Co-hosting all these Brit-fi podcasts with Brian Hunter on The Occasional Podcast has certainly whetted my appetite for BBC monitors. Lately we’ve been fixating primarily on the LS3/5a, but I can’t tell you how excited I am to host this pair of Harbeth C7ES-3 XD monitors in my review system, especially after many years without significant seat time with one of my favorite loudspeaker brands of all time.
It’s been about fourteen years since the first time I heard any Harbeth—an earlier version of the legendary Compact 7, by the way—and it’s been at least a dozen years since I reviewed the Monitor 40.2s (and instantly declared them one of my favorite speakers of all time, something that may still be true). After that, years of practically nothing. I did manage to listen to a pair of Harbeth 40.3 XDs in Saratoga Springs a couple of years ago, along with importer/distributor Walter Swanbon of Fidelis, and I rediscovered my love for these big boxes.
In addition, there was that weird Monitor 30.2 experiment that was forced on me at the 2018 Capital Audiofest where Eric Franklin Shook and David Blumenstein tried to convince me that Harbeths were not the speakers I thought they were, something about them really wanting to rock but only with performances captured in studios within a very specific geographical region in the UK. I wasn’t quite convinced, which is a very nice way to put it, and that made me long for a pair of something from Alan Shaw’s workshop just to set the record straight.
Then, out of the blue, I was asked to review the latest version of the C7s, the Harbeth C7ES-3 XD. I didn’t even blink. It’s been a while since a pair of Harbeth speakers have been in my possession. Too long. I’d like to think it’s due to Harbeth orders being backordered for months, a problem I would have loved to have as an importer/distributor.
Maybe it’s a certain fan-boy persistence that snagged me this pair. I’ve known Walter Swanbon for a while now, and every time I see him I give him a little poke. Let me know if there are any Harbeths you need me to review, Walter. When my long-time industry friend, Richard Colburn, joined the Fidelis Distribution team as their sales guy, I hit him up right away. Hi, Richard! Congratulations! Let me know if there are any Harbeths you need me to review. Plus, Richard’s local to me in the Portland area, so it was easy to make this finally happen.
Now here I am, listening to a pair of Harbeth C7ES-3 XDs that were previously in Richard’s listening room, and I’m grinning ear to ear. If I only had some Etta James LPs to celebrate.
There’s Something About Harbeth
I love to tell those audio tales about the ones that got away, and no high-end audio product fits that bill better than the Naim NAIT 2 integrated amplifier—more on that in a bit. But there’s another category of audio story I enjoy plundering, a variant of that first group. This one is called “I came so close to buying that!” It’s always a slightly obnoxious type of story, one that attempts to imbue the storyteller with at least basic knowledge of the subject at hand.
Anyway, I came so close to buying a Harbeth once. It wasn’t the Harbeth C7ES-3 XD, but the Monitor 30, whichever version was available 15 years ago. As much as I loved those big 40.2s I had in for review for six months, the Monitor 30s were more my jam. You already know about me and my fondness for two-way monitors. Plus, the 40.2s weren’t in love with my listening room at the time—they liked either lots of space or they like being in a nearfield position.
And that original Harbeth Compact 7? What did I think about those while I had them? When I first heard that pair, in that electric eucalyptus veneer, I recall that I was quickly enchanted. I felt like I had taken one step closer to hearing my true sound, the one I wanted as my sonic companion for the rest of my days. We’re talking about warmth, detail and a midrange that took “natural” to a whole new level. Until I started drifting away from Brit-Fi in the 2000s, I always thought I’d be a Harbeth owner sooner or later. It’s weird to me that it hasn’t happened yet.
The Compact 7 was always considered as a great all-arounder, with universal appeal. What I didn’t know, at least until the XD showed up, is that the Compact 7 has always held special meaning for Alan Shaw. Harbeth loudspeakers such as the Monitor 30, 40 and the HL5 were built from BBC designs, while the Compact 7 was Alan’s design from the ground up. Those BBC designs were monitors. The C7 was always designed as a loudspeaker for the home from its inception.
