Notes on Harbeth, Vandersteen, Avalon & Spendor

For a long time, I was on the Great Speaker Hunt, and started or added to a number of threads, particularly about the speaker makes referenced above, all of which I lived with. I was struggling with one of the real problems with (some) high end audio (as I see it): Hearing crisp highs with loads of detail can be a real turn on, especially when one is relatively new to high end audio. It certainly worked with me years ago. But I'm an old goat now; I'm 30 years away from music school, I've heard a lot of live music in fine halls, and I've also spent time in several recording studios seeing what really happens in the kitchen. The high end gear I was fairly comfortable with a decade or so ago went out the door in frustration as I experienced more and more listening fatigue, and less and less enjoyment of the music. (This also had something to do with topping out on digital, which took me a while to realize -- I have a couple of pretty fine players -- and EMM CDSA and a GNSC-modified Wadia 860 -- but I'll now take my Linn/Rosewood Koestsu/Einstein phono stage over either most any day, in the anti-fatigue department especially.)

So, understanding my bias (and I should also add that vacuum tubes became a critical component), here's how the Great Speaker Search played out:

The Vandersteen 3A's were almost the first thing out the door. In his review of (I believe) the Vandersteen Quattros, Michael Fremer noted, in better language than I could have thunk up, that the Vandersteen's suffered from "too much information distortion." He nailed it for the Quattros and the 3As in my view -- quite simply, they tended to tell me too much that I didn't want to know about the downside of much of the source material I wanted to hear, and not enough about the music underneath. I've said something like this before in this forum and gotten some pretty negative reactions. Knowing what I know now, I think it is possible that, had I been using all Cary or CJ gear with warm-sounding interconnect with the Vandersteens, I might well feel somewhat differently. However, I also didn't like what their midrange did to string orchestra sound. So I'm not in a hurry to go back and try again...but your results may differ, as they say.

The Harbeth Monitor 30's were my first experiment after the Vandersteens, followed by the newer Compact 7's. A guy named Paul Szabady reviewed several Harbeths on-line for Stereo Times back around 2007. Superb, thoughtful reviews. I've got nothing much to add, except this: Paul seemed to think that the Monitor 30's also suffered from some version of "too much information" distortion (such that, as he noted, vinyl sounded noticeably more friendly on the Monitor 30's than digital). I think with older CJ gear, the Monitor 30's are more forgiving than Paul found. And they have some of the best, most euphonic midrange I've heard, ever. So good that, even though I'm now using Avalons, I still have the Monitor 30's, and am getting ready to set them up in my study. Vocals and strings sounded so fine through those things. But they could become fatiguing with the wrong gear, or source material, feeding them.

The Spendor SP 1/2's were my next experiment. They were really fine. I had some wonderful listening sessions with orchestral music playing louder than it should have been, with a surprisingly big, rich sound. At low volumes they seemed just a bit colorless in the midrange compared to the Harbeths, but less susceptible of fatigue. I didn't use them for very long, and the 2nd hand pair I bought had some unfortunate cosmetic damage. In the end, I'll bet with the right front end, a person could get darn comfortable with a pair of these.

Then came the Avalon Ascendants. I bought them, only to have my (now ex-) wife hate their appearance (something that still baffles me). I put them aside until the separation (yes, I had an idea it might be coming...funny how that works), and pulled them back out when the time came.

At first, I thought they were too hard and too bright. I eventually figured out that they were very, very sensitive to what was feeding them. During this Great Speaker Search, I used at various times BAT, Cary, ARC, BEL, Joule, and probably some other gear I can't recall. I finally got to CJ gear, which I'd used back in the 80's, and what I did was bought some of the same gear I'd had back then, but had it substantially updated by Bill Thalman, who used to be with CJ. Somewhere along the way, too, I found myself listening to more records than CD's.

The Ascendants with a souped up CJ PV-5 and souped up CJ Premier IV were really, really fine. I was quite happy with that set-up. Imaging like the Vandersteens, or better (pretty darn holographic), lots of detail, but lots of music, too; very balanced presentation, good fat soundstage...for me, overall, it was a "this is IT" type experience.

