The Harbeth Monitor 30 Domestic Loudspeakers
|The Harbeth Monitor 30 Domestic Loudspeakers
|From UK with Love
Ask the average audio enthusiast if they’d like to own a professional studio monitor speaker and you’re likely to see a quickening of the spirit and a pricking up of the ears. Mention that the speaker is a US Pop/Rock studio monitor and you’ll see the sudden falling of their crest and the shudder of aversion. That the word “monitor” should evoke such contradictory responses reflects the ambiguity of the uses to which monitor speakers are put, and, ultimately, to the ideal we are trying to achieve in our home audio systems.
The desire to hear recordings in our homes on the loudspeakers used to produce them seems a logical enough step to take. Monitor speakers are the best, right? The most neutral, the most accurate. Often ignored, however, is the fact that professionals use monitor speakers to clarify what’swrong in a recording session as much as to reveal what’s right about it. A wag once defined a monitor speaker as a home speaker with a carping audio critic built-in. Recording engineers and producers need to hear recorded errors and miscues – the dropped drum stick, the bumped chair, the clearing of the throat – as clearly as the quality of the playing. Particularly in the US, Rock/Pop recording studios often use studio monitors with deliberately exaggerated and non-linear frequency response, playing them at deafening sound-pressure levels to make sure any errors and flaws are unavoidably audible. Many studios further compound the problem by deliberately using ancillary crap ‘monitors’ that supposedly reflect the awful gear the masses use. Talk with anyone involved in Pro Audio and you’re instantly aware of the enormous rift that generally exists between the practices of the Pro Audio world and that of the Home Audio world, particularly the audio enthusiast/audiophile mindset. Indeed, many home audio enthusiasts hold that the weakest link in their systems are the recordings themselves, the direct fruit of hearing-damaged studio engineers and producers, deafened from long-term exposure to the high SPL playback of the more obnoxious Rock monitor speakers.
At least part of this rift comes from lack of any universally agreed upon standard of what a recording should be. The long-held paradigm that a recording should literally and faithfully capture the live performance, indeed, be a substitute for not being there in person – a paradigm that governed the history of recorded sound and the pursuit of High Fidelity since Edison’s wax cylinder recording of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” – never really was a part of the popular music recording ethos. Even though full bandwidth, two-channel stereo recording had been achieved by the early 1960’s, with microphone placement and recording technique yielding a 3-dimensional sound stage that captured both the physical placement of the performers and ambience of the recording hall, its use was consigned almost exclusively to Classical music. Rock and Roll was mono, its bandwidth limited to the needs of the 45 RPM Single record player, the juke box, and AM radio. Each studio had its signature ‘sound:’ the record producer ruled. One listened to a Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” recording not as a faithful recreation of a live performance, but as an artifact created for a special effect. As the 60’s entered their revolutionary phase, experimentation in the recording studio was aided by the availability of increasingly sophisticated studio tools. The result was recordings that could not be re-produced in live performance. The Beatles, for example, went from being a performing band to one who existed only in the studio. Indeed, it is impossible to conceive of them realizing their artistic ambitions during their mature phase without the direct aid of their record producer George Martin. As recordings became increasingly manipulated, processed, and complex, the live performance of a band was judged by how well it could replicate the studio recordings – a complete inversion of the ethos of capturing the live performance that still ruled classical recordings.
Are we, in our home listening, trying to recreate the experience of live un-amplified musical performance in a given acoustic space – an absolute sound? The ideal here is the natural. Or is our ideal goal to accurately recreate what the recording studio engineers heard and produced on their monitoring systems? The ideal now becomes the artificial – the recorded artifact. Both ideals have their philosophic and practical difficulties. The former assumes that a system or component capable of evoking an absolute sound with non-amplified instruments, which is to say, Classical music, will automatically be as faithful to amplified music, i.e., just about everything else. This assumption requires a rather large leap of faith. The latter ideal faces the problem of the wide variety of loudspeakers used as monitoring devices in recording studios throughout the world and throughout history. To really hear what the recording studio engineers and producers heard, and one assumes, intended, you’d have to hear it on the same monitor speakers (and with the same amplification and cabling) they used in their studio. The lack of standardization of studio monitors makes achieving this goal impossible.
The British Broadcasting Corporation faced this exact problem of standardization of monitoring speakers for its broadcast uses. In addition to its standard-setting radio broadcasts of live Classical music performances, the BBC also broadcast Pop music, as well as the BBC News, the BBC announcers’ English accent becoming the norm for ‘correct’ English speech for non-English speakers learning the language. TV production added to the demands.
