The Harbeth Compact 7ES-3 Loudspeaker
|The Harbeth Compact 7ES-3 Loudspeaker
|Harbeth Revises their Classic Compact 7
Harbeth. Say the name to any music-lover or audiophile anywhere on the planet and you’ll likely get a flicker of light from their eyes and enthusiastic, almost gushing, praise. There are few companies whose products rate such universal and unanimous acclaim. I’ve never met anyone who has listened to Harbeth’s speakers who didn’t rate them extremely highly. Considering the wide range of tastes and styles among audio enthusiasts around the world (and the US audiophile community’s tendency towards flavor-of-the month fads,) this universal consensus is a significant and rare achievement.
Harbeth’s success, moreover, is long-lived: 2007 marks their 30th Anniversary (a bronze plaque on the back of my review sample Compact 7ES-3 speakers commemorates the fact.) The company continues its tradition of highly refined, musically consonant, and true-to-timbre speakers that any music lover will find easy to place, easy to drive, and relatively easy to afford. And, as the testimony of Harbeth owners repeatedly bears out, easy to love. Many find themselves appreciating their Harbeths even more after a few years of ownership, when they find themselves off the treadmill of that seemingly endless Audio Upgrade/Holy Grail search for “something better.” Harbeth speakers tend to be final destination products for many owners, allowing them to spend their time listening to music rather than auditioning audio components.
Harbeth’s tradition, as most know by now, is rooted in the fertile alembic that was BBC Research and Development, that creative cauldron which inspired the formation of many UK speaker companies and sourced many of their founders. The BBC remains today one of Harbeth’s largest customers. Current Harbeth director Alan B. Shaw continues the high ideals of Harbeth with an integrity that is rare and admirable in today’s business world. Demand for Harbeth’s products is extremely high, yet Shaw maintains the perfectionist quality-control the company is known for: no geared up, quick-and-dirty production lines, no slave-labor outsourcing to China, and no artificially inflated “High End” prices.
The new Compact 7ES-3 is the continued refinement of the seminal Compact 7, the speaker which introduced the Harbeth Radial™ 8-inch bass/mid driver. The Radial™ driver was the result of almost insanely intensive and tedious research and development by Harbeth to find an ideal driver material. The result was worth it: the driver is considered by many to be the finest of its type, its ability to correctly reproduce the timbre of acoustic instruments so natural and believable that many owners of far more exotic and far more expensive designs have switched to Harbeths and never looked back.
The changes in the new Compact 7ES-3 involve a new surround for the Radial™ driver, a consequent change in cabinet loading, refinements to the tweeter, and a new cross-over. The rest of the Compact 7’s salient features remain the same: cabinet size and construction, sensitivity, frequency response, and load are unchanged. The 7ES-3 uses single wire connection, as Shaw sees no point in putting in bi-wire connection for a design that does not benefit from it. The crossover change allows a wider choicer in speaker stand height without altering the treble balance. Like all Harbeths, the Compact 7ES-3 is designed to be played with its grill on. Build quality and quality of finish are first-rate, in that grand UK craft tradition. This is a speaker worth holding onto for years. The changes to the speaker and the vagaries of the US dollar/GB pound relationship mean a price increase for US customers. The Compact 7ES-3 now costs $3295/pair in Cherry wood finish; Eucalyptus finish costs $3595, Tiger Ebony $3795.
The new Compact 7 ES-3 is the fourth Harbeth speaker I have reviewed; the others, in sequence, being the Super HL5-here,, the HP 3ES-2-here, and most recently, the Monitor 30-here. It was obvious within five minutes of listening to the Super HL5, the first Harbeth speaker I reviewed, that I was listening to the work of a master speaker designer. Each Harbeth speaker I’ve reviewed since has proven itself a masterpiece, given its intended use and room size application. The Compact 7 ES-3 upholds the grand Harbeth tradition: designer Alan B. Shaw has hit the mark again. Bulls-eye.
The new Compact 7ES-3 is the least expensive Harbeth speaker to use the Radial ™ driver and is designed to be used in small-ish to medium sized rooms. Unlike Harbeth’s Monitor series of speakers, the Compact 7ES-3 is designed specifically for home listening and thus aims at unalloyed appreciation of the quality of the music, rather than analytically dissecting how the recording was made. Though the distinction between a home loudspeaker and a studio monitor loudspeaker might be subtle conceptually and need not ultimately be mutually exclusive, Harbeth feels the differences are significant enough to warrant producing distinct loudspeakers for each application.
