Pipe and slippers.
If you’ve ever been into high fidelity gear from the United Kingdom then you’ve heard that phrase bandied about as a descriptor for British Isle-built sound. I love the images it conjures up in one’s imagination: Gust-driven rain pelting against a window partially concealed by thick Hunter Green velvet curtains, lots of built-in wooden shelves stocked with books, CDs, and LPs… an overstuffed, weathered leather wing chair, thick Persian rugs, aged hardwood flooring, and a credenza supporting thermionic valve amplifiers glowing warmly as large single-driver speakers in Rosewood veneer quietly translate ’50s jazz. All midrange, no extremes. You get the picture right? Pipe and slippers.
Be it Linn, Quad, Tannoy, Naim, or in this particular case Harbeth (started in 1977 by BBC engineer Dudley Harwood, and partially named after his wife Elizabeth), the old adage seems to come up, and some may see it as a knock (because of the inference to coloured-sound that lives in the middle), but I don’t. It’s not because I’m partial to pipe smoke (I love the smell, never touched the stuff though), nor because I’m a sucker for comfy slippers to putter about in during the winter months (Canada is cold), it’s because I’m a vintage-gear guy at heart, I get what the term really means – romantic sounding, coloured, tonally-rich, no lofty upper registers, no stygian bottom end, etc. – and I’m OK with that.
Building a sound system is about synergy, and tailoring the final output to your taste: not some reviewer’s taste, or an old chap’s taste at a magazine who hurls test tones, graphs, and frequency responses around like they mean anything to anyone anymore who’s under 60 years old. If you like more timbrally-rich, texturally-suffused or coloured sound, and don’t give a damn about numbers then enjoy it, better yet; love it, embrace it. If you want ruler-flat reproduction from every point in the signal path from source to transducer, then power to you. Those two approaches to hifi sound are not mutually exclusive, nor are they right or wrong, they are but two ways of several dozens to attain the final arbiter of taste according to the individual. You can get a valve amp with pleasing harmonic distortion, and tailor the sound with a leaner cartridge, or digital source. Cables can flavour to taste as well, (I’m not even getting into the room sonics) and then there’s the loudspeaker – just like every other component in the signal path, transducers can tend to fat or lean depending on their design, and driver/crossover implementation.
I’ve owned two sets of Harbeth loudspeakers over the years, the first was (and still is) one of my all-time favourite mini-monitors: The P3ESR. The second is one of my favourite two-way, stand mount designs: The M30.1. These speakers are voiced by Harbeth owner, and chief designer Alan Shaw. It has been my experience that Harbeth designs prove to be exceedingly transparent, and translate any upstream change to the signal path immediately to one’s ears. Pipe, and slippers Harbeth is not: unless you pair them with a suitably warm amp. They are exceedingly neutral speakers, and while the crossovers are not what I would describe as minimal, they (along with the cabinet, driver materials, wiring, etc.) are tuned to reproduce the human voice in the most natural way possible. The thinking here is that if a speaker can mimic subject matter that our ears are the most familiar with, then everything else will subsequently fall into line. I mean, as Harbeth’s chief designer Alan Shaw said to me in an interview “With the appearance of the first musical instrument a mere 50,000 years ago, not enough time has passed for evolution to hone our ears for that secondary role. They were designed, and perfected for the subtle and reliable interpretation of human speech.” Makes sense to me.
I followed up with Shaw close to the end of this review with some questions, here’s our back-and-forth:
Alan Shaw: Frankly, I think that the cult of personalities in society generally, and that must include the audio industry, is not ultimately good for the consumer. Whilst it superficially creates a climate of competition, it substitutes marketing fluff for truly objective, real value. It forces designers to adorn their products with something that tells a story, and best of all, a story consistent with the marketing department’s public persona of their guru designer, which he is then obliged to buy into, like it or not. The finest minds in all walks of life are usually tucked away somewhere in the background, and shy of publicity because playing the marketing game robs them of creative thinking time, which in their view is a poor return.
So my goal is, as the designer and in the ‘voicing’ of the loudspeaker, to be completely invisible to the consumer. If I have done my job properly, I could be any one of a long list of BBC designers right back to the BBC’s H.L. Kirke, who first researched the available – dreadful – loudspeakers in the 1930s. We have all had a common approach of being, as it were, anonymous public servants. If we conduct that task well, and satisfy consumers, then our business will flourish, and that is the proper reward for the time and energy invested.
