Harbeth Monitor 30 Domestic
by Doug Schneider
||"The highs were
superbly extended and strikingly clean, the bass went deeper than I thought it would, even for
a larger-than-usual cabinet, and the midrange was so pure and effortless that vocals played
through these speakers had uncanny clarity and realism." "But three deficiencies
also jumped out at me," which were addressed to some degree by adjusting the speakers'
placement. Still, "the Monitor 30s were not as incisive, visceral, and impactful as other
speakers." "Instead, their strength was in the midrange."
||The Monitor 30 Domestic
" has a 1" dome tweeter from SEAS of Norway and an 8" RADIAL woofer thats
Harbeths own design. Theres a front-mounted port toward the top and over to one
side.... "The cabinet walls are very thin -- about half an inch from what I gathered....
The intention isnt to make the deadest cabinet. Rather, its to accept that
resonances will occur -- energy has to dissipate somehow -- so Harbeth aims to control it,
channeling those resonances out of crucial midrange and into the bass region where they're
felt to be less objectionable."
speakers properly is crucial: "I moved the speakers more toward me and closer together,
ending up with them about seven feet from my listening position and about six feet apart. I
also toed them in so I was listening to them at about 10 degrees off-axis, not 20 or 30
degrees as I had them before." The grille "is designed to be left on at all times.
When attached, it makes the cabinet more rigid."
||"When it comes to
the midrange and highs, [the Monitor 30 Domestic is] clearly superior and worth the extra
money for those who value sound over style."
A speaker designer once described his craft to me
as being "like religion." He pointed to the ideologies that many designers hold,
the strong beliefs about whats right and wrong, and the fervent following that can
quite often result. Then with a smile he said, "Now Im going to tell you about my
That designer wasnt Harbeths
Alan Shaw. However, walking into this Harbeth speaker review and knowing a little bit
about this company, I felt as if was treading on hallowed ground and had the chance, with
a few wrong words, to commit something akin to heresy. The company has a mythical status
and enjoys a strong following. Some Harbeth owners feel that that the companys
products arent among the best but are the best, and that their designer, Shaw
himself, might well walk among the clouds. This is the kind of stuff that religion, or at
least a cult, is made of.
With all this in my mind, a pair of Monitor 30
Domestic loudspeakers ($4995 USD) entered my home. I couldnt help but wonder if they
would require a leap of faith on my part.
History and details, or what makes a Harbeth a
It didnt take long to figure out that the
Harbeth reality is steeped in much more practicality and science than some sort of belief
system that you cant put your finger on. Shaw's head isnt at all in the
clouds; through brief e-mail discussions, I found him quite practical and down-to-earth.
Thats not to say that everyone will agree with what he says, but that the
information he gives about his company and its products isn't obscure, something
youd find scratched into stone and need to interpret. Harbeths way is based on
well-known research with historical roots.
Harbeth was formed in 1977 by Dudley Harwood who
brought to life speakers that were the result of the British Broadcasting
Corporations (BBC) research into loudspeaker design. The BBCs main goal at the
time was to produce accurate, reliable monitors for use in their facilities. They
conducted extensive research into the technical aspects of speaker design to make that
happen, which Harwood was part of. Shaw bought the company in 1987 and carried on with its
original research, which still forms the basis of every Harbeth design, albeit with things
learned since. Harbeths largest single client is still the BBC.
Its important to also point out that the
Monitor 30 isnt new. It has been in Harbeth's product line for ten years now, and
the company describes it as follows: "Initially developed as a drop-in
replacement/upgrade for the BBC LS5/9 studio monitor, the convenient proportions and
well-rounded sound soon led the Monitor 30 into the domestic market where it's acclaimed
as the perfect 'all-rounder.'"
The "professional" version of the
Monitor 30 is available in a pedestrian gray, textured paint. The Monitor 30 Domestic is
basically the same speaker but with wood veneer inside and out. Whether its
décor friendly or not will be dictated by your tastes. Harbeth speakers have a decidedly
retro look to them -- a 70s thang -- and the company makes no apologies for
that and has no plans to change it. The look is what helps make a Harbeth a Harbeth. My
review pair came in cherry, which is the only finish being brought into North America
right now; however, the speaker is also available with eucalyptus finish.
