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Test
Monitors
Harbeth M40.1 DOMESTIC

Price: 36 000 PLN (pair) with Cherry finish | 39 000 PLN (pair), Rosewood finish

Manufacturer: Harbeth Audio Ltd.

Contact:
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

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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).
Spencer's partner in BBC R&D was Dudley Harwood. Seeing how successful his younger colleague was, he decided to start his own company in 1977 and he named it Harbeth. The name again was created by combining parts of his and his wife's first names (HARwood and elizaBETH). He saw his opportunity for better personal future when he patented a new material used for diaphragms that was also based on polypropylene. As the story goes, he made a mistake when applying for a patent. This mistake cost him a much shorter patent protection period which led to serious troubles for Harbeth once this period was over and many companies started to use his invention for their products without obligation to pay him for copyrights.
1980s were a tough period for most audio companies including Harbeth. Many companies went bankrupt but fortunately Harbeth was acquired in 1986 by a former employee of the Japanese NEC – Alan Shaw. It's hard to believe but he was only 29 then and he's been the owner of the company ever since.
Harbeth Audio's headquarters are in Lindfield, near Haywards Heath, in West Sussex (south of London). They manufacture their loudspeakers and most components in house, including most drivers with the exception of tweeters that are made by SEAS. It's still a small company so each day they manufacture (by hand) only one of their speaker models.

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):

  • T-TOC Data Collection Vol. 1, T-TOC Records, DATA-0001, 24/96+24/192, WAV, ripy z DVD-R.
  • Vinyl Magic for High Fidelity, sampler, DVD-R, vinylmagic.pl, 16-24-32/44,1, WAV, ripy z DVD-R.
  • Al Di Meola, Flesh on Flesh, Telarc, 24/96, źródło: HDTracks, FLAC.
  • Art Pepper, Intensity, Contemporary/Universal Music [Japan], UCCO-5114, CD.
  • Audiofeels, Uncovered, Penguin Records, 5865033, CD.
  • Brian Eno, Craft On A Milk Sea, Warp Records, WARPCDD207, 2 x 180 g LP + 2 x CD + 24/44,1 WAV; review HERE .
  • Cassandra Wilson, Silver Pony, Blue Note, 29752, CD; review HERE ; rip FLAC.
  • Charlie Haden & Antonio Forcione, Heartplay, Naim Label, 24/96 FLAC.
  • Clan of Xymox, Darkest Hour, Trisol, TRI 419 CD, CD; review HERE .
  • David Gilmour, On An Island, EMI, 355695, CCD.
  • Depeche Mode, Personal Jesus 2011, Mute, cdbong43, MS CD.
  • Eva Cassidy, Imagine, Hot Records, G2-10075, CD.
  • Jim Hall Trio, Blues On The Rocks, Gambit Records, 69207, CD.
  • Jim Hall, Concierto, CTI/Mobile Fidelity, UDSACD 2012, SACD/CD.
  • Keith Jarrett, The Köln Concert, ECM/Universal Music Japan, UCCE-9011, gold-CD.
  • Leszek Możdżer, Komeda, ACT Music + Vision, ACT 9516-2, CD.
  • Lisa Ekdahl, Give Me That Slow Knowing Smile, RCA/Sony Music, 46663-2, Opendisc.
  • Madeleine Peyroux, Standing On The Rooftop, EmArcy/Pennywell Productions [Japan], UCCU-1335, CD; review HERE .
  • Miles Davis, Seven Steps To Heaven, Columbia/Sony Music/Analogue Productions, CAPJ-8851, SA, SACD.
  • Pat Martino, East!, Prestige/Mobile Fidelity, UDSACD 2018, SACD/CD.
  • Project by Jarre, Geometry Of Love, Aero Prod, 4606932, CD.
  • Simon & Garfunkel, Bookends, Columbia/Sony Music Japan International, SICP 1484, CD.
  • Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto, Getz/Gilberto, Verve, 24/96 FLAC.
  • The Doors, The Doors, Elektra Records/Warner Music Japan, WPCR-12716, CD.

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.
So I was really happy and grateful to John Atkinson who took measurements of the M40.1 for their Stereophile’s review by Art Dudley, which you can find HERE, because those confirmed most of my listening session's impressions. To be honest there were some things I heard that were not reflected in those measurements. So, although I try not to do it in my reviews, I have to start by disagreeing with some things that Art wrote. And you need to know he is one of my favorite Stereophile's reviewers, and I usually start reading this magazine with his texts. The point is that from my sessions I concluded that Harbeth HAVE stronger bass, especially at the very low end and that they HAVE slightly less extended although very sweet treble. Oh... and I COULD hear that upper midrange was slightly rolled off. I'm not going to claim that Dudley was wrong. I simply assume that in HIS system, in HIS room and basing on HIS expectations these elements might not have been as important as they were for me.

