Harbeth’s Latest Masterpiece? – The Super HL5 Plus
By: Joe Kanaan
Why fix something that isn't broken? This is a question that can be universally transmitted and asked in many industries. It is a question that every hi-fi manufacturer should be asking themselves on a regular basis without concerns to increasing sales of a certain product or product range. It seems as though Alan Shaw questions himself with this regularly and it could explain why it has taken almost a decade and a half to bring out the seventh generation of the Super HL5 - turning into the Super HL5 Plus.
In Harbeth's newsletter for the Munich High-End Show, Alan explains how only recent technological advances have allowed him to rework the crossover and add the RADIAL2™ bass/midrange drive unit while retaining the best qualities from the last generation of the Super HL5, which so many people around the world love. So the question that begs to be asked is - Has Alan, and his team at Harbeth, been successful in creating another masterpiece?
The short answer is without a doubt, YES.
Before moving forward with this review I must explain that I have been a fan of Harbeth for many years. I have spent more time listening to Harbeth's range of speakers than any other speaker company I have come across. It was the sixth generation of the Super HL5 which started my love affair with this company. Then when I heard the Monitor 30.1, I was flabbergasted with awe at its ability to draw the listener into the music with its naturally smooth and detailed sound. There are plenty of reviews on Monitor 30.1; some claim that it is the best speaker Harbeth has produced and how it has set the standard in what a loudspeaker should be. And I agree with my fellow reviewers' high praise of the Monitor 30.1. With that being said, it is quite obvious that I had very high expectations as I set out to review the Super HL5 Plus.
Knowing the Harbeth's range of speakers as well as I do, I decided to review these speakers a bit differently than a traditional review might go. In my opinion, based off my experiences, Harbeth speakers will clearly represent to the listener the worth of the components that are used to make up your hi-fi system. With that in mind, instead of using multiple amplifiers (pre amps, power amps, and/or integrated amps) and multiple sources (CD players, turntables, and/or streamer/network players), I made the conscious choice of using one source, one pre amplifier/CD/DAC combination, and one power amplifier to assess the Super HL5 Plus.
The Quad Platinum DMP and Stereo power amplifier, having now been my reference system for last several months, has proven to hold true to what I have loved about Quad electronics for many years. The Quad sound, as I would describe it in brief is a neutral sound which is smooth and rich. Their signature sound has not been lost by any means in the Platinum range. In addition, the company's R&D team has out done themselves by ticking a few extra boxes which some have criticized the company for in the past. Without adding any colour to the sound they have been able to achieve a nice bit of attack and punch to the Platinum range that grabs and intrigues the listener to go through their music collection for hours.
As for my source, I chose to use a streamer/network player that I find to be one of the best value-for-money in regards to sound quality, Linn's Majik DS. Though the Majik DS has an excellent onboard DAC, I used the DS as digital transport into the Quad DMP's twin Cirrus Logic 24bit/192kHz Delta-Sigma D/A converters (via The Chord Company's Anthem Digital Tuned ARAY digital interconnect). My intent, which I believed worked, was to keep the sound from having too many "influences" allowing me to concentrate on how the SuperHL5 Plus speakers produce music.
As for speaker stands, I went with my favorite stands for Harbeth, the Something Solid XF Speaker Stands. In my opinion, these stands really let BBC styled thin walled cabinet speakers do what they are designed to do. The stands are made from solid metal rods and use short carbon fiber inserts as their four point contact with the bottom corners of the speaker. In essence, with minimal contact and made from material with little resonance, the speaker is virtually suspended in air - these stands do not have a top plate, the bottom of the speaker is free from contact other than the four corners. I have spent hours listening to thin walled speakers (from different manufacturers) using high quality top-plated stands and the Something Solid XF stands, and I without a doubt I prefer the latter.
My listening room is not perfect; it is about 600 centimeters by 400 centimeters with an inlet in one of the corners stretching the room out by 50 centimeters in both directions. Due the room acoustics, I found the system sounds best placed along the six meter wall. My head then rests about 239 centimeters from the front baffles of the speakers, with the speakers positioned 129.5 centimeters from the centre. The inner rear corner of the speakers was 15 centimeters from the wall, while the outer rear corner was 18 centimeters giving the speakers a slight toe-in. While my setup may not work for others, it definitely works best in my listening room. Some may find they work best further out from the rear wall, and/or positioned more or less on-axis. The Super HL5 Plus are not that finicky but taking the time to find what works best in your listening room will be well rewarded during your listening sessions.
