At RMAF 2010 in Denver I found myself at one point sitting quietly in front of a system that seemed to offer a respite from the hustle, bustle and excessive volume of many rooms. The music was a gentle chamber recording, the details of which have faded, but the memory of my enjoyment has not. At that precise moment I found myself staring at the small enclosure of one Harbeth P3ESR and wondering how something so small could sound so good, and not just good but right. Indeed, I was still thinking there has to be a trick here, some use of subwoofers or perhaps other larger speakers were really playing, when the music stopped and the organizer switched the diminutive Harbeths out for their larger HL5 model. As I blogged at the time, the 5s were good but I was still relishing the sonics of the P3s which had wowed me so much that I left the room shortly after to contemplate just what I had heard. Since then, the diminutive Harbeths have been on my mind and when Walter at Fidelis offered them as an accompaniment to the Audiant 80i I was reviewing, I jumped at the chance to have a listen in my own home.
Unless you’re a complete newcomer to hi-end audio you probably know something about Harbeth speakers since they’ve garnered numerous positive reviews across the globe – and for good reason. Seen as a speaker design that proffers accuracy for serious audio production, the company’s legacy includes several legendary designs that stretch back to the design of monitors for the BBC, and from which engineer Dudley Harwood emerged to found the company 35 years ago (the Harbeth name representing a partial joining of his surname with his wife’s name Beth). Even if you don’t know the history, you probably have seen the speakers in the audiophile press and raised your eyebrows at the seemingly high cost of these small speakers. Well, take a good listen to the Harbeth P3ESR (hereafter, the P3s) and you might find your eyebrows remaining quite level as a result.
By far the smallest speakers I’ve had in my home in decades, the fit and finish of the P3 is beyond reproach. Cabinetry is solid and elegant, even as the very design of all Harbeth speakers is the use of comparatively thin panels with controlled resonances. The speaker terminals are polished, reassuringly solid under your fingers, and secure. The covers fit so snugly to the front that you might even struggle to remove them at first but when you do you witness to attention to form and function that goes into their manufacture, with a ¼” all-around edge perfectly capturing the front baffle in a seamless grip. Housing a 5” radial bass/mid driver (the “R” in the P3ESR name and built in-house) and 0.75” tweeter, the speaker exudes a kind of old-fashioned elegance that speaks of timeless quality. There is likely a real pride of ownership here, but it is one that is far from the typical, high-visibility, space-intruding form of many speakers. Instead, a visual and indeed hands-on inspection of the P3s give you a sense of refinement, a sense that is enhanced as soon as you hear them in action.
Set up and Listening
In use, I put the Harbeths mainly in my second system, feeding it music from CDs, Mac laptop and even Sony HD tuner through two amps in particular, the Audiant 80i (see review in Sept 2011 issue) and my Naim Nait 2. While there is no doubt the Audiant is a stronger and more capable amp than the old Naim, I ended up loving the Harbeth/Naim combo, especially when playing CD in a Wywires cabled small system. The Harbeths have to be lifted off the floor or desk (if that’s where you use them) and in my rig that involved placing them on 28” QED Tristands, with the speakers 6 feet apart and about 29” from the walls behind them (measured to back of the cabinet). Sitting slightly closer than 6 feet between them in an 18’ x 15’ x 8′ room gave me a wonderful sense of space and depth to the soundstage, with slight toe-in adjustments tweaking the imaging to perfection.
It is difficult to sum up what the P3ESR can do in typical audiophile terms because in a way (to put it most simply) they offer the cleanest window onto the music that I have had the pleasure of ever hearing from a small speaker. I have owned a pair of Kef 103/2s for over 20 years, and while these are good speakers which continue to give me excellent service, they just end up sounding dull in comparison to the P3s. The Harbeths sparkle with detail without ever being etched, and deliver instrumental timbre in a way that just says ‘sit here and listen’. The largest compliment I can give these little beauties is that they encourage you to stop what you are doing so as to listen to music. Now let me be clear on this point as it is fundamental. These are not speakers which capture your attention with details or with phenomenal bass, nor do they lend themselves to checking out the sound effects you can hear in the recording. Fun as that type of experience can be in the short-term, the P3ESR don’t call out to you in that manner. Instead, they invite you into a world where the performance is close and personal, where your connection to the musicians you are hearing is almost intimate, as if the music is being played right there in front of you, and it would be rude to interrupt.
You can certainly pull apart the usual reference points for speakers and examine the frequency extension, dynamics, resolution and soundstaging of the Harbeths, and I don’t think you would be disappointed by any one of these. Every review of the P3s I’ve read speaks of the wonders of the Harbeth mid-range and with good reason, these speakers reproduce the main body of pianos, human vocals, and stringed instruments wonderfully and realistically. With reference recordings such as the Tord Gustavsen Trio’s “Being There,” I revelled in the sheer communicative power of the P3s to capture the group and give you all the details, the interplay, the attack and fade of the piano, cymbals and bass, in a palpable space before my eyes.
Unlike some listeners, I also find the bass reproduction of the speakers to be more than acceptable. No, they do not give me power and punch of rock as delivered on my reference Von Schweikert VR5s but they can deliver rock in a manner that will have you buzzing with the beat, and they present enough of the orchestra to feel the swell of the music rise up before you where, as needed, the punch of the percussion can be felt and heard. As a vehicle for music, these little speakers are truly genre-neutral, despite the impression some might have that they favor small scale acoustic instruments and groups. Yes, they do sound marvellous with chamber, cello or acoustic jazz but they can do so much more too. The excellent remastered package of Rainbow’s 1976 classic Rising has been taking me back in time for the last couple of months and I had no problem getting down with the Harbeths pumping it out. Davey Spillane’s pipes and accompanying bodhran from Atlantic Bridge were as good to listen to with these speakers as Charles Brown’s crooning vocals and laid back grooves on These Blues. If you really need more down below, then I am sure a sub-woofer will get you there, but once I started listening through the P3ESRs I found myself more than satisfied every time and never feeling short-changed or in need of extra punch. I cannot help but think listeners who want much more are being too influenced by the size of the speaker. Just close your eyes when you listen to these before you tell me they are too bass-shy, I suspect your ears will surprise you.
