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FOCUS ON UPPER-END LOUDSPEAKERS
EQUIPMENT REPORT
ut simply, Alan Shaw’s new Harbeth SuperHL5plus is
one of the most beautiful-sounding speaker systems I've
heard since the original Quad electrostatic. The compati-
son is not stated lightly: This transducer has the same musical
authority, naturalness, midrange beauty, and really extraordinary
top-to-bottom coherence that I've heard from very few dynamic
speakers of any type, persuasion, or expense. The SuperHL5plus
may lack the Quad’s ultimate transparency, but so do most speak-
ers; yet it’s as transparent as just about anything I've heard this
side of Quads, and it more than compensates with superior top-
and bottom-end extension and dynamic range. Allow me to an-
ticipate my conclusion: If I were closing up shop tomorrow as
a reviewer, the only speakers I'd be inclined to add to my Quads
(57s and 2805s) would be these new Harbeths because of how
they make almost anything played through them sound gorgeous
in a way that is completely musically natural.
At a time when each month seems to bring products trumpet-
ing this or that breakthrough, the 5plus is commendably unpre-
54 October 2015 the absolute sound
Harbeth Super
HLS5plus Loudspeaker
Paul Seydor
possessing, even modest in presentation and appearance. As the
photograph shows, it’s a two-cubic-foot box with a bass/ mid-
range, a tweeter, and a supertweeter mounted on the front baffle.
Apart from its wood veneering, which is handsome and flawlessly
matched within each pair, there would be no reason why it would
stand out from any number of other similar-looking boxes. But
it would be a mistake to underestimate the depth and sophisti-
cation of thinking, science, research, engineering, and technology
that has gone into this and other Harbeths. Shaw was trained in
the ways of the British Broadcasting Corporation and he is proud
to be one of the very last speaker manufacturers whose designs
both uphold and extend that tradition. What this translates into 1s
original and innovative thinking; formidable knowledge of driv-
ers, driver behavior, crossovers, and materials both theoretically
and practically; scrupulous laboratory work, including live-versus-
recorded comparisons; and fanatical measurements and record
keeping, To these Shaw adds extensive use of computer-generated
models and simulations; genuinely groundbreaking work with new
materials; and quality control that is second to none and equaled
by only a few (the sample-to-sample uniformity and consistency
of Harbeth speakers are neatly legendary—once again, the com-
parison to Quads suggests itself). After all the laboratory work is
completed, the final voicing of the speakers involves live-versus-
recorded comparison of speaking voices he knows intimately—
those of his immediate family. He is wary of using only music be-
cause he believes there are far too many uncontrollable variables,
including everything from one’s emotional associations with it, to
not being able to know the sound at the source of recordings.
And he performs the final listening evaluations of every design in
stereo because the “tweaking of the crossovers has to be in stereo
and in the final cabinets.” (See The Absolute Sounds Illustrated History
of High-End Audio: Loudspeakers for a brief history of the BBC
monitor [pp. 293-94] and for more about Shaw’s philosophy and
methods of speaker design [pp. 147-48].)
The SuperHL5plus has one of the longest lineages, if not the
longest of any speaker in the Harbeth lineup—indeed, I can
think of few current models from any manufacturer that can
boast one that’s lengthier or has been improved more consistent-
ly. It’s the ninth generation of the HL. Monitor, the loudspeaker
with which Dudley Harwood launched the inaugural Harbeth
upon his departure from the BBC in 1977. Ten years later, when
Shaw bought the company from Harwood, the speaker was in
its fourth iteration, the relatively short-lived HL Monitor Mk4;
before long, he introduced the HL5, which has encompassed five
models, including this latest one, introduced in 2014. Although
FOCUS ON UPPER-END LOUDSPEAKERS - Harbeth Super HL5plus Loudspeaker
among American audiophiles Harbeth is better known for its
consumer versions of its professional monitors, Shaw informed
me that the several versions of the SHL5 have consistently been
the company’s best sellers—and worldwide, the new version is
flying off the shelves so fast that some reviewers have been un-
able to get speakers because the company can’t spare them. Of
any speaker he has ever authored, remarks he has made suggest
this may be considered a statement offering,
According to Shaw, the 5plus is a complete, ground-up rede-
sign, with particular emphasis upon the bass/ midrange-to-tweet-
er crossover, “made possible,” he told me, “by a little serendipi-
tous luck in hitting upon a combination of components that Id
not tried before and recognizing immediately that a genuine step
forward in sonics had become possible.” Also pertinent here is
a newer version of the company’s innovative RADIAL polymer
material for the bass/midrange driver—now called RADIAL2—
but Shaw credits the new crossover with really “opening up the
sound of the 5plus.” The tweeter and supertweeter remain con-
stant from the previous versions, as does the cabinet.
