Harbeth P3ESR Review
by Sean Fowler on February 10 '11
For years now, I’ve witnessed scores of flustered and wayward audiophile souls turn to Harbeth with the hope of finding refuge from the gear swapping frenzy known as the hi-fi merry go round. It’s a familiar place for many enthusiasts, and while it’s not uncommon for audiophiles to flock towards a particular manufacturer in hopes of finding salvation, few brands seem to resonate ‘staying power’ like Harbeth. From what I’ve seen, most of the people that hear em’, enjoy em’. And most of the people that buy em’, tend to stick with em’ for many music filled years.
Yet for whatever reason, Harbeth has been one of those semi-ubiquitous brands that have always managed to elude my ears. I’ve found the whole thing to be rather frustrating, as I’m a sucker for products with musical soul. So when the opportunity to review a set finally came a knockin’ my way, it was all I could do to contain my excitement! Finally, I was going to get a first hand account of what I’ve been reading about for all of these years. And so I’d like to share with you all my experience with Harbeth’s newest and most affordable set of loudspeakers, the P3ESR’s.
Since these particular speakers share a direct lineage with the legendary BBC design, I want to make it clear that I’ve never actually owned a set of BBC styled monitors. While I am familiar with their history and significance, I have no tangible reference point to defer to when it comes to comparing the old to the new. Subsequently, I will be assessing the P3ESR’s based off the merit of their current design. Nothing more and nothing less.
While I absolutely love hand crafted, musically engaging hi-fi, I also love a good laugh. And this is exactly what I got when I ‘wrestled’ these half pint sized speakers out of their little shipping carton. “Wow”, I thought. “These things are tiny!” Even a well fed guinea pig is larger in stature. Adding to the laughter, the P3ESR’s (with grilles on) have the sort of classic look that makes them appear as though they’d be more at home on the shelf in your grandpa’s den than in a serious high end stereo system. C’mon Harbeth. Get with the times! Today’s market is all about the sparkle and shine!
All laughs aside though, the craftsmanship on the P3ESR’s is impeccable. While I may get a good chuckle or two out of their small dimensions, I greatly respect the P3ESR’s muscular solidarity. Clearly Harbeth cut zero corners when building these loudspeakers. Just one lift is all that it takes to confirm that these bad boys were built to deliver some serious performance! Not so surprisingly, the quality doesn’t end there.
On the Feng Shui side of things, you’d have to be made of stone to not appreciate the attention Harbeth pays towards matching both the color and wood grain patterns of each speaker, which assures that every pair will retain a uniform look regardless of the angle they happen to be viewed from. At the end of the day, there’s a lot to be said for consistency, attention to detail, and pride in what one does. From what I can see, Harbeth is rich in all of the above.
Usually this is the portion of the review where I take the time to offer a bit of insight as to what makes a product tick. After all, the best way to appreciate something is to understand it! This time around however, I’m going to forgo that whole charade.
No, it’s not because I’m attempting to commit a form of reviewers Seppuku. I simply hate redundancy. It’s partly why I despise the US school system (zing!). But seriously, I truly no longer see the point in regurgitating information that has already been well documented by other sources, to include the grand Harbeth architect himself. So instead of fashioning other people’s words into my own, I will provide links for those who want to get the full story on the P3ESR. Besides, Alan Shaw and the good folks at Stereophile already did a better job with their summaries than I ever could. So now, for your clicking pleasure:
If you want to brush up on BBC-styled loudspeaker history click here:
If you want to know what engineering principles Harbeth holds dear, click here:
If you want to know the back story to the P3ESR’s, click here: (and look at post #2, 7, and 11)
Lastly, if you’re too damned lazy to Google up the P3ESR product page, click here:
The Good: Heirloom quality craftsmanship; Handsome understated aesthetics; Exceptional midrange performance; Jaw-dropping reproduction of human vocals; Good driver integration; Excellent imaging; Easy to listen to over a long period of time; Easy to place within a room; Not terribly fussy about equipment matching; Good bass extension and output for the speakers design type; Great low level resolution; Exceptional nearfield performance; Can sound impressively ‘full’ for their size; Has the kind of sound that should keep fans of Classical, Jazz, Vocal, Acoustic, Blues, Folk (and music of that sort) glued to their seat.
