Review: Harbeth Super HL-5 Speaker

Category: Speakers

I have not owned many speakers throughout my journey for the past one decade since I caught up with this crazy hobby back in my college days, but like almost any avid audio enthusiast seeking the ultimate sound, I have swapped equipment and speakers quite a fair bit along the way. The Harbeth Super HL-5 or in short the SHL-5 was introduced to me by one of my friends earlier this year. After some research through the web and in discussion forums, I got serious and went for an audition at my local Harbeth dealer. Today I am a proud owner of the Harbeth SHL-5 in beautiful cherry finish.

I listened to three models in the Harbeth line which include the Compact 7ES-3, SHL-5 and M30. All speakers were driven by Quad amps. Among these speakers the M30 was left out after one round of listening session and I was left comparing between the Compact 7ES-3 and SHL-5 back to back several times after that to determine which one will eventually end up in my listening room. It was a difficult decision but the SHL-5 was chosen at the end although there was very little in separating between the two sonically.

I have owned quite a few number of speakers throughout the past 12 years, listened to a whole lot more and none comes close to the coherency and sheer musicality of the Harbeth SHL-5. In the simplest choice of words, the Harbeth presents music in a wholly natural way without any listening fatigue. The midrange has a nice warmish feel and the highs are sweet, smooth and extended. Although there lies a super-tweeter in the SHL-5 that in the mind of some folks would extend the high frequencies in having more clarity and detail, the speaker is not the last word in transparency. The treble does not sound as airy or extended as some other high-end speakers with ultra-revealing tweeters constructed from exotic materials, nor do they impose an intimidating stature compared to other physically large speakers with high-quality gloss finish standing over 6 feet tall. This is neither a disparaging comment nor criticism towards the SHL-5 as the sound it produces is what that matters. The lack of transparency and detail can be seen as a favorable trait that may appeal to listeners with specific listening preferences. This particular inherent characteristic of Harbeth speakers, I believe, has been fundamental in creating a zero listening fatigue which in my opinion is vital in contributing towards the musical enjoyment with many hours of listening pleasure.

I have owned the SHL-5 for more than a month now and the speakers continue to sound better with each day. The speakers currently have less than 25 hours on them and I reckon they will sound even better when they hit above the 100 hours mark within the break-in period. They are set up in an 11’x17’x8’ room along the short wall and placed very close to the side walls(approx. 1 feet) toed-in towards the listening position.

Just earlier today I rummaged through my huge collection of CD's from my college days that were left untouched since the early to late 90's, mostly pop and rock material and one of them totally caught me off-guard. This particular album is from a UK rock band "Garbage" called the pink album. I still remember listening to this CD through my first pair of "high-end" speakers back in 1997, the B&W CDM1SE's driven by Arcam electronics. Although the music sounded quite good at that time, it was in a huge mess as the strumming of guitar not only sounded artificial and unrefined but was all over the place, not to mention the harsh and grainy vocals from the female lead singer. With the Harbeth, I just cannot help but keep cranking the volume up and blasted the music at free will with my feet tapping along to the beat. For the first time in my life I have experienced an incredible sound from a CD that I have never imagined possible before playing it through the Harbeth. This experience has made me feel that my system is now truly in the realm of high-end. The sound is not only full and free from digital artifacts but listening fatigue is close to non-existent. I have not envisaged that a mass-market pop recording like this one can sound so good considering most commercial pop and rock CD's produced by recording companies these days sound like trash.

I attribute the excellent sound and low listening fatigue to the warm and lush-sounding Plinius amp that I own. Most well-recorded pop and rock music(excluding hard rock and metal) is free from coarse vocals and piercing treble owing much to the Plinius/Harbeth combination. However, jazz and instrumental music sound a little smooth, warm and laid-back for my listening preferences. I will be getting an alternative amp that leans towards transparency, PRAT and detail in an attempt to add a little sparkle, dynamics and life with these types of music in due time. I need to figure out how to succesfully blend in two different amps to the speaker though as swapping cables would prove to be a hassle.

Despite some folks who do not advocate the use of subwoofers with Harbeth speakers, I do find the inclusion of a subwoofer to enhance the low frequency performance of the SHL-5 considerably well. A few folks have reported great success in integrating a pair of stereo subs to their Harbeth speakers, particularly the M30, Compact 7ES-3 and SHL-5(the huge M40.1 definitely does not need any subs). Although the SHL-5's do produce some excellent tight bass, in my opinion the bass does not go too deep in creating a visceral impact. With some choice of music, I cannot feel the bass grunt compared to some other transmission line designs like the bigger PMCs. However, I believe this is a minor caveat that most people can happily live with judging from responses made by other SHL-5 owners here.

