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.



Someday perhaps, I'll get past the thought more than two drivers are needed to produce better sound and look closer at something like the 30s.

That said, when I do listen routinely to some of my own two ways, I am reminded how much of the musical pictorial just a pair of drivers can reproduce. In fact I have a 30 year old pair of Phase Tech PC 6.5s as my mains in one system... 100% rebuilt (grills drivers & networks) 3 years or so ago.
I have owned spendor, Avalons. Currently still have Harbeth m30 and Verity speakers. We may share listening taste. When I had the Diamonds, they always sound better with warmer Class A SS or tubes. Trouble is not many tube amps have sufficient power. The ceramic midrange can lack suppleness and texture comparing to other midranges. Piano sounded a little brittle and violin sounded too metallic. If you love the Harbeth, Verity is worth a shot. Some texture with more transparency, more extensions top and bottom.

I do not mean to put down ceramic midrange. It has great transient attack. Different speaker manufacturors, amp pairing can overcome this problem.
Glai - I respect your comments about ceramic drivers -- I was very concerned about that with the Eidelons. With the wrong electronics, I think, quite as you say, pianos can sound brittle and violins too metallic. That's why I would characterize the Avalons, in general, as being very reflective of the equipment used to drive them. (This goes for the Ascendants as well.) With the CJ gear, I'm not having that issue. As one of my more experienced audiophile buddies opined, "Some designers know how to design with ceramic drivers, and some don't." Maybe he's right.

The Eidelons are among the less-efficient Avalons, and I'm not having any problem driving them to the point of "bleeding ears" in my room, which is about 15x20, with a Premier 11, which I think is 70 watts.

Flyfish2002 - yes, Bill is great to work with, and he still has some gear of mine he's working on, so I almost hate to mention his name here -- don't want him to get TOO busy! He listens very carefully for what the client is trying to achieve, and does a very nice job of both describing what he can do, and delivering.

Blindjim - I think even the Harbeth M-40's can likely be driven by 100 watts of tube power. I think you will find that Harbeth users in general would say that the rated efficiency for the Harbeths does not seem to correctly describe their (relative) drive-ability. The M-30's on paper are relatively inefficient, but even 50 - 70 watts of tube power gooses them pretty well.

Bwcanuck - You're right about classical recordings, and it goes for old or new. A lot of Columbia records (meaning Lps or CDs) sound too bright to me on a system that otherwise doesn't have that problem -- especially the old Szell and Walter recordings. I think there might be some phono equalization issues there, at least with the Lps. But I'll tell you a great secret -- some of the most enjoyable recordings I have listened to in the last year have been old mono Deccas and EMIs. Not all, by any means, but a lot of the mono Ansermets are very good, and a lot of the chamber music is wonderful. Evenutally, I intend to get a separate turntable and a mono cartridge, and that is part of the rationale for setting up a separate system with my M30's.

Many thanks to all for the comments.

Interestingly, I also went from the M30s to Verity Parsifals. Both share some similarities, with a natural and smooth sound that does fatigue. The Parsifals are a fuller range loudspeaker that are even more refined. They remind of the M30 in that the top loudspeaker unit (above the granite slab) appears to be a an exceedingly good monitor that just happens to be well integrated with a woofer unit enclosure below the granite slab. This integration is part of their magic.

I also had the Spendor S3/5se prior to the M30s - great little monitors which sounded better every time the electronics improved (esp. amplification).

I agree with Glai, give the Verity's a listen. You can't go wrong.
I received my Ascendant two weeks ago to replace my Vandersteen 2 Ce Sig II and have put 400 hours of current through them, but probably more like 200 hours in driver workout.

I have experimented over the last few days and was blown away when I moved the speakers in from 8' to 7'. I also found that my initial listening distance of 9' was too much, so I moved in to 8' and thought I was part of the performance. I've found when I had my Thiels and Vandersteen, 9'+ was where the magic was but so far 8' listening distance with the speaker seperated 7' apart, 4' from the back wall and the left spkr 4.5' and right spkr 3.5' from side wall.

I'm going to give them a little more time to settle in and do some more experimenting. The level of detail and soundstaging in their current positions blow away 2 Ce Sig II. I'm still amazed at the ambiance and complete coherence of this design since it doesn't have the traditional midrange driver.

I still have not heard the Quatro Wood sig but I believe I made the right decision in going with the Ascendant. Please feel free to give any setup techniques and advice since I'm just entering back in the hobby.

How do I ensure that my pre-amp/amp balance is accurate in both channels?