Why You Should Own Harbeth Speakers

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I CANNOT BELIEVE HOW GOOD MY HARBETH SUPER HL5 PLUS SPEAKERS REALLY ARE – I’M IN LOVE WITH THEM!

I’ve never said this about any speaker before! Yes, I’ve been impressed before but eventually I found all of the flaws that existed and my initial positive impression became full of holes and I never really truly appreciated my speaker system once I knew it intimately.

My biggest complaints with all of the fine speakers I’ve owned and built:

  1. They were on the edge of being aggressive and I tired listening to them for long periods of time.
  2. They didn’t play all genres of music well. What they did play was excellent but I get bored easily and like to change my types of music. When I did, I kept bumping into serious limitations the speakers had. The best sounding speakers I owned were impressively detailed but had a tough time convincing me when playing large scale music genres.
  3. Some of my speakers (particularly my open baffle) sounded really impressive but not realistic. I’m a former professional piano player and played in a jazz quartet for years and use that “live” experience to judge everything that I hear. Trying to get piano, strings (violin, cello, guitar, string bass), vocals, and even cymbals (particular when used with brushes) to sound right is really a challenge.
  4. As I ended up with more detail where I could hear deeper into a recording I lost texture, body, and emotional satisfaction with my speakers.

However, my Super HL5 Plus speakers sound fantastic. I just cannot understand how they fulfill every complaint issue that I have had and correct the deficiencies I’ve shared in my list above. They also allow me to play any genre of music without limitations. That has always been a problem in the past where my best speakers were very narrow in their ability to play all of the types of music I wanted to listen to.

With the HL5+, the midrange is fantastic. The bass is tight and visceral and the low notes touch my innards in such a realistic live music manner. I can hear every little detail, everything that is going on in an entire musical presentation and the soundstage is huge. These speakers are the least directional that I’ve ever heard. I can move around my room and enjoy them just as much as when sitting in the sweet spot. I’m impressed! I just cannot imagine wanting anything else. My LIO and my Harbeth Super HL5 Plus is such a magical combination that I only wish everyone owned this system. Where have I been all of these years and why haven’t I considered owning Harbeth’s before now (the synergy that the LIO provides with the Harbeth, however, wasn’t available back then)?

A quick and honest answer is that the Super HL5 Plus are “voiced” in such a way that they need a really super clean and detailed (not harsh) audio system to play them well. Not just a detailed amplification section but one with the finest power supply to allow the background to become inky black and the details to rise to the surface with less distortion or harm coming to the audio signal. The LIO does exactly that.

In fact, the LIO could be a bit analytical sounding with a typical full range speaker that doesn’t have a crossover system to make sure the frequency range presented by the speakers is really super linear. Full range drivers do not have a smooth frequency spectrum (never have and never will) and consequently are better off when paired with a tube amp that covers up those aggressive holes with 2nd order harmonic distortion. If a speaker is voiced to be “on the edge” so it sounds “detailed” it typically is voiced with a hot high midrange and that can be excruciatingly tiring and difficult to listen to for a long period of time.

The LIO, on the other hand, is super linear in its treatment of the audio frequency spectrum and the speakers connected to it need to be too. The speakers also need to be extremely well balanced and super linear and allow all of the potential sound quality to be converted from an electrical signal to an analog vibration of the speaker cones and diaphragms without modifying or destroying the signals.

Both the LIO and the Harbeth speakers allow music reproduction of the highest caliber and are the most synergistic combination I’ve ever heard. The Harbeth’s are just a smidgeon “tweaked” in the midrange presence area to add more texture and body and that is exactly what a clean amp like the LIO mosfet amp thrives on. It is here where 80% or more of our music exists and this frequency band is where body, texture, detail, and all of the important things that make music reproduction come closer to live sound quality. This frequency band cannot be thin or it will sound clinical. The LIO mosfet amp plays clean and linear and the appropriate LIO modules (the tube stage with the Slagle transformer volume control) and the Harbeth Super HL5 Plus provide just the right amount of synergy and end up producing a really magical sound. In fact, they are incredibly magical to say the least!