When I compared the C7 to the Monitor 30 all those years ago, I thought that the latter speaker was far more forward, and with just a bit more reach into the lower frequencies. (Walter Swanbon says that this is very room and system dependent, so he doesn’t necessarily agree.) But with the new XD line for Harbeth, there’s more sparkle in the high frequencies across the board, more consistency. That old Compact 7, however, was still tremendous. Such a lovely and dependable loudspeaker. Always even-tempered, always there to put a smile on your face and make sure you’re comfortable and have everything you need.
One more added and somewhat unexpected bonus for testing the Harbeth C7ES-3 XD right now: I had already arranged to review the Naim SuperNAIT 3 integrated amplifier. If you’re into Harbeth, you probably know all about the synergistic hocus pocus hovering over those two brands. Harbeth loves solid-state British amplification from Naim, and also LFD and Sugden and a few others. I had just told Brian Hunter about the fabulous, synergistic relationship between these two British brands on a recent podcast, and by sheer coincidence they arrived at nearly the same time.
Inside the Harbeth C7ES-3 XD
The Harbeth C7ES-3 XD differs from previous versions due to a tweaking of the crossover, which already focused on “integrating the drive units across a wider horizontal and vertical arc.” I’ve had a couple of hardcore Harbeth owners tell me that the XD upgrade isn’t as major as past upgrades to the line, but the gains in clarity and transparency mandated a new designation.
I can tell you that this specific Compact 7 retains the 200mm RADIAL2 bass/mid and 25mm ferrofluid-cooled tweeter, as well as those thin enclosure walls which make the C7ES-3 XD surprisingly light—just 13.2 kg each. (If you’re unaware of this Harbeth feature, the idea is to make the cabinet tunable to certain frequencies to control resonances.) Frequency response is 45Hz to 20kHz, which is a very BBC type of spec, as is the efficiency (86 dB) and impedance (6 ohms). They’re considered easy to drive, even though they have distinct preferences when it comes to amplification.
Harbeths, in my experience, are very sensitive to amplification. Synergy, it seems, cannot be foretold by numbers alone. If you’re not into Harbeths, and I meet quite a few of you, it’s occasionally because they weren’t paired up with the right amplifier.
For instance, Harbeths are famous for not mating well with tube amplifiers. I’m not talking about bad matches necessarily but matches that will reveal far too little of that classic Harbeth magic. They usually go for those equally iconic solid-state British integrated amplifiers I mentioned before.
Richard Colburn, however, is eager for me to revisit the Lab12 brand after reviewing (and awarding my first Editors Choice Award to) the Melto2 phono stage a few years ago. One of the first things he told me was that Lab12 amps, which are tubed, seem to love Harbeth. I now have the Lab12 Integre4 integrated amplifier in the system, so I’ll be able to confirm when I finish the review. In addition, Fidelis is now the US distributor and this Greek manufacturer was always on my short list of brands that need to be available in the US, stat.
Harbeth C7-ES3 XD Set-Up
For this review, however, it was that Naim SuperNAIT 3 integrated amplifier most of the way. The Harbeth did spend time hooked up to both the Circle Labs A200 hybrid amplifier as well as the AVM all-in-one Ovation CS 6.3. There was a keen consistency between the sound of the Harbeth C7ES-3 XD on all three amplification choices. The Harbeths had that quiet richness that always surprises me and takes me out of the moment, and that feeling transferred undiminished from amplifier to amplifier. Much of that, I hate to admit, is due to the incongruence of what is still a basic wooden box with a woofer and a tweeter and that gorgeous and open sound that comes out. Why don’t all two-way monitors sound this good?
I did choose the Naim SuperNAIT over the other two amps—the Circle Labs and the AVM had a better sense of how to locate the overall sound in a more stable soundstage—but we’re talking about two integrated amps that are two to three times as expensive. The Harbeth C7ES-3 XD monitors I reviewed retail for $4,890/pair in cherry (and $5,190 tamo ash or walnut). The SuperNAIT retails for $5,699. If you’re into Brit-fi sound and you have $10-12K to spend on both amplification and speakers, this is a solid way to go. Presented with the same proposition, I’d choose this.
Resonant Woods Stands
I knew I had a stand problem going into this review. I’ve spent most of 2021 using the amazing Acora Acoustics SRS-G speaker stands, and I’m mesmerized by how they improve the sound of every box placed on them. But the SRS-Gs are close to 28” tall, and the Harbeth C7ES-3 XDs are slightly larger than your average two-way bookshelf monitor. They would be served better by those 24” Quadraspires I’ve had for years, but I suspected than 20” would be even better.
