Review: Harbeth P3ESR XD Loudspeaker : Visually unobtrusive Harbeth P3ESR XD leaves a lasting impression, especially in the living room.
Review: Harbeth P3ESR XD Loudspeaker: “Hi-Fi can’t be more classic,” is what people say over and over again when people talk about Harbeth boxes. In fact, when the not-so-big package from German Harbeth distributor Input Audio arrives, it feels wonderfully old-fashioned in the best sense of the word. Two two-way loudspeakers the size of a shoebox come to light, which shouldn’t caress the feet, but the ears. As soon as you unpack it, the heart of the hi-fi fan gets warm.
P3ESR XD could be the name of a wood chipper or a Star Wars robot. But he isn’t. The Harbeth P3ESR XD (2,950 euros) don’t make everything short and small, don’t shine golden and also don’t come from the future. On the contrary: They are considered a further development of the legendary two-way compact loudspeakers LS3/5, which researchers developed for the BBC in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The BBC funded the basic research: speaker design, material composition, enclosure anti-resonance, speaker drivers and so on. Several companies – including KEF, Rogers, Spendor and from 1977 Harbeth – produced the BBC classic under license. For many years, the LS3/5 served as small, professional monitoring monitors in broadcasting, in broadcast vehicles and in numerous recording studios around the world. They were meant for the pros, workhorses for judging sound—detailed and resilient.
In 2009 a revised version finally came onto the market: the Harbeth P3ESR (without the XD at the end), which is now being replaced by the P3ESR XD. The XD stands for “Extended Definition”, which is intended to indicate various optimization measures such as better capacitors on the crossover or higher-quality internal wiring. The current Harbeth owner, Alan Shaw, used state-of-the-art measurement technology to cover the smallest irregularities in the frequency response up and smoothed it out. Shaw also modified the connector terminals, which now go directly to the board, shortening the signal path and reducing crossover losses. What has remained is the classic appearance of an angular yet charming compact speaker. As soon as you touch it, you notice that this 6.1-kilogram piece of jewelry is made like a safe: Zero tolerance for the gap dimensions, everything is screwed together tightly and gives the impression of surviving the next 500 years. Buyers in Germany receive a four-year guarantee on the boxes. The German Harbeth distributor Input Audio provided us with the 30.6 x 19 x 18.4 cm (H x W x D) P3ESR XD in the new satin black color – a matt black that looks very classy and discreet .
Which brings us to the price tag of the Harbeth P3ESR XD: 2,950 euros, in the rosewood version 3,100 euros. A lot of money for such a small loudspeaker, which is put into perspective in view of the flawless workmanship. The single-wire terminal made of metal on the back is of the very best and makes an excellent haptic and visual impression. Directly above that on both boxes are perfectly fitted labels with the type designation and the serial number.
The housing is made of MDF and is – a rarity – screwed on the front and back and not glued. Another quirk is noticeable: The protective, very tightly fitting front panel is extremely difficult to remove. No fingernail fits between the edge and the cover, no nail file either. Of course, you could try prying them out with a sharp object like a knife, but that increases the risk of damage and only creates frustration. “On purpose”, explains Bernd Hömke from the German distributor Input Audio, “the loudspeakers are tuned in such a way that they sound better with the cover than without”. After all, the distributor offers a magnetic tool specially made for removing the bezel, which attaches to the metal frame of the cover.
After the tool was sent to me afterwards, a hard, stiff tweeter dome with an aluminum cone came to light, which is relatively small at 19 millimeters. The small diameter and the diffuser attached to the grille are intended to guarantee particularly good omnidirectional behavior.
Underneath, an eleven-centimetre-diameter mid-bass driver does its work, which the British naturally build by hand. A patented, stable plastic mixture called “Radial” is used as the cone material, which, according to the manufacturer, has high internal damping and a particularly harmonious sound. Tiny little glass beads are worked into the membrane, which should make the whole thing even harder and more stable. Oh yes: the crossover frequency has been shifted slightly higher compared to the previous model and, according to Bernd Hömke, is “approximately four kilohertz”. According to Hömke, the exact value cannot be found out, since Harbeth boss Alan Shaw generally does not like to be seen in the cards. As a result, according to the salesman, the new XD model plays a little more broadband and more relaxed than its predecessor, without losing resolution. The listening sessions will show later whether this is true. In any case, it is remarkable that the Harbeth P3ESR has a closed speaker – rather a rarity in compact speakers, which is supposed to contribute to a particularly controlled bass.
Playing partner and placement
The level of efficiency is rather low at 83 dB/2.83 V/m, so you won’t drive the little Brit to maximum performance with weak tube amplifiers. The manufacturer recommends a minimum output of 15 watts. In addition, Harbeth points out that this is a six-ohm speaker with a uniform impedance that is “easy to drive” despite its low efficiency. In terms of placement, the English note that the Harbeth does not necessarily have to be placed on speaker stands. It can also be a cupboard, shelf or even a desk – according to the manufacturer, such pieces of furniture are very suitable for the Harbeth P3ESR XD.
