The Harbeth P3ESR
Editor's Note: You're probably looking at the high-water mark for speaker reviews here at InnerFidelity---I'll let my colleagues at Stereophile and AudioStream report on speakers up the food chain from here. But I do like to review compact speakers which might find their way into your personal desktop listening system, and since Steve has been reviewing the more expensive near-field speakers here, I asked him to have a listen to what I consider one of the very best. My Harbeths are actually the now-discontinued HL-P3ES-2, which are forerunners of the P3ESR, and I must admit to being quite jealous of Steve's opportunity to audition a pair of these gems. I guess I'm just going to have to settle for a vicarious listen through Steve's ears.
Harbeth P3ESR (starting at $2095)
While Harbeth may be one of the most traditional of British speaker manufacturers, I can't recall ever hearing a Harbeth I didn't like. I can't say the same for Bowers & Wilkins, Celestion, KEF, Linn, Monitor Audio, Quad or Wharfedale speakers. Harbeths always sound right---disarming in a way that makes them hard to criticize, you just sit back and enjoy the music. The little Harbeth P3ESR I'm reviewing here did nothing to change my impressions of the brand. The company was founded in 1977 by Alan Shaw, a former BBC research engineer.
It's also worth noting that all of the other brands mentioned above now build some or all of their speakers "off shore," but Harbeths are still home grown. Shaw could cut costs by outsourcing production, but he chooses not to and therefore maintains complete control over how his speakers are built. The downside to that policy is Harbeths are expensive, so sure, you can easily find cheaper alternatives. The speakers are made by hand and sold in matched pairs.
When you lift a P3ESR out of the shipping box its 13.9 pound heft feels impressively heavy for a fairly small speaker (it's 12 by 7.3 by 8 inches). Peel off the grille and you'll see the .75 inch SEAS metal dome tweeter and a 5 inch Radial2 carbon-fiber/bextrene/polypropylene composite woofer, which was developed in-house at Harbeth. Look closer and you'll note the woofer's frame is out of sight, because the woofer is mounted from the inside of the cabinet! Ah, that's why there are visible screws on the backside of the cabinet (so you can replace the driver if need be).
The rear panel has a pair of beefy, gold-plated binding posts. The black cloth speaker grille doesn't have a MDF backing, the metal perimeter of the low-diffraction grille frame fits into a corresponding slot on the front baffle. It's that sort of design detail that distinguishes Harbeth from the competition. Shaw says the speakers are built to last at least 25 years, and when you hold one in your hands you'll believe him.