All in all the SHL-5 is a phenomenal speaker that offers exceptional value and performance in its price range. The sound quality is remarkable and I am extremely pleased with the speaker. Kudos to the designer Mr. Alan Shaw in coming up with a fantastic product that has brought many wonderful moments of listening pleasure to music lovers worldwide.

Associated gear
Plinius SA-100MkIII
Audio Research LS-16
Krell KPS-30i
XLO Signature 2 interconnects
Pure Note Cerulean speaker cable
PMC TLE1 subwoofer

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B&W N805
Sonus Faber Grand Piano Concerto
Sonus Faber Extrema
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PMC LB1 Signature
Before I forget, I have to add that the SHL-5 needs to be placed at a further distance apart for better soundstaging capabilities. Due to width limitation of the room, the speakers were about 7' apart previously to get them away from the side walls. After some minor adjustments earlier today, the SHL-5's are now 7'5" apart tweeter to tweeter, 4'3" from the back wall measured to front baffle and toed-in more towards the listening position. Although the speakers are now very close to side walls about 1' clear distance away, amazingly they still sound very good(most speakers would have already sounded terrible with collapsed soundstage when placed at close proximity to side walls). Close placement to wall boundaries is definitely not an issue with the Harbeth SHL-5.

Room is treated with absorption at first reflection points on side walls and diffusion at rear wall.
Wow! If you can make Garbage sound really good and not harsh then you must have a very forgiving preamp that would not resolve the heavy clipping. I like the band but the sound is bad, IMHO.

Here is a quote from Rolling Stone:

"Compression is a necessary evil. The artists I know want to sound competitive. You don't want your track to sound quieter or wimpier by comparison. We've raised the bar and you can't really step back."
— Butch Vig, producer and Garbage mastermind
Hi Shadorne,
I suspect it is not so much on the preamp but the smooth sounding Plinius amp. The rough edges, piercing treble and grainy vocals are pretty much subdued with the Plinius/Harbeth combination. I guess Garbage must have sounded bad with your ultra-revealing ATC actives. I'll be getting a leaner, more revealing and dynamic amp with plenty of PRAT to match the SHL-5's soon to have the best of both worlds.
I guess Garbage must have sounded bad with your ultra-revealing ATC actives.

Yes - it sounds best in the car or not cranked too loudly (like Red Hot Chilli's Arctic Monkeys and other compressed modern music) - I do like Shirley Manson though! Great that you can make it sound good on such revealing speakers as Harbeth.
I never enjoyed listening to music in my car as listening fatigue is too high even at moderate volume levels. At low volumes the sound is not full enough. Yes, Shirley Manson sounds good, thanks to the warm, lush and laidback sound of the Plinius amp.

Anyway I just brought back a rare British amp yesterday, an NVA AP70. When powered up from cold, this amp has killed my ARC/Plinius amplification in terms of transparency, musicality and detail. This unit is a new old stock and still very new. The manual states the amp will sound much better when used for 2 weeks and powered up at all times. I cannot imagine how the amp will sound like when it reaches its optimum level.

It is too premature to pass any judgments at this point of time but first listening impression is extremely positive. The NVA has given a breath of fresh air to the sound with its clean and delicate presentation and has confirmed the Plinius to be a warm and lush sounding unit. Tonality is much improved and the sound takes on greater presence and realism. Voices sound like real voices, less digital and grain, almost tube-like. Micro-dynamics, tonality and timbre are now greatly improved which further add to the listening enjoyment.

The only setback is Shirley Manson's voice now sounds a little strident and guitars take on a shrill and sharp sound which translates to higher listening fatigue. Since the midrange now doesn't sound too thick, the bottom end appears to have less bass(although bass is still taut). Nonetheless, I suspect things may improve when this unit is fully run-in within the next few days, or weeks as claimed by the designer.

In summary the revealing nature of the Harbeth has been further exposed with the clean and transparent sounding NVA amp, or vice versa. The Harbeth is not all that warm as what I have thought of earlier. Matching is extremely important in getting the tonality right, and yesterday's experience has proven that.

