Harbeth stand with the minimalist less-is-more crowd.
With the exception of the large Harbeth 40.1 priced $12’500-$13’500 (soon to reach the $20’000 marker with the new 40.2 version), the line is within reach of most audiophiles. Like the great Swiss wristwatch company Zenith with its sub $9’000 line of dress watches, Harbeth products are reasonably priced, elegant, understated and all most of us will ever need. Several of Zenith’s four-figure watches are deceptively simple at first glance yet beneath the bonnet sits one of the best mechanical movements of all time, the legendary in-house made El Primero. It’s smooth, accurate and long-lived. Harbeth have their in-house movement, the Radial 2 mid/bass driver. At first sight, nothing about the Super HL5 Plus hints at the magic under the hood. What could be more basic than a rectangular box made of ordinary materials? Take a few panels of real wood veneer, some MDF, some wiring, some simple damping material, two or three drivers and a basic crossover. Harbeth have been using variations on this recipe since 1977. Harbeth make no outlandish claims about their cabinet materials or crossover parts. The company reserve techno jargon for the Radial 2 driver, which, at the end of the day, is really just a well-tuned woofer made of undisclosed polymers, isn’t it? Not so fast. It’s more accurate to say that Harbeth have been striving to perfect their deceptively simple design since 1977. The Super HL5 Plus is the 7th generation of the speaker. The original Radial driver took a decade to develop. Each driver is formed one at a time, by one individual, at the helm of a $400’000 injection-mold press. We don’t learn that from glossy Harbeth adverts. Owner and designer Alan Shaw let this factoid slip, in passing, in Harbeth’s online discussion forum. We’ve all heard the defenders of $150’000 loudspeakers cite the ‘million dollars worth of CNC machinery’ required to make said loudspeakers. You begin to see how Harbeth products are so reasonably priced. This company make available one of the industry’s greatest drivers even with their ‘entry level’ shoebox-sized monitor priced at just $2’800. For those put off by the 15% price increase of the Super HL5 Plus over the Super HL5, consider that Harbeth had not raised its prices in over a decade even in the face of glowing reviews and awards. Harbeth still make every loudspeaker in Lindfield, England.

The Super HL5 Plus is technically a 3-way including the super tweeter whose chief benefit is to add air and ambience. Usually the super tweeter draws no attention to itself. It seems to sit there like a reserve army, ready to spring forward when called up for action. And when it does, your ears will travel up the steep slope with a sense of breathlessness but no fatigue. There is detail and texture but no loss of smoothness or musicality. Nothing prepared me for the way in which the Super HL5 Plus tracked Roy Hargrove’s soaring trumpet on Jazz in the Key of Blue, an album led by the titan Jimmy Cobb. The Super HL5 Plus is vented at the front. It sports one Harbeth-made Radial 2 mid/woofer, one SEAS-made 25mm ferro-cooled dome tweeter and one 20mm dome super tweeter. The Super HL5 Plus’ impedance is a stated 6Ω and its sensitivity is a claimed 86dB/1W/1m but since it is such an easy load with no large impedance dips, it can be driven in my small to medium listening room with 8wpc by a Coincident Dynamo single-ended amp. The Super works well with tube, solid-state class A/B or class D amplification, whether it puts out 8 or 800 watts. On paper the Super is no more sensitive than its little brother the Compact 7 but I found it capable of playing a bit louder using my Coincident Dynamo, no doubt due to the larger cabinet. Unlike the Compact 7, the Super is biwirable, with four 4mm gold-plated binding posts. The cabinet is 63.5cm tall and 30cm wide. Each speaker weighs 15.8kg; not too light, not too heavy and easy to move around. It’s also future-proof, with screws on the back panel providing easy access to a technician who might have to make a repair fifty years down the road (again, try that with a 200kg aluminium beast). The Super’s frequency response is 40Hz-20kHz. It is very close to a full-range floorstander in its ability to plumb the depths. The Super HL5 Plus seems perfectly coherent from top to bottom.