RA:What is your process for voicing models in both Harbeth’s home line, and professional line? Do they differ? I’ve heard it can be a painstaking, time consuming, and laborious process, is it true that reproduction of the human voice – in particular that of your daughter – is your ultimate goal when building speakers and fine tuning crossover networks?
AS: The Pro and domestic models are technically identical although cloaked in different wood finishes. That daughter you mention is now in her early 30s, and my granddaughter, now five years old, is limbering up to being my new reference voice. Here’s a question for you then: If you asked a room of one hundred assorted loudspeaker designers and audio critics how many routinely played the human voice over their loudspeakers, what do you suppose you’d be told? I’ve travelled the world asking just that question, and I’d estimate that just one or two in that room would say anything other than “I never thought of doing that,” to “why on Earth would you want to do that?” to “radio drama and audiobooks don’t represent more than 0.01 per cent of the market, so your question is irrelevant.”
It’s really this simple in my view: if, during the loudspeaker design process, near the beginning of that journey, the designer cannot (dare not?) play human speech over his nascent design, close his eyes and say to himself “You know, that reproduced sound doesn’t have quite the dispersion of the real voice (obviously), it’s divided the voice into multiple drive units (maybe) but overall, the sound is so well blended that it really does capture the naturalness of the voice and the coloration is credibly low,” then he might as well throw in the towel and retrain as a supermarket shelf stacker. With the appearance of the first musical instrument a mere 50,000 years ago, not enough time has passed for evolution to hone our ears for that secondary role. They were designed, and perfected for the subtle and reliable interpretation of human speech. The point is that the ear is not, primarily, “optimized” for music, but speech. Even on the limited audio bandwidth of a phone line or AM radio, we can not only convey literal meaning, but emotion too.
Very, very few loudspeakers create the impression that a human is truly speaking from inside the box, and if speech cannot sound natural, how the devil are musical instruments going to? It’s a logical impossibility. If the drive units are $2 mass-produced parts (of the type you find in many so called high-end speakers), ask yourself what sort of genuine technology you can buy for the price of a cheese burger? You can’t, can you.
AS: They can reject what they like – it makes a good marketing story, at least superficially, but is there some kiddology going on here? Every atom is to one extent or another in agitated movement – resonating – and that goes for those in cabinets and drive units. So, the talk of inert has to be taken with a big pinch of salt, since at the wrong frequency, with the wrong stimulus, even the most rigid cabinet can be forced into resonance. So what’s the problem with resonance? The issue is one not of resonance, but controlled resonance, and one of the unwelcome consequences of rigidity at low frequencies is of uncontrolled, undamped ringing at mid and high frequencies. So what? Well, consider if there is enough energy in certain musical notes to set into motion those cabinet resonators … the note changes but the cabinet rings on, and if that ringing is in the middle range, is extremely audible.
RA:What specifically was the thinking behind the C7 when it was being tooled-up for Harbeth production? Where does it fit in the Harbeth line, and what sets it apart from models of similar design/size like the 30.1?
AS: The C7ES3 is actually the oldest Harbeth design in the current line-up. The original C7 entered production about 23 years ago, and is memorable because it was the launch vehicle for the Harbeth RADIAL™ bass/midrange driver, with our proprietary cone material, a feature of all Harbeths ever since. The Compact family is particularly popular in Japan, and was once a Stereo Sound Component of the Year winner.
The C7ES3 is a bit bigger than the M30 series. As for sound, it seems to have a particular balance of features which has proved durable.
The Compact 7ES-3
So, with all that information now running around your head, I’ll finally get to the focus of this review piece: The Harbeth Compact 7-ES3. This is a slightly larger stand mount loudspeaker than the M30.1, but well below the enclosure volume of the Super HL5 Plus, and is dwarfed by the company’s flagship M40.2 behemoth. Don Thorne, out of Soundhounds in Victoria, B.C., kindly supplied them for this review, and I’d like to wish him a blissful retirement after four decades in the business. Bon voyage mon ami.