The Monitor 30 measures 11W' x 18"H x 11.5D
and weighs about 30 pounds. It has a 1" dome tweeter from SEAS of Norway and an
8" RADIAL woofer thats Harbeths own design. Theres a front-mounted
port toward the top and over to one side -- presumably the best place for it on the front
baffle and a way of keeping it off the back of the speaker. The sensitivity is said to be
85dB (2.83V @ 1m) and the impedance is rated as 8 ohms. Two sets of binding posts are on
the back to allow for biwiring. Harbeth rates the low-end, free-field response down to
If I left it at that, youd think
theres nothing distinctive about this speaker other than the way it looks and the
larger-than-normal cabinet. But there are some novel features. First, as I mentioned, the
cabinet is veneered inside and out, which you dont often see. Furthermore, the
cabinet walls are very thin -- about half an inch from what I gathered -- which ties into
companys goals for cabinet design. The intention isnt to make the deadest
cabinet. Rather, its to accept that resonances will occur -- energy has to dissipate
somehow -- so Harbeth aims to control it, channeling those resonances out of crucial
midrange and into the bass region where they're felt to be less objectionable.
The cone of Harbeths driver was the result
of a lengthy government-funded project in the 1990s to find the ideal cone material for
the company's purposes. Although the material appears to be polypropylene, Harbeth says
its most certainly not. Rather, its a "complex blend which contains a
special ingredient which prevents the plastic [from] becoming waxy with a
rubbery feel -- as is inherent with soft and squishy polypropylene." Alan
Shaw talked specifically about its performance in the midband, saying it doesnt have
the nasty resonance problems in this area that other materials do. He actually encouraged
me to "hit" the cone with a 3kHz test tone to watch how it behaves. We
dont do that as part of our regular measurement procedure, so we didnt with
the Harbeth speaker. However, I gathered from my discussions with Shaw that had we done
it, we would have seen a lack of resonance in this area.
Crossover design is reportedly another Harbeth
hallmark. The company's literature tells you that electrically the slopes are somewhere
between second and third order. Combined with the roll-off characteristics of the drivers,
you end up somewhere between a third- and fourth-order slope. The real trick here
doesnt have to do with the specific slopes but how seamlessly the drivers integrate
-- in particular, the phase relationship between the drivers.
Based on my discussions with Shaw, I believe that
Harbeth espouses what I would call "good loudspeaker design" principles":
generally flat frequency response and well-controlled dispersion so that the off-axis
behavior of the speaker mirrors whats happening on-axis. No surprise there -- good
speakers are designed to exhibit these things. But Harbeth also adds its own wrinkles.
"Flat" doesnt necessarily mean "ruler-flat," nor does it mean
"horizontal-on-the-graph flat." The company has its own voicing tweaks that, in
addition to the appearance, help make a Harbeth a Harbeth. And they come through quite
clearly when you listen.
Two more things are worth pointing out -- small
details this time. One has to do with the woofer mounting, which is behind the baffle as
opposed in front of it, something people may not notice. Harbeth said that this was
arrived at when modeling the crossover design. Essentially, the way the crossover worked
out, the "acoustic center" of the woofer aligns with the tweeter when its
staggered back. Another detail has to do with the grille, which is designed to be left on
at all times. When attached, it makes the cabinet more rigid.
Finally, something about where this speaker is
made. These days, more and more speakers are being made away from the company's
headquarters, where, they're designed, usually in China. Frankly, thats not an
indicator of whether the speaker is good or bad. Ive listened to some outstanding
speakers that have been made in the Far East. Manufacturing over there is really good
these days. However, some people like to own something that was made where it was
designed. Harbeth is making all its speakers in the same factory in the UK where they have
been made for years, and by the same people. This is yet another thing that makes a
Harbeth a Harbeth.
