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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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.