I am not sure whether my ARC pre or Plinius power amp is the culprit, nor do I want to write any bad things on either one since I know there are many folks who own the Plinius and love the sound. After listening to the NVA the Plinius now seems to sound a little "fake"(can't think of a better term to describe it at this point). It may well be the preamp but after trying out 4 preamps with the Plinius odds are high it's the amp.
Try Maceo Parker Advanced Funk from School's In and see which you prefer. This CD is lush sounding and smooth but at thee same time very dynamic and revealing. Great cornet solo and awesome B3 and with Jamal Thomas on drums it is real tight. Kind of a different level from the grunge scene.
Alan Shaw of Harbeth seems to have pretty firm opinions on audiophiles ruminating about this or that amplifier, this or that speaker cable(s), bi-wiring, mono-amps, and big power output with Harbeth's. Anyway, what does he know? He just designs them.
I appreciate your enthusiasm for the SHL5's and your solid description of its sound and why you like it. I'm curious to know why you rejected the Monitor 30?

Separately, I wonder why people -- and many around here are guilty of this -- write a review of a product they have listened to for only 25 hours? It won't surprise me if, two months from now, you find yourself craving the transparency and resolution the Harbeths lack.
Yes, I agree about Alan Shaw's views and assertions in not worrying too much about different amplifiers with Harbeth speakers as in his mind all would sound more or less similar. Of course, I have found the opposite and have a different viewpoint.

Hi Drubin,

I settled for the SHL-5 instead of the M30 as the latter is too smooth for my listening preferences and musical taste. It is a more refined speaker but the high frequencies are not as open and extended as the SHL-5.

To me, the SHL-5's do not lack resolution and transparency provided they are driven by the right amplifier. With my Plinius, it is apparent they are shut-in and lacking in resolution and dynamics. With the LFD Zero MkIII, there is nothing to fault with the speakers as all detail, resolution and dynamics come forth strongly. The best part is the transparency kicks in without any listening fatigue. The transparency of the LFD amp has shown what the SHL-5's are capable of, or vice versa.

I cannot deny that there are other speakers that possess higher resolution and transparency than the Harbeth, and I have owned and listened to some of these speakers which include Proacs and Marten Duke. Sometimes too much transparency especially in the high frequencies is too much of a good thing which translates to higher listening fatigue. Most of the time I cannot tolerate listening to these systems at prolonged sessions.
SPL-5 is perfect for all music which created with real instruments,it doesn't matter if it is rock or jazz or even metal music or vocals.It sounds just right like in reality.Of cource these speakers doesn't have dynamic attack and thundering bass of big floorstanders,but it has details(no wonder ,because it has 2 tweters) and musicality that i never heard in big speakers.(dynaudio countor,confidence,monitor audio pl,b&W D ).Nearly All modern electronic ,dance music which is made with computers has piercing treble problem,somewhat too much extension, but still without listening fatuige.I've tried 3 diffrent amps,and these speakers simply showed how each sounds,and sound of the source.
These old-fashion Harbeth monitors are the way to go.

This is because that is.

I wonder if Saymir's ever heard of the stock phrase "different folks different strokes" and that "You will have compromises in the field of speaker design." to issue such a blanket statement.

Fixed on view only shows a lack of common sense.
The Harbeth Super HL-5 good size woofers would make it easier to integrate with a power sub if you really want to run your speakers full-range.

I am assuming that Ryder is living in England and I am not sure if you can purchase quality yet affordable power subs like Hsu Research or Outlaw Audio. Dollarwise I think they are very, very tough to beat.
with right amplifier power sub is not necessary.It is not abaut fashion,it is all abaut sound.I recommend to use something with mos-fet amplification.It might be LFD or Accuphase or even Pioneer or Technics.Higher class power amp+preamp combos.Just avoid power monsters.Need more power in bass?No problem, add equalizer,here it goes the deep and warmest bass.I would say rich bass.
It has been almost a year since I owned the SHL5. A few amps have gone in and out of the room and I have finally settled for an amp that I think can last me for a couple of years before I start looking again.

Due to the Harbeth designer's philosophy and perspective in amplifiers, I decided to post my findings here instead of sharing them in the Harbeth user forum.

When I got the SHL5 I was using the Plinius and briefly tried the LFD in my system. I have tried a couple of amps for the past few months which include the Mcintosh 275Mk4, Nagra PSA, Rega Elicit and Naim Nait XS. I now use the Naim 202/200.

The Mcintosh tube amp was a nice sounding amp that sounded more involving, organic and real compared to the Plinius. I was tempted to settle for the Mcintosh but the hassle of tubes prevented me from going the tube route.

