Harbeth M40.1 DOMESTIC
Price: 36 000 PLN (pair) with Cherry finish | 39 000 PLN (pair), Rosewood finish
Manufacturer: Harbeth Audio Ltd.
3 Enterprise Park, Lindfield, Haywards Heath
West Sussex RH16 2LH, England, UK
tel.: (44) 1444-484371
Polish Distributor: Audio System
Country of origin: Great Britain
Manufacturer’s website: Harbeth Audio
Text: Wojciech Pacuła
Pictures: Wojciech Pacuła
During 1960s British BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) conducted most extensive (so far) research on materials used for diaphragms in drivers. An idea behind that was a need of BBC's sound engineers to have a chance to hear how BBC's broadcasting really sounded like. Obviously BBC was not a manufacturer, having only R&D department, so they decided to have external companies build loudspeakers for them. Their main partner was KEF, supplier of drivers, and later also Spendor. All loudspeakers designed for BBC had ‘LS' in their name.
Spendor was a “child” of BBC engineer Spencer Hughes. Company's name came partially from his first name (SPENcer) and partially from his wife's (DORothy). In 1969 Spencer finished his first loudspeakers that sported a woofer with a diaphragm made of a freshly invented material called Bextren (a variation of polypropylene).
M40.1 Domestic monitor is their top achievement. These are monitors with bigger inner volume than many floorstanders. It's a three-way design with a huge (300 mm diameter) bass unit and a 200 mm midrange Radial driver. One might say that its ancestor was a BBC LS5/5 – the world's first plastic-coned three-way monitor, but in fact its two direct predecessors were: BBC LS5/8 and M40 – speakers designed for recording studios. The M40 was designed for top recording studios but it was later adapted for home use – that's where a part of its name – Domestic – came from. Where it differs from the professional version is mainly in its different bass unit and its finish (natural veneer).
So these are monitors, albeit with unusual dimensions, but definitely monitors. Proper stands are therefore a must. To complicate things a bit more Harbeth doesn't make its own. Usually these monitors work best on light, open stands (there is one model that is really different and it’s custom made by Acoustic Revive). Most companies offering stands dedicated for these speakers come from Japan. Some of those stands look much like a regular stool. I had a chance to listen to many models of Harbeth speakers and I have to agree that they require some very light stands as with heavy ones they sound much worse. Of course that's my opinion and others don't have to agree with it. Polish manufacturer - Rogoz Audio – prepared their own version of such stands and those are very heavy ones. As far as I know they found many fans around the world. We have received the M40.1 Domestic together with German stands made by Skylan. It's a simple design made of boards – just two boards connected with four thick posts resting on four “bricks” (not spikes). Harbeth recommends Canadian stands made by Foundation Speaker Stands, the Foundation Stands M40 for the tested loudspeakers, to be exact.SOUND
Recordings used during test (selection):
Japanese versions of the discs are available on CD Japan.
Reviewing audio equipment is kind of a judgment call. Sure you should check parameters of a device under review but the final outcome is mostly based on what we hear (measurements even when properly done can't tell us everything about the sound) – that's why most people consider audio reviews to be not really objective. I think that's basically true as nothing is 100% objective, not even measurements as one always can question technique, methodology, interpretation, and so on. From my experience you can gain more information, importantly, more precise information about a particular device from listening session than from plain, dry measurement results. To make myself clear, I'm not against measurements as such. It's a basic tool for sound modeling. But it must go hand in hand with listening sessions. In a perfect scenario measurement results support listening impressions. It doesn't happen too often but when it does the final conclusion is much more credible than when it comes only from listening session or only from measurement results.
To properly understand what Harbeth's top monitors are you need to recall what seems to be a typical “sound” of a loudspeaker and then... turn it upside down. Because M40.1 don’t sound like any other loudspeakers. Their nearest comparison is not any dynamic loudspeaker but rather some magnetostats, like Magnepan models 3.7 and 20.1. It is somehow similar sound, very rich, well saturated. Its tonal quality is of course very important but the key feature is the way that Harbeth “energize” the room (air around them) as they play music.