I didn’t feel the same way about its predecessor, the 6th generation Super HL5. Prior to receiving my review pair of 7th generation Super HL5 Plus, I had heard its predecessor on four or five occasions: twice at audio shows where they sounded very good but sometimes bass boomy in small rooms, at least once at a Toronto dealer; and once at Codell Audio in Montreal where I was given one of their large listening rooms for a 4-hour session all by myself. At the time I had a Naim 200/202/HiCap2/NAPSC setup with a CD5i and Codell was able to reproduce everything in my system except for the cables and my room dimensions. I was even given the opportunity to demo the Super HL5 against my Compact 7 ES-3. I resisted the upgrade bug at the time. Although I felt that the Super HL5 imaged spectacularly and had incredible amounts of air, it was a touch too bright on the top when paired with Naim. Had I tried a tube amp, who knows. Although the bass was far superior with the Super HL5—deeper, drier, faster, tighter—coupled to that typically ravishing Harbeth midrange, I preferred the Compact 7’s treble so stuck with it. By way of thanks, I bought a Marantz SACD player I heard that day from Codell which is still going strong.

Upon the Super HL5 Plus release in 2014, Alan Shaw was asked on their Harbeth owner forum to "subjectively describe the differences in sound between the existing SHL5 and the SHL5 Plus". Shaw responded that the SHL5 Plus is "more open, more detailed, smoother, [with a] flatter response on and off axis, better mid/tweeter and tweeter/super tweeter integration. Bass [is] about the same. Reference axis is repositioned to be ear level with the main tweeter (it was slightly below that on the previous model)." In retrospect I wonder whether the older SHL 5 really was as bright as I thought. Perhaps I had grown accustomed to the darker face and slightly warmer sounding Compact 7 ES-3. Having listened to the Compact 7 and SHL 5 Plus side by side in my room, I find the SHL 5 Plus to be less dark, more neutral, more open and slightly less sweet especially where jazz guitar is concerned. Neither loudspeaker is bright by any means. From my perspective the lack of that extra dollop of sweetness is one minor strike against the Super HL5 Plus but the speaker has so many other fine attributes that in my books it’s no contest. I prefer the Super HL5 Plus by a country mile. The Compact 7 is still great but now seems like the second wine of a great estate from a great vintage; better than 95% of the other stuff out there but just a bit shy of the grand vin. And once you’ve tasted the grand, there’s no going back.

I feared this would be the result, for as I was doing the rounds at the Toronto audio show of 2014 (TAVES) and the Montreal (SSI) show of 2015, I had loved the sound of the Super HL5 Plus. Or was it the lack of a particular sound that was so beguiling? At those shows I usually had little trouble describing what I was hearing. My notes for a $20k stand mount made from exotic composite materials read “exceptionally deep and dry bass. How can such a small speaker do that?" Another company’s aluminium floorstander fared less well: "Too hot on top for my taste. Cymbals searing, sibilance galore." A new and affordable open-baffle speaker led to this observation: "Ravishing highs and a great sense of space, no doubt from the ribbon tweeter." Many systems capture your attention by virtue of one or two outstanding traits, whether positive or negative. With Raidho’s little monitors, it’s all about the astoundingly dry and detailed bass. Sometimes the designers seek to emphasize this quality over that. Often designers seek a response that’s ruler flat. Few succeed. In Toronto and Montreal, Harbeth sounded ‘right.’ Nothing in particular jumped out except perhaps for the exceptional clarity to vocals. For the first few weeks I had the Super HL5 Plus in my room, I struggled to describe what I was hearing. In some ways this is the greatest compliment I can pay. This particular review has proven maddeningly difficult to write. And that’s largely because Harbeth have so few faults or quirks to latch on to. A flawed speaker is infinitely easier to describe. It provides numerous points of entry for criticism.

A near-perfect speaker like the Super HL5 Plus at first left me grasping for empty cliché as in, "it sounds like real music" - a phrase which, if overused, ought to be grounds for disbarment from the reviewer’s craft. The Super HL5 Plus seems to possess a smooth response from top to bottom but especially in the lower middle range. Perhaps that explains the ease of placement in cramped quarters. Because the speaker’s highs are detailed but smooth, it doesn’t need to be tamed with a tube amplifier. Because its bass is crisp, fine-toothed and tight, it’s happy with a low-wattage tube amplifier with little damping factor. Of course with my Wyred4Sound monos I could rattle the floors. It simply works with everything, never hollow here, never strident there.