that should be hard yet flat, i.e., as non-resonant as possible, rather like a gigantic axe blow. He tried experimenting with an exceptionally large bass drum, but that was a complete bust—the skin couldn’t be stretched tight enough. The L.A. Phil uses a 105-cubic-foot box with an 18-inch hole cut into it; the hammer consists of an axe handle topped with a cylindrical head weighing about 25 pounds. The box is three feet deep, seven feet wide, and five feet tall, which means that in order to strike it effectively, the percussionist has to climb a set of three stairs. (The hammer’s head is made from pieces of wood laminated together and wrapped with metal bands to keep, says percussionist Perry Dreiman, from “breaking apart and flying into the audience.”) Augmented by timpani and bass drum, the effect of all this is almost quite literally cataclysmic. (I was sitting dead center in the second row; thinking back on the concert later, my heart went out to the musicians sitting immediately in front of that box!)

The next day I played Benjamin Zander’s Telarc recording, which has the best sonics of any recording of this symphony I’m familiar with (that includes most of them), with the description of a box for the hammer-blow that suggests it resembles L.A.’s, and a sonic impact that sounds very similar. Adjusting for the circumstances of home listening, the 5plus rendered it sensationally. My playback levels were as loud as I could stand, and at no time did this speaker fail to rise to the demands of the music, presenting the spread and depth of the Philharmonia Orchestra with a rare impression of realism—adjusted for scale, of course, and a domestic room as opposed to a concert hall. (I alternated between the Quad 909 and the new Benchmark AHB2 [review in progress] amplifiers, both solid-state, with Zesto Audio’s all-tube Leto preamplifier. Digital sources were my Marantz SA8004 SACD player, with a Benchmark DAC for Red Book sources; vinyl an Ortofon Windfeld, Basis 2200 turntable and Vector 4 arm, Zesto all-tube Andros or Musical Surroundings solid-state Nova II phonostages.) I’ve heard bigger speakers in bigger rooms scale an orchestra bigger, but I’ve rarely heard one reproduced more convincingly with greater musical authority, naturalism, and beauty.

The midrange is everything we’ve come to expect from a Harbeth: drop-dead gorgeous and so seamlessly integrated to the top and bottom ends of the spectrum that it’s an exercise in artificiality to discuss them separately. To play voice or any kind of acoustic instrument either solo or part of an ensemble is to bring a smile to your face—so easy, beautiful, and effortlessly natural is the reproduction. Perceptive readers may notice that I’m using the word “beauty” and its variants quite a lot in this review. This is because beauty is the overriding impression this speaker makes—that and a wholesale absence of any sort of listening fatigue. The musicality of this speaker is second to none, but it does raise an issue: Is its tonal balance completely accurate? The only deviation I hear from absolute neutrality is a slightly forgiving quality throughout the presence range, from around 1k–2kHz all the way up to 8kHz–10kHz. The effect of this is not gross or crude—as noted, the response overall is exceptionally smooth—but in my room and to my ears, it is there and it is audible, especially by comparisons to speakers that don’t have it, like either of my Quads, the Martin Logan Montis, or the Spendor SP1/2 (which I used to own). When I shared this impression with Alan Shaw, he told me that the 5plus is the flattest-measuring loudspeaker he has ever made—a bold statement when you consider the original Monitor 40. I’m inclined to trust him on this because I have immense respect for his expertise and integrity, and some knowledge of how thorough his measurements and testing are—he even goes to the effort and considerable expense of measuring his speakers in the BBC’s anechoic chamber. Yet my subjective impression remains, and I know from both measurements and the variety of speakers I’ve evaluated here over the last fifteen years that it doesn’t owe to any characteristic of the acoustics of my room (which is by no means over-damped by plush furnishings or heavy drapes, quite the opposite in fact).


Now I shouldn’t want to overstate this. The effect is quite mild to my ears and does not result in any sort of laid-back, recessed, or distant sound—nor is it in any way lacking in life, lifelikeness, or vitality. And it is certainly capable of resolving fine differences in any components upstream. (For example, the Harbeths revealed all of the Quad 909 amp’s smoothness and, by design, avoidance of wideband frequency response; by contrast, the Benchmark amp was punchier and crisper with exceptional bass articulation. I liked both presentations, but my point is that the 5plus let me hear their differences in no uncertain terms.) One reason is that it’s very transparent, another that it is so very cannily balanced from the bass throughout the midrange. It has an upper bass/lower midrange that does not exhibit the almost ubiquitous floor bounce of far too many floorstanding speakers that have a valley in the two octaves between a 100 and 400Hz, robbing music of its warmth and body. The 5plus reproduces voices and instruments with a warm, vibrant, and tactile impression of presence, whether it’s Marni Nixon dispatching Gershwin tunes, Grumiaux playing Bach, or Argerich blazing through Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit (the clicking of her fingernails audible, thus allaying any fears of compromised resolution).

