Harbeth Compact 7ES-3 XD loudspeaker REVIEWED

The Harbeth Compact 7ES-3 XD loudspeaker has been re-vamped into a “beast from 20,000 fathoms!

It is not unusual for most generations of audiophiles to experience a loudspeaker design that attracts their attention and swiftly establishes itself as a turning point in hi-fi reproduction technology. This was evidenced with the Quad 57 in the mid-’60s and the Spendor BC1 in the early 1970s, and not unusually, many people still use both these loudspeakers as midrange references as of today!

Back in the day, the late Dudley Harwood, who founded Harbeth worked with the late Spencer Hughes of Spendor at the research and design department at the BBC having developed several BBC and BBC-derived model loudspeakers. This included the introduction of the first Bextrene cone drivers (Spencer’s BC1) produced in a moving coil loudspeaker. Admittedly, the early Harbeth models were occasionally not totally up to par on quality control or the absence of certain box colorations as compared to the Spendor, but this has dramatically changed in the past 20-25 years.

The current owner and designer of Harbeth, Alan Shaw, has presently re-written the book on BBC-designed pedigrees with the newest, revised Harbeth HL Compact 7 series XD and the loudspeaker is an outstanding example of natural and exceptionally neutral sound combined with a flair for reproducing any and every type of music genre from rock to opera, jazz through folk. This particularly pertains to live acoustical music and recordings. Further on, in the review, I will expand on every aspect of the subjective sound quality of this new model and include a few measurements as well.

Alan Shaw Harbeth loudspeaker
Alan Shaw

The HL Compact 7ES-3 XD has brought together some improvements over its predecessor (Compact 7ES-3) in the driver, crossover, and cabinet that make this new model arguably, the finest and most enthralling box loudspeaker by Harbeth, produced to this day.

The Harbeth secret for natural and more importantly, neutral sound is the result of the most meticulous attention to detail throughout the entire design. Take just one example – the traditional ‘thin-wall BBC-style’ cabinet. In true BBC tradition, the cost is secondary to performance as both the front and rear panels are removable, held in place by screws, not glue and nails so creating the ideal ‘lossy joint’ structure with low inertia and low energy storage; thereby pushing any hint of frequency abnormalities into the lowest bass regions. (Again, similar to the early Harbeth and Spendor BBC design tradition.)

At the lowest frequencies, the XD’s small cabinet literally “breathes,” and exhibits the fundamental tones extraordinarily well for its size. An essential component of the entire loudspeaker is the BBC design pedigree and its distinctive cabinet design attributes. Entirely conventional by BBC standards, but updated to exuberant heights by Alan Shaw.

But as soon as this new model hit the market, it became clear that the small details had added up to far more than the sum of their parts, and the Compact 7ES-3 XD was hailed as a major advance. And so Harbeth’s new star has finally emerged. It has been quoted by designer Alan Shaw that this new Harbeth “may be the finest model in the entire line!

A FRESH HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

I had last evaluated a Harbeth model back around the early 1990s and enjoyed this speaker a lot, even with its few shortcomings. Back in those days, Harbeth produced successive Mk2 and Mk3 Monitors during the first ten years of production, making minor adjustments to the system balance and bass-midrange drive unit characteristics. Polypropylene was also utilized at this time.

Interestingly, Harwood used polypropylene cones for more than a decade until he switched to using the then-new TPX material, first in the HL Monitor Mk4, and later the first original Compact which was designed by Mr.Shaw. (When Alan Shaw took over Harbeth in 1986 Harwood had already identified the next generation cone material after polypropylene.). 

It was the invention of the revolutionary Mk4 Monitor that altered the brand and had a significant impact on the financial performance and reputation of the company.  

Mr. Harwood announced his new Mk4 monitor to an awaiting public. The self-evident sonic transparency and natural tonality over conventional speakers eventually led to a cult-style following. As we jump forward to today, we can now intimately explore current owner and designer, Alan Shaw’s considerable contribution to the present day Harbeth Compact 7-es3/XD in its entirety,

THE DRIVERS

The ultra-clean RADIAL cone technology manufactured by Harbeth has always been the foundation of the HL Compact 7 family and now expanded into the Compact 7 ES/XD. The 8-inch RADIAL driver is also included in the C7ES-3 series. However, the C7ES-3XD features a redeveloped version of the 8-inch RADIAL driver and a new rubber surround with a softer smoother profile for improved damping.

