April 2009

Harbeth Monitor 30 Domestic Loudspeakers

by Doug Schneider

Click to view measurements of this product


Review Summary
Sound "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."
Features The Monitor 30 Domestic " has a 1" dome tweeter from SEAS of Norway and an 8" RADIAL woofer that’s Harbeth’s own design. There’s 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 isn’t to make the deadest cabinet. Rather, it’s 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."
Use Positioning these 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."
Value "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 what’s right and wrong, and the fervent following that can quite often result. Then with a smile he said, "Now I’m going to tell you about my religion."

That designer wasn’t Harbeth’s 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 company’s products aren’t 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 couldn’t help but wonder if they would require a leap of faith on my part.

History and details, or what makes a Harbeth a Harbeth

It didn’t 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 can’t put your finger on. Shaw's head isn’t at all in the clouds; through brief e-mail discussions, I found him quite practical and down-to-earth. That’s 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 you’d find scratched into stone and need to interpret. Harbeth’s 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 Corporation’s (BBC) research into loudspeaker design. The BBC’s 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. Harbeth’s largest single client is still the BBC.

It’s important to also point out that the Monitor 30 isn’t 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 it’s 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 that’s Harbeth’s own design. There’s 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 50Hz (-3dB).

If I left it at that, you’d think there’s 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 don’t often see. Furthermore, the cabinet walls are very thin -- about half an inch from what I gathered -- which ties into company’s goals for cabinet design. The intention isn’t to make the deadest cabinet. Rather, it’s 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 Harbeth’s 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 it’s most certainly not. Rather, it’s 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 doesn’t 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 don’t do that as part of our regular measurement procedure, so we didn’t 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 doesn’t 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 what’s happening on-axis. No surprise there -- good speakers are designed to exhibit these things. But Harbeth also adds its own wrinkles. "Flat" doesn’t 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 it’s 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, that’s not an indicator of whether the speaker is good or bad. I’ve 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.

Review system

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 weren’t 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 Joel’s 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 wasn’t getting the sort of precision in the soundstage that I was used to.

Obviously, I didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 isn’t 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 there’s 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 aren’t huge, but they’re there. In my opinion, though, there’s 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.

...Doug Schneider

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 you’d 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 listening.

For a time, I couldn’t get enough of T.V. Carpio’s 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. There’s a liquid quality to the Monitor 30’s midrange that is intoxicating and so well balanced that, regardless of recording, it sounds right and never becomes overly thick or syrupy. I can’t say the Monitor 30 gave me the best midrange performance I’ve 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 it’s 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 there’s distortion inherent in the recording that Monitor 30s don’t 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 don’t 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 what’s 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, there’s none of that here. And when you get to the highest highs, long after that RADIAL driver has been removed from the equation, you’ll 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, it’s 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 speaker’s 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 Journey’s "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 isn’t 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 I’ve 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 speakers.

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 won’t 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 I’ve 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, they’re for completely different buyers.

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 STS’s bass depth is in another league, though. I’m 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 don’t 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; they’re 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 you’ll be dazzled by the STS’s bass depth, you’ll be equally impressed by the Monitor 30’s midrange. It might even be enough to convince those who want a speaker that's high style to think twice.

Likewise, the Monitor 30’s high frequencies are a step ahead of the STS’s. 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 can’t 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 room’s décor, but it’s 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 doesn’t reach quite as low as the Mythos STS, but it comes close enough and counters with the fact that it doesn’t 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 I’ve 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 I’d have to give the Synchrony One the edge here. There’s 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 I’ll 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 30’s highs. The strongest criticism I’ve 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 can’t 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 aren’t perfect. One issue is the way they look -- you’ll either like it or you won’t. They also have to be set up well, and you’re 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 they’re 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 it’s 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, I’d say that Alan Shaw made the right ones, which is probably why this Harbeth model has successfully withstood the test of time.

...Doug Schneider

Harbeth Monitor 30 Domestic Loudspeakers
$4995 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Harbeth Loudspeakers
3 Enterprise Park
Haywards Heath
West Sussex
RH16 2LH England

Website: www.harbeth.co.uk

Canadian distributor:
Planet of Sound HiFi, Inc.
1194 Bank St.
Ottawa, ON K1S 3Y1 Canada
Phone: (613) 731-4439
Fax: (613) 731-4430

E-mail: info@planetofsounddistribution.com
Website: www.planetofsounddistribution.com

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 it.

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.