For the most of the review period, I used two
channels of a 200Wpc five-channel Classé Audio CA-5200 amp that was also in for review
with Nirvana Audio S-L speaker cables in between. During a brief stretch, I also used my
own Stello M200 140W mono amps. Both of these amps powered the speakers very well. The
Monitor 30s sat atop 24" Foundation stands. Up front was an Anthem Statement D2
preamplifier-processor used in "analog direct" mode along with two digital
front-ends: a Simaudio SuperNova CD player for some of the time and a Stello CDT100/DA100
Signature transport/DAC combo for the rest. Nirvana S-L interconnects went in between.
The Monitor 30s sounded as distinctive as they
look, and their character was easy to hear right off the bat. The highs were superbly
extended and strikingly clean, the bass went deeper than I thought it would, even for a
larger-than-usual cabinet, and the midrange was so pure and effortless that vocals played
through these speakers had uncanny clarity and realism. My initial impressions were quite
positive, but three deficiencies also jumped out at me.
First, although the speakers had a rather large
and full sound, they werent as punchy as I would have liked. They seemed a little
plodding and slow down low. Second, the midrange, though beautifully transparent, sounded
a touch recessed. I remember listening to the reissue of Billy Joels The Stranger
on CD (Columbia/Legacy 88697 22581 2) and finding his voice a little too far back and the
instruments not immediate enough. Finally, I wasnt getting the sort of precision in
the soundstage that I was used to.
Obviously, I didnt write the Monitor 30s
off; instead, I worked with the placement, as anyone should to get the best sound from any
speaker. My room is very large, and I tend to listen rather far away from the speakers,
and with a fair bit of distance between them. I learned that this wasnt the best
setup for the Monitor 30s. I moved the speakers more toward me and closer together, ending
up with them about seven feet from my listening position and about six feet apart. I also
toed them in so I was listening to them at about 10 degrees off-axis, not 20 or 30 degrees
as I had them before. I also experimented with placing them even closer together and
nearer yet to my listening seat, and this sounded good too -- not surprising given the
speakers' use as nearfield monitors. But where I ended up with them seemed like a good
compromise between what was I was used to -- far away and with an ample spread -- and
listening in a true nearfield setting.
|Grille or no grille?
Naively, I positioned the Harbeth Monitor 30 Domestic speakers in my
room and removed the grilles, which is what I do with most speakers. We also usually
measure speakers at the NRC with the grilles off, which is what we did with the Monitor
30s. At the time, I had no idea that Harbeth doesn't advocate either of these
things. Did we commit a faux pas? Not really -- I listened to the speakers with and
without the grilles and found some benefits in doing so. For some owners, going
grille-less might be best.
The most noticeable differences come in three areas: bass,
treble and immediacy. As Alan Shaw told me would happen, the grille does tighten the bass
some. The difference isn't huge -- the slightly woolly character remains no matter -- but
the Monitor 30s sound just a wee bit tighter down low with the grilles on, and they don't
take anything away from the bass performance.
But the speakers sounded even airier up top with the
grilles off. This isnt surprising, as grilles tend to subdue the highs of most
speakers a touch. On the other hand, the highs sounded subtly more refined with the
grilles on, so there was a bit of give and take here.
Then theres the point about immediacy, which improved
with the grilles off. The upper mids and the highs gained a better sense of attack. This
wasn't a huge difference -- about the same as with the bass -- but it did make me like the
Monitor 30s a little more.
The differences with the grilles on or off arent
huge, but theyre there. In my opinion, though, theres no right or wrong way to
use these speakers. The grilles go on just as easily as they come off, so if you audition
these speakers, do what I did and experiment with the grilles to find out which way works
best for you.
With this new setup, vocals were no longer
recessed, and a well-defined soundstage snapped into focus. My perception of the lows and
highs remained about the same -- there was deep, rich bass and expertly extended highs
that were sparkling and clean -- but with this setup I got a little more high-frequency
energy, just a touch, which is what youd expect listening more on-axis.