The surround is also fairly unusual, being a ‘reverse’ roll that dips inward, rather than bloating in an outward direction and the cone dust cap is made from the same material as the cone itself. This driver seems to be exceptionally made giving the impression as though the cone and dust cap are formed as a ‘single molding’; that is until you look a bit closer!

Harbeth Compact 7 ES-3 XD loudspeaker

There are many advantages to this design, but in the case of the 7ES-3 XD, an immanently important one is that the grille cloth can be fitted tightly over the front baffle without affecting cone movement.

Although this Harbeth is rated at a somewhat lower sensitivity than many of its current counterparts, (86dB/1m axial) it can handle a huge amount of power, and amplifiers of up to 300 watts per channel proved more than satisfactory in the listening tests. The more “clean” power you may have on hand will bring forth even greater dynamic capabilities from this loudspeaker.

Even so, if connected to a lower-powered, low-quality tube amplifier with substantially less overall stability, or current capability, the new Compact 7 may leave you yearning for a bit more “oomph”. Safe to say the Compact 7XD needs a tube or solid-state amplifier with a minimum of 70 pure watts of “polished” power as it will expose most weaknesses of other less than optimum amplification. (It must be mentioned that the Audio Note 7 watt per channel I-Zero amplifier, (review forthcoming), did have a superb time driving these speakers- so there will always be exceptions to the rule.!)

Alternatively, if you are using any of the quite sensational Pass Labs power amps, (the XA30.8 in my case),  its high “Nelson Pass” current and reserve power will sound magnificent with the Harbeths. I have tried a few other amps with the Compact 7 and while they drove the speakers to significantly clean and huge sound levels quite superbly, the detail, nuance, and beauty were a bit less pronounced than with the Pass Labs.

The Compact 7ES-3 XD’s tweeter is a ferrofluid-cooled unit with a 25mm dome that’s protected by a black metal mesh.

Speaking of this tweeter, Harbeth’s own 25mm tweeter is uncommonly accurate in its tonal response in the authors’ opinion. It never shies away from that sheen that represents the finest recorded massed violins while always encompassing a silky presentation at the very highest frequencies; never getting a touch shrill or fizzy as many tweeters can do. Let’s just say that the designer’s “ears’ may well be more in tune with how “live” violins should sound in a concert hall than many of his peers and /or rivals.

Of course, even more openness and transparency should be achieved when Alan added this new “Open Weave” tweeter grille, which provides the tweeter with an unhindered view into the listening space (through the extraordinarily transparent Super Grille), as well as better cabinet damping.

NEW CROSSOVER DESIGN

As any designer will know, the crossover is the most crucial component and is invisible to the user. With the aid of cutting-edge software simulation, this has been completely reconstructed from the ground up, and the payoff is quite special indeed. The new technology uses software simulation that’s allowed for millions of graphic permutations to be fully eliminated.

This new crossover circuit has improved the on-axis integration of the drive units and enhanced the vertical integration: it means, in short, that the speaker is somewhat less critical of stand height and will integrate well on stands that may be a bit shorter than previous generations.

Nevertheless, after personal and careful listening considerations, I still felt that the Compact 7 XD was at its best at around 18 to 20 inches off the ground. I used open frame, metal, made-to-order stands with a touch of blu-tack adhered to its base to verify this, and the above height I found to be ideal by any standards; you can take my word on this incontrovertibly! Apart from this, the speaker size betrays its weight to a small degree, being a solid 29 pounds each.

This, of course, is no substitute at all for hundreds of hours of critical listening to music and speech during development which was always the hallmark of BBC-derived loudspeakers. The fact that Mr. Shaw happens to have a most critical and musical ear only adds more to the finalized overall performance of this updated Harbeth.

For improved bass performance, the new cabinet has redesigned internal wall-damping and altered the port tuning frequency. Here we see a bass response that can satisfy all but the most demanding bass “freaks” into a compact-size cabinet. The XDs’ output and articulation levels won’t inspire many people to buy subwoofers.

Even though their rated sensitivity is 86db/2.83v/1m, that doesn’t fully convey the situation. This indicates a slightly below-average speaker sensitivity, but the Harbeth has always been an easy load to drive. (As compared to certain models within the original Spendor line of years past).