Speaking of the cabinet, also preserved from the previous
models, and a hallmark of all Harbeths, are the thin walls of
half-inch MDE. When Harwood was at the BBC in the Sixties,
he initiated considerable research on materials and construction
using an accelerometer. His research revealed that large, heavy,
extremely rigid cabinets were not the only path to reproduction
free from the resonant contributions of the enclosures—and
perhaps not even the best way. No matter the materials involved,
play something loud enough and enclosures will resonate—the
trick is to control them. Harwood’s findings indicated that mul-
tiple very low-level or inaudible resonances at lower frequencies,
where the effects are benign, are preferable to (or at least as desir-
able as) pronounced, i.e., high-QQ resonances in a narrow band or
even at a single frequency, especially at higher frequencies above
56 October 2015 the absolute sound
the bass range. The danger of the
latter approach, according to Shaw,
“is that only a tiny amount of ener-
gy in the music can set off a high-Q
resonance. We know from resonant
systems that the higher and purer
the peak, the longer it takes the reso-
nance, once excited, to decay. But
when resonances are pushed down-
wards in level and, critically, down-
wards in frequency, the ear cannot
identify them as bass tones from the
music, the cabinet, or the woofer: it
becomes a homogeneity, and inaudi-
ble means inaudible. So yes, we still
use that method because the cabi-
net’s midband contribution—which
is where the ear really can pick out
box resonances if they exist—is so
clean.” The proof is in both mea-
surements and listening: All Har-
beths are outstandingly clean, cleat,
and high-resolution—and the new
5plus is no exception. Even at un-
comfortably loud playback levels —
too loud to listen for very long—in my 2600-cubic-foot listening
room, the speaker remained unperturbed, the reproduction su-
perlatively clean, composed, and controlled.
Setup is straightforward, requiring stand-mounting with the
tweeter (not the supertweeter) at ear level. A pair of superb dedi-
cated stands by the Canadian company Skylan was used for the
review. The flattest, most uniform response is on-axis; though
dispersion is good enough that head-in-a-vise syndrome is
avoided. Sensitivity is 86dB, impedance an easy-to-drive 6 ohms,
and recommended minimum power 25 watts (though consider-
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Vented 3-way Price: $6890 (Skylan Stands,
loudspeaker $485)
Driver complement: 8"
RADIALZ2 polymeric composite
cone mid/woofer; custom 1"
ferro-cooled aluminum dome
tweeter; 0.75" titanium-
dome, neodymium magnet,
waveguide face supertweeter
Frequency response: 40Hz-
20kHz +/-3dB
HARBETH AUDIO LTD.
3 Enterprise Park Lindfield
Haywards Heath West Sussex
RH16 2LH England
+44 (0) 14 44 484371
harbeth.co.uk
FIDELIS AV (U.S. Distributor)
Sensitivity: 86dB 1W/1 meter 460 Amherst St (Route 101A)
Suggested power: 25-150W Nashua, New Hampshire
Nominal impedance: 6 ohms 03063
Power handling: 150 watts (603) 880-4434
Dimensions: 12.5" x 25" x 12"
Weight: 35 Ibs.
