RMAF 2016: VAC, Harbeth Make the BBC Proud


I occasionally stumble across an album I haven’t played in decades, and a quick spin brings back the high school or college memories of where I was, what I was doing and which girl (or girls) I had a secret crush on. It’s not often, though, that a piece of gear conjures those images.

That rare wave of emotion washed over me as I entered the Valve Amplification Co./Harbeth Audio Ltd. room at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. A Joni Mitchell track, playing through Harbeth’s 40.2 Reference Monitors ($14,795) transported me to my early years as a budding audiophile who had just purchased a pair of JBL L36 speakers.

Making my first upgrade from a department-store system, I thought I was in high heaven — until I heard a pair of British LS3/5A monitors driven by a McIntosh tube amp. The boxes were about the same size as my JBLs and the drivers didn’t look any more impressive, but — oh, my word — the sound that came out. There was an energy, a midrange purity and just an overall “rightness” that swamped my then-limited audiophile vocabulary.

A friend told me the speakers had been developed for broadcast operations at the BBC. I didn’t know much about U.K. radio or the BBC’s extensive audio R&D program, but I did know that hearing Elton John’s “Your Song” coming out of the LS3/5s was like what I imagined sitting on the other side of the glass at the recording session must have been like. I was smitten.

I never did get a pair — they were hard to come by in my part of middle-America — but the memory remained. I hadn’t thought about them in years until Joni’s soaring voice and Jaco Pastorius’ moaning bass entered my ears and went straight to my brain.

At recent audio shows, VAC has teamed up with another major speaker maker and typically has employed a pair of tall, flagship floor-standers. The sound always was excellent.

“We decided we wanted to do something this time at a lower price range,” VAC’s Kevin Hayes told me.

Enter the British Harbeth 40.2. While not inexpensive, the stand-mounted pair was a cool $165,000 less than what Hayes used last year at RMAF.

Just as rare as recovered memories is something called synergy. In audio, it’s where all the pieces of the system puzzle fit together perfectly and produce a sound that goes to another place entirely. That magic is what Hayes achieved with the VAC-Harbeth combo.

The Harbeth 40.2 is a larger speaker than the LS3/5A and contains a different driver array as well, with a 300mm woofer, 200mm midrange and 25mm soft-dome tweeter. Frequency response is 35-20,000 Hz and the design only requires 35 watts of amplifier power — tube or solid-state.

Still, the 40.2 essentially is an LS3/5A taken to the next level. The aural resemblance is understandable, as company founder H.D. Harwood was the pioneering leader of the BBC’s engineering team. He founded Harbeth after retiring (combining his surname with his wife’s first name, Elizabeth), and became one of the firms that would produce LS3/5As under license.

Today, Harbeth still makes an LS3/5A iteration, the well-regarded P3ESR, but the 40.2 is the company’s flagship.

In Denver, Hayes was driving the 40.2 with VAC’s Signature 200 IQ monoblocks (200 wpc, $14,000) and the VAC Master preamplifier ($27,000 plus $13,000 for phono) or the VAC Renaissance Mk. V line stage ($9,900 plus $2,500 for phono).

Handling vinyl was the Acoustic Signature Ascona Mk. 2 ($33,999), outfitted with an Acoustic Signature 12-inch TA 9000 tonearm ($18,999). Speaker cable was Tellurium Q Ltd. Black Diamond ($4,200 for a 3-meter pair).

Hayes also was feeding the system from a digital source. He offered me the iPad controller (a generous move he may have regretted later), and I set up shop in the center seat, fingertip-browsing through an entire library.

This led to me playing such non-audio-show test tracks as the Blues Brothers’ live cover of Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man,” Van Morrison’s “Caravan” and Joni’s “Coyote.”

Each track had the same attributes I described above — voices came alive, rhythm sections got my foot tapping and the bass was actually plucked notes instead of tones. Each instrument in the mix was highlighted, surrounded by plenty of air, but the performance emerged as a whole. Overall, there was just that “rightness” I’ve been gushing about.

I wanted to camp out in the VAC/Harbeth room for the length of the show, then talk Hayes and his partners into shipping the whole thing direct to my home. For a person who covers all the major audio events each year and hears it all, that’s also about as rare as those high-school memories.

Any system that makes you think hard about selling your own exhaustively assembled rig — and also stands out in a hotel full of six-figure-plus exhibits — is worthy of major kudos. Kevin, you may be getting a call.


RMAF coverage courtesy of Noble Audio: https://nobleaudio.com/