For the most part, the initial problems were
fixed, but not quite everything; punch and immediacy were still lacking. Even with better
room placement and the vice-like grip that the Classé Audio CA-5200 has with speakers,
the Monitor 30s were not as incisive, visceral, and impactful as other speakers. Instead,
their strength was in the midrange. Voices, in particular, had realism that was uncanny,
and the level of detail was revelatory without being annoying. I was shocked by how
natural these speakers sounded and, for the first time, I could understand why Harbeth
speakers have the following they do. The midrange has a beautiful balance of high
resolution and high "listenability," meaning that I could dig out recording
after recording and unravel some hidden treasures for hours on end and never get tired of
For a time, I couldnt get enough of T.V.
Carpios cover of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" from the Across the
Universe soundtrack CD (Interscope B0000980102). Played through the Monitor 30s, there
was a sense of purity and warmth that I rarely experience with recorded music. Carpio's
voice had just the right weight and presence without ever sounding overblown or
artificial. Theres a liquid quality to the Monitor 30s midrange that is
intoxicating and so well balanced that, regardless of recording, it sounds right and never
becomes overly thick or syrupy. I cant say the Monitor 30 gave me the best
midrange performance Ive ever heard -- also in contention are the JansZen Model One
and Aurum Acoustics Integris Active 300B, both active systems that cost about six times
the price of this speaker, as well as the more closely priced PSB Synchrony One -- but
its certainly in good company among those select designs.
The level of detail was equally impressive,
particularly for the way it was conveyed: without being irritating and without
exacerbating problems in recordings, which is what some speakers do. For example, on the
same soundtrack, Carol Woods and Timothy T. Mitchum perform "Let It Be." I like
the way they cover this song, but theres distortion inherent in the recording that
Monitor 30s dont cover up. No matter how smooth and liquid they are in the midband,
the recording flaws are revealed quite readily, which is what you want from a good
monitor. But while displaying these problems, the Monitor 30s dont emphasize or add
anything, which is also what you want. By the same token, subtle nuances that contribute
more positively to the experience are rendered in stark fashion, allowing you to hear into
music and discover more about whats on each recording.
The blend from the mids through the highs was
completely seamless, which was what any good speaker designer wants to hear. Whereas with
some speakers you can pinpoint the midrange driver and tweeter, usually through some sort
of discontinuity as the music transitions between the two, theres none of that here.
And when you get to the highest highs, long after that RADIAL driver has been removed from
the equation, youll find that the sound is clean and sweet and never splashy, edgy,
or irritating. Cymbals are detailed and clean, and they show no hint that the speaker
itself is adding any sort of edge. In fact, if you hear any edginess through these
Harbeths, its in the recording, not added by the speaker.
The bass performance was a different story, and
it brought me back to the comments I made about the about the speakers punch and
incisiveness. On the one hand, these speakers go deeper than I initially thought they
would -- or, at least, was initially told they would. When the distributor handed them
over, he told me that they dont produce much bass. Perhaps part of my positive
impression in this regard has to do with my not being a bass freak -- I tend to listen to
many speakers that shelve off rapidly below 60Hz. Therefore, I found the Monitor 30s quite
full, very robust, and with useable bass to below 50Hz. In my opinion, this is a
weighty-sounding pair of stand-mounted speakers with a grand, rich sound that's
commensurate with their larger-than-normal cabinet size.
But the area below 100Hz sounds a little
underdamped, even with the grilles on, which is supposed to help that way. As a result,
drums, while deep, lacked the visceral quality they should have. Bass guitar lines could
get blurred with a loss of attack. You get the depth, but you dont get those tight,
easy-to-follow bass notes. When pressed to play hard rock at high volumes, the Monitor 30s
struggled, sounding overly resonant in their delivery. When I played Journeys
"Anyway You Want It" from the band's Greatest Hits CD (Sony 85889) at
high volume levels, the woofer started to compress noticeably, and I kept thinking to
myself, "Come on, keep up." Hard rock at high volumes in a pretty big room like
mine isnt their thing.