To solve the problem, the BBC established a department of loudspeaker research and design which set up standards for monitor loudspeakers to be used throughout its facilities. The legendary LS3/5a BBC monitor, which inspired the common audiophile appellation ‘mini-monitor’ and initiated the style of small-room, near-field listening, was built for the BBC under strict licensing agreements by a variety of commercial manufacturers, guaranteeing that a set of LS3/5a’s used in recording a string quartet in Wales was the same as the ones used in Scotland, or at Central BBC facilities in London. The BBC specified a variety of monitor speaker sizes for various applications, all with various “LS” prefixes. Finally, a UK listener could listen to the speakers used to monitor the source, be that source Classical music, Rock and Roll, the speaking voice, or the sound track of TV shows. A big batch of Gordian Knots was cut at one stroke. The use of these BBC monitors for home listening proved very popular and helped establish a seminal school of loudspeaker design, created by commercial UK loudspeaker firms headed by former employees of the BBC.
One such firm is the house of Harbeth, now ably headed by Alan Shaw. Harbeth produces both home and monitoring loudspeakers; significantly, its largest customer is still the BBC. I have reviewed two of Harbeth’s home loudspeakers – the HL P3ES-2 here and the Super HL5 here – and found them true masterpieces of the speaker design art. Both speakers effortlessly communicate the message and art of music in its deepest and most profound manner, the result of combining high neutrality, faithful timbre, superb driver technology and crossovers, and the lessons in cabinet design originating from BBC research. Technical design is applied so successfully and with such seamless integration that one’s search for a truly musical loudspeaker could well begin and end with them. The Super HL5, which features the Harbeth-developed RADIAL ™ bass/mid dynamic driver, held by many (myself included) to be the most natural and accurate driver of its type, won our Most Wanted Component Award. Both speakers were able to extract truly spell-binding musical performance from a wide range of source recording quality and types of music. They both possessed that rare and ineffable ability to extract what was musically relevant and significant without spotlighting the flaws and limitations of the source. Equally important was their user-friendliness to partnering equipment. Both managed, magically, to extract the best from even humble gear, meaning that one need not invest a fortune to get them to sing. Any musically adroit solid-state integrated amp of 50 watts or so will do the trick, the speakers’ natural midrange performance nullifying any need to use tube gear to “warm things up.”
The Harbeth Monitor 30 was designed to slot right into professional applications of the old BBC LS5/9 monitor, for which it is a drop-in replacement. It is designed for medium-sized rooms, offering lower bass response and higher sound pressure levels than the near-field, small room-only, Monitor 20/HL P3ES-2/LS3/5a. The Monitor 30 uses the RADIAL ™ 200 mm bass/midrange driver, reflex-loaded, combined with the 25mm EXCEL tweeter from Harbeth’s full-range Monitor 40. The Domestic version, under review here, uses real wood veneers (my pair was finished in a mesmerizing Eucalyptus finish on all sides) and conventional dual 5-way speaker binding posts. The Monitor 30 measures 18” high by 10” wide by 11” deep. The Monitor 30 Domestic is priced the same as the Super HL5 home speaker: $4299 per pair for Cherry wood finish, $4399 for Eucalyptus, and $4599 for Tiger Ebony.
Setting up the Monitor 30 proved somewhat involved, as its somewhat unusual height made finding the right speaker stand somewhat difficult. The M30 is quite a bit smaller than the Super HL5 which mated perfectly with an 18-inch stand I own, and quite a bit bigger than the mini-monitor HL P3ES-2 which mated with 24-inch stands. Harbeth recommends setting up the speaker so that one’s ears are on the same plane as the 30’s tweeter in order to fully open the speaker’s listening window. The height of the stand is of course based on the height of one’s listening seat, and the height of one’s torso from the waist up. I wished I had a pair of height-adjustable stands to make dialing in the tweeter plane easier in the three different sized rooms in which I auditioned the speaker. So, instead, I altered my sitting height. I isolated the Monitor 30’s from their stands with Stillpoints Universal Resonance Dampers: the effect of the Stillpoints was far greater than the difference in stand design, construction materials, or cost; the increased resolution and bass control they bring makes them an essential in any speaker set-up.