THE SOUND and SET UP

The setup was simple and quite resolute according to traditional BBC rules. The speakers as shown below were anchored on the custom 18” high open frame stands, slightly towed into the room by some 20⁰ and set 8.5’ apart, perfectly symmetrical to the side walls and 4.5 feet from the back wall to the front baffle. My listening room is somewhat large at 14’ by 26’ with my seating position at 11 feet from the front of the speaker cabinets. The speakers were able to deliver huge sound levels, even in this room. Let us say you will never want for a lack of volume with the Compact 7 XD.

Transients are strong, smooth, and tactful with all music presented to the Harbeths. Singularly pure in tonality, it takes nuances of sound in its midrange that you may never have known were on your sources, (vinyl or digital) and shockingly brings them into the soundscape for the first time!

A bit of front-to-back wall distance experimentation was applied but, in my room, the measurements as described above, appeared to be ideal when some initial fundamental musical auditioning began playing. 

Describing the Compact 7ES-3/XD will be much harder than the enticing thoughts that enter one’s mind as you start to listen to this loudspeaker. Their BBC heritage takes no prisoners as you first experience its expansive, accurate, and natural sound permeating the front and sides of your listening room.

You soon observe the decisively matched sensitivity these speakers inherit as the stereophonic images appear immediately before your eyes and ears! To say they brought forth the utmost in discreet soundstage locational effects would be an understatement. Images were rock solid with each musical track or performance and on vocals and piano concertos, they never wavered from the center for the former to center/1/4 right on classical piano.

Barenboim Mozart Piano Sonatas

Solo piano works were uncompromising in tonality, depth of the instrument, and stereo imaging. An example is Barenboim’s1970 remastered EMI recording of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. You will find here that a variation of the early Blumliein microphone technique was involved and you can see Barenboim’s hands at center stage as the clarity and ambiance envelope the instrument fully. Exceptional sound indeed!

Admittedly being a fairly conservative writer myself, I will ask, “Can the Harbeth C7-es3/XD possibly bring a concert piano recording effectively into the front of your listening room”? I will go out on a limb here and say, “Pretty close” indeed. Please buy this virtually “perfect” sound recording of Beethoven Piano Sonatas (Vol.2 CD or Vinyl) by James Brawn on MSR classics as a showpiece for your system and see just how close you can get.

James Brawn pianist

The sound of the Steinway here is magnificently balanced, displayed, and reproduced better than any recording of a solo piano I have ever heard; particularly so with these new Harbeths!

On the flip side, soul and Motown fans will find this excellently recorded and performed offering of “Smokey Robinson’s ‘Definitive’ collection wonderfully rewarding, particularly the ‘Tears of A Clown’, written with Stevie Wonder. The sound spread and vocal stereo effects are surprisingly good and well centered on these Harbeth’s.

I must not forget to mention this “PCM find” of 3 outstandingly recorded piano (video) concertos by Mozart. One paraticularly is the 26th concerto by Homero Franchesch, which displays a superlative sound quality that the Harbeth XD will revel in, with piano imaging beyond reproach along with a huge, delicate, and immaculate soundstage to boot!

This speaker reveals, not unexpectedly, excellent depth, lateral width, and an airy openness that imbues a delectable concert hall ambiance and is well out of the speaker cabinets themselves. On some fundamentally refined classical recordings, you cannot detect that the speaker enclosures are in front of you. This is one of the indications of a truly great design!

As for the midrange, here is where most if not all the music evolves, and this Harbeth midrange is one to marvel at. Transparent, see-through sound permeates your hearing with all the natural tonality of each instrument planted before you. Singing voices are truly exceptional in tonality naturalness depth and detail. I must admit that the C7ES-3 XD should, and does equal or outshine in many ways the magical midrange of my 45-year-old Spendor BC1 loudspeakers. This is a miraculous feat under any circumstances.

You also hear the “electrostatic” sounding mid of the legendary Quad 63 on much program material and that will make you take intense notice when listening to some of your favorite program material. The detail is abundant and the speaker has that “liquid” quality in its midrange response while blending formatively into the tweeter’s upper mid to high frequencies.

The mixture from the bass/mid to treble is quite infinitely smooth as tested with the grilles on as well as with the speaker’s average results at a meter as seen below:

Harbeth Compact 7 ES-3 XD loudspeaker graph

The Compact 7es-3/XD’s treble offers just the right amount of “snap” in the highest frequencies which undoubtedly are theoretically inaudible, yet appear to give string instruments a touch of a “silky” roll-off at its extreme while the listener still retrieves the tonality and ambiance of the tweeters’ high-frequency detail and transparency without a hint of acerbity. These speakers will perform superbly with either tube or solid-state amplification. Pair matching is paraticularly uncommon as is its overtly natural high frequency response with and without the grille.