The Compact 7ES-3 is slightly larger than the Monitor 30 in size and goes slightly lower in bass response, enough so that in the intended room-size application (and even a bit larger) the Compact 7 will reproduce the 42 Hz lower limit of the double bass and bass guitar clearly. Measurements in my very large ‘reference’ room showed flat response to 50 Hz, the beginning of the bass reflex-loaded Radial ™ driver’s roll-off. Thus the 7 will subjectively sound full-range, though the bottom octave will be quite a bit down in level. The Compact 7’s sensitivity falls in between that of the mini-monitor HP 3ES-2 and the Super HL5: an honest 50 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load should be adequate to most applications. The Compact doesn’t quite come alive at the very quietest levels as well as the Super HL5, but then it doesn’t need as much amplifier drive as the HP3 ES-2 either. The Compact 7 proved more accommodating to a range of component quality than the rather picky Monitor 30, though it wasn’t quite as affable as the Super HL5, which has the rare ability to extract the best out of all components without spotlighting their flaws. Potential owners of the Compact 7 aren’t likely, however, to be tormented by trying to find compatible amplifier, cable, and source matches to use with the speakers. Although the speakers are less sensitive than the increasingly common new goal of 90 dB, the speaker’s load appears very benign in impedance and phase angles, making them easy to drive by any competent amplifier.
I listened to the new Compact 7 in three different sized rooms. The speaker was well matched to medium and smaller rooms: If one of your room dimensions extends much beyond 20 feet, the Super HL5 would probably be a better match regarding bass support in the bottom octave-and-a half. I used a variety of speaker stands in a variety of heights. The new crossover in the Compact 7 doesn’t require laser precision in speaker-stand height to achieve proper treble reproduction; gross changes in height will likely more noticeably result in bass response changes. I mostly used the excellent and affordable Reference 3a Solid laminated-wood stands, which permit height adjustment from 19 inches to 30 inches. I placed the Reference 3a stands on the Stillpoints Universal Resonance Dampers, and adjusted the stand height so that the Harbeth’s tweeter was at ear level.
The first thing one notices when listening to the Compact 7ES-3 is its simply wonderful and natural-sounding mid-range – instruments sound rich and full-bodied, with their full array of harmonics intact. This is the kind of midrange that often leads many listeners to purchase tube amplification, yet the Harbeth achieves its organic midrange performance even with solid state gear. An accurate and natural sounding midrange is essential to instrument identification and vocal elocution, of course, and the Compact 7 was simply magical in the way it allowed the ear to identify instruments, capturing their timbre and subtle sonic signatures with an extraordinarily natural ease. This was particularly so with orchestral instruments whose frequency ranges overlap. The speaker clearly differentiated between the violin and the viola: Within the woodwinds, there was zero tonal ambiguity among the English horn, oboe, and clarinet, or between the flute and piccolo. But the Harbeth went further still: One could easily identify the different makes of violins from the great Cremona-based masters. The sonic signatures of Fender, Gretsch, and Gibson electric guitars were clearly rendered. It’s too easy to forget that the live sounds of many instruments are often simply beautiful in their own sonority, a pure sensual pleasure to hear. The Compact 7ES-3 produces that beauty like few other speakers. Being able to easily and accurately identify the instrument playing is the essential first step for any hi-fi system. The rigorous experimentation and development that went into creating the Radial ™ driver has paid off: in terms of timbral accuracy; there is no dynamic cone driver that matches it.
There is more to creating accurate timbre than mid-range acuity by itself. The higher harmonic overtones of the fundamental pitch (note) that the instrument is playing extend out into the treble range, making tweeter quality and integration essential to the instrument recognition process. The 7’s tweeter sounded like an extension of the midrange, in the usual Harbeth manner. The high-frequency response of the Compact 7 did not match the ultimate airiness and ease of the Super HL5’s super tweeter, and while its ultimate resolution lagged behind the Monitor 30’s, it also lacked that speaker’s analytical sharpness. Overall, the treble does not draw attention to itself. It’s neither prominent nor absent. It’s simply there, as the music requires.
Bass response was tight and very well controlled when placed on the Reference 3a Solid stands, with quick starts and stops to bass notes, and no boom. This was true even with my antique EICO 50 Watt per channel tube amp, though admittedly this precise control was only available when the amp was placed on the Stillpoints Component Stand. The speed of the bass does not sacrifice sonority for acuity: the acoustic bass and cello were rich and full-bodied.
Accurate instrumental timbre alone is not, however, enough for complete musical satisfaction: The depiction of what the instrument is playing and how it’s playing it ultimately determine the worth of a hi-fi component. A truly great speaker helps us understand the music and interpret its meaning: It serves as a hermeneutic tool. The Compact 7ES-3 is more than a beautiful face of vivid instrumental sonority – it adds grace, wit, fire, nuance, intelligence, and artistic sensibility of the highest order.
