Overall I agree with the review from Krug22. I also hate to be negative about these famous speakers! And, I could be incorrect though my reactions mirror those of Krug22. I'll make mine short. THESE LACK DYNAMICS AND, FOR ME, COMPARED TO THE QUAD 22L2'S AND ELECTROSTATICS, THEY LACK CLARITY AND A "THEY ARE HERE" IN MY ROOM QUALITY. For me there seemed to be "a haze" over voices such as in a Willy Nelson 'srecording of "Good Heart(ed) Woman": In the song "Good Heart Woman" where there are two male voices and a thumping bass note that repeats over and over, with the Quad 22L2 and The Totem Hawks the voices are seperated slightly while with The Harbeth the voices seem to be coming from the same place almost as ONE voice. Also, the bass wasn't "all there" with the Harbeths as compared with the Quads and the Totems. The Willy Nelson cut has a "thumping" bass note that repeats over and over and with the Quads and the Totems there is "air" around the note and an "in the room" feeling. With the Harbeths the "in your room" thumping was "homogenized" and less forceful and less "there". So, I couldn't get excited about the Harbeth's. PLUS, THE PRICE OF THE HARBETHS IS ABOUT TWO TO THREE TIMES THE PRICE OF THE USED TOTEM HAWLS AND THE QUAD 22L2'S. At $3700 for The Harbeths they seem to me to be too expensive for what you get.
The above is what I heard and believe. YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY LISTEN FOR YOURSELF TO THE HARBETHS FOR YOURSELF IF YOU CAN FIND A DEALER IN YOUR AREA. At $3700 new and perhaps $2700 used THE HARBETHS ARE EXPENSIVE from my perspective. SO "TRY BEFORE YOU BUY" IS MY SUGGESTION. You may LOVE them as many people do! But not me! The dealer on the West Coast is Gene Rubin Audio in Ventura, California. Go over and talk with him about the Harbeth's. Maybe he knows something about them that I don't. Sorry Gene!
I bought these speakers as an alternative to my Audio Physics Virgo, which I really treasure. My first impression was not positive, compared to the Virgo's they sound very thin. But the longer I listened to the Harbeths , the more I felt attracted to them. They do not sound "nice" as another reviewer wrote, but they do sound "beautiful", even so much that I keep listening to them. I am not an audiophile, but a melomaniac, and I really enjoy listening to these speakers, so they are very musical indeed. I do not think that they do not involve me, I had the B&W 804 before and they did not involve me at all. Ideally, I would like to have a combination of the Virgos and the Harbeths, but I am afraid that this does not exist, at least not at my budget level. The bass issue is an "american" issue as far as I am concerned. For me, the furniture in my apartment does not have to tremble while I am enjoying the music. I gave a 4 because the Harbeths are not perfect, but they are wonderful.
Given the number of glowing professional reviews for the Compact 7 ES3, I thought sure I'd find some here as well. Interesting that there are none. I had these speakers for a month after being seduced into buying them by a series of female vocals I played at the dealer showroom. Wonderful stuff. However, the 7's ultimately proved rather mercurial and confounding in my listening room, and I decided to sell them. I have owned over 20 sets of speakers in 35 years of this hobby, so it's not my "first real pair of speakers" by any stretch. I have enjoyed electrostatics, planars, esoteric designs, and good boxes all. The Harbeths were another creature entirely.
They are as clear as rainwater, and the RADIAL driver is a great technical feat. The inner detail is at times staggering, without being etched at all (I mean, I could hear what people in the audience at Sara McLachlan's Afterglow Live concert were saying - people waaay in the back!). And the harmonics for the mids and treble were, in my listening experience, about the very best I've ever heard. Very natural, very believable. Also, I agree with reviewers that these speakers have an uncanny ability to put the music in the venue in which it was created (although the soundstage in absolute terms was not as large as many lesser speakers). All of these comments track the reviews.
Where my experience differed was in two areas. First, bass response. Although the bass was wonderfully defined and free of mid-bass bloat, it a) didn't appear to be sufficient in volume to match the rest of the spectrum - it was all there, but seemed to lag several decibels behind the mids and treble, which means that on a lot of music there wasn't sufficient drive, and 2) was somewhat on the "woody" side, especially with electric bass. As to the first area, I will say that this was not always true; which is why I can't really say that the speaker was voiced wrong or anything - but on more than half of my collection, the bass was of deficient volume, although of good quality. I used them with dual subs, so it was not the depth of bass that was off, but the amount in the (I'm guessing) 60 -200 range.