Comment on this article at www.theabsolutesound.com wc
FOCUS ON UPPER-END LOUDSPEAKERS - Harbeth Super HL5plus Loudspeaker
ably more, i.e., 100 watts or greater, is preferable, especially in
larger rooms). In common with all Harbeths, the 5plus proves
in use to be a straightforward, uncomplicated speaker. This 1s
because Shaw does such a thorough job voicing them for real-
world, in-room performance. Put them on sturdy stands at the
recommended height; get them out from the walls a few feet; and
they just work without a lot of hair-pulling, tweaking, fussing, or
agonizing,
When I singled out the speaker’s coherence in my opening
paragraph, I was referring not only to the integration of the three
drivers, which makes the presentation appear as if it’s coming
from a single source, but also to the way the drivers themselves,
though of different materials, seem to speak with one voice. I've
heard more than a few box speakers with mul-
tiple drivers that sound coherent in the
sense of producing what sounds like
a solid wave-front, while at the same
time the drivers in those same speakers
each have audibly different sonic sig-
natures. This doesnt happen with the
5plus. Shaw is known for selecting his
drivers very carefully, and his RADIAL
ones are all made in-house, so this gives
him a tremendous leg up when it comes
to coordinating the individual driv-
ers within a loudspeaker. Although the
5plus is technically a three-way owing to
the supertweeter, in a practical sense it
functions more like a two-way with top-
most octave augmentation—extension
would be a more accurate word—from
the supertweeter. The Harbeth’s eight-
inch driver handles bass (the -3dB point
is 40Hz), midrange, and lower-treble
frequencies, crossing over to the tweeter
at 3.3kHz, which 1s augmented by the
supertweeter above 12kHz. The super-
tweeter thus serves to confer a subtle
sense of airiness and definition in the
uppermost octave without calling any
undue attention to itself. On the contrary, the top
end here is as smooth and as detailed as you please without any
apparent rise, peakiness, or raggedness. That indeed character-
izes the response of the 5plus all across the spectrum. It’s an
exceptionally well-behaved speaker system.
This includes the very bottom end, even below 40Hz, where
room reinforcement provides a bit of oomph down into the high
thirties. As loud as I cared to listen, including even some very
extended organ recordings, such as Kei Koito’s Bach program
on the Claves label (the best organ recording I know), I was
unable to push the RADIALZ2 cone into doubling or make the
port chuff. But people who really enjoy deep, deep bass with a
strength equivalent to what you'd hear in a church or concert hall
will want to add a subwoofer (I'd recommend an REL because
they mate so well with BBC-type speakers).
During the review period, I happened to hear Gustavo Du-
damel conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney
Hall in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, arguably the composer’s most
58 October 2015 the absolute sound
devastatingly expressive work, with an augmented orchestra and
those notorious hammer blows in the last movement. Mahler
himself specified no instrument for these, only that he wanted a
sound that should be hard yet flat, i.e., as non-resonant as pos-
sible, rather like a gigantic axe blow. He tried experimenting with
an exceptionally large bass drum, but that was a complete bust—
the skin couldnt be stretched tight enough. The L.A. Phil uses a
105-cubic-foot box with an 18-inch hole cut into it; the hammer
consists of an axe handle topped with a cylindrical head weigh-
ing about 25 pounds. The box is three feet deep, seven feet wide,
and five feet tall, which means that in order to strike it effectively,
the percussionist has to climb a set of three stairs. (The ham-
mer’s head is made from pieces of wood laminated together and
wrapped with metal bands to keep,
says percussionist Perry Dreiman,
from “breaking apart and flying into
the audience.”) Augmented by tim-
pani and bass drum, the effect of all
this is almost quite literally cataclys-
mic. (I was sitting dead center in the
second row; thinking back on the
concert later, my heart went out to
the musicians sitting immediately in
front of that box!)