Considering the medium room-size design application of the Monitor 30, it wasn’t surprising that the mini-monitor, small-room set-up (placed along the long wall of an 18 ft. by 14 ft. rectangular room and well away from the rear and side walls, listening distance 6 feet) that was so magical with the HP3’s didn’t work as well with the Monitor 30’s. They were too large to permit the disappearing act of very small speakers. Harbeth recommends placing the speakers so that they shoot down the longer dimension in a rectangular room: my upstairs 20 ft. by 14 ft. “master suite”/ bedroom allowed this recommended set-up. I measured the Monitor 30’s in stereo at my listening seat in my basement “reference room” – one large enough to permit my Sound Lab Dynastats to extend flat to 25 Hz, and 3dB down at 20 Hz. Set far enough into this large room so that boundary reinforcement did not play a role, the 30’s were 3dB down at 50 Hz, exactly matching Harbeth’s specifications. Response through the midrange and high frequencies was exceptionally flat, indicating that the Monitor 30 was indeed designed for neutral reproduction, rather than the exaggerated mids and highs of many US Rock monitors. The 30’s did not sound bass shy in this admittedly too-large-for-them basement room. The bass had weight, punch, and power – it sounded full – but it did not extend as far in this room as did the Super HL5, which was flat to 42 Hz. Since 42 Hz is the frequency of the lowest note of the acoustic and electric bass, I consider flat, in-room response to this frequency to be my definition of full-range. Matching room-size with the Monitor 30 is therefore important. The Monitor 30 is designed for ‘medium sized rooms’: I’d define that as a long dimension of roughly 20 feet or less. Go much beyond that 20 foot length and the Super HL5 or the Monitor 40 would be the more appropriate speaker choice. Alternatively, one could add a subwoofer.
Since monitor speakers are deliberately designed to critically reveal the flaws of recordings, it’s not surprising that they reveal gear limitations equally clearly. Compared to the Golden Retriever-like willingness and affability of the P3 and the HL5, the Monitor 30 was more like a high-strung Doberman Pinscher or a recalcitrant Basset Hound: “Let me get this straight. You want me to run and jump into that icy lake and fetch the stick you threw into it? If you wanted it so much, why did you throw it away?” Matching components with the Monitor 30 proved very much a Goldilocks experience, trying to find the combination of components and cables that were ”Just Right.” This archetypical audiophile experience proved to be tedious and frustrating. While the 30’s brothers also revealed the limitations of gear, they tended to work around the flaws and to maximize the gear’s good points. Not so the 30’s: flaws were never glossed over. To be sure, the Monitor 30’s always sounded the best with the most neutral components, cables, and source formats. Still, the Monitor 30 demands that the system be built around it. If any of the cabling used has a tone control aspect to it, for example, you will know.
The Monitor 30’s 85 dB sensitivity and woofer loading alignment meant that amplifiers of at least 50 solid-state watts per channel proved necessary. My a-typical 1960 EICO HF89 tube amp – 50 watts per channel, big transformers, high damping factor, and the wide-bandwidth magic touch of the great Stewart Hegeman – worked very well, but only when isolated by the Stillpoints Component Stand, the use of which tightened up the EICO’s bass response enough to control the 30’s bass-reflex woofer. Use of the Sonic-Impact Super T Amp’s 5 watts per channel was inadequate to drive the M 30’s. It’s probably fair to predict that flea-powered SET tube amps also won’t work, especially given their generally loose bass control.
The Monitor 30’s proved as merciless in revealing the limitations of the CD format as my long-time reference Sound Lab Dynastats, perhaps even more so. CD’s distorted harmonic structure, false instrumental timbre, monotone dynamic variation, and terraced note decay were all on full view. The differences between the 6 CD players I played through them were analytically differentiated. The standard-setting rhythmic subtleties of the new Rega Apollo and Saturn CD players’ bass regions, were, however, mostly lost on the Harbeths. To be fair, they’re lost on most speakers. You need to hear the two players on Rega R7’s or R9’s to really appreciate what Rega has achieved. If your system is CD-based don’t expect the Monitor 30’s to flatter the format. The differences between the CD, SACD, and DVD-A digital formats were vividly clarified, DVD-A in particular sounding excellent.
On the other hand, the sonic and musical strengths of analogue LP were faithfully rendered: natural timbre, accurate tracking of the dynamic changes within even the shortest music phrases, and supple and nuanced rhythmic sway were clearly rendered. Still, the Harbeth’s analytic nature clearly revealed the differences in the 5 turntables, 10 phono cartridges, 4 tonearms, and 10 phono stages I auditioned. The naturalness and accuracy of the RADIAL ™ driver fully revealed the natural timbre of orchestral instruments and the human voice. The artificial rising high-frequency response of many moving coil cartridges was instantly obvious. Indeed one wonders if the popularity of the moving-coil design is not, at least in part, based on the perceived need to overcome the opacity and sluggishness of many cone speakers. The M 30’s certainly don’t need it. The timbral accuracy and naturalness of The Cartridge Man MusicMaker Classic variable-reluctance phono cartridge was fully apparent.
Listening to Rock/Pop recordings was very much a mixed bag. The studio construction of recordings – their artifice – was immediately and inescapably obvious. The isolation of the singer in the vocal booth, the artificial reverb and compression used on the voice, the discontinuity of individual instruments recorded with different microphones and at different times, the strange construction of mono images into an ersatz pan-potted stereo spread, the effects of overdubs, EQ, and all the technological manipulations of the signal that are standard operating procedure for studio productions were laid out bare and with all seams obvious. This, by definition, is what a studio monitor speaker should do. Still, being constantly reminded how bad most Rock/Pop recordings are was somewhat depressing, and all too often overshadowed whatever musical or artistic merit the music had.