One reason why I like the tonal balance of this speaker is that so many recordings are so closely miked they can’t possibly sound realistic or even remotely natural; and this is of course exacerbated when they’re played back through the vast majority of contemporary speakers with rising top ends. My favorite performance of Appalachian Spring, the Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic on Sony, illustrates the real-world effect of this. Starting with the original vinyl and proceeding to any of the CD releases, including SACD, this recording has always been very brightly lit, with violins unnaturally brilliant, fierce, and even searing. On most contemporary speakers with their rising top ends, the effect is usually not pleasant. Even on my Quads (which do have a soupçon of juice in the presence region), there is more glare than I care for, and I often try to equalize it out with the preamp (when the one I’m using allows me to). Over the 5plus, the recording is still obviously bright, but it is more listenable, much less unpleasant, and much less excessive. Sonny Rollins’ sax on Way Out West, another favorite of mine, has some bite and aggression in his tone; you hear this on the 5plus, only ever so slightly buffed off. How important this is to you I can’t decide. Inasmuch as I’ve already stated that the 5plus is one of three speakers I’d choose to live with were I to stop reviewing tomorrow, my answer is obvious: It’s precisely the musically right tonal balance of the speaker that I love and that makes it, in my view, uniquely valuable for those who love classical music, jazz, traditional pop, folk, world music—indeed, any kind of music that is acoustically, as opposed to electronically based. And it also allows many recordings to sound better than they do in tonal balance.

What about rock, heavy metal, rap, hip-hop, etc.? Well, little of this music appeals to me, but I made it a point of listening to some favorite rock recordings to see if I could catch the speaker out in any way. I think it sounds quite sensational with Jagger at his most aggressive, Paul Simon at his most dynamic and powerful on Graceland, and Pink Floyd at their most outrageous. This owes in part to the speaker’s remarkable transparency, clarity, and dynamic range. But it is also due to its full tonal balance in the lower midrange and upper bass—the warmth region that a great many rock producers and performers really like to get into their recordings. The 5plus is fully competitive with anything I’m aware of out there when it comes to kick, drive, pace, and rhythm, and it manages to achieve these results while sounding completely natural. To state it differently: Although the 5plus is a direct descendant of the BBC monitor school of design, it by no means mimics the politeness, the gentility for which the school is—to some extent validly—famous. In common with all Harbeths, within the constraints of power handling and size, this new speaker is, in addition to being smooth and refined, also formidably robust in its ability to play loud, cleanly, and powerfully, reaching down into the foundations of the orchestra.

Allow me to conclude with an anecdote. I have a close friend who often joins me for listening evaluations. He is not a professional musician but he is a good amateur pianist, he goes to orchestral concerts, operas, and organ recitals weekly, and he has developed an exceptionally keen ear for what instruments sound like. He has a very neutral, very accurate, truly high-end sound system. During one listening session with the Harbeths, after several CDs of orchestral music, which gave him (and me) much pleasure, he put on the Endymion String Quartet’s version of Dvorák’s American Quartet. Within seconds a smile broke out on our faces—that happens all the time with this speaker—and by the end of the first phrase, my friend said, “These are just breathtakingly pretty.” When he got home, he played the same quartet again on his setup and e-mailed me, saying that his speakers—which are truly superb—“are not in the same league as the new Harbeth. They sound good, nothing wrong, but lack the almost indefinable musical quality of the HL5. A true epiphany.” He’s now arranging to audition a pair in his own home. Give them a listen yourself and I think you might, too.

SPECS & PRICING

Type: Vented 3-way loudspeaker
Driver complement: 8" RADIAL2 polymeric composite cone mid/woofer; custom 1" ferro-cooled aluminum dome tweeter; 0.75" titanium-dome, neodymium magnet, waveguide face supertweeter
Frequency response: 40Hz–20kHz +/-3dB
Sensitivity: 86dB 1W/1 meter
Suggested power: 25–150W
Nominal impedance: 6 ohms
Power handling: 150 watts
Dimensions: 12.5" x 25" x 12"
Weight: 35 lbs.
Price: $6890 (Skylan Stands, $485)

HARBETH AUDIO LTD.
3 Enterprise Park Lindfield
Haywards Heath West Sussex
RH16 2LH England
+44 (0) 14 44 484371
harbeth.co.uk

Fidelis AV (U.S. Distributor)
460 Amherst St (Route 101A)
Nashua, New Hampshire 03063
(603) 880-4434

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