I wasn't impressed with the Nagra but to be fair the unit was not optimised as I didn't have the matching preamp.

I then settled for the Rega Elicit after getting a few recommendations and was quite happy with it, only for 8 months. It has a fairly neutral and warm tone which sounded more transparent than the thick-sounding Plinius. After living with the amp for a while I find the sound to lack transparency and openness. In other words music sounded dull and lacklustre, and as I was yearning for a more live sound I started looking again. I tried the Naim Nait XS which has an equally warm tone but the overall presentation of the amp had proven to be more involving than the Rega. The PRaT qualities, as usual with Naim amps are a notch higher than the Rega. One thing comes after another and before I knew it I ended up with the Naim 202/200.

The Naims managed to inject some life and dynamics into the music and sounded a lot involving than most amps that I have tried. They managed to project a holographic image and present music in a fun and believable way. Listening to pop and rock music on the Naims is truly enjoyable even though the Harbeths are not well known to excel in these types of music. I reckon there is still room for improvement and will get an alternative CD player that is more open, upfront and dynamic than the one I have right now.
Great post, Ryder.

Due to the Harbeth designer's philosophy and perspective in amplifiers, I decided to post my findings here instead of sharing them in the Harbeth user forum.
Ryder, thanks for the very informative post. I have M30's and have been thinking about finding a replacement for the Classe CAP 101 that I use. Your experience is helpful.

I think you should post your findings in the Harbeth User Forum. As I understand Alan Shaw's perspective, he engineers his speakers to sound good with a wide variety of amps, both inexpensive and expensive, so that a Harbeth user doesn't have to think that an "appropriate" amp needs to cost a lot of money. I don't believe he maintains that his speakers will sound the same regardless of the amp used. Besides, whatever he thinks about that, he hasn't stopped the forum's continuing thread about which amps are used by Harbeth owners.

Thanks for the kind words Drubin and Jim.

Yes, I do understand Alan Shaw's perspective in the use of inexpensive amps in driving his speakers. The problem is where should we draw the line in categorizing amps which are considered as exotic and amps which are budget-friendly. He sure doesn't like people advocating the use of expensive and exotic amps on his speakers.

I think Alan won't be happy if I continue to post my findings in the HUG. In the latest thread "Concepts akin to Harbeth's and brand development ...." he has mentioned that the manipulation of the consumer into a position of psychological inadequacy sickens him. I have a strong feeling he is referring to me. (I have made my point to another Harbeth user who is enjoying his speakers driven by a cheap mini stereo system.) In order not to upset him I think it is best that I keep my mouth shut.

Jim, so you are using Classe CAP 101. I have owned a CAP 100 years ago on B&W CDM 1SE speakers. From my memory the Classe has a nice warm and fluid sound, and I can imagine how the Classe and M30's combination would sound like. I am not sure what aspects you find the combination lacking that prompted you to consider an amp replacement for your Classe CAP 101. It really depends on what exactly you are looking for in your music. I would prefer not make any specific amp recommendation these days as I have found out that people's taste and listening preference can differ a lot. Having said that if you want more macrodynamics and toe-tapping factor kind of presentation, two alternatives worth looking at are the LFD and Naim. Both are perennial recommendations for Harbeth speakers with proven record, and I think you must have known about it. I have not listened to the Luxman which equally garnered a lot of praises. Whatever your choice, I would advise against the Rega as it would sound more or less similar to your Classe you have right now. If you find enjoyment with your current setup, please stick with the Classe and be part of the Harbeth family. Alan would be pleased.

p/s: Pcoombs is using Nagra PSA driven directly by the Wadia 381 on his M30's.
Thanks to all here for the added information. I also have the Harbeth Super HL5's driven by Odyssey Extreme SE mono blocks and Odyssey Candela preamp. IC's and cables are inexpensive custom made, all silver plated.

I turned my speakers upside-down and set them up on Dynaudio Stand 4's, sand filled, which sit spiked to concrete bricks on a rug. The woofers are thus higher up. My ear height falls between the main tweeter and the super one. The imaging, coherency and realism is the best I've heard with this arrangement.

This combination delivers a very deep, clean, wide and very organic sound stage with fine details projected in holographic phantoms around the room. Vocals project from tightly controlled areas in central stage and are very stable. Harbeth really gets the vocals right. At the right volume, one can imagine the artists there in the room. Vocals and instrumental notes decay for a long time in the background while new notes are produced. You can sonically "see" the room it was recorded in.

