Harbeth Monitor 40.2 40th Anniversary Edition Loudspeaker
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.)
In doing the comparisons I enlisted several listeners both audiophile and non-audiophile. Most heard differences, though they didn’t necessarily articulate them as I have. All but one person among the audiophile group preferred the Anniversary for more or less the reasons I’ve just provided; the one who didn’t considered the stock version a bit more exciting. In some respects the responses of the non-audiophiles were more interesting. They heard the differences, and most very slightly preferred the Anniversary. But they also admitted to being confused because they had no idea how to evaluate the differences, let alone decide which was more accurate. However, when informed of the three-grand upcharge, the non-audiophiles regarded the differences as not worth the extra money and several wondered whether they could leave the room, return, and correctly identify which one was playing. (Compared to the sort of knee-jerk responses of many audiophiles when it comes to pricing, I found these non-audiophiles’ honesty and candor very refreshing.)
As for other areas of audiophile concern, such as dynamic range, transparency, detail, resolution, tonal balance, distortion, clarity, openness, imaging, soundstaging, and low distortion and low coloration, the two versions are so close that, again, you might be listening to unit variations among samples of the same model. I hope it is not necessary to point out to a readership as experienced as ours that given the realities and limitations of materials, technology, and manufacturing processes—in other words what is actually possible in the here and now—it is literally impossible to make every speaker off the assembly line sound absolutely identical to the one that precedes or follows it, no matter how strict the measurements or stringent the quality control. This is true regardless of price—check the sites and publications where speakers are reliably measured and you’ll be surprised by the frequency-response variations in the constituent right and left members of so-called matched pairs of many really expensive and highly regarded speakers. In this aspect Harbeth can boast a rare and exemplary uniformity and consistency. (Shaw tells me that even the choice of veneer can have a subtle effect on the sound of a speaker.) Truth in reporting, though, requires I let you know that those dealers I know tell me some of their customers claim to hear slightly improved transparency and detail in the Anniversary model.
How many dealers are in a position to allow for comparisons of the stock and Anniversary versions of every or even some models in the Harbeth line I do not know. Hardly any, I suspect. So I guess it falls upon me as reviewer to answer whether the Anniversary is worth the extra money. Alas, this is simply not a decision I can make for anyone else. If I were an audiophile consumer—as opposed to an audio reviewer privileged with accommodation prices—who already owns a pair of the 40.2s, I doubt I’d sell or trade them for the Anniversary. As much as Harbeths retain their value on the used market (you almost never find Monitor 40s for sale), the transaction would still exact a considerable financial toll. On a new purchase, however, I personally would pony up the extra money for three reasons. First, I find the olive wood finish spectacularly beautiful and it suits the style of my room better than the rosewood of my stock 40.2. Second, inasmuch as Quad ESLs in one version or another have been my sole reference for more than a quarter-century and are practically peerless in precisely those areas of purity and coherence, these improvements, slight though they may be, are of great significance to me. And third, well, what can I say? I am, after all, a damned audiophile! So, yes, I did take advantage of the importer’s generous offer to keep the review pair of the Anniversaries and return my stock ones.
Before concluding I’d like to offer a few thoughts on tonal neutrality, why I purchased the 40.2s to begin with, and why I now listen to them far more often than I do my Quads, which for years I listened to almost exclusively except when reviewing other speakers (experiences that typically left me—and my wife—eager to get back to the Quads). Quads have myriad virtues, high neutrality and nearly vanishingly low coloration paramount among them. But they are not absolutely neutral, being slightly elevated in the presence region, 2k–4kHz, the consequence being that they exhibit a bit of glare. Most of the time this is of sufficiently low order as to be inoffensive, but it is noticeable. This tonal anomaly is one reason why Quads can be amplifier sensitive and why they mate so felicitously with tube amplifiers. It’s something about the way many tube amplifiers interact with them that yields very musical results, notably in helping tame that somewhat extroverted presence band (my 2805s with either McIntosh’s MC275 or Zesto Audio’s Bia amplifiers are matches made in heaven, not strictly speaking accurate but really seductive (see my reviews of the McIntosh and Zesto at theabsolutesound.com). But it’s also true that once I acquired McIntosh’s C52 preamplifier, I did find myself employing a small cut in the 2.5kHz band of its on-board equalizer, which rendered the glare issue virtually neutralized.
By comparison to my Quads, the Monitor 40.2s (both versions) have to my ears a slight shelf-down beginning around 1kHz, which following many years of living with the Quads I hear as greater neutrality. And in fact it is, principally because that shelf remains quite flat with no top-end rise to call attention to itself. Contrast this with the Quad’s presence anomaly, which is a mild bump that remains very noticeable once you key into it. Like the Quads, the Monitor 40.2 is also little midrangey, but when a midrange is this drop-dead gorgeous, I doubt anyone will much complain; and unlike the Quad, the Harbeth is also flatter and goes much deeper at the bottom. Nor can the Quad lay a patch on the Harbeth when it comes to playing louder. Indeed, given the levels I typically listen at and the size of my room, my ears give out way before the 40.2 gets anywhere close to being stressed—in other words, in strictly practical terms it has no loudness limitations that pertain to my domestic situation and listening preferences, remaining astonishingly clean even when I do feel like cranking up the volume to ear-watering levels.
No loudspeaker is completely neutral, including the almost unbelievable Sanders 10e, which comes closer to perfection in this regard than any speaker I’ve heard in half a century as an audiophile, but then Sanders employs DSP correction (see Robert Greene’s review at theabsolutesound.com). Both the 40.2 Harbeths and the 2805 Quads, however, easily fall well within the bounds of acceptable neutrality, and the Harbeths have displaced the Quads as a reference for me in part precisely because they do not exacerbate, and even rather help to abate, the ills associated with the all but ubiquitous close miking of recordings.
With those relatively rare recordings that aren’t closely miked, the Monitor 40.2 can sound just a mite reticent but only a mite, and never do they lose those elusive qualities of aliveness and sheer authority that help account for the extraordinarily high levels of satisfaction they bring and the brand loyalty they inspire. They never glare, they’re never fatiguing unless the source is, they’re always natural sounding yet highly detailed without ever being nasty, harsh, or peaky. Very few speakers in my experience have proved so musically involving and rewarding day in, day out. And so far as I can tell, they are incapable of contributing any offensive sonic characteristics or colorations of their own to the presentation.
Which is to say that those furrows very soon disappeared from my brow once the review process was underway: I happily report that the 40th Anniversary version of the Harbeth Monitor 40.2 is every inch the stock 40.2 I wrote so enthusiastically about, and in a few areas it’s actually even a tad or three better. With either version, however, you simply can’t go wrong.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Dynamic three-way vented
Driver complement: 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
Amplifier power requirements: 35Wpc minimum
Power handling: 650W program
Dimensions: 17″ x 29.5″ x 15.27″
Finishes: Silver eucalyptus, walnut, olive wood
Stands: Approx. 17″, sufficient to bring tweeter to ear level
Weight: 83 lbs. each
Price: $17,999/pr. (all finishes)