On the other hand, that rich, weighty quality
they have lent itself well to other music, particularly music that emphasizes piano, which
is a really tough instrument for many speakers to reproduce. The Models 30s handled it
surprisingly well. They projected the size, scale and weight of a piano better than all
stand-mounted speakers Ive heard, and that somewhat resonant quality I heard with
hard rock, while still apparent here, actually contributed positively to reproducing this
instrument, imparting a sense of grandness and majesty that most small speakers lack.
Obviously, whether these speakers are right for you will depend on your personal listening
preferences -- the kind of music you want them to reproduce and what you expect from your
Comparisons, contrasts and other comments
One difficulty in reviewing the Monitor 30
Domestics is to find suitable speakers for comparison in order to give an overview of
where they sit in the marketplace. Whereas many speakers purport to be unique, in fact
there are lots of similarly executed competitors. I know of no other speakers that look
similar, are designed for the purpose of both professional monitor and in-home use, and
most of all sound the same. Someone who settles on Harbeth speakers probably wont
opt for anything else -- no doubt why the company has the loyal following it does.
Still, some comments can be made with regard to
other speakers Ive written about recently. Cosmetically, the $2995 Definitive
Technology Mythos STS SuperTower is at the opposite end of the spectrum. The Mythos is
unashamedly a high-style floorstanding design in a tall, slim, metal cabinet that Harbeth
proponents would likely abhor. Likewise, Harbeth has a look that would make those who want
the STS in their listening room cringe. Looks-wise, theyre for completely different
Sonically, they have some similarities, but only
a few. Both speakers share a relatively neutral tonal balance that gives listeners a
faithful re-creation of the recordings. The STSs bass depth is in another league,
though. Im still in awe of how low the STSes can reach, largely due to the
innovative implementation of their powered bass section. The Monitor 30s sound fleshed out
and rich, but they dont go anywhere near as deep as a pair of STSes.
Moving up through the mids, things change. The
STSes are neutral and commendably refined-sounding given their high-style priorities --
audiophiles need not be ashamed to own these; theyre that good -- but this is where
the Monitor 30s step ahead with superior midband transparency, that awesome liquidity that
sounds great with vocals, and that uncanny ability to combine musicality and detail into
something that sounds effortless and real. Whereas youll be dazzled by the
STSs bass depth, youll be equally impressed by the Monitor 30s midrange.
It might even be enough to convince those who want a speaker that's high style to think
Likewise, the Monitor 30s high frequencies
are a step ahead of the STSs. The STS is clean up there, but the Monitor 30 is not
just clean but has a sweetness and purity that make the Mythos STS sound a bit cold and
analytical. The Monitor 30 cant reach as deep in the bass as the Mythos STS, but
when it comes to the midrange and highs, it's clearly superior and worth the extra money
for those who value sound over style.
The distinctions between the Monitor 30 and the
$4500 PSB Synchrony One, also a floorstander, are similar to those with the Definitive
Technology Mythos STS, but they not nearly as great. The Synchrony One was also conceived
with strong attention to appearance and how it would blend into a rooms décor, but
its still a bit bulky and not nearly as stylish as the Mythos STS.
The Synchrony One has the best bass performance
of these three speakers. It doesnt reach quite as low as the Mythos STS, but
it comes close enough and counters with the fact that it doesnt just go deep, its
three 6 1/2" woofers sound incredibly punchy, never running out of steam when the
going gets loud. This is a speaker that sails as easily through thumping hard-rock tracks
as it does with folk music, and it has the output capability to fill a very large room.
The Synchrony One is incredibly versatile.