Fortunately, Richard Colburn hooked me up with stands for another recent addition to the Fidelis stable—Resonant Woods. Walter Swanbon happens to know the gentleman who makes these attractive, lightweight wooden stands in New Hampshire, close to Fidelis. The Resonant Woods stands for the C7 run for $1,050/pair.
I only had one minor observation with the stands—and the Harbeth C7ES-3 XDs, for that matter. They’re both surprisingly light. Maybe I’m used to schlepping those 100 lb. plus Acoras from room to room, but I had to be a little more careful around the Harbeths lest I send the entire kit and kaboodle skittering across my hard word floor. Then again I can’t tell you wonderful this lightness was when it came to finding the right positioning.
But I couldn’t find a significant sonic complaint related to this reduction in mass. Due diligence—I did place the Harbeth C7ES-3 XDs on the Acora stands, and I did find that the usual generous bass extension the SRS-Gs add was gone, simply because the tweeters were simply too high above the level of my ears. If I had a larger room than this, and my room isn’t small, I bet the advantages of the Acoras would start to eliminate that loss of coherence in the lower frequencies. The Resonant Woods stands were quickly put into service and I never looked back.
Sound of the Harbeth C7ES-3 XD
You’ll hear it right away, that relaxed and easy manner the Harbeth C7-ES3s have, and you’ll immediately like them a lot. They’re warm, but never soft. They’re both welcoming and engaging, thanks to a shade more life in the high-frequencies, which means they’ll keep you in your listening seat for longer than you had originally planned.
If I did hear that familiar warmth and refinement, it tended to gather around the edges of the soundstage as opposed to permeating every square inch of music within the soundstage. At times I sensed it as a rippling effect in the periphery that evolved into a more liquid sound. This was not a bad thing at all, part of that familiar magic I’ve always associated with speakers from the UK, and perhaps the only clue that we had departed from absolute neutrality. The Compact 7 has always been about the immediate emotional connection it makes, so much so that the search for the ultimate truth seems fussy and aggravating.
After spending time with the Harbeth C7ES-3 XD, I noticed something different about the quality of that warmth. The Naim SuperNAIT 3, by the way, seemed to clarify this difference. Quite simply, I’ve always felt that Harbeth had a distinct sound, one that I could easily identify even with a blindfold. (I’ve often made the same remark about the Harbeth Monitor 40.) Naim NAITs also have a distinct sound. Together that sound combines the classic notion of Naim pace, rhythm and timing, with the embraceable and relaxing sound of the Harbeths.
I want to phrase this exactly so. I’m not suggesting that Naim and Harbeth are more neutral than ever before, or that they’re starting to sound like anything other than Naim or Harbeth. But audiophiles often remark on “all paths lead to Nirvana” philosophy where the best high-end audio gear, despite the theory and design, start to sound similar as they approach perfection. In this case, the Harbeth C7ES-3 XDs have also found a path to Nirvana, one that lets you hear deeper into recordings than before.
Harbeth C7ES-3 XD Conclusion
Gene Rubin once told me that he was selling so many Harbeth Compact 7s that he could just become the Harbeth Compact 7 store and still make a pretty decent living. That was back when Walter first brought Harbeth to the US and Gene was one of the first dealers. They made such a great first impression, and they were a smart, sane choice–both great values and serious loudspeakers for people with excellent hearing and moderate resources. That’s what the Compact 7 is all about—it is immensely enjoyable, likable and yet rare in terms of performance.
The Harbeth C7ES-3 XD monitors continue that warm and engaging character into 2022, and it’s clear that Alan Shaw wants to preserve those unique characteristics of each of his speakers and their BBC heritage as well.
For me, it’s been a bit more personal than usual with this speaker, and I’ll have to relive it all when I review the Naim SuperNAIT on its own. Yes, this is a great match, but it’s bigger than that. The idea of spending about 5K on speakers and 5-6K on amplification is probably a common subject among audiophiles, and here you go, my definitive answer on the subject. The Harbeth C7ES-3 XD remains, after all these years, as a top recommendation, thanks to Alan Shaw’s continuing efforts to improve his now legendary designs.