Most middling hi-fi is fairly adept at revealing the broad outlines of music, a kind of abstracted generalization and simplification of the music. Increasingly, much current mass-market digital technology, both for music playback and for computer application, produces this kind of filtered short-hand, using simplification to produce its clarity. Not surprisingly, music specifically produced for these formats (the medium becomes the message) tends to the synthetic and artificial. Tellingly, no one actually plays a real instrument on much Rap and Pop. Instead we have ‘samples,’ and ‘beats,’ drum ‘machines’ and various other computer-synthesized sounds with almost zero dynamic range, lock-step totalitarian rhythms, and a complete lack of any of the emotional inflection and artistic intent that reveals the human being creating the music. (My recent forced audition of an acquaintance’s iPod was a descent into musical hell. Every instrument sounded like a synthesizer, there was an appalling lack of dynamic contrasts and of rhythm and timing. It all sounded appallingly robotic.) No wonder that Classical and Jazz, just two kinds of music that rely on nuance, expression, dynamic contrast and rhythmic suppleness, are increasingly just blips on contemporary sales charts.
Duke Ellington’s old adage that there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music, bears revision. There is a third kind: great music. To really appreciate, indeed to even understand, good or great music requires more than the simple outlines of the music. From this standpoint, the primary goal of a hi-fi is to reveal the quality of the music: The greatest sin is aesthetic distortion. The Harbeth Compact 7 ES-3 is exceptionally low in aesthetic distortion: It reveals the inherent merits of the music played through them – good, bad, and great. To the simplest requirements of the broad outline of music, the 7’s add subtlety, nuance, expression, and musical meaning. The Compact 7 reveals the details of the playing, the subtlest of inflections and touch.
I was pleasantly surprised at how well the Harbeths performed with CD playback. It did not exacerbate the format’s common weaknesses in timbre reproduction, low-level detail, and general rhythmic coherence. Moreover it did this with even humble CD playback gear. The Compact 7 was definitely more forgiving than the Harbeth Monitor 30, or my own reference Sound Lab Dynastats. Importantly, it achieved this forgiveness without coloration and opacity.
High-quality analogue LP playback more clearly revealed the Harbeth’s ultimate strengths. One of the stand-out merits of the Funk Firm Vector turntable (which I’ve just reviewed) is its ability to lay out the rhythmic variability – the playing around the beat – of the individual players in much Post-WWII Jazz performance. The Funk and Harbeth combined to not only clearly portray what each player was doing in relation to the implied pulse, but also how it related to the other player’s variations of it. The Harbeths were equally adept at portraying other music’s versions of the technique – “in the pocket” drumming on Rock and Roll, and rubato in Classical playing. The 7’s were equally adept with Groove-based music and with polyrhythms. The Harbeth’s rhythmic performance is impeccable.
Given the 7ES-3’s superb rendition of timbre, acoustic music of all kinds was predictably easy and rewarding to listen to. Freed from the aural chore of trying to identify the instruments and to localize their position in the sound field, it was unusually easy to focus on what the instruments were playing and how they were playing it. Phrasing and parsing of musical lines was excellent, as was their interplay, both melodic and harmonic. Even the most difficult of Classical pieces and Jazz performances yielded readily to understanding. Judging the artistic merits of various performances of a given Classical work was easy and reliable: the Harbeths are an invaluable aesthetic tool.
The Compact 7ES-3 offers an exceptionally well-integrated blend of accurate timbre, sophisticated rhythmic performance, highly articulate reproduction of performance technique, and clear insight into the artistic intent of the music. That it can do this with just about any kind of music makes it a superb ally for investigating new music, opening the door to musical adventure. The new Compact 7ES-3 is another masterpiece in the grand Harbeth tradition.
Transducer system: Vented 2 way domestic monitor loudspeaker
Frequency response: 46Hz – 20kHz ± 3dB free space, 1m with grille on with smooth off axis response
Impedance: 6 ohms, easy electrical load
Amplifier suggestion: 25W + Power handling 150W program
Connector: Two 4mm gold-plated binding posts
(h x w x d) 520 x 273 x 315mm.
Space needs: At least 0.5m from rear wall
Stands: Typically 15-21 inches
Finish: Finish Veneers. Cherry (std.), eucalyptus. Others: please call.
Weight: 13.2kg each
Packing: Single speaker per carton
Price: $3295 per pair in Cherry wood finish.
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