I’ve not previously spent any time with the Compact 7 so it seemed like a natural speaker to review from the line with a fresh perspective. The C7 is a two-way, ported design with a 45Hz~20KHz (+/-3dB) rated frequency response, a six-Ohm impedance, and an 86dB efficiency. They are the traditional, well-researched, and documented BBC-credentialed thin-wall veneered-wood construction (12mm). My pair came in what is described as a “standard” finish which is beautifully-veneered cherry, and graced with the fitted (hard-to-remove without knowing the trick) black synthetic-cloth grilles. The tweeter is a 25mm ferrofluid-cooled job, and the 200mm mid-bass driver is the company’s proprietary RADIAL2™ plastic derivative. Shaw recommends keeping the grilles on permanently for listening as the speakers are voiced with them on, but I spent time with them both on, and off, and to be honest I preferred them both ways depending on what type of music I was listening to, YMMV. During critical listening sessions I had the speakers approximately four feet out from the back wall, and eight feet apart.
I ran a number of amplifiers into the Compact 7s, and regardless of what was juicing them, they responded adroitly, and with polished composure. Eighteen watts of pure Class-A tube power? Timbre, tone, detail, and harmonics I love, all beautifully portrayed. 150 watts of Class A/B solid state power? Speed, dynamics, and rock-solid imaging. What about Class D? 120 watts of the stuff sounded gutsy, transparent, and exceptionally uncoloured. This is part of the beauty of Harbeth: Whatever you put in, you get out. For critical listening/writing I decided to use the Pass Labs X150.8 stereo power amplifier with their XP-12 preamplifier, and XP-17 phono stage as I felt this combo gave me the best balance for what this loudspeaker was capable of showing, since at 86dB, it seemed with my gear on hand that it breathed easiest with more watts on tap. All cabling was AudioQuest. Sources varied from the totaldac d1 integral, and Audio Note CD 4.1x on the digital side, to the VPI Scout Prime, and Pro-Ject RPM 9 Carbon for analog playback.
Skylan Stands supplied the foundations for this review (the SKY4-P18, 18-inches. $560 USD), and also the exclusive constrained-layer spacers that I’ve used with all my Harbeth speakers over the past few years. They go between cabinet, and stands, and make an incredible difference to what the speakers are able to deliver as they help channel all the unwanted energy/resonance out of the speaker cabinet (much better than Blu-Tac IMO), and away into the mass-loaded SKY4-P20s. I listened to the C7s without the spacers, and with the spacers, and once again gave the nod to the spacers for critical listening.
I started my critical listening after having the pair in-house for about a month with a variety of sources and amps running into them for a good three hundred+ hours. The C7s I had were a demo pair with plenty of time on them, but had been shelved for few months, and I find that even broken-in gear needs some time to get “back into shape” – as it were – after being out of commission for some time. So, with the pair warmed up I let the trumpet of Freddie Hubbard speak to me first. The Body and The Soul is Hubbard’s eighth studio album, and features Wayne Shorter, Eric Dolphy, and Curtis Fuller to name but a few of his talented contemporaries on this 1963 LP recorded with a full orchestra. I have the 180-gram Speakers Corner reissue, which plays dead quiet, and flat. This is a languid, full-bodied production with real jammy mids. Cuts like “Carnival” really swing, and I could feel the deep, multi-note, low-end finger thumps off Reggie Workman’s bass. “Chocolate Shake” sings with beautiful extended, brassy, upper registers courtesy of Hubbard’s horn, and Dolphy’s subtle flute work. Louis Hayes frenetic stick syncopations on bass drum, floor tom, and snare smashed with force, had excellent ‘skin’ feel of brush strokes, and cymbals shimmered like mirages in desert air on “Oleo.” Cedar Walton’s fluid piano flourishes were portrayed with lush, true-tone depth to every note being felt-hammer struck throughout the album. This is a recorded work all about timbre, and space to my ears, and the C7s in this system revealed itself to be a disciple of golden tone, and third-order harmonic decay.
Shifting gears, I spooled up the CD 4.1x with Björk’s 1995 ubër electronica hit-machine Post. Critically acclaimed, containing no less then six singles that charted internationally, and written, and recorded after the move from her longtime home in Iceland to the UK, Post is included on many music magazines list of top albums of all-time. The title track “Army of Me” is a brutalist, cacophonic wall of noise laid over deep rolling bass lines, and angry synths with the Icelandic pixie’s reproachful, droning refrain “And if you complain once more/You’ll meet an army of me” shoving the song forward. It’s an all-out assault on the senses at window-rattling volume levels, and seemed to push the diminutive C7s 200mm Radial™ midbass drivers to their excursion limits. Despite the heavy industrial mix of instrumentation, and vocals, the Harbeths managed to cleanly delineate everything enough so that nothing was being mashed together or smeared. Most importantly to me, the flow of Björk’s musical songwriting never suffered despite the translation workload of this album. The C7s never sounded strained or reaching for lower-octave depths. They sounded full-bodied, authoritative for their relative cabinet size, and in control, pressuring my large-ish listening space comfortably, and leaving me mildly surprised at their composure.
