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Harbeth P3ESR SE standmount loudspeaker review

  • If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.

    A change is as good as a rest.

    Many hands make light work.

    Too many cooks spoil the broth.

    Conventional wisdom is chock full of contradictions.  So, who – or what – to believe?

    Never meet your heroes – they’ll only disappoint.  That’s what conventional wisdom tell us.  The Harbeth P3ESR is a standmount loudpseaker that (almost) never comes up for sale on the second market down under.  One that – on the basis of prior Harbeth exposure – I had begun to fete from afar.  I’d never heard a pair of Harbeths I didn’t like.  Friends own SHL-5 and C7ES3, which I always enjoy when I make social calls to their respective owners – that thick midrange is unique and unmistakable.

    Furthermore, I spent a few weeks with the C7ES2 standmount in mid-2010.  They had some magic going on.  The Pixies’ Doolittle – an 80s master that sounded thin and uninviting on every other loudspeaker – was rendered as warm and engaging.  The C7ES2 made everything sound so darn listenable, albeit with an unmistakable oven-baked quality.  Were they a touch coloured?  Yes sir.  Did I care?  Not in the slightest.  An enjoyable sound is an enjoyable sound.

    Harbeth has no official distributor in Australia.  They sell direct to our shores with no middleman.  I like this selling model.  It has kept carping about local pricing of Harbeth loudspeakers out of “Why is Australia so expensive?” debate – surely everyinternational brand would prefer to be kept from those consumer-driven thumbscrews?.  A pair of the most junior Harbeths – the P3ESR – can be landed to your doorstep for ~AU$2500.  This review pair come marked as “Special Edition – Studio Grade Ultra Pure OFC Cable” – the internal wiring has seen a recent update.

    The speaker boxes themselves are finished to a level that is nothing short of exemplary.  Facing facts: they look stunning and they’re re-assuring weighty to hold.  Being sealed boxes, the P3ESR are already off to a flying start.  I enjoy the tighter/leaner bass of sealed designs more that ported variants – a personal preference but one that you should be aware of.  Reagan-like trickle-down has seen Alan Shaw deploy his trademarked RADIAL mid/bass driver technology in even his smallest mini monitor.  This one’s a five incher.

    The P3ESR have that ProAc-like top-end zing.  Plenty of room air, plenty of zig-a-zig-aaaaah!  Not as smooth or as refined as the Proac 1SC (discontinued) or as humid as the Spendor SA1 (AU$2700) – they sit somewhere between the two.  There’s more up-ending in favour of the upper-mid band; ideal for Radiohead’s King Of Limbs vocal tension – an album that snakes through midrange grass.  Thom Yorke’s mellifluous delivery demands the vocal clarity that the P3ESR bring in spades.  They’re an open window on vocal and rattling percussion, on rhythm guitar wriggle and – especially – on horn sections.  The King Of Limbs‘ most fragile/tender moment – “Give Up The Ghost” – is a standout, Yorke’s voice transmitted to the heavens.  Witness treble extension that captures recording space ambience.  The 47Labs Lens pay it forward, the Harbeths work in an up-and-down world, closer to the speaker plane.

    They’re not as IN YOUR FACE as the 47 Labs full-ranger, but not as fast either.  Still, off-axis listening is a pleasure that sets the P3ESR listener free.  This reviewer has little patience for those divisive head-in-a-vice devices.  At lower volumes, it takes a bit more of a push to get the Harbeths out of bed and dressed for work.  They’re also slightly more “hifi” sounding than the Lens – that is, one is more aware of listening to audio equipment than music.  Genetically closer to the WLM Stella, one trades in the purity of the Lens for a more recognisable two-way loudspeaker transparency.  The Harbeths offer superior body and instrument density to the Lens – deeper bass too – but don’t resolve the urgency of electronic music anyway near as well.  The tundra-winds of Mike Denhert’s pathological Framework are blown too far south, where warmer weather patterns circulate.  The Harbeths imbue proceedings with welcome-mat and hot chocolate where there should be only Nietzsche and the neutral-hearted mechanics of Godlessness.  ATC SCM 11s do 909s and 303s with superior cleanliness.  ATC 4 IDM.

    With simpler fare – Bill Callahan’s brooding song-smithery – the Harbeths once again beam a torch down Callahan’s deep-well vocal delivery.  Their midrange confessional is never in doubt, Callahan’s voice a decanter of liquor-infused melancholy.  Misery runs deep down here.  His simple supporting cast (acoustic bass and dry drum) is presented as full and tonally ripe.  Most enjoyable.