Second, there was (to me) a homogeneity to the sound, together with a lack of mid-treble snap and general lack of energy that was in direct conflict with the analytically perfect presentation. For example, Stevie Ray Vaughan's well-recorded Tin Pan Alley track should have a slight electic guitar metallic "catch" at the leading edge of his notes on his solos - it's what gives the piece it's drive and fun. It was completely lacking with the Harbeths. Yet in terms of absolute treble extension, the Harbeths were wonderful. They were ,for me, a mystery.
The closest analogy I can think of is taking your amplifier and running it through a line conditioner. Does it sound "better"? Usually, yes. But what is the cost? The cost is usually a loss of involvement. Now the reviews of the es3's usually do talk about the fact that speakers this analytical can often sound dead and uninvolving, but they all say that the Harbeths retain their musicality. Well, I disagree. I agree that they retain their musicality in the sense that they are not dry or etched (they have wonderful tone), but I do not agree that they avoid the pitfalls of ultimate boredom. In the end, as beautiful as the notes were, I was looking at my watch. On two separate nights of classical listening, I fell asleep. Literally.
I could find no "jump factor" with these speakers. We all have favorite cuts we like to play for the spooky "wow, that's in the room with me" effect. Well, on my rendition of those cuts, as clear and precise and beautiful as they were....they just were not in the room with me at all. Frankly, this isn't that important to me, but it again demonstrates a certain lack of energy in the presentation.
It is hard for me to agree that the speakers are neutral. As I noted, I don't believe they have proper bass weight (spectral balance). Whatever I did with the subs, at the point where the crossover or volume was too high, they let me know - it just wasn't happening with the mains.
Although it doesn't matter much to me what a speaker designer says on his website about speaker design (it is wonderful that there are so many different slants on making speakers), I will say I found the Harbeth website slightly cult-like. If you visit there, you will find that Mr. Shaw does not believe 1) that the quality of you gear and ancillaries will have much of an effect on your listening experience (as Harbeths are just that good); 2) there is no such thing as burning in speakers (we all just adjust to sound over time) and 3) it doesn't matter much what stands you stick you Harbeths on - including inverted plant pots. I don't agree with any of that stuff, but would gladly fuggedabowdit if the speakers were truly that good. But as I didn't find them to be involving or fun, I have to say I was slightly put off by these positions, which are clearly not shared by the vast majority of audiophiles. And although Mr. Shaw was nothing short of civilized and congenial in his response to me on one of these issues, I took it on the chin from some of his "Harbethians" for daring to disagree.
As these speakers have received universal praise, I expect my comments to be taken skeptically. And that's fine. Look, the 7 es3's have tremendous strengths - I mean, tremendous! And many people rightly love the things. But electrostatic clarity and quickness I can get from ....an electrostatic! What I crave in a box speaker (because I see it as a box speaker's strength) is moving air in a realistic way. This is as important for a piano forte as it is for a blues solo. If the only adjective left to a depict a peformance is "nice," the heart hasn't been moved. Other than for female vocals and some massed vocals (whiich were, within the voice range, really riveting), I just couldn't get jiggy with the Harbeths.
Of course, your results in your room with your equipment may be entirely different, and as I said, even if you agree with me, you may not care about the areas of my concern. Many don't. I would suggest, however, that if you're considering these speakers, you audition them with a large variety of music for at least a couple of hours. They make a wicked good first impression, which stays for many, but wanes for some (such as I). You need to get past that and listen for a while to make certain the wonderful strengths of these speakers are enough to keep you in the game long term.
I understand that my review may engender responses and defenses, which are always welcome on this forum. These speakers deserve more comment here one way or the other anyway. They are remarkable in what they do well.
These are superb speakers. My first venture into a pair of speakers that would have been over 2000 dollars new, and possibly my last venture into any pair of speakers, until forced into a change, then it will probably be Harbeth. Previous reviews speak for themselves,but i had to add my approval. The best hi-fi investment i've ever made. Anyone out there who gets a chance to pick up a used pair of these will be very impressed.
This is for the SHL-5. OK, you've read about what a fantastic speaker the 7 is, but the SHL-5 just takes all of these qualities further. It is more coherent with more bottom and a sweeter midrange. I have auditioned speakers costing up to 50K and none of them presented vocals as well as the SHL-5s. The bass is full and euphonic and the top end never spits, even with the supertweeters. Is the SHL-5 the most accurate Harbeth? Probably not. It just sounds fantastic and that's all I care about. One more thing - although these speakers can definitely exploit fine electronics, they do not highlight equipment flaws in the chain. You can drive them with a $300 CD player and $300 receiver while you're saving up for something better. Try that with Dynaudios! They are more expensive than some, but they are made in England by people getting real wages, so that's what happens. Meanwhile, the Far East can't get Harbeths fast enough. Go figure.