Let me start off with saying that it was an absolute pleasure listening to the Super HL5 Plus speakers. They seem to just get everything right. Hearing Billie Holiday sing 'April in Paris' on Billie's Best (16bit/44.1kHz CD rip), gave me chills. The rhythmic beats of Aphrodite on his self-titled album Aphrodite (16bit/44.1kHz CD rip) made me want to get up and dance. It was as though I could hear the pain and anguish in Justin Vernon's voice during 'Skinny Love' from Bon Iver's debut album For Emma, Forever Ago (16bit/44.1kHz CD rip). No matter what I decided to listen to, the Super HL5 Plus speakers didn't seem to faultier.
Soundstaging can be a tricky thing to get right. If your source, amplification, and/or loudspeakers are not up to job, the soundstage can be greatly compromised. In order to achieve a good soundstage the system has to work as a whole and speaker placement can be crucial (as I mentioned earlier, taking the time to find the right speaker placement within your room will allow you to reap the benefits the Harbeth have on offer). 'Take Five' on Time Out by The David Brubeck Quartet (24bit/176kHz download), is a great track to see how well your system creates a soundstage. Joe Morello's drums start off the track predominantly on the left side and slightly to the back, giving the listener a distinct vision of his position. Then Brubeck enters on the piano taking over the right side of the soundstage while the drums continue to ever-so-gently bleed in that direction. Shortly after Paul Desmond enters centre stage with his alto saxophone along with Eugene Wright following suit on his double bass positioning him in the rear favoring the right side of the soundstage. It is a magnificent track to listen to through the Super HL5 Plus; they even let you hear the flexing of the skin on the kick-drum as Morello reaches the height of his solo. I couldn't stop my feet tapping, my head bobbing, and my face from smiling. As I write this review, I still don't know how many times I listened to this track, it had to be more than any other as I kept forgetting to listen analytically as the Harbeth/Quad/Linn combination disappeared bringing the quartet back to life right there in my listening room. Please do not get me wrong, I have heard other speakers, usually costing at least twice the price, that create a better soundstage with a bit more depth and width; but in regards to the cost-performance ratio the Super HL5 Plus are very transparent and hold their own against many of their competitors.
The dynamics the speakers produced were spot on with all the music I listened to. For a wide range of dynamic contrast, the Harbeth nailed it. From the soft subtleties of Dan Rieser's brush strokes on the drums in 'Don't Know Why' on Norah Jones' album Come Away With Me (24bit/192kHz download) to the dynamic impacts found throughout 'Time' on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (24bit/192kHz download), the speakers never seemed to struggle. If your current source/amplification can produce the dynamics your music selection has within it, the Super HL5 Plus speakers will happily play it.
The tonal balance of the Super HL5 Plus speakers is what you would expect from a true monitor. They are not bright or weighty. The new crossover has worked thanks to Alan Shaw's patience and persistence. Colouration does not seem to exist in any of the frequency ranges that my ears could hear. I don't have access to testing equipment like the big review magazines to check if my ears perceived things correctly. But nonetheless, even if the tests show different results, my ears are, and will continue to be, the final decision maker in liking or disliking a hi-fi product.
As mentioned before, Alan Shaw has decided to keep the same tweeters used in the sixth generation Super HL5 on the new Plus version - a 25mm SEAS aluminum tweeter and a 20mm SEAS titanium super-tweeter. When I found this out (and then when I finally listened to the speakers) I was delighted. The sparkle, airiness, and control I heard in the previous version were nothing short of wonderful. One of my acid tests for hearing how well a speaker handles high frequencies is from the 24bit/192kHz download of Norah Jones' album Come Away With Me. The highs that Jones reaches during ‘Don’t Know Why’ challenge many speakers to control her voice's frequency spikes. This is only on the 24bit/192kHz version, not the CD version. So how did the Super HL5 Plus handle it? They performed magnificently. Her voice never sounded compressed nor did it reach a level of ear bleeding proportions, it sounded alive with plenty of air around it. There was not a hint of graininess in her voice as it fluctuated through different octaves. She just sounded right. Another acid test for most of us is how well the tweeter(s) handle the reproduction of cymbals. Adam Topol's cymbal and hi-hat work throughout 'Rodeo Clowns' on Jack Johnson's album On and On (16bit/44.1kHz CD rip), isn't exceptionally difficult for a good percussionist, it is just done very well. Topol's cymbals did not splash across the soundstage; they were precise and integrated well. Again, this is also true for Joe Morello's cymbal work in 'Take Five' where each strike was clear and accurate, without any loss of the cymbals' texture, pitch, or delicate nature. I could almost reach out and touch Topol and Morello. With the exceptional high frequency reproduction coming from the previous model, Shaw must have spent many hours incorporating the new 200mm RADIAL2™ drive unit, as the midrange (and bass) seems to work together beautifully.