Then, I had a shot at trading up to a pair of Avalon Eidelon Visions. I was scared to death to mess up a good thing, and almost didn't do it, but couldn't pass them up in the end. I'm using some different CJ gear in the front end now: a Premier 14 pre with Mullards, and a Thalman-modified Premier 11 (modified to be more like old-style tube-y, or at least that's how I express it). The overall effect is more of the same compared to the Ascendants, but with better extension, more solid, serious bass, and wonderful separation and detail.

I will add that, during the trade-in wait, I had the Harbeth Monitor 30's up for a week with the CJ gear, and I fell for them again -- just super mid-range, and the CJ gear was a great match (given my preferences).

And I will also add that, much as I enjoy the Avalons, I still have CD's and Lp's that I try to play on them that wear on me. I hate it when that happens (which is part of the reason I'm setting up a separate, less-picky (I hope) system in another room). It just doesn't happen near as much as it used to, and when everything is on, or even close, the effect is really swell.

So, I hope this is of some use to somebody. My preferences are very much my own -- having gotten somewhat involved with the Houston Audio Society over the last few years, I've heard more than ever first hand the differences there are in hi-fi listening preferences. I'm sure some folks would say that my system is a little "polite" for their tastes. But, at least directly to me, most of them say, "that's one of the warmest systems I've heard." And that's how I like to listen.

Good listening.

I always thought that the M30 was a little overlooked in the Harbeth line. It has a smooth midrange coupled with sweet highs because of the silk dome tweeter.

The low end is both punchy and well defined. My only "slight" criticism, things can get a little "conjested" musically as it is only 2-way monitor and may not have the resolving power of a full range. It was fairly neutral in my system. My wife really enjoyed hearing vocals with the M30s. I used both tube and ss amplification.

It's a classic loudspeaker, one that I may revisit.
Blindjim - I've recorded in 4 studios (only one very fancy). I think the Harbeth M30's would generally qualify as "more articulate" than the monitors in those studios (going mainly by memory) -- meaning they seem quite articulate to me. My understanding is that they are relatively common studio monitors in the UK. I think you can (and do, too often, in fact) find studio monitors with plenty more "sizzle" in the top, and I don't mean that in any kind of complimentary sense at all. And, FWIW, I think the M30's are relatively punchy (by "polite" UK standards). They were certainly able to get my blood going, with the right material.

Petek - I agree that the M30's are overlooked -- I thought they had more magic than the Compact 7's, and I think it's the tweeter that does it, which is indeed "sweet," though I agree with Paul Szabady that they are also pretty revealing, and can become fatiging when subjected to too much digitis, especially with the wrong electronics.

Which leads me to Bwcanuck -- yeah, man, it is really, really annoying when you're listening to some tune you really like through very revealing speakers and you realize, for example, that the vocalist is standing in a sound booth with completely different reverb characteristics than the rest of the instruments, and nobody has bothered to make enough adjustments to at least give you a different illusion...(I mean, most pop music is all about illusion anyway, soundwise, right?) The Harbeths will tell you that, but, generally, they are not as "in your face" about it as other speakers I've spent time with.

And, Petek, I would add that some of the congestion issue with the Harbeths may depend upon amplification. The M30's SEEM relatively comfortable with less power than their ratings would suggest, but for me, they seemed to particularly shine with the CJ Prem 4, which is (I think) 100 watts of EL34 power (although I think I was running them off of the 4 ohm tap, which would be a bit less).

A dealer I've known for years, who moved to another city, told me a while back, "Harbeths are for when you're tired of everything else." That's what started me on them, and (as I guess is obvious), although I'm using Avalons now, I have very fond feelings about them, and am looking forward to hooking up my pair when I get my 2nd system sorted out. (But what kind of nut needs two stereos in the house?? -- Don't answer that...)
I believe I was actually thinking of a Harbeth model a bit further up in the line. 60? 70? ...I recall the selling price of around $12K on a pair I read about not long ago. I believe it had 3 drivers and was stand mounted.

I had initially felt they would need more than the 100 - 120 wpc my EL34 mono's provide, though.
A very interesting write up, thank you for sharing; I have wanted to try Harbeth speakers for a long time and the itch has only grown greater as time progresses.

Blindjim, you are thinking of the M40.1's.