The Harbeth speakers are voiced to take on the task that previously a tube power amp was used to do – to “fatten” up the midrange. Using a tube power amp for that task, however, adds artifacts and distortion that take you backward if you’re trying to accomplish getting the best clean and detailed sound quality.

You are better off to add a slight amount of 2nd order harmonic distortion through the introduction of a tube stage (using preamp style tubes) than you are trying to do the same with large power tubes. The end result of the LIO mosfet amp, the LIO tube stage (with Slagle transformer volume control), and the Harbeth Super HL5+ combination ends up being a better match than you can accomplish with a single ended tube power amp and a pair of high efficiency high-end speakers. It sounds more real, plays all genres of music well, and has plenty of texture and body and lesser distortion to degrade the sound quality. Plus it has superb dynamics and visceral impact that really vibrates your body’s organs.

Using tubes in your power amp, your preamp and possibly even your DAC really makes a mess of the audio signal and even though euphoric (and maybe initially attractive sounding), it doesn’t sound like real live music at all. It’s way off! That’s too many tubes and too much tube distortion! You really should only introduce a “small but reasonable” amount of tube distortion into your system and have your speakers “voiced” in such a way that they provide some of the emotional appeal that tubes are used to accomplish.

Maybe that’s why Srajan Ebaen at 6 Moons has sold most of his tube power amps and has converted to using a solid state power amp with a Jazz tube preamp. He’s probably come to the same conclusion. Use tubes in your preamp or tube stage and then pick up the benefits of what only solid state can do in your power amp – superb dynamic range and slam plus considerably less distortion leading to a much more natural and realistic sound quality.

The Vinnie Rossi LIO mosfet amp has a slight but natural warmth that most solid state designs do not have and that makes it a perfect compliment to his tube stage module. The 6922 tube family tube stage module then adds just the right amount of 2nd order harmonic distortion that Srajan is probably getting using a way more expensive tube preamp. And then Vinnie takes things one step further by achieving a super clean signal with his state of the art Slagle transformer volume control. These 3 items (mosfet amp, tube stage, and Slagle volume control) allow for a sound quality that comes close to that of tube preamps costing $10,000 to $20,000. Tube rolling in the tube stage then provides a final way to “tune” each individual system to it’s listening environment.

Because of the incredible crossover voicing that Alan Shaw at Harbeth has done, the sound quality of the LIO and a pair of Harbeth speakers becomes magical and is way beyond the sound quality of a typical audio system

It’s hard to describe and you really need to hear it in person to fully understand what I’m talking about. This magical sound quality is real and will make you melt and swoon at the breathtaking beauty this unique combination of components delivers. I know that you will agree with me that there is no need to want anything more once you hear and eventually own a LIO and a Harbeth Super HL5+ speaker system.

One real benefit of the LIO/Harbeth combination is that this sound quality comes at a price tag much lower than the traditional manner requires to achieve it. You no longer need to purchase a $10,000 to $20,000 preamp. You also no longer need to purchase a super expensive behemoth  large wattage and hot running solid state amp. You can instead create this unique sound quality from the pairing of reasonably priced LIO modules and the “voicing” that Alan Shaw has provided in his Super HL5+ and now his Monitor 40.2 speakers.

The LIO has a degree of natural warmth due to it’s Mosfet circuit but REALLY SHINES when the LIO tube stage is included and particularly when the Slagle transformer volume control is added to that. This tubestage/Slagle transformer volume control combination module provides the sound quality that you get from a $10,000 to $20,000 preamp and the Harbeth speakers are uniquely capable of displaying this kind of stellar sound quality. Nothing is excluded and through really superb crossover voicing of the Super HL5 Plus . . . the midrange just shines!!! I cannot express my excitement or my enjoyment the LIO and a pair of Harbeth’s can provide – especially when using the HL5+ model. This combination provides a serious economic value.

Most people don’t realize that the recent Harbeth Super HL5 Plus and the Monitor 40.2 speakers have been “voiced” quite differently than Harbeth speakers built in the past. These two newer models provide an extremely unique balance between high quality expressive detail and a gorgeous midrange and plenty of clean tight bass. A subwoofer system is definitely not needed for either model. This new voicing perfectly matches the sonic presentation provide by Vinnie’s LIO and somehow creates a magical synergy that I’ve not heard before in any system no matter what the price tag.