If the living conditions do not allow for such a placement, loudspeaker stands come into play, since placement on the floor is of course out of the question. The German Harbeth distributor has included a pair from the British hi-fi rack specialist Custom Design: the FS104 Signature model in a chic five-column design. The pair, which costs 400 euros, consists of a central tube and four black satellite tubes, all made of British steel. The center column can be filled with the in-house filler or sand for resonance absorption, which also ensures a more stable stand. The acoustic cover panels and floor panels, precisely cut with laser technology, are made of four millimeter steel and are available in different sizes – depending on the box dimensions. This also applies to the height of the stands: Buyers are faced with a choice between 51 and 61 cm, although even my 61 cm version seems a bit low to me – I don’t quite reach the manufacturer’s recommended position (the tweeter should be at ear level). The scope of delivery includes galvanized, very sharp M8 spikes, but not washers. The assembly doesn’t go that quickly at first, but then it works quite quickly after studying the assembly instructions carefully – you’re ready to go!
Harbeth P3ESR XD: Sound Test & Comparisons
First of all, I did without the speaker stands and used the Harbeth P3ESR XD as shelf or cabinet speakers. It’s a good thing that my McIntosh MHA100 headphone amplifier also offers connections for loudspeakers on the back and meets the demands of the Harbeth with two times 50 watts. Since the Harbeth P3ESR XD also works as a near-field monitor, the couple initially forms a small listening triangle with a base width of just one meter and a listening distance of one and a half meters. In doing so, I follow the recommendation of the sales department: Starting from “on axis”, angle only minimally so that you can still see the inside of the loudspeaker housing. Wall distance: 20 centimeters – also a recommendation from the German distributor.
And what can I say: When the wife rolls her eyes and rolls her eyes with sayings like “The household can’t be done alone” or “I’ve got so much to do”, a thunderstorm is brewing. In my defence: it was the European Football Championship. And it was Harbeth P3ESR XD. How many times have I found myself saying “Just one more song” to myself – and voila, another hour had passed. That means: I heard, heard and heard again – but not because I had to, but because I wanted to. Old stuff, new bands, hackneyed hits, obscure underground stuff. And it’s always been fun.
The Harbeth P3ESR XD invites you to long sessions because it doesn’t tire your ears. This is due to their basic tuning: silky, minimally warm and smooth. She doesn’t hug you directly, much less jump in your face, but she doesn’t push you away either, never sticks thumbtacks in your Earl Gray that get stuck in your throat. She asks elegantly at tea time and then serves finely seasoned aromas. When the balls fly at Wimbledon, she might even serve up strawberries with whipped cream, weather and music permitting. It’s the ace up your sleeve for long listening sessions.
Let’s go into detail
Let’s start with the bass: The Harbeth doesn’t get particularly deep in the frequency range, but that’s not to be expected from a closed box of its size. Harbeth specifies a frequency spectrum from 75 hertz to 20 kilohertz (± 3dB in free field / measured one meter on axis). From just hearing it, I would have guessed it descended a little lower. Bass-strong electronic pieces such as the fabulously danceable “Off” by the German electro-popper dioramahave a nice foundation – the fact that something is missing here at the bottom only becomes apparent when you compare them with floor-standing speakers. The compact Audio Note J-LX-Hemp (soon to be tested) comes down further, but costs twice as much and also has a larger membrane area. The bass sounds very defined, detailed and rather dry at medium levels – it’s fun to follow it. However, at higher volumes, where my neighbor begins to foam at the mouth, he seems increasingly strained, but the Harbeth P3ESR XD is generally not a concert-level transducer. She wasn’t made for that.
It is obvious that the stage does not extend far to the rear with so little distance to the wall. The action doesn’t begin in front of the loudspeakers, but rather exactly on their base line. Although these are near-field monitors, they always remain slightly aloof, but never aloof. This is not meant negatively at all, but simply their peculiarity. In other words, although the ears are quite close, it feels like they are a little further away than they really are. The width of the stage, which does not extend beyond the P3ESR XD on the left and right, also contributes to this. Especially in small rooms, the elegant Briton is able to conjure up an intimate sound.
Bigger triangle, bigger amp…
Incidentally, this observation also applies to larger stereo triangles and listening distances: After I placed the Harbeth on the stand and connected it to my big Mac, the McIntosh MA8900 AC , the sound logically seemed a bit more spacious, but remained homogeneous and inviting. Especially since the Harbeth P3ESR XD, as mentioned, never sounds intrusive or cheeky, although it doesn’t swallow any details. On the contrary: it reproduces all the subtleties in one recording down to the smallest detail. Not least due to the slightly reduced treble on the level side, one never gets the feeling that individual details stand out or are overemphasized. Harbeth masterfully walks the tightrope between analysis and relaxation.
