Attending the three biggest U.S. high-end shows last year, I got to hear a lot of speakers. Many were new, exotic, state-of-the-art designs, driven by megabuck equipment. A fair number of those produced impressive sound.
Yet, as the year drew to a close and Part-Time Audiophile began assembling its Best of 2016 list, my mind kept going back to a simple set of box speakers that had a history going back decades. They were the Harbeth 40.2s ($14,795/pair USD). I heard them at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, driven by some of Valve Amplification Co.’s more affordable gear. And I flipped my wig. (Or, I would have, if I were wearing a hairpiece. I’m not quite there, follicle-wise, but it may not be long.)
I’m sure the engineers at Harbeth would protest that there’s not anything simple about their line of speakers, and I’ll concede they would be right. But externally, Harbeth’s products look like the same kind of transducers I’ve been listening to since childhood — compact wooden box, assorted cone drivers and a port or two.
In Harbeth’s case, the selection and fine-tuning of that box and its components stretches back to the early 1970s, when a BBC radio engineering manager named Dudley Harwood developed a speaker for monitoring broadcasts in small spaces. Dubbed the LS3/5A, it quickly gained a reputation for its neutrality and smooth high frequencies.
A few years later, Harwood retired and obtained a license from the BBC to manufacture his own versions. He started Harbeth (a combination of his last name and the first name of his wife, Beth), which today still applies many of the ideas he came up with at the British broadcaster.
The 40.2s I heard in Colorado may not have produced absolutely perfect sound, but they did a jaw-dropping job of making music the way I imagined it ideally in my head.
Think of the best concert you’ve ever been to – where the acoustics were fantastic, the sound level was just right and the soundboard technician was dialed in – and you have an idea of what the 40.2s can produce in your home.
In particular, this speaker is designed for the human voice. The midrange is more natural than any non-electrostatic speaker I’ve ever heard and, indeed, tops a few of those panels.
The 40.2 is somewhat larger than the LS5/3a, so I wondered if some of the smaller speakers farther down the Harbeth line could bring the magic like the flagship. I didn’t have to wait too long to find out.
As I walked into longtime California retailer Gene Rubin Audio’s room at the 2017 Los Angeles Audio Show, I spied a pair of Harbeth 30.1s ($5,495/pair USD) sitting on custom stands. They looked just like a set of 40.2s that had been shrunken about 25 percent, and were a two-way (woofer-tweeter with port) design rather than a three-way.
To say I was eager to sit down and start listening is an understatement. Rubin was busy with another attendee, though, so I had to be patient.
As I waited, I studied the rest of the system that Rubin, who has a store in Ventura, had put together. None of the components, I noticed, was ultra-expensive.
The heart of the rig included two products from LFD, the NCSE Mk. II Plus integrated amplifier ($6,795 USD) and LE/SE phono stage ($1,790 USD). The turntable was an Acoustic Signature Challenger Mk. III ($4,995 USD) with an Acoustic Signature TA 2000 9-inch tonearm ($2,385 USD) and a Dynavector DV20XL2 cartridge ($995 USD).
Finally, Rubin completed his conversation and cued up “One for Helen” from Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Evans piano sounded wonderfully clear, Eddie Gomez’s double bass was nicely rounded in his solo and Jack DeJohnette’s cymbals displayed both color and energy without being splashy.
Again, like its big brother, the 30.1 taxed my ability to find audiophile terms to describe its sheer musicality. It just had a “rightness” that is rare, even among much more expensive loudspeakers.
Did the 30.1 have any weaknesses?
With a frequency response of 50Hz to 20Khz, it may not produce the lowest bass notes the way some listeners crave. And, in the range in which the 30.1s do operate, some audiophiles who are accustomed to dryer, more analytical speakers may feel there’s a bit too much warmth and richness.
It’s precisely that immersive lushness, however, that makes Harbeth speakers such a pleasure to listen to. And we’re in this hobby for enjoyment, right?
For those with thicker wallets who like this kind of sound, the 40.2 will provide a larger image height, greater weight and bass extension, and a touch more texture in the midrange.
At less than half the price of the flagship, though, the Harbeth 30.1s will bring you close — so close that you might not dream about anything else. Ever.