Base is natural and real sounding; not bloated and without that annoying boominess which always sounds the same. Drums and base beats have their own defined sonic characteristic, depending on the recording.

I say all of this to demonstrate that the SHL5's can really bring out the best in gear of all kinds, from less expensive like mine to the finest, IMHO. Its nice to hear about the differences between kits. That NAIM 202/200 is starting to become a temptation right now . . . oh no . . . here we go again!

Question on volume: I'm not sure what is a safe volume for the SHL5's. Alan Shaw says they were designed to be run at 85 decibels continuously, but I like to turn it up to 95 once in a while. My amps put out 200 plus watts at 8 ohms. I don't want to burn the coils.

Does anyone know at what volume level or wattage would equal 95 decibels with this amp?

Thanks again,


I presume Alan Shaw is saying that 85dB is the safe volume level in normal listening environments. I’ve asked the question once and the designer cannot commit to a figure.

I believe the SHL5 can handle up to 105dB peak SPL without any problems. It depends on the distance one is sitting away from the speakers. Since SPLs will decrease by 6dB for every distance doubled, the SPL for 95dB at a distance of 2m away would be 101dB. If the listening distance from speakers is 3m away the SPL would be 104dB. At 4m the SPL would be 107dB. Assuming you’re sitting at approximately 3m away and getting a peak SPL of 95dB I wager the speakers would be fine as 104dB is still below 105dB.

FWIW I am getting a peak of 100dB at 3m away, which means the speakers are actually pumping out 109dB, quite a bit out of the recommended range. Sound is still very much in control although I may be listening to some distortion added in.

As for amp wattage, 1W will produce 86dB(since the sensitivity of the SHL5 is 86dB/m). Since every doubling of power will increase the SPL by 3dB, you would require 64W to produce 104dB(at 3m listening distance).

Anyway all this technical interpretations are a general guideline only as the system may perform differently in practical use. Even if the limits are exceeded, the amplifier and speakers may still be in one piece as we get more distortion in music.

I may try your suggestion in turning the speakers upside down sometime to hear the effects myself. I agree that vocals on the Harbeth sound glorious. It’s just so natural that listening to other high-end speakers(that I don’t want to mention names) made them sound artificial with unnatural detail. I can listen to the SHL5s all day long on a good day.

Re. amps –one man’s meat is another man’s poison. The Naims don’t suit everyone. Not the most analogue sounding in vocals when compared to a few good tube amps(although I still find vocals as smooth as silk, thanks to the Harbeth). I love them for their PRaT qualities especially when playing rock music.

Thanks for the technical info on spl's, distances and amps. At typically 3 M away, I probably have them up around 95 decibels and 100 + for rock. I'll stay away from the 105 db levels though.

It seems that with the 64 watts you mentioned, we're still far away from the 150 watt program rating on the speakers. But that is not necessarily true due to the fact that most of the watts going into the speaker are converted to heat energy and not sound (yikes).

Its hard not to want to turn the SHL-5's up on favorites due to the absence of fatigue. Better to let one's intuition and the numbers dictate safe levels.

"Yes, dear; those have always been there."

The Plinius is a smooth and warm sounding amp, a bit on the dark side. Matched with the equally smooth and warm Harbeths, too much of a good thing. Folks who predominantly listen to mellow stuff and vocals will prefer the Plinius/Harbeth combination. For a better portrayal of transients in music especially rock and dynamic music with lots of transient swings, there are other amps that can do better.

Listening preferences and patterns will play a part when matching specific amplifiers to speakers, although the setting up of speakers(placement and room conditions) will also be a huge factor. I've had the Harbeths in different rooms for almost three years now and they sound very different with the environments that they are in. I find the SHL5 to sound best in mid-field arrangement with a minimum listening distance of around 8', ideally 9' to 11'.
Thanks for all the comments. I am considering buying a pair of Harbeth SHL5 for my 300B amp. My amp specs: power = 8W rms @ 8 ohm. Input impedance - 100k. It is a DIY amp. I understand SHL5 sensitivity is only 86 dB hence suspect it may not be optimal for my amp.
All comments are much appreciated.
At first glance, I'd say that an 8W 300B amp wouldn't be sufficient for a Harbeth. But that is based on specs not personal experience. Also worth considering is room size, average listening volume and type of music you listen to.
Hello Ryder
Please tell me what kind of stands do I see on your photoes?
They look like Foundation but are not, I think.
Hi Saabuser,
Those stands are custom made. Thin, hollow and lightweight open-frame stands.