REVIEW: Harbeth P3ESR Loudspeakers
Moving from the tortured drama of Amused to Death to the spiritual ethos that gave birth to Astral Weeks is like leaving a boxing ring to enter a Buddhist temple.
The opening cadence of Ballerina played through the Harbeths transported my entire listening room to another plane.
As the cadence repeats along with the percussion, the guitar chords seem to sprinkle Morrison’s grating voice with high frequency bursts of sunlight. Yin and Yang working together throughout the entire track.
The Harbeths preserved the tracks insistent intensity that was punctuated only by the rise and fall of the music’s tempo. An example of working dynamic response to savour for the long haul. The effect via the Harbeths was as mesmerizing as hearing Ravel’s Bolero.
Played through the Rogers, the same track was as mesmerizing, but for different reasons. The Rogers are faster, with sharper imagery; subjectively more treble detail but lacking the Harbeth’s tonal naturalness and sense of scale.
Moving on to the Vegh’s version of Beethoven’s later string quartets proved to be the highlight of this review session. Playing the slow prayerlike movement of Opus 132 through the Harbeths and later the Rogers, was a revelatory experience. I remember thinking at the time, (as my review notes confirm) that analogue is still the arbiter of excellence in audio and that a musical experience like this, is the reason why most of us embark on our audio odyssey.
Differences there were to be sure between both speakers. The Rogers preserved the leading edge of notes so they emerged with all their rawness. The Harbeths ever so slightly smoothed them over. The Rogers seemed to go higher in the treble but the Harbeths plumbed deeper. And where
the Rogers leaner tonal balance drew attention to the speakers, the Harbeths were self-effacing, never intruding into this sublime composition.
DeYarmond Edison was a forerunner to Justin Vernon’s group called Bon Iver. ‘Silent Signs’ is the opening track of the album of the same name featuring electric and upright bass, acoustic guitar, resonator mandolin, vocals and harmonica.
The track highlights if a system surgically pries apart all the musical strands or weaves them together into a harmonic whole. It also demands gear with real transient ability and the harmonica is so brash any anomalies in the treble and upper midrange will intrude as harshness.
The Harbeths didn’t exhibit the slightest inkling to do anything other than present an organically composite view of the music. They also allow the listener to reach in and focus on minute detail at will. And yes, the harmonica sounded raw because it was meant to as a counterpoint to Vernon’s emotive vocals.
The Rogers also kept the music together so it emerged holistically the way it was intended, andwith all the performers playing in consort. The harmonica riff was spotlighted. The abrasive edge not present with the Harbeths pointing to the limited range of solid-state amplifiers that will
work satisfyingly with the Rogers.
‘Biscuits’, the opening tracks of the Fink album, Wheels turn Beneath My Feet, showed the limitations of the Harbeths and the Rogers, but by implication all compact speakers, really.
Recorded live and closely miked, Biscuits has a cavernous soundstage, tsunami like dynamic ebbs and flows and all underpinned by subterranean amounts of taut bass.
Neither speaker coped well. The sense of scale and soundstage height, width and depth simply failed to invite the musical imagination to suspend belief.
Both speakers struggled to preserve the dynamic swings and shifts of the music that simply asked more of those small mid/bass woofers than they could deliver. Ditto for bass frequencies.
Biscuits is memorable thanks to Todd Finks vocals that evoke pain, joy and cynicism meshed together. The Harbeth’s and the Roger’s glorious midrange performance proved to be almost uncannily real, placing Fink in the centre of the listening room seemingly with the microphone in
Both compact monitors also struggled with the scale of track 4, ‘Knowing You Are In This World’, from the album, You Are Everything, a recording with almost larger than life soundstage and staggering bottom end frequencies.
What rescues both Rogers and Harbeths is their magical midrange. Played at realistic sound levels, Steve Kilby’s voice had a naturalness and immediacy that more than compensated for the lack of realistic scale and bottom end clout. Given a choice between floor shaking bass, real
life soundstage and midrange transparency, I’ll take the latter every time.
Drawing conclusions about two loudspeakers that are classics of their genre comes down to system synergy. Match them with sympathetic gear and either is a long-term keeper.
My summation as to which is better has to be preceded by the question: who is the buyer?
The Rogers are an audiophile’s delight, quick to respond to changes in cables or components. They’re also harder to get sounding on song with a limited range of solidstate amplifiers presenting themselves as natural partners.
With a tonal balance on the lean side of neutral, partnering the Rogers with a bright sounding amplifier is simply inviting large amounts of pain and frustration. And while the LS35/A’s tweeter has arguably a wee more detail than the Harbeths, it’s also easier to elicit brashness particularly around 7kHz if ancillary gear isn’t a spot on match. Without equivocating, in my opinion the Rogers 65th Anniversary LS35/A will take an audiophile further than I think the Harbeth will, if you expend the time and money to surround them with cables and components chosen with the utmost care. But they are $1000 cheaper than the Harbeths; a speaker that is clearly more beautifully styled and crafted.
The Harbeths, make no mistake, have a level of neutrality and transparency that would satisfy most audiophiles.
Moreover, they have a tonal balance that is audibly more natural than that of the Rogers. Their slightly warmer presentation and greater smoothness significantly in the treble, suggest the Harbeths are an easier speaker to live with and deservedly will attract a wider audience.
Harbeth is distributed in Australia by Audio Magic.
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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