The Harbeth Monitor 40
If time-tested tradition is important to you, the Harbeth M-40 will have a leg up right from the start. It is largely an improved descendent of the BBC LS 5/8 and, more so, the Spendor BC-3 dating from the mid 1970’s. Well in the grand tradition, and veddy British.
It should be mentioned up front that the M-40’s have been replaced by the M-40.1. According to Harbeth, the change was necessitated not so much by any pressing need to improve the speaker, but by the original woofer being discontinued. At the same time, the midbass was tamed a bit, to make the speaker a bit more friendly to typical domestic rooms and the midrange driver changed to the newer Radial2 material, which should also be an improvement (in theory). I haven’t heard the new version, but according to word on the street, it’s better but not wildly different. So assume the new version is somewhat better than my review indicates.
These are relatively large stand-mount speakers and are not of a style that is currently in fashion, being wide and chunky. I like their purposeful look, but many may not. At any rate, the wide baffle is integral to their performance. All and all, a well thought out design where form follows function.
No discussion of Harbeth would be complete with out a discussion of Radial material and owner Alan Shaw. The Radial material is their trump card. Developed by Harbeth, its successor (Radial2 material) is employed as cone material in all their current speakers, as the midrange driver of the M-40.1 and the woofers of the rest of their line. It is well suited to the purpose. It has low coloration compared to most of the plastic and paper woofer/midranges generally found in contemporary speakers and its only current competition as a low coloration cone material may come from some of the recent high-tech sandwich cone materials now available.
It’s pretty apparent that Alan Shaw is the main auteur of the Harbeth designs, being responsible for the design and voicing of the line. Actually, he might object to the term voicing, since his goal is a speaker largely without “voice”, one that substantively reproduces the signal applied to its terminals. He has succeeded to a great degree and I suspect what you will hear is his personal philosophy on how music should best be reproduced.
These are relatively large stand-mount speakers and are not of a style that is currently in fashion, being wide and chunky. I like their purposeful look, but many may not. At any rate, the wide baffle is integral to their performance. This is a well thought out design.
There performance is from the general “reproduce the recording” school. You won’t find the expansive images or enhanced sense of image height that planars provide (or some of their coloration, either). You will get the sense that what you are hearing is generally what is on the recording, but with some alterations relating to how recordings tend to be made and the characteristics of real-world rooms.
Most of these deviations are intentional. The transition from the midrange to the treble tilts down a bit, not a bad choice considering that most recordings are made up close and can easily become bright sounding. And the midbass to bass transition has a bit extra, again not unreasonable considering the effects of floor bounce (but see my article “John Dunlavy and the Room” for more on this). In many rooms, depending on your point of view, this may result in a pleasing sense of warmth or a bit of a plodding bass (I come down on the side of the warmth, myself).
There are also some unintentional things, mainly a bit of congestion from the cabinet. As well tuned as its “lossy design” is, its effect can be heard as added thickness on some instruments and male voice. But I think it’s not severe and can be safely filed under the category “nothing’s perfect”. Many other speakers have cabinets with effects much worse and further up in frequency where those effects are more noticeable.
Listening to a few of the Mercury Living Presence series recordings, the somewhat forgiving top end of these speakers did not invite them to produce ear-biting strings. The Merc’s treble emphasis is less in evidence on the Decca/Fruhbeck de Burgos Albeniz Suite Espanola. In either case, the imaging was good if somewhat limited in height and depth and the tonality quite fine.
The vocals on the SACD of Beck’s “Sea Changes” track “Already Dead” were commendably smooth and the guitars tracked in both channels rang out convincingly if with out the very last word in transient attack. Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” also came through beautifully but, in my view, suffered somewhat from the smaller soundstage that the M-40’s (and, to be fair, most other cone/dome/box speakers) produce. Here a planar can produce a more etherial sound that, to me, is more appropriate to this atmospheric piece.
As associated equipment, I used the Lectron JH-50 (tube) and the Electrocompaniet Ampliwire (SS) amplifiers and the Motif MC-8 as preamp. For vinyl playback, the Goldmund Studio TT with Well Tempered Arm and Clearaudio Goldmund cartridge was employed. The Ampliwire usefully controlled the bass better, but the JH-50 sounded a bit better overall with a bit more flow and beauty. But overall, both circa 50 watt amps handled the speaker well and the difference in amps was more a difference in “seasoning” rather than any fundamental difference. I suspect that the M-40 would respond to even better amps in kind.
Of course, the Harbeths M-40’s were not cheap and the new 40.1’s are now priced at almost $13,000 (and require stands). But in my view, these are one of the best speakers that espouse their philosophy of music reproduction and one of my personal favorites (For whatever THAT’S worth…). They are what I call an “accountant audiophile” type of speaker, taking only a few liberties and producing a sober, predictable sound that, while it may not completely spark the imagination in the short-term, provides much of the inherent beauty of music in the long.