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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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.