When we, people in the hi-fi industry, talk about how the sound of speakers can intrigue and invite the listener in, we are generally speaking/writing about its ability to produce accurate and lifelike midrange frequencies. It is widely understood that most of the sounds of "everyday life" are produced in the midrange. Our ears are most often tuned to hear slight variations within this range. Most of the timbre from musical instruments and voices falls within this frequency range, providing most of the "energy" we perceive in our musical selections. For these reasons, it is highly important for speaker manufacturers to get their products to reproduce these frequencies the best they can, as colourations within the midrange can deter people from buying their products without regard to how well the bass and treble sound. Lucky for us, Shaw has taken what he has learned over the years, in regards to the reproduction of midrange, and is producing speakers in the likes of the Monitor 40.1, the Monitor 30.1, and now the Super HL5 Plus.
The midrange on these speakers is so good that listening to Bon Iver's 'Skinny Love' I was transported back to my university days sitting in a smoky coffee shop while anguishing over lost love on open-mic night. A man, wearing his heart on his sleeve, steps up to the open mic and begins to play. The Harbeth give his voice life and allow me to hear the layering of the different tracks Vernon used to produce this song. His soul cries out as he plays an acoustic guitar, not as well as some but with more passion than most; the texture in his voices reveals the pain and sorrow he must have felt, pulling me into his world while his guitar gently weeps alongside us. There is more going on than just him and his guitar but those aspects of the song have always jumped out at me since I first heard it. The Super HL5 Plus produce wonderful midrange full of energy that begs the listener to keep playing album after album of their favorite artist and invites them to try new genres of music and artists they never thought to listen to before.
While my love affair with Harbeth speakers started with the last incarnation of the Super HL5, I could not help but notice how the presentation of the bass frequencies lacked the beauty the rest of the frequency range had. I always felt that the bass was a bit wooly - I'll even go out on a limb (and I know I might offend some that have the sixth generation of the Super HL5) and write that I considered to the bass response to be on the verge of being slow and a bit on the warm side. But I was happy to overlook it with the rest of the Super HL5's positive attributes. So how does the Plus version compare to the older model? I can happily report that everything I found at fault with the bass has been resolved with the addition of the RADIAL2™ drive unit. From my understanding Harbeth has also made changes to the dampening material used within the cabinet and have made minor alterations of the flow port, which seem to have made a world of difference in its production of bass frequencies.
'Rodeo Clowns' by Jack Johnson is a great example of how bass, when not reproduced correctly, can turn a nice rhythmic song into sounding muddy, slow, and boomy. Merlo Podlewski plays good bass guitar in 'Rodeo Clowns', it is not exceptionally difficult (not that I could play it as well as him), he just does a good job at keeping it real. However, the bass can be a bit overwhelming on systems and loudspeakers that cannot articulate the timbre of the bass guitar and/or do not have enough punch to them to keep bass frequencies from lagging behind. With the Harbeth/Quad/Linn combination Podlewski comes into 'Rodeo Clowns’ sounding as he should. There isn't any added bass frequencies brought on by the Harbeth, instead the bass drum and the bass guitar work seamlessly together adding to the musicality of the song, not taking away from it by being overbearing and un-articulate. My acid test for bass has, for some time now, been 'Cross Channel' by Aphrodite on his self-titled album Aphrodite. This is a challenging song for many systems. Most systems I have listened to get one or two aspects of the song right and leave the rest to be sought after. Now, I know most of my fellow reviewers will criticise me for even mentioning such a track in a review of a monitor speaker, maybe thinking that this type of music should be left to those who believe more is better in regards to bass reproduction. Well, if this is the case, my generation is lost on you, and we as an industry will lose out on it. But for those of you who can appreciate electronica (jungle, drum and bass, techno, etc.), the Super HL5 Plus speakers simply love it. Though these speakers go low, they do have their limitations, but none that will be noticed when you’re out of your seat dancing around and feeling the bass rip through you as fast and as detailed as I have ever heard it through monitor speakers of this size. Even playing at excessively loud levels (levels only heard during house parties and the raves of old), the Harbeth never get congested or lose their ability to keep pace. It is a hard feat and something I applaud these speakers for.