The next day I played Benjamin
Zander’s Telarc recording, which
has the best sonics of any record-
ing of this symphony I'm familiar
with (that includes most of them),
with the description of a box for the
hammer-blow that suggests it resem-
bles L.A.'s, and a sonic impact that
sounds very similar. Adjusting for
the circumstances of home listen-
ing, the 5plus rendered it sensation-
ally. My playback levels were as loud
as I could stand, and at no time did
this speaker fail to rise to the demands
of the music, presenting the spread and
depth of the Philharmonia Orchestra with
a rare impression of realism—adjusted for
scale, of course, and a domestic room as op-
posed to a concert hall. (I alternated between the Quad 909 and
the new Benchmark AHB2 [review in progress] amplifiers, both
solid-state, with Zesto Audio’s all-tube Leto preamplifier. Digital
sources were my Marantz SA8004 SACD player, with a Bench-
mark DAC for Red Book sources; vinyl an Ortofon Windfeld,
Basis 2200 turntable and Vector 4 arm, Zesto all-tube Andros
or Musical Surroundings solid-state Nova II phonostages.) I've
heard bigger speakers in bigger rooms scale an orchestra big-
ger, but I’ve rarely heard one reproduced more convincingly with
greater musical authority, naturalism, and beauty.
The midrange is everything we’ve come to expect from a Har-
beth: drop-dead gorgeous and so seamlessly integrated to the
top and bottom ends of the spectrum that it’s an exercise in
artificiality to discuss them separately. To play voice or any kind
of acoustic instrument either solo or part of an ensemble is to
bring a smile to your face—so easy, beautiful, and effortlessly
ural is the reproduction. Perceptive readers may notice that
l’m using the word “beauty” and its variants quite a lot in this
review. This is because beauty is the overriding impression this
speaker makes—that and a wholesale absence of any sort of lis-
tening fatigue. The musicality of this speaker is second to none,
but it does raise an issue: Is its tonal balance completely accurate?
The only deviation I hear from absolute neutrality is a slightly
forgiving quality throughout the presence range, from around
1k—2kHz all the way up to 8kHz—10kHz. The effect of this is
not gross or crude—as noted, the response overall is exception-
ally smooth—but in my room and to my ears, it is there and it is
audible, especially by comparisons to speakers that don’t have it,
like either of my Quads, the Martin Logan Monts, or the Spen-
dor SP1/2 (which I used to own). When I shared this impression
with Alan Shaw, he told me that the 5plus is the flattest-measur-
ing loudspeaker he has ever made—a bold statement when you
consider the original Monitor 40. I'm inclined to trust him on
this because I have immense respect for his expertise and integ-
rity, and some knowledge of how thorough his measurements
and testing are—he even goes to the effort and considerable ex-
pense of measuring his speakers in the BBC’s anechoic chamber.
Yet my subjective impression remains, and I know from both
measurements and the variety of speakers I’ve evaluated here
over the last fifteen years that it doesn’t owe to any characteristic
of the acoustics of my room (which is by no means over-damped
by plush furnishings or heavy drapes, quite the opposite in fact).
Now I shouldnt want to overstate this. The effect is quite
mild to my ears and does not result in any sort of laid-back,
recessed, or distant sound—nor is it in any way lacking in life,
lifelikeness, or vitality. And it is certainly capable of resolving
fine differences in any components upstream. (For example, the
Harbeths revealed all of the Quad 909 amp’s smoothness and, by
design, avoidance of wideband frequency response; by contrast,
the Benchmark amp was punchier and crisper with exceptional
bass articulation. I liked both presentations, but my point is that
the 5plus let me hear their differences in no uncertain terms.)
One reason is that it’s very transparent, another that it is so very
cannily balanced from the bass throughout the midrange. It has
an upper bass/lower midrange that does not exhibit the almost
ubiquitous floor bounce of far too many floorstanding speakers
that have a valley in the two octaves between a 100 and 400Hz,
robbing music of its warmth and body. The 5plus reproduces
voices and instruments with a warm, vibrant, and tactile impres-
sion of presence, whether it’s Marni Nixon dispatching Gersh-
win tunes, Grumiaux playing Bach, or Argerich blazing through
Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit (the clicking of her fingernails audible,
thus allaying any fears of compromised resolution).