Previously, Harbeth’s might have been a bit “laid back” sounding with their midrange taking over much of the presentation. The new voicing of the HL5+ and 40.2 have shifted that sound to allow for a more lively approach yet still smooth without stupidly elevated high frequency output and in my opinion, a more real world sound quality particularly for home use. Previously, the Harbeth’s have been voiced more for near-field listening in studios. No longer. Now for both near-field as well as far-field use, the HL5+ and 40.2 speakers just plain sing and make listening an incredibly rich experience no matter what your listening style or room environment.

The little P3 ESR speakers are also quite unique and make the ideal “entry level” speakers in my opinion. They are a modern day substantial refinement of the old Rogers LS3/5A speakers that are audio legends and still popular with many audiophiles. These speakers are the only ones in the Harbeth line that are not vented and they sound really good and surprise everyone who hears them. The P3 ESR is of the best values in their affordable price range. Even though they might be considered an excellent entry level speaker, some people live with for a long period of time because they just sound so incredibly good in spite of their lack of deep bass.

Another really good speaker value is the KEF LS50 monitors. I’ve owned those speakers and liked them a lot. They are inefficient (84db) and typically require 100w/ch of power or more to sound correct. I was using a pair of Ncore mono blocks (125w/ch) to drive them when I owned those speakers and it was a good combination. However, with the LIO and it’s super high current drive capability, the KEF LS50 and a LIO are an even better match than the Ncore with the LIO. The LIO has no problem driving the KEF’s and even sounds better than my NCore amps. The LIO mosfet amp is warmer and less sterile and has plenty of dynamic range and slam and can play the KEF’s at a super high volume level without clipping. Most people are surprised to learn that it isn’t the watts per channel that control this ability but rather the current that a power amp puts out. The LIO has a current capability that is just huge due to the ultra capacitor power design design.

I previously considered the $1,500 KEF’s the entry level speaker to beat and found that it competes well with speakers twice it’s price tag. However, the Harbeth P3 ESR turns circles around the KEF’s. The midrange is much more seductive with the P3 ESR. Also, the KEF’s tend to be a little bit “too hot” on the high end. They’re a metal dome speaker design and this tends to create a slightly harsh sibilance and presentation on certain recordings. The Harbeth P3 has plenty of detail but sounds much nicer and better balanced. And did I share that the midrange is “too die for”. That’s a typical Harbeth trait in every one of their speaker models. All of them (the P3, the C7, the 30.1, the HL5+, and the 40.2). Plus, all genres of music sound good with all 5 models and there is no listener fatigue when listening for long periods of time – not with any of the Harbeth models.

Still, my favorite and what I consider to be a “final” speaker purchase for anyone desiring the best sound quality (at a realistic but albeit still high price) is the Harbeth Super HL5 Plus matched with a Vinnie Rossi LIO.

Quotes From Alan Shaw, the Owner & Designer of Harbeth Speakers

“It’s relatively easy to make spectacular sounding speakers, but designing speakers that sound natural regardless of whatever music is played on them and where you sit day in, day out, is much more challenging.”

“If you hunger for that last atom of transparency, consider first that many recordings are flawed. Please realize that with a really great recording you are not at the recording venue, and that the performers have not, magically been conjured up at your command in your own room. That simply is not possible.”

“In your listening environment, listening fatigue through inadequate speaker design, or stupidly elevated high frequency output masquerading as ‘increased detail’ is my pet hate and my ears are (genetically) so sensitive to ‘speaker fatigue’ that I cannot be in the same room as some of those fashionable speakers because it physically hurts my ears.

I think you only have to look at the huge success of the SHL5plus to see how making a speaker more open and revealing (also the inspiration for the new M40.2) is what the market wants, needs and very much likes. Of course, if the recording is sub-optimal, and many are, or the recording is too bright, pinched, present, EQ’d to hell or whatever, you will hear it, just as you will with the SHL5plus.”

Jason Parmenter