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 way 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 eclectic 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 uninvolved, 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 performance is “nice,” the heart hasn’t been moved. Other than for female vocals and some massed vocals (which 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.