Reviewer:  Tim Smith
Financial interests: click here
Sources digital: 2 TB iMac 27” quad-core with 16GB RAM, AIFF, iTunes streamed to Apple Airport Express; Musical Paradise D-1; MHDT Labs Paradisea+; Maverick Audio Tube Magic D1; Marantz SA-8003 and SA-15S2 Limited Edition SACD players; Marantz CD5003 and 5004 as transport; Resonessence Labs Herus; Accuphase DC-37 ([on review]; Audio Space T-88A [on review]
Source analogue: Pro-Ject RPM 10.1 with Dynavector 10x5
Phono Preamplifier: Graham Slee Era Gold Mk V
Preamplifier: Audio Research LS17
Power & integrated amplifiers: Line Magnetic 518IA; Wyred4Sound SX-1000 mono blocs; Musical Paradise MP 301mk2, mk3, mk3 Deluxe; Coincident Dynamo SE
Loudspeakers: Harbeth Compact 7-ES3; Tekton Design M-Lore; Magnepan 1.7; Mordaunt Short Carnival 2; DIY with Fostex FE 103; Pioneer SP-BS41-LR
Cables: DH-Labs Q-10; Connex/DH Labs BL-Ag; Kimber Kable 4TC, PBJ; Paul Speltz Anti-Cables; Canare; Cardas; QED; Connex/DH Labs power cords; Shunyata Research Venom HC
Power conditioning: Shunyata Research Venom PS8 with Venom Defender; Emotiva CMX-2
Equipment rack: Apollo, Target, Tableau
Speaker stands: Skylan
Room size: 8.5 meters long with nook at each end; 3.3 meters wide; 2.1 meters high
Review component retail in North America: $6,300 to $7,300 according to finish

A timeless seamless design. Single drivers, conventional two-way transducers, line arrays, planar magnetics, electrostatics, open baffles, omnis, ribbons, horns, beryllium and now graphene drivers... temptation’s path is long and alluring. Many audiophiles delude themselves—or attempt to trick their spouses—into thinking that they’ve found 'the one' loudspeaker, 'the one' amplifier. The truth is, most of us are serial monogamists. We are faithful to each product until a better one chances along. Some hobbyists and reviewers are more promiscuous. They revel in their large stable of gear, viewing it like coins in a collection or tools of the trade. And so the same old scene plays itself out wherever fine audio equipment is sold. You’ve tracked the package online from your office. Your mind mixes memories of the product you sold to raise funds with the burning desire for something new. When you arrive home early that evening, you await the courier’s knock with eagerness and trepidation. You know that the thrill of the unwrapping ceremony will be drowned in a (harmless?) verbal bloodbath, the ritual of spousal wrath. But you’re armed with your timeworn excuse: "This will be the last one. This one’s a keeper." You turn up the volume. Even your spouse admits it sounds good.

With the $6’800/pr Harbeth Super HL5 Plus, there’s a good chance you will keep the promise. It made me rethink the restless gear flipping so common among audiophiles. It worked magically with every musical genre including simple folk, complex orchestral music, classic rock, jazz trio and toe-tapping techno. If one speaker really sings with every genre and on several different types of amplification, why bother keeping other large boxes on hand unless you had more than one listening room?

In the world of audio, concerns over accuracy and ruler-flat frequency response dominate. This will likely still be the case tomorrow. For some producers, it's the ultimate quest to produce a speaker that speaks in one voice from the top to the bottom of the frequency range, with everything in its proper place and a place for everything. I believe that Harbeth have achieved this difficult goal. Their speaker is smooth and cohesive, speaking in one voice from top to bottom. This is the Super HL5 Plus’ key attribute.

Even as I changed audio gear as often as Imelda Marcos changed shoes, I have kept my Harbeth Compact 7-ES3 since 2008. My attachment to it has, for some time, reminded me of the full-page advertisements in which preeminent Swiss watch maker Patek Philippe encourages their customers to view their purchases not as consumer goods but family heirlooms. Like an English peer prevented by the law of entail from selling the family estate—we are told—you don’t really own your Patek. You’re merely looking after it for the next generation. After spending three fortnights with the Super HL5 Plus, I came to see it in this light. I can’t justify owning both Harbeth models. I reckoned that if I sold the 7 to move up the family line, I could be forgiven. When it comes time, I can send the 18.5kg/ea. boxes off in a hatchback or the back seat of an old beater as one of my kids leaves the nest. Try passing along your 200kg aluminium beasts to your progeny! With its relatively simple thin-walled box design and screw-on rear panels, Harbeth are going to age much better than most upper-end loudspeakers.

Ah yes, that box. Harbeth stands resolute in its insistence that the wheel need not be reinvented. If the box ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Tweak it, perfect it. Not that Harbeth are unattractive. It’s a restrained and classy look designed to blend into a home's décor rather than dominate it. It’s a no-nonsense business model designed to deliver the best possible sound quality at middle-class to upper-middle class prices. Harbeth’s wood veneers are indeed of high quality and painstakingly mirror matched to involve costly sorting and rejects. Finish of this quality doesn’t come cheaply. Harbeth will blend seamlessly into your house if you have a sort of mid-century teak motif or hardwood floors. At the end of the day, most of us will love Harbeth for their personality. No dangerous curves à la Vivid Audio, no musical instrument motif à la Lawrence Audio here. The supreme irony is that the quintessential BBC box monitor sounds so utterly un-box like! Imagine the soundstage of the small Magnepan MMG without the deficit of tonal midrange richness and with far superior bass. I found the Super HL5 Plus went deeper, subjectively at least, than my Tekton M-Lore rated to 38Hz. As it floats half a metre above the ground, the Super seems to project more realistic double-bass images than my Tekton floorstander with Ray Brown and Christian McBride’s jocular joust on "In a Mellow Tone" from Walk On: The Final Ray Brown Recordings. As you see from the photos, the Super HL5 Plus is an unusual design. A stand-mount with a wide face, its volume is comparable to a small floorstander like my M-Lore. Bass images emanate from perhaps one or two feet above the ground as might happen with a double-bass in a live setting. With the bare-bones but high-priced $500 Foundation speaker stands supplied with my review sample, the sound was never muddied, always quick and agile and open.