The Monitor 30’s really shone on Classical music, and with acoustic music of all kinds. The great heritage of the life-like BBC broadcasts of live orchestral performances lives on with these speakers. The timbral accuracy and naturalness of the RADIAL ™ driver was utterly convincing and deeply satisfying. Indeed, high quality analogue LP playback of Classical music was as natural as it gets, assuming of course that the recording was well done.
The 30’s portrayal of the sound field was very much like a picture window. If one’s room can be likened to the old standard TV image, the window of the Harbeth’s projection was much like a letter box movie viewed on that standard TV frame, the dimensions of the letterbox/picture window in line with the plane of the speaker’s height. The listening window opened into the acoustic of the recording site, with literal and precise placement within that window. Again, this in more in line with what a studio monitor does than the kind of billowing, larger-than-the-listening room, wrap-around sound field that many audiophiles yearn for in home playback.
The Harbeth Monitor 30’s music-making capabilities – their portrayal of rhythm, tempo, dynamic punctuation, parsing, phrasing, and general musical movement and flow – proved not as believable and as satisfying as the Super HL5 or the HLP3-ES-2. There was a constant cerebral cast to the music, fine when one is listening in that mode or to the type of music or performance that requires that style of listening, but distracting when one is listening with one’s spirit, heart, omphalos, groin, hips, arse, or feet or any combination of the above. Personally, I find that the most satisfying listening is done with all those centers operating simultaneously: the component should allow one to shift one’s focus at will. With the Monitor 30, it was as if the built-in audio critic of monitor speakers could not be turned-off, even when it was turned off in the listener.
Since the Monitor 30 and the Super HL5 are equally priced, it is natural to compare them. The differences between the two speakers are cabinet size, crossover, sensitivity, and tweeter. Although the 30’s tweeter is of higher spec, it did not match the tweeter/super tweeter set-up of the Super HL5 in effortless believability, the Super HL5’s treble sounding like a natural extension of the RADIAL driver. Most of the Monitor 30’s cerebral cast was due to the treble region. The bass response of the Super HL5 extends a bit lower, enough so that it will sound full-range in most rooms. Although the bass response of the M30 might be slightly tighter, the differences between the two are ameliorated by use of the Stillpoints Universal Resonance Dampers, the use of which both tightens and clarifies the bass response of the two speakers. The slightly higher sensitivity of the HL5 might permit a slightly less powerful amplifier to be used, but this is unlikely to be significant. Since both speakers were designed with solid-state amplification’s high damping factor and thus, bass control, in mind, only tube amps with the tightest bass control will work as the speaker intends. The HL5 betters the M30 at quiet listening levels; the 30’s volume resolution threshold seemed a bit higher.
But ultimately, which of the two one prefers will hinge on what one expects a loudspeaker to do in one’s home. The Super HL5 is forgiving; it magically lets the music through without insisting on the peccadilloes of the recording process. The Monitor 30, like a monitor speaker should, reveals all the flaws of the recording. It’s like the famous scene in The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy finally meets the Wizard and is dazzled by his spectacular appearance, only to find out that the appearance is an illusion artificially created by a carnival refugee manipulating technological gadgets behind a curtain. The Super HL5 gives you the perspective of the illusion of the Great Oz, with glimpses behind the curtain if you want it. The Monitor 30’s viewpoint is that from behind the curtain laid over the Great Oz illusion. I personally find that the most satisfying components and speakers in the long run are those that maximize the illusion of music happening in my listening room: those that most believably re-create the timbre, timing, rhythm, phrasing, punctuation and expressiveness of the instruments playing. I know that most Rock recordings are flawed, artificial, and not very realistic. Knowing exactly how artificial is of limited interest. So, while I deeply admire and respect what the Monitor 30 can do, I simply love the Super HL5. I imagine most listeners will have a preference for one or the other type of presentation: Harbeth allows one to choose.
Transducer system: Vented 2-way monitor loudspeaker.
Frequency response: 50Hz – 20kHz ± 3dB free space, 1m with grille on, smooth off axis response
Impedance: 8 ohms
Amplifier suggestion: 25W+ Power handling 150W programme
Connector: Four 4mm gold-plated binding posts (biwireable)
Dimensions: (h x w x d) 460 x 277 x 285mm
Finish: Cherry, Eucalyptus, Tiger Ebony.
Weight: 13.4kg each
Packing: Single speaker per carton
Price: Cherry – $4299, Eucalyptus – $4395, Tiger Ebony $4599 per pair.
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