What is really engaging with these speakers is their spectacular soundstaging, especially in relatively nearfield listening. Once set up, the Harbeths threw instruments outside the cabinets with ease, and on some recordings provided a truly holographic sonic picture of the musicians. I’ve never been one who heard much by way of front-to-back depth in my soundstage on typical recordings, no matter where I sat or what speakers I used but remarkably, if any speaker can give you that dimensional depth cleanly the P3s seem to be able to deliver, especially when listened too in this type of nearfield set-up. On top of this, left-to-right distinctions are marvellously realistic, with central players or singers occupying space totally free of the speaker cabinet. Moreover, this sonic picture is not difficult to obtain, the speakers seem remarkably unfussy in many ways and once you have basic symmetry down, they do the rest. It’s likely that really obsessing with placement and in-room acoustics could return even greater rewards but to normal owners, the ease of placement these speakers provide is an added-bonus.
Over many a long summer’s evening I found myself sitting in the spare bedroom with the Harbeths making sweet music. The virtues of small systems are greatly under appreciated I feel, and while large, powerfully amplified floorstanders have the ability to truly wrap the music around you, the idea of building a system that is appropriate to the size of your listening environment is sorely in need of greater advocacy. In most normal domestic environments I am convinced the P3s can deliver the sonics that will keep most audiophiles not only satisfied but engaged. For those who really listen, I suspect the P3s will enrapture you. Yes, they are that good.
What about space and power?
OK, since I had them, I had to try the speakers in my main rig, driven by a pair of Spectron monoblocks in my 26’ x18’ listening room. Obviously needing some help with the physics of bass delivery, I placed them just under 34” from the wall behind them and sat there delighted with the results. These tiny speakers offered room filling sound that clearly benefited from the improved upstream electronics (PS Audio PWT/PWD combo, SMcAudio VRE-1 preamp and Spectron Monoblocks), revealing detail, timbre and resolution up there with the best I’ve heard. For those who tell you that these little monitors do not deliver bass below a certain frequency I say stop listening to Hertz and start listening to music. Surely they lack the articulation and sense of space of my VR5SEs in the lower regions but the P3s can give you discernible bass and even on hard rock, the type of bass that allows the sound to seem balanced, not light.
For the final two weeks of the review period I left the Harbeths in my main rig and amazed people again and again when they heard music. It is no exaggeration to say that more than one person had to be walked over to the Harbeths to convince them that this is where the sound was coming from, not the nearby VR5s. OK, that’s something of a parlor trick, perhaps, but my point is that the P3s gave a sufficiently full, high quality sound in my main room that could not be quickly discerned as limited by size. Indeed, more than once my wife and I sat there and just looked at each other in surprise as the speakers delivered old favorites with a quality that seemed in keeping with the expensive gear driving them. All the old reference recordings got a spin, from Ronnie Earl and Pat Metheny to Holly Cole and Janus Starker, but with new music constantly coming into my house we gave first listens to Nikki Yannofsky and a remastered Ella Fitzgerald, the second album from Black Country Communion and some vinyl rescues from a local used store, never once thinking we were listening to a compromised set-up. Not bad for a speaker that retails at one-tenth the price of my reference pair.
This experience of the P3s in my reference set up gave me pause and clarified for me something very important about choice of speaker. If pushed, I’d say the most audible difference between these speakers is not in the reproduction of bass as much as the reproduction of space. The little Harbeths, in a larger room, tend to push the envelope of sound at you, creating a smaller bubble that you have to move into to gain the most music. The larger Vons just wrap around you more effortlessly, capturing you within their particular space without your effort. I have no real way to describe this effect more other than that, it’s a sonic bubble that comes with proportion and scale. When selecting a speaker, think more about this scale and how it works in your space than worrying about frequency extension or published specs and I think you’ll make a better decision for your long-term enjoyment.
If someone told me now that I had $2k to spend on speakers and I would have to live with my choice for years without chance of exchange, I’d buy these Harbeths on the spot. I would not even bother second-guessing my decision by checking what else was out there at the price. These speakers are that good. For sure I might want to think about stands, possible amps, good cable matches etc – but that would be true of any speaker purchase I made. The quality of this product, their particular combination of construction quality with great sound, speaks to me in a manner that few products ever do. In fact, if I owned a pair of these, I don’t think I’d ever consider selling them, they just sound like music. Like a quality musical instrument, there is a pride of ownership here that transcends mere product categories. This speaker is the nearest thing to an heirloom that many of us will ever be able to acquire in our audio ventures. There is something ineffably right about these speakers and once you hear them make music, there is little more that needs to be said. Expensive for its size? Maybe. A great value? I think so. Something special? Undoubtedly. If this hobby is really all about the music, then buy a pair of these, get into their sonic space and relax, you are in the right place.
- Sources: Digital-PS Audio PWT/PWD digital front end combo, or Denon 2900 into Parasound DAC 2000, Analog-SME 20/2 w/ SME309 arm, Benz Wood Body SL catridge, Whest 3.0 phono stage
- Preamp: SMcAudio VRE-1
- Power amps: Spectron Musician III Mk 2 bridged monos
- Integrated amps: Naim Nait 2, Perreaux Audiant 80i
- Speakers: Von Schweikert VR5SE,
- Cables: Elrod custom made, home made 14awg, Spitz Anti-Cables, WyWires speaker cables