Turning the clock back to the ’70s – but not my 1975 original pressing – I let the complex harmonies, and melancholy songwriting of The Hollies Another Night wash over me through the totaldac, and Tidal Hifi. Streaming this title in 16/44 over my network I couldn’t help but compare the digital version of the album to my LP, and I have to say it most certainly wasn’t a sonic letdown, in fact, the Tidal version bettered the bottom end, and further fleshed out Bernie Calvert’s bass licks. This is an album from my childhood that saw heavy rotation on my father’s turntable, and as such brought back a flood of golden, sun-tinged memories for me. Allan Clarke’s tenor could be the narrator to a documentary on my life, and they way he effortlessly blends his plaintive crooning with bandmates Terry Sylvester, and Tony Hicks puts me in mind of early Bee Gees efforts, albeit with more grit, and desolation. Cuts like “Lonely Hobo Lullaby” on Night are evocative of western film dramas – like Shane, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Searchers – or ’60s R&B with bass, and guitar heavy riffs backed up with dominating percussion courtesy of Bobby Elliot’s skin smacking like “Time Machine Jive.” But it was the speed of attacking notes on the leading edge of Sylvester’s guitar licks at the opening of “Second Hand Hang-Ups” that had me sit bolt upright on my sofa. The raw power on display here in those few arm strokes was something I usually hear in much bigger, multi-driver loudspeakers that feature far larger enclosures, and this added to my admiration for these diminutive transducers.
In the end, the Harbeth Compact 7ES-3 acquitted themselves with such nimbleness, musicality, excellent 3D sound-staging, honest translating abilities, and timbral accuracy that there was no way I couldn’t award them an Editor’s Choice Award. Regardless of what type of music I forced upon them, or how loud I made them go (or conversely how quietly I played them – they were excellent low-level playback monitors), they accepted their fate, and rose to the occasion with a humble mastery of recorded sound that always left me satisfied, and never wanting for more. Yes, I’ve heard speakers that go deeper, that have more air, and space in the highest octaves, and that can do a better job of fooling my brain into thinking that the musicians are in the room thanks to spatial cues, and lifelike 3D sound-staging, but not at this price point, or in a package this, well, err… compact.
- MSRP: $3,990 USD/$3,890 CAN/Cherry finish
- Transducer system: 2 way vented, 200mm Harbeth RADIAL2™ bass/mid; 25mm ferro-cooled tweeter
- Frequency response: 45Hz – 20kHz ±3dB free-space, grille on, smooth off-axis response
- Impedance: 6 ohms, easy to drive
- Sensitivity: 86dB/1W/1m
- Amplifier suggestion: Works with a wide range of amplifiers, suggested from 25W/channel
- Power handling: 150W programme
- Connectors: Two 4mm gold-plated binding posts for wires or plugs
- Dimensions: 520 x 272 x 305mm (+12mm for grille and binding posts)
- Finish: Cherry, eucalyptus, rosewood, maple, tiger ebony.
- Space needs: Overall response optimised for use away from walls.
- Stands: Optimally to bring ears level with tweeters. (Tweeter: 440mm up from cabinet base)
- Weight: 13.2kg each, excluding packing
- Pro-Ject RPM9 Carbon w/Evo Tonearm
- Sumiko Blackbird Low-Output Cartridge
- VPI Prime Scout w/JMW Memorial Tonearm
- Mofi MasterTracker Moving Magnet Cartridge
- AudioQuest Wind interconnects
- AudioQuest Oak speaker cables
- AudioQuest NRG-10 AC cables.
- Pass Labs XP-12 Preamplifier
- Pass Labs XP-17 Phono
- Pass Labs X150.8 stereo power amplifier
- PS Audio P10 Power Regenerator
- Entreq Olympus Tellus grounding box/cables