A good example: Dinosaur Jr. The American indie rock troupe around band boss J Mascis has been delivering good rock music with a high recognition value and completely crazy guitar solos beyond heavy metal clichés for decades. This also applies to the new album Sweep It Into Space, on which the meanwhile graying, increasingly strange-looking master shoots some adventurous solo guitar attempts into space. In combination with the noisy, rather bright production, this can quickly become annoying with some loudspeakers. The Harbeth P3ESR XD, on the other hand, acts more gently than superficially, avoids any listening stress, but still sounds airy. She manages to take the edge off the Dinosaur Jr song “I Met The Stones” without wrapping the good man in cotton wool. The Harbeth doesn’t iron out sibilants (hissing and s-sounds) or drum cymbals, which can quickly become painful with high-pitched loudspeakers from medium volume, but rather defused them elegantly. In the treble, as already mentioned, it acts with minimal tonal restraint and is also supple, which explains its special long-term suitability.
At this point, it’s time to refute a prejudice: It’s not true that this piece of jewelery only masters small classical and jazz ensembles, as you can read again and again in tests and forums. Rock and metal also work. And electronics. And pop. And and and. Of course, with complex, boldly produced Prog Metal chunks à la Dream Theater , you eventually run out of breath and eventually you lose track a bit, but only when higher volumes and many instruments are used equallyare at work. Of course, the Harbeth does a particularly good job with small classical or jazz ensembles – then the individual instruments appear beautifully three-dimensional in space. At low and medium levels, it also presents everything wonderfully accurate, filigree, detailed and tangible with other types of music.
In terms of coarse dynamics, the Harbeth P3ESR XD does not tear up trees in the form of level explosions – it is more interested in harmony than in riots. In terms of fine dynamics, things look different: Our test candidate reproduces volume changes precisely and vividly. Quiet noises and shifts in the timbre are noticeable, but do not stand out. The emphasis is not on counting peas, but on the inner life of the musicians. This can be seen, for example, in the music of singer & songwriter Chris Eckman , who can be heard on his new album Where The Spirit Rests sinks knee-deep into melancholy and processes his world-weariness. The quiet opening number “Early Snow” takes the listener on a gray winter walk, crunching underfoot while every undertone in Eckman’s voice portends impending doom. It looks so authentic that in midsummer I feel like having mulled wine, gingerbread and slippers.
At the latest with the next summer storm of the stormy year 2021, the fun and hut magic will be over: put on summer clothing, pull out all the plugs and hope that it doesn’t hail or that the roof is covered. Then plug it back in, listen to music and judge the mids. They decide how we perceive timbres and voices. This is where the Harbeth fully demonstrates its strengths, especially in the fundamental range : Voices sound clear, extremely natural and full-bodied. If you value perfect voice reproduction, you should definitely shortlist the Harbeth P3ESR XD. Everything has its place, nothing stands out. Which brings us to the conclusion.
Harbeth P3ESR XD Loudspeaker – Conclusion
Even if its ancestors were studio and sound engineer tools, the elegant, visually unobtrusive Harbeth P3ESR XD leaves a lasting impression, especially in the living room: you forget the technology in view of the homogeneous sound image, don’t weigh anything on gold scales and don’t ponder too much about weak points, just listening to music. The speaker, which has matured over decades, disappears behind this harmonious curtain of sound and paves the way for long listening sessions. The Harbeth P3ESR XD never gets on your nerves, is suitable for all types of music up to medium levels and appeals more to the pleasure listener than to the chief analyst.
Even in the near field, it creates an astonishingly large sound pattern for such a small box, but – hardly surprising – quickly reaches its limits in terms of low bass and coarse dynamics. It feels most comfortable in smaller rooms with a distance of at least 20 centimeters from the wall, but is also a pleasure in medium-sized rooms with a little more distance. Almost 3,000 euros for the fun may seem a lot at first glance (especially since speaker stands may also be added), but at the end of this test it almost seems like a special offer to me, who otherwise has much larger and more expensive stuff in the listening room – myself given the odd front panel that is difficult to remove. Enough raving: a hell of a lot of housework and peace has been left undone!
The Harbeth P3ESR XD…
- allows hours of music enjoyment without distraction, as it does not behave loudly, shrillly and exhaustingly – unless you turn the volume control very hard.
- Plays mostly neutral, the little dash of warmth combined with her silkiness gives her something endearing.
- is particularly suitable for pleasure listeners and less for analysts.
- Due to the construction, the bass does not go very deep, but it offers a controlled, detailed low tone that is easy to follow.
- shines with mids to die for – especially voices have a magical effect.
- remains slightly reserved in the treble due to its gentle tuning, but without omitting details in any way.
- is limited in terms of coarse dynamics, but offers an above-average amount for the ear in terms of fine dynamics.
- is best suited for small listening rooms and the near field, as it suggests a listening distance that appears greater than it actually is.
- can also be placed on shelves or cupboards, so it doesn’t necessarily need speaker stands.
- is stable and well made, but unfortunately the front cover is also rock solid.
- Product: Harbeth P3ESR XD
- Category: closed two-way compact speaker
- Price: 2,950 euros (pair)
- Dimensions & Weight: 12″H x 7.5″W x 7.1″D, 6.1 kg
- Nominal Impedance: 6 ohms
- Efficiency: 83dB
- Finishes: black, white, cherry, olive, walnut, rosewood
- Guarantee: 4 years