REVIEW: Harbeth P3ESR Loudspeakers
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Harbeth a harbinger of Spring
Spring, the poets say, is the season of forgetfulness. And indolence too.
Which is why a month after delivery I hadn’t been able to write a word about the junior Harbeth speakers now playing melodiously in my listening room.
Or indeed any of the other half a dozen components stored around casa Familari patiently waiting for their review cue.
Leaving aside the hundreds of distracting trifles that make up the sum of life, it’s not that I haven’t listened to the Harbeth. Far from it.
In use since they were delivered, the wee Harbeth P3ESR loudspeakers are dwarfed but not diminished, alongside a pair of wicked Wilson Sasha speakers. Leaving aside their compact dimensions, their ability to allow the music to be never less than enjoyable was so balanced and tonally so
beguiling, I had no urge to listen to the larger speakers.
Well-sorted compact monitors are audibly satisfying. The best of the breed (and there are many) have an alluring quality. They “vanish” in most listening rooms thanks to a thoughtfully crafted balanced sound, decent levels of transparency, and a deep and wide soundstage.
Accompanying these positive traits, addictive rhythm and timing and a responsive speed to macro and micro dynamics usually unrivalled by many much larger speakers. Proof positive of this blinding responsive speed is as close as a pair of ProAc Response One S or SCs.
The clincher for many potential buyers is the ability of compact monitors to work beautifully, all things being equal, in small to medium sized listening/living rooms.
The originally scheduled review speakers were to be the very large, much more expensive Harbeth 40.2 Monitor Speakers. My suggestion of replacing the 40.2s with the entry level Harbeth more suited to this listening space met with complete approval from all those involved.
Not surprising, given the P3ESR has a legendary reputation as a compact monitor with the ability to (A) sound larger than it is and, (B) capable of eliciting a sound so balanced in small to medium sized rooms, listeners are left feeling the performance is completely satisfying.
If all this nudges long harboured memories of the first of the legendary compact monitors, the LS35/A, you’d be right on the money. And the reason why a pair of Rogers 65th anniversary LS35/A was the model chosen to A/B against the Harbeth offering.
I’ve owned many pairs of original LS35/As over the years. I bought a pair of the 65th Anniversary model for three reasons: the uneven sound quality of the originals; their current sky-high selling prices; and finally because the current LS35/A equals the sound of the better older models and adds a touch more neutrality in the vital mids, plays a tad louder, has a faster dynamic response and arguably has a trifle more extended frequency response.
These speakers matched to synergistic electronics never fail to disappoint as a reviewer’s tool or for listening pleasure. They’re not perfect and with unsympathetic ancillary components can sound testy in the treble and ragged through the midrange. Get ‘em right and they’ll provide a see-through sound stage, satisfying scale and a midrange that has few peers.
Build quality is superb but the styling is utilitarian. The current LS35/A screams BBC OB vans and outside broadcasts. The Harbeth in comparison is simply beautiful in a classical speaker kind of way. Whether playing or standing silently in a listening room, the beautifully finished cabinets highlighted by screws on the front baffle and the rear of the cabinet combine to evoke the craftsman’s workshop where he plies his trade with a wooden plane and brushes aside shavings by hand.
The P3ESR is available in Cheery, Black Ash, Eucalyptus/Maple or Rosewood finish with prices of $3290, $3290, $3390 and $3490 respectively. Even with the upwards pressure on manufacturing and import prices, these compact Harbeths are well priced and without spoiling the conclusion of this review, once they start singing in your room they may even be considered something of an audio bargain.
Harbeth designer, Alan Shaw (read our StereoNET exclusive interview here) undoubtedly sees the Harbeth as continuing and extending the linage of the LS35/A and that speaker’s cultural connection with the anonymous BBC engineers of that era who beavered away chasing audio’s holy grail. Engineers who influenced the greats of UK loudspeaker design. And they are the link between Spencer Hughes, Jim Rogers, Raymond Cooke and Alan Shaw.
Shaw acknowledges this rich and illustrious heritage. He always intended the PS3SR as extending the sonic virtues of its predecessor, the HL-P3. The latter a speaker Shaw developed to surpass the original LS35/A. In my opinion Harbeth’s greatness, and it’s unarguably a wonderful speaker brand, harks back to Alan Shaw imbibing the innovative spirit impelling those BBC engineers and that horde of talented British designers they influenced, to produce models now deemed audio classics.
The other spinoff worth noting as you approach the compact Harbeth P3ESR, is all those designers excelled at producing compact 2 and 3-way monitors whose hallmark was a compelling, lifelike, vivacious midband frequency presented with a tonal naturalness that still sets the pulse racing today.
Sadly limitations of cone material ensured those truly illustrious speaker classics of the 60’s and 70’s had a limited working dynamic response and a less than ideal bass. Think Spendor SA1 and BC1, Rogers LS5/9 and JR149 and KEF 104. Speakers of this era were laggardly and dawdled.
But we forgave them this sin of omission, since they were truly blessed with a range of performative qualities that brought music to life in our living rooms. It’s also worth noting Alan Shaw is a loudspeaker cone material, master innovator.
If “working dynamic range’’ sets you reaching for an audio dictionary allow me to steer you towards UK reviewer Jimmy Hughes. Even after pondering over the technical specs detailing dynamic range of a loudspeaker under review, Hughes couldn’t correlate what he was hearing with that speaker’s published specifications.
To account for the disparity, Hughes coined the description ‘’working dynamic range’’. I encountered a variation of that anomaly over several decades. So to find a term to describe the responsive speed (or not) of a component when reproducing macro and micro dynamics I came up with the descriptive phrase “working dynamic response’’.
Working dynamic response can be regarded as a non-negotiable underpinning for a component’s rhythm and timing capabilities. You can’t have one without the other, but working dynamic response is crucial to the sum of the whole.
Using that phrase I believe for example, the 65th Anniversary LS35/A to have a noticeably superior working dynamic response than the older LS35/As, and the Harbeth P3ESR is no slouch either. Both, in this respect are superior again as an example to another fine loudspeaker, KEF’s LS50. Both Rogers and Harbeth are commendably responsive. Neither is as fast as say, the ProAc Response 1 SC or many other modern quality mini-monitors. But both have alluring rhythmic qualities the envy of many much more expensive loudspeakers.
One of the veterans of the Australian HiFi industry, if there's a speaker he's likely heard it or owned it at some point in his career. Peter was formerly the audio-video editor of the Herald Sun for over two decades.
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