To conclude, these do everything right for me and my ears. They work well with the electronics that I like to listen to. I would happily have these in my house as my reference speakers. Starting at £3,279 for the cherry finish (adding £100 for Eucalyptus, £200 for Rosewood or Tiger Ebony finishes), these speakers are not exactly pocket change but I can write without a doubt that they are worth every penny and then some. The Super HL5 Plus has outperformed speakers I have listened too which are listed at two to three times their price. For many of us, myself included, I will have to save for a year or two, as I have done in the past for all my hi-fi purchases, to be able to afford these speakers and I will do so with a smile on my face knowing what awaits me.
Too many times in the past I have been on the other side of the review, as a reader researching future products I considered buying. Many reviews are positive (like the one you just read), but when I finally listened to the reviewed product, I found myself disappointed as my ears did not agree with the reviewers' findings. I cannot stress this enough, everyone’s' ears are different; this is why there are so many different hi-fi manufacturers out there. A prefect set of loudspeakers for me may not be for you. Again, this is why it is important for anyone who is considering purchasing speakers, amplification, and/or a source component to listen to them first when possible (or purchase from a trusted online retailer who has a good return policy).
To conclude, I would like to reiterate that these speakers have been a favorite of mine for many years. I am weary when manufacturers attempt to improve a product that so many people love. Too often than not, updated products usually lose the glamour that made them attractive to begin with. And I will not deny it, some people out there will say that the new Super HL5 Plus have done just that. However, I beg to differ. I think Alan Shaw and his team at Harbeth have out done themselves with these speakers. They have taken all the great aspect from the previous model and improved upon where it was lacking. I highly recommend that you audition these speakers - I have a feeling you will be pleasantly surprised at what you hear.
A side note
Since I started this review I’ve had a chance to listen to the Super HL5 Plus with Naim's Nait 5si and CD5si. These are Naim's entry level integrated amplifier and CD player both around the £1,000 mark (less expensive than my Quad kit, which comes in at about £2,500 a box). The Naim never sounded so good to me; the Harbeth let them present everything they had to offer. Did it sound as good as my Quad/Linn combination? No, but you wouldn't expect it to when it each box is more than twice its price. This just proves that the Harbeth work well with a wide range of amplification.
If you are interested in hearing these speakers yourself, or have any questions regarding them, please feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org
Transducer system: 3-way reflex 200mm RADIAL2 bass/mid, 25mm tweeter, and 20mm Super Tweeter
Frequency response: 40Hz - 24kHz +/-3dB, free space, 1m with grille on, smooth off-axis response
Impedance: 6 ohms easy to drive
Amplification Suggestion: Works with a wide range of amplifiers, ideally from 25W/channel
Power handling: 150W programme
Connector: Four 4mm gold-plated binding posts for wires or plugs (biwireable)
Dimensions (HxWxD): 635 x 322 x 300mm (+12mm for grille and binding posts)
Finish: Cherry, tiger ebony, eucalyptus, rosewood
Space needs: Overall response optimised for use away from walls
Stands: To bring ears level with tweeters: typically 16-20 inches
Weight: 15.8kg each, unpacked
Packaging: Single speaker per protective carton
Pre-Amp/CD/DAC - Quad Platinum DMP (SRP = £2,499)
Power Amplifier - Quad Platinum Stereo (SRP = £2,499)
Source - Linn Majik DS (SRP = £1,880)
Speaker Cable – The Chord Company Signature Reference (SRP = £200 per meter terminated)
Analog Interconnects: The Chord Company Cadenza Reference XLR (SRP from £272.50)
Digital Interconnect: The Chord Company Anthem Digital Tuned ARAY (SRP from £230)
Speaker Stands: Something Solid XF (SRP = £250)
All prices correct at time of publishing, these are subject to change.