    Similar to the 47Labs in their plonk-em-down-and-plug-em-in simplicity, the P3ESR play nicely with even modestly powered amplifiers.  They work in both small and larger rooms.  Another high quality two-way for modern living spaces but with a strong leaning toward jazz and acoustic fans.  They do rock – verb, not noun – but ever so politely.  Pumping the juice assists greatly – the P3ESR need to be woken up with a power jolt.  An amplifier of pure blood and guts will serve you well.  Forget about a refined, mature amplifier.  There’s enough of those golden years tendencies from these Brit transducers themselves so hook up a box that kicks serious arse.  (No wonder Naim-nerds dig their Harbeths).

    For my listening outings, the Heed Obelisk Si’s warm organics didn’t tick as many synergistic boxes as the feisty Dayens Ampino.  The latter’s transistorised treble attack reshapes the Harbeth Chesterfield lounge with some much needed Philippe Starck (metallic) modernity, without which we return to images of smokey old men perusing broadsheets in the thickening afternoon gloom of a gentlemen’s club.  The very budget-friendly REDGUM integrated proved to be the most engaging Harbeth partner – plenty of punch and dynamics, as well as some much-needed transient attack.

    The BBC heritage heard in the P3ESR is the corporation responsible for epic costume dramas, The Antiques Roadshow and Last of The Summer Wine.  All middle-class, middle-of-the-road fare.  Not that the P3ESR are ultra MOR, but they do tend toward quite a conservative sonic disposition.  Is it derisory to suggest that the target market for these boxes may align significantly with the target audience of Sunday night BBC 1?

    Speakers for gentlemen of advancing years – smooth and refined.  The sound of post-war austerity.  Speakers to retire with, to drift into old age with. Pipe and slippers.  Leather arm chair.  They’re so smooth, so refined.  Think David Niven or Terry Wogan.  They take themselves seriously.  Think: no sex please, we’re British.

    So I ask: where’s the excitement, fellas?  “Oh you don’t want that – it’ll tire you out.  Time for a nice cup of tea and an afternoon nap…”.

    Perhaps it’s the unattainable expectations that I brought to these boxes?  Perhaps my amplification choices weren’t up to muster?  If so, it’s the sound of irony knocking given Shaw’s off-hand dismissal of the need for more esoteric power.

    Perhaps my choice of music not sufficiently ‘audiophile’?  Whatever.  The Harbeth P3ESR and I didn’t fuse with magic and wonderment (as I thought we might). What I thought might be a stunning little loudspeaker materialised as (merely) a very good one when placed in the context of 47Labs’ Lens and (to a lesser extent, but still noticeable) the WLM Stella.  The P3ESR’s major drawback is that it wants to constantly remind you how very accomplished – how very well read – it is.  A loudspeaker almost too immodest to stand aside and let the music do the talking.  A loudspeaker far better with soothing, intimate portraiture than the tumult of electric(ronic) storm landscapes or abstract expressionism.

    Never meet your heroes.  Damn straight.  I don a pair of awkward trousers to conclude that whilst these are a super little standmount, I didn’t attain the expected jaw-drop awe; particularly with more complex (electronic) music.  The competition has set a high bar.  The twenty year-old Rogers LS4a might not be as resolving but they are more fun, more comfortable in their own skin, not as uptight.  They are more willing to get out of their comfort zone.  The Harbeths are more stubborn in this regard.  They know what they like and they like what they know:  jazz, vocal, acoustic.  Angus and Julia Stone fans will hit pay dirt.

    For such (lighter) music genres there is probably no better standmount in this price bracket – probably why there are plenty of folk who adore the Harbeth mini monitors.  However, I doubt any of them are AFX freaks or Hawtin heads.  Push the P3ESR into overtly furious or complex music and they fall just shy of satisfactory (it ain’t the lack of bass, it’s the lack of speed).

    This review should read as a second opinion that transposes a pre-existing, near-unanimous and overwhelmingly positive diagnosis.  Mine is an opinion of the Harbeth P3ESR in the context of more esoteric musical fodder.  Or, an opinion to be dismissed out of hand! I can live with that.  Different strokes for different folks.  Or is variety the spice of life?

    Harbeth’s P3ESR is a British standmount with an unashamedly ‘classic’ sound, sure to transport lovers of jazz and vocal to new heights.


    Associated Equipment

    • Logitech Squeezebox
    • Macbook with John Kenny-modded Hiface MK2
    • Audio-gd Ref 7.1
    • Heed Obelisk + X-2 PSU
    • Dayens Ampino
    • Weston Acoustics Troubador
    • REDGUM Sonofa’GUM
    • WLM Stella
    • 47Labs Lens
    • Rogers LS4a

    Audition Music

    • Bright Eyes – The People’s Key [24/96] (2011)
    • R.E.M. –  Collapse Into Now (2011)
    • Radiohead – The King Of Limbs [24bit] (2011)
    • Mike Denhert – Framework (2011)
    • Bill Callahan’s – Sometimes I Wish I Were An Eagle (2009)
    • Robyn Hitchcock – This Is The BBC (2005)

    Further Information

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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