So when we start listening the sound is overwhelming for a minute – it's just that we get so much sound at once. It's very rich, rather warm, with strong but slightly soft bass. Before I start analyzing the sound of these speakers let me first say that the M40.1 belong to devices that benefit from synthetic rather than analytical approach – their performance is significantly better than what might come from analyzing the elements of that sound. When you start listening to them you realize quickly that their sound is an effect of a long, painstaking process of fine-tuning. Each detail has its place and its importance – try to change just one of them and the change of performance will be much more significant that such small change justifies. For example – I tried to reduce the volume of bass a little – not because I didn't like it or because it was booming – I just wanted to try how it would sound. So I experimented, as I often do with other speakers, with closing partially or totally one or both bass-reflex ports. In most other cases such experiments brought some improvement to the sound but not so with the Harbeths. Less bass each time also meant some degradation of midrange quality. There was no improvement to the sound, just the opposite.
The M40.1 have their own distinct character and it is totally different from what seems to be common trend in most modern high-end designs. And still these are one of the best loudspeakers I ever listened to in my room. It was kind of surprise for me, even shock as they represent everything I hate about other designs – plastic cones, soft domes, cabinets that take part in creating the sound. Basing on my experience there is no way loudspeakers like the Harbeths could sound good, and yet they sound fantastic!
Their sound is almost perfectly coherent – I mean you can’t hear particular drivers, bass-reflex or cabinet. The sound you get is one “whole”. As mentioned before the sound is shamelessly warm. The tweeter doesn't have the resolution of best metal or ceramic ones, not to mention best ribbon drivers. But since it's quite good itself and it goes along so well with the other drivers I perceived it as much better than it really was.
Midrange is, at least for me, most “controversial”. It's rich, deep, multidimensional, and colorful. These are the features that I missed in the sound of my Harpia Acoustics Dobermann, Avalon Transcendant, and even, although to a lesser extend, in Franco Serblin's Ktêma. They deliver large phantom images that perfectly blend into the acoustic environment of the recording studio but also into the listening room. As these speakers “project” sound in all directions at once, voices and instruments sound very natural, live-like.
There are very few speakers I could compare M40.1 with. First, the already mentioned Magnepans, secondly Hansen Audio Prince v2. These speakers offer similar tonal qualities and general way of presentation. Magnepan's treble resolution is slightly better but Harbeth's bass goes deeper and is richer – to get comparable bass out of the 20.1 or 3.7 you’d need to support them with a subwoofer of a REL class. The three times more expensive Hansens delivered even deeper, wider soundstage, but in their case I had to get used to their specific presentation and once I did all other speakers wouldn't sound right anymore…
Harbeth M40.1 Domestic loudspeakers are three-way, bass reflex monitors. Their dimension ratio surely isn’t very modern. Some similarity might be found in Audio Note speakers (see AN-E). Front panel is very wide – even wider than the size of bass unit would require. And that woofer is a really big one - 300mm in diameter with polypropylene diaphragm. For its predecessor the M40, Harbeth used a Vifa driver that, according to some, was a bit boomy. Once Vifa stopped making it Alan Shaw decided to have a better one, and what's better than a thing you do yourself. So now Harbeth manufactures its own improved (comparing to Vifa) woofer with a large cast basket and double magnet. Midrange woofer is also pretty big – diameter 200 mm, also manufactured in-house, and it’s placed in a separate chamber inside the cabinet. Its diaphragm is made of some kind of polypropylene called Radial 2. Its development was possible thanks to a grant from the British government. Here we already have its version no. ‘2’. Both woofers are fixed to the front panel from behind. The only outsourced driver is a 25 mm fabric dome tweeter manufactured by Norwegian SEAS from Excel line, with a small Harbeth's modification called HexGrille. This tweeter looks like T25C003 – double magnet, a chamber for eliminating unwanted resonances, but without ferrofluid. The tweeter is fixed to the front panel from the front side. There are two BR ports just above the bass unit.
The cabinet is made of relatively thin MDF boards. That's a trade mark of all Harbeth loudspeakers. There is not much bracing inside – it's built more like an instrument. All walls are covered with bituminous mats, and inside some places are filled with some kind of quite stiff foam, and some tight rolls of a natural wool.
These loudspeakers have a very level impedance of 6 Ω which makes them good partners for tube amplifiers. Their real sensitivity is very low though – John Atkinson’s measurements for the above mentioned „Stereophile” review (Art Dudley's review from October 2008) proved that it was as low as 84,5 dB/2,83 V/m. I tried driving the Harbeths with my modified Leben CS-300 [Custom Version] that offers 2 x 7 W output power and it was clear that more power was necessary to drive those speakers properly. Manufacturer suggests minimum 50 W which surely is a good idea but in smaller rooms 20-25 W might be enough.
Technical data (according to manufacturer):
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