Harbeth Compact 7 ES-3 XD loudspeaker frequency response

BASS and THAT SOLID CABINET

The low frequencies roll down below 100 Hz as expected given the size of the cabinet and the solitary bass/midrange driver, but they do so gradually and quite cleanly. As the graph shows, one can see where the port’s output begins to strengthen and prolong the bass, thus the severe roll-off is truly not apparent until approximately 45 Hz.

Harbeth Compact 7 ES-3 XD loudspeaker back view

As mentioned, above, however, the thunderous bass drums on many of the best orchestral recordings used were captivating in their huge, deep thwacks which included an overall audible impact your ears can easily recognize when formidable bass instruments are introduced. The Harbeth was never impervious to any blasts of deep bass contained within just about all the program sources used in the listening tests.

LIABILITIES?

If I wanted to truly nit-pick any problems with the C7ES-3 XD it would be a bit hard, although as we all understand, no loudspeaker is perfect; even ones audiophiles consider the greatest will always have a shortcoming or two, and that goes for any product at any particular price point that may be considered.

Sure, some enthusiasts will always want a floor thumping, earth-shattering bass response from a loudspeaker, of that you can be sure. Generally speaking, lower Hz means more bass.  In this respect, our Harbeth will not meet those demands. On the other hand, I can not for the life of me understand some audiophiles’ constant need for bass that can reach down that far in the frequency spectrum.

Understadably, the lower the response (and particularly, the quality of the room acoustics) means that as you go lower in the scale, the bass becomes deeper until you are at the range where you are mostly just feeling the bass and not hearing it. If one gets truly “real” — the Harbeth C7/XD will satisfy just about any, dare I say, “normal user” concerning the above.

MY CONCLUSIONS

Ultimately, The Harbeth Compact 7 ES3/XD is a stunning loudspeaker! These wonderful speakers from Harbeth give you the impression that you are listening to a genuine “live performance” in your room thanks to their extraordinarily ”enchanting” and nuanced midrange, a truly deceptive and powerful bass response for the speaker’s size, and a clear, emphatic, almost perfect treble response.

One can compare the Compact 7 ES3/XD to loudspeakers costing almost 4 times as much money and you will never look back or want for more. When a loudspeaker can take on my Quads, Spendors and Living Voice, and yes- even the Magico A3, which many describe as legends in their own right, you quickly become aware that designer Alan Shaw has implemented that “amazing touch” into these updated Compact 7es/3 loudspeakers. (no slouches in their own right).

Some music lovers and audiophiles have objected to the presumably “higher price points”, comparatively speaking, of the Harbeth line in general. While not having personally heard the more expensive Harbeths in my room, in this case I can only object to the above adamantly. The Compact 7es-3/XD retails for approximately $4,800 per pair depending on the finish. I steadfastly proclaim that they are worth every penny!

sound advocate ed choice

Review system for this product:  Loudspeakers: Quad ESL-63, Spendor BC1, Audio Note AN/ED~ Digital: Border Patrol DAC SE-I ~ Innuos Zenith Mk.3 server/streamer ~ Denafrips Pontus DAC, Audio Note (UK) CD3.1x/2  Analog: Audio Technica LP-7/ZYX Bloom 3  Amplification: ~ Pass Lab XP- 12 preamp ~ Pass Labs XA30.8 power amp ~PS Audio M1200/ Cambridge Duo MC/MM ~ Audio Note I-Zero integrated, Rotel Michi 350 integrated amplifier / Cables/ Conditioners: Inakustik AC-3500p power station & LS-4004 speaker cables, AC-2404 reference Air Power Cord ~ Audience Studio 1 interconnects, speaker cables, Clarus “Crimson” digital, loudspeaker, Interconnect Cable and digital spdif / Audio Art 1 e” AC Power

HARBETH Compact 7 ES-3 XD loudspeaker: $4,890.00 (depending on finish).

Harbeth UK ~ 3 Enterprise Park
Lindfield
Haywards Heath
West Sussex
RH16 2LH
England

USA distributor: Fidelis distribution

460 Amherst St, Nashua, NH 03063

Att: Walter Swanborn orders@fidelisdistribution.com

WHERE the AUDIOPHILE BEAT MEETS THE MUSICAL ELITE! !

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