One reason why I like the tonal balance of this speaker is
that so many recordings are so closely miked they can’t possibly
sound realistic or even remotely natural; and this is of course
exacerbated when theyre played back through the vast majority
of contemporary speakers with rising top ends. My favorite
performance of Appalachian Spring, the Bernstein with the New
York Philharmonic on Sony, illustrates the real-world effect of
this. Starting with the original vinyl and proceeding to any of
the CD releases, including SACD, this recording has always been
very brightly lit, with violins unnaturally brilliant, fierce, and
even searing. On most contemporary speakers with their rising
60 October 2015 theabsolute sound
"ON UPPER-END LOUDSPEAKERS - Harbeth Super HL5plus Loudspeaker
top ends, the effect is usually not pleasant. Even on my Quads
(which do have a soupcon of juice in the presence region), there
is more glare than I care for, and I often try to equalize it out
with the preamp (when the one Im using allows me to). Over
the 5plus, the recording is still obviously bright, but it is more
listenable, much less unpleasant, and much less excessive. Sonny
Rollins’ sax on Way Out West, another favorite of mine, has some
bite and aggression in his tone; you hear this on the 5plus, only
ever so slightly buffed off. How important this is to you I can’t
decide. Inasmuch as I’ve already stated that the 5plus is one of
three speakers I'd choose to live with were I to stop reviewing
tomorrow, my answer is obvious: It’s precisely the musically right
tonal balance of the speaker that I love and that makes it, in my
view, uniquely valuable for those who love classical music, jazz,
traditional pop, folk, world music—indeed, any kind of music
that is acoustically, as opposed to electronically based. And it also
allows many recordings to sound better than they do in tonal
balance.
What about rock, heavy metal, rap, hip-hop, etc.? Well, little
of this music appeals to me, but I made it a point of listening to
some favorite rock recordings to see if I could catch the speaker
out in any way. 1 think it sounds quite sensational with Jagger
at his most aggressive, Paul Simon at his most dynamic and
powerful on Graceland, and Pink Floyd at their most outrageous.
This owes in part to the speaker’s remarkable transparency, clarity,
and dynamic range. But it is also due to its full tonal balance in
the lower midrange and upper bass—the warmth region that a
great many rock producers and performers really like to get into
their recordings. The 5plus is fully competitive with anything
Pm aware of out there when it comes to kick, drive, pace, and
rhythm, and it manages to achieve these results while sounding
completely natural. To state it differently: Although the 5plus
is a direct descendant of the BBC monitor school of design, it
by no means mimics the politeness, the gentility for which the
school is—to some extent validly—famous. In common with
all Harbeths, within the constraints of power handling and size,
this new speaker is, in addition to being smooth and refined,
also formidably robust in its ability to play loud, cleanly, and
powerfully, reaching down into the foundations of the orchestra.
Allow me to conclude with an anecdote. I have a close friend
who often joins me for listening evaluations. He is not a pro-
fessional musician but he is a good amateur pianist, he goes to
orchestral concerts, operas, and organ recitals weekly, and he has
developed an exceptionally keen ear for what instruments sound
like. He has a very neutral, very accurate, truly high-end sound
system. During one listening session with the Harbeths, after
several CDs of orchestral music, which gave him (and me) much
pleasure, he put on the Endymion String Quartet’s version of
Dvorák's American Quartet. Within seconds a smile broke out on
our faces—that happens all the time with this speaker—and by
the end of the first phrase, my friend said, “These are just breath-
takingly pretty.” When he got home, he played the same quartet
again on his setup and e-mailed me, saying that his speakers—
which are truly superb—*“are not in the same league as the new
Harbeth. They sound good, nothing wrong, but lack the almost
indefinable musical quality of the HL5. A true epiphany.” He’s
now arranging to audition a pair in his own home. Give them a
listen yourself and I think you might, too. tas
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