Harbeth loudspeakers have been on my radar for many years and I’ve been consistently impressed with all the models I’ve heard.
Astonishingly, until now, I’ve not had the opportunity to listen to a pair in the context of my own reference system. As the company is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary, now is the perfect time to rectify the situation. The model I have before me is the P3ESR, the smallest in the company’s range.
Originally founded to commercialise the BBC’s own designs (as the corporation was not in the business of manufacturing loudspeakers), Harbeth’s range is still steeped in the classic BBC tradition, albeit with original models that outclass the Beeb’s historic designs in every respect. The P3ESR is the company’s take on the BBC’s legendary mini-monitor, the LS3/5a, which Harbeth once built to the corporation’s specifications.
Measuring 306x190x184mm, the P3ESR is slightly taller and deeper than the LS3/5a, featuring Harbeth’s proprietary RADIAL2 110mm mid/bass driver (woofer), along with a 19mm Ferro-cooled tweeter. The 40th anniversary model features WBT-nextgen binding posts and specially made audio-grade poly capacitors; it also comes in a range of limited edition veneers and is adorned with 40th anniversary badges.
As a long-time user and aficionado of the BBC LS3/5a, I was particularly keen to hear how each model would fare in a side-by-side shoot-out. Both are infinite baffle designs, meaning they do not make use of a bass-reflex port, used commonly to aid and increase bass output. The Harbeths’ bass response extends down to 75Hz (+/- 3dB), which may not be particularly low but is of superb quality. The problem with many ported small speaker designs is they often sacrifice bass quality for quantity, so while they may sound superficially deep, the low end can sound overblown and tuneless.
The Harbeths also follow the BBC tradition of utilising thin-walled cabinets and voicing the speakers to work optimally with their grilles in place. Sensitivity is on the low side at 83.5dB/1w/1m, however with a nominal impedance of 6 ohms, they present an easy load for most amplifiers; 15 watts is the manufacturer’s minimum recommended power rating. Powered by my ancient valve Leak TL12 + Monoblock amplifiers, which deliver 14 watts into each speaker, they sing like a canary – with a purity and musicality only thermionic amplification produces.
For critical auditioning alongside my LS3/5a, however, I switch to a 125-watt MOSFET solid-state power amp to accommodate the power-hungry BBC monitors; the P3ESR will sound wonderful with any good-quality amp.
I line up a reasonably diverse range of tracks to test the Harbeths, comprising modern guitar pop from Steve Mason (Stars Around My Heart, 2019), 70s rock from Free (The Stealer, 1970), 60s psychedelia from Traffic (Dear Mr. Fantasy, mono 1967) and acoustic jazz from Miles Davis (Footprints, 1966).
Starting with the latter, I cue up Footprints from Davis’ Miles Smiles LP. This Wayne Shorter composition features the saxophonist playing the main theme in unison with Davis. Played through the P3ESR, the husky tones of Shorter’s sax sit atop, yet remain distinctive from Davis’ fruity trumpet, while Ron Carter’s bassline is rendered with great agility. The same track through the LS3/5a sounds more mid-forward with less distinction between the two lead instruments. Carter’s bass is more subdued, while Herbie Hancock’s piano is more prominent yet not as articulate as the Harbeths’ presentation.
This more homogenised BBC presentation is apparent with the Steve Mason track, too, with the dense production becoming a tad congested, especially when the horn section kicks in. Through the P3ESR, however, a more open soundscape is delivered with greater midband clarity, highlighting vocal harmonies and reverb effects on the electric guitar. This openness is repeated with the Free track, which is heavier though less densely arranged, the song driven along by Simon Kirk’s weighty kick drum underpinning Andy Fraser’s bouncy bassline. Though the diminutive Harbeths can’t reproduce the low-end heft of larger speakers, the sense of scale is perfectly in proportion.
Listening to Dear Mr. Fantasy in mono shows up no mismatching between left and right speakers, while the loose, bluesy groove is presented as a precise yet wide mono image.
The P3ESR is a brilliant speaker in the classic British tradition. Fans of synthesised electronica may prefer the ‘boom and tizz’ of less refined loudspeakers. The rest of us can bask in the natural, real-life sound of the smallest Harbeths, probably the finest shoebox-sized speakers available today.