I praised the Synchrony One for its revelatory
performance in the midrange. This is one of the clearest, cleanest speakers Ive ever
heard through the mids, bettering speakers many times its price. Therefore, it was
interesting to compare the midrange of Synchrony One and Monitor 30. In terms of detail
retrieval, the two are comparable, but Id have to give the Synchrony One the edge
here. Theres a sense of quickness through the midband that gives the impression that
it reveals more information. Voices, in particular, sound a little more immediate and
crisp. On the other hand, for some the Synchrony One might come across as a little too
forward, too exact. Over the long term, the Synchrony One can become a little
fatiguing, particularly when you factor in their tweeter performance, which Ill get
to below. The Monitor 30, on the other hand, reveals a similar level of detail, but it
does so without ever being fatiguing. It also has a touch of richness and grandness that
the Synchrony One, even with its super-deep bass, lacks.
The Synchrony Ones can play extraordinarily loud
and stay startlingly clean right through to the highs. As I said, it's a room-filling
speaker. At normal listening levels, I preferred the Monitor 30s highs. The
strongest criticism Ive had about the Synchrony One is that its high frequencies can
be a touch edgy, and that stands out more when you compare them to those of a speaker like
the Monitor 30. The super-sweet, ultra-effortless Monitor 30 has a superbly refined top
end that I cant really criticize.
The Monitor 30 Domestic is a pleasing speaker
that has as rich character with generous bass, extremely refined highs, and liquidity
through the mids that is intoxicating. Harbeth says that it was designed to be listened to
in the studio all day long, and from my experience this is certainly possible. I listened
to far more music through these speakers than I normally do with review products, never
tiring of their sound. There was no leap of faith required to like them.
However, the Monitor 30 Domestics arent
perfect. One issue is the way they look -- youll either like it or you wont.
They also have to be set up well, and youre better off listening to them in a small
or mid-size room than a really large one. The bass can become woolly and indistinct,
particularly at high volumes, and theyre not as immediate-sounding as I would
personally like. Despite those misgivings, I can say that I was never put off listening to
them, even when their limitations were apparent. Their strengths far outweighed their
weaknesses, so they always managed to shine.
Some people might think speaker design is like
religion, but others say that its more of a balance of tradeoffs, which are the
result of the decisions every speaker designer has to make. Based on my Monitor 30
Domestic experience, Id say that Alan Shaw made the right ones, which is probably
why this Harbeth model has successfully withstood the test of time.
|Harbeth Monitor 30 Domestic Loudspeakers
Price: $4995 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
3 Enterprise Park
RH16 2LH England
Planet of Sound HiFi, Inc.
1194 Bank St.
Ottawa, ON K1S 3Y1 Canada
Phone: (613) 731-4439
Fax: (613) 731-4430
Planet of Sound Distribution responds:
Thank you for taking the opportunity to review
the Harbeth Monitor 30. As you rightly mention, the Monitor 30 enjoys a very long
professional history and is now being adopted by consumers who want to enjoy its
particular abilities at home. As such, it has certain unique design goals. This speaker is
designed to be used in a quasi-nearfield listening arrangement, in a smallish room, and is
best appreciated at moderate volumes and with recordings that are natural both timbrally
and spatially. It is a medium-sized speaker and cannot be expected to have the bass
abilities of a large tower. As well, the M30 does not accentuate dynamics, as most other
speakers, including the ones mentioned in the review, do, and will show all the
compression-- especially common on '70s pop-- while remaining pleasant to listen to for
long periods. This is their purpose. The perceived character (or lack thereof) is often
described as lacking punch when contrasted directly against speakers which add
I'm not disagreeing with the noted difference
between the Harbeth and the other speakers mentioned. In fact, as a Harbeth
representative, and as so many Harbeth fans will attest, we are thankful for this
different philosophy. Does this make the M30 more suited to a professional environment
than at home? Perhaps, and that is why Harbeth makes other more consumer-centric models
such as the larger SHL5 and Compact 7. To characterize the M30 as something
"less" when it is actively trying to be invisible is somewhat missing the point.
Buyers who want the hear-through transparency of the studio, one of the purest midrange
performances available, and fatigue-free highs will find the M30 very special indeed. It
is extremely rare to find all those qualities together.
Gunnar Van Vliet
Planet of Sound HiFi, Inc.