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.
Almost all other loudspeakers create soundstage in front of them, between them or behind them by throwing several sound spots, sources of sound that our mind connects into the big picture. The soundstage can be deeper or wider depending on the performance of the whole system, but the sound is always presented as series of point sound sources that together create an image.
Harbeth speakers (and Magnepans for that matter) create sound in quite a different way. The energy is transmitted not only towards the listener but in every direction. It creates an effect of sound getting to the listener not just from the direction of the speakers but from many different directions. The listener is surrounded with sound which is more or less the same effect as during live concerts. And it is not just about space. It is about how the energy delivered by speakers is propagated throughout the listening room – the Harbeths surround you with the sound and not just deliver it from some small spots placed somewhere in front of you.

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.
To be honest the top treble seemed a bit rolled off – I realized that at the very beginning. So imagine my surprise when I started to listen to well known recording in which treble played very important role. And regardless this roll off I could hear it all, all details, shade, change of timbre, change of recordings quality. Clearly, at once. The only difference was that all these things were not central parts of the presentation; they were there but rather in the background, not dominating it.
What a relief! Thanks to Harbeth loudspeakers listening to the music, regardless of other elements of the system is a wonderful pleasure again. They will clearly show weaknesses of those other elements of the system but the sound won't become unlistenable because of it. Just take two amplifiers from similar price range – a better performer and a worse one. With the M40.1 the sound will be enjoyable in both cases but you will know within seconds which one is the better one. It's written on a plate on the back side of speakers: „Professional Monitor Loudspeaker”. That's what they are. They are a true “window” that allows listener to take a sneak peek at the recording studio but only for positive impressions and not to find out what went wrong.

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.
But the midrange is not particularly selective. Here I have to make certain distinction between resolution and selectivity – these two terms are related but don't mean exactly the same thing. The former describes how precise the particular sound is, how precisely the timbre of particular instrument is delivered, its dynamics and so on. Selectivity on the other hand describes how the particular sound sounds against other sounds surrounding it, how well it is differentiated within the whole presentation. I would say that the resolution of Harbeth's midrange is remarkable while selectivity is not that good. The sound is presented as one coherent whole. It's a rare combination and I guess that it is, together with that specific treble character, responsible for their amazing ability to deliver every kind of music in an enjoyable way. Of course I do realize that other high-end loudspeakers are capable of better separation of everything happening on the stage, and of better picturing the depth of soundstage.
Yes, I haven't mentioned soundstage yet. And it's very interesting – not particularly selective but its resolution is amazing. Soundstage is one continuous space, rich and dense. Bodies are not particularly three-dimensional, at least not as much as they are when delivered by some other high-end speakers. Nevertheless, phantom images are amazingly natural.

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…
The M40.1 Domestic are monitors that don't sound like ones, they sport plastic cones, but you can't tell. I think that only in such sophisticated designs the downsides of polypropylene cones are covered up with their upsides so well that subjectively they become their advantages, too. These are dynamic loudspeakers that don't sound like ones but rather like magnetostats. One thing is certain – these are monitors that ARE true monitors. Not so easy to drive, they require quite a lot of current from amplifier, but many tube amps should be “happy” driving them. But the output power of at least 25-30W is a must, especially in larger rooms.

DESCRIPTION

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.
The PCB with crossover circuit is bolted to the back panel. Some elements are bought from external manufacturers and hand-picked and others are made in-house. There are single speaker posts (the M40 sported triple posts as in studios they often use multi-amping). These are solid but surely not fancy – I know them from many budget products – well, Harbeth surely chose them for a reason. Front and back panels are not glued but fixed with 16 screws (each). There is a grill based on metal frame that may be fixed to the front of each speaker but if you do that the whole “charm” of these beautiful speakers is gone so I would suggest leaving the grills in boxes. Each driver has its serial number including information whether it’s for the left or right channel. All measurements for each of them are kept in Harbeth's database in case any of them ever needs replacement.

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):
Type: Three-way reflex
Frequency response: 35 Hz–20 kHz (±3dB, free space, 1m with grille on, smooth off-axis response)
Nominal impedance: 6 Ω
Sensitivity: 84 dB/1 W/1 m
Recommended power amp: optimum around 50 W
Power handling: 200 W
Dimensions: 750 x 432 x 400 mm (HxWxD), with grills and binding posts
Weight: 34 kg (piece)
Finish: natural veneer – Cherry; Eucalyptus or Rosewood for additional fee

Polish Distributor: Audio System

Contact:

Audio System | Warsaw

tel.: (22) 662-45-99 | fax: (22) 662-66-74

e-mail: kontakt@audiosystem.com.pl

URL: www.audiosystem.com.pl

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  • Preamplifier: Ayon Audio Polaris III with Re-generator Power Supply; version II tested HERE)
  • Power amplifier: Tenor Audio 175S, tested HERE and Soulution 710
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  • Headphones: Sennheiser HD800, AKG K701, Ultrasone PROLine 2500, Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro, 600 Ω version (reviewed HERE, HERE, and HERE)
  • Interconnect: CD-preamp: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300, article HERE), preamp-power amp: Wireworld Platinum Eclipse
  • Speaker cable: Tara Labs Omega Onyx, tested HERE
  • Power cables AC (all equipment): Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300
  • Power conditioning: Gigawatt PF-2 Filtering Power Strip (reviewed HERE)
  • Audio stand Base – under all components
  • Resonance control: Finite Elemente Ceraball under the CD (article HERE)
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