The Bad: Low bass is nonexistent; Limited dynamic output; May not appeal towards those who love to listen loud; Ditto for those that have big rooms to fill; May also not appeal towards listeners that enjoy music that relies on low end rhythmic stomp (IE: Pop, Metal, Rap, Electronic, Dance, etc…; Lastly, the grilles can be a pain in the butt to remove (though one could argue that the grilles were never meant to be taken off in the first place)
The Bottom Line: If you’re the kind of listener that values warmth, tonal consistency, and a sure footed musical presentation, and don’t mind sacrificing a bit of liveliness and linearity to get it, then the P3ESR’s should rank pretty high on your must-audition list.
Specifications: $2,095 USD (Cherry) $2,195 USD (Black Ash and Rosewood)
Cabinet: Thin walled MDF composite with real wood veneering
Tweeter: 0.75 inch ferro-fluid cooled metal dome (with a protective metal grille)
Mid-Bass Driver: 5 inch ‘Radial2’ woofer
Frequency Response: 75-20,000Hz +/- 3db
Sensitivity: 83.5db @ 2.83V/m
Impedance: 6 ohms nominal
Cabinet Dimensions (HxWxD): 306 x 189 x 202mm (12 x 7.5 x 8”)
THE DETAILED PERFORMANCE SUMMARY
General Character: Laid-back. Warm. Slightlydark. Consistent. Musical. These are just a few descriptions that are commonly used to characterize the sound of the P3ESR’s, and for good reason. Their voicing is like an aural blanket, being soft along the top end, open and resolute across the midrange, and thick (yet not overly wooly) on the bottom.
Though the P3ESR’s seem most at home when playing back relatively uncluttered music, you can still get em’ to rock out under the right circumstances (something that I’ll get to later on). Just don’t expect these little speakers to make it sound as though there is a Metallica concert taking place inside of your listening room.
Treble: The top end of the P3ESR’s begins to roll off at around the 16 kHz mark. While this voicing contributes to a certain loss of realism, particularly when it comes to reproducing the bite of an electric guitar or the sparkle and air of cymbals, the roll off is so gradual that a good amount of detail is still preserved.
Ultimately, what this means is that the P3ESR’s are articulate enough throughout the treble to showcase what a good recording has to offer, albeit without the nasty side effect of rendering less than perfect recordings unlistenable. The only real downside here is that you won’t get the kind of air and top end extension that it takes to successfully capture the energy of a full scale performance (vocal demonstrations not withstanding).
Midrange: Spacious. Articulate. Organic. Seductive. For many listeners, the BBC-inspired midrange that flows through these little Harbeth’s veins is a major selling point. I challenge anyone to not enjoy vocal oriented music through a set of P3ESR’s. It is what these broadcast style monitors were originally made for! Singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall, Josh Groban, or just about any male and female vocalist will sound clear and natural through these speakers.
The same can also be said when it comes to reproducing any kind of string, piano, and acoustic styled accompaniment. So long as the music remains relatively undemanding, and so long as you aren’t attempting to blast down your walls with high SPL output, the midrange on these little Harbeth’s will dote a pleasing sense of clarity onto just about any kind of music that you pass through them.
Bass: Let’s face it. You should never expect to get a whole lot of bass from a set of monitors that rely on a 5” woofer, especially when that woofer is housed inside of a tiny sealed enclosure that also shares space with a hue crossover and a good amount of damping material. Yet none of that stops the P3ESR’s from delivering the kind of bass that it takes to give music solid foundation and body. While there may not be much low end below the 75Hz mark, I think many listeners will be surprised by just how utterly satisfying many forms of music can be without the bottom octaves in place.
That said, the overall character of the bass falls under the ‘thick’ denotation. Though the P3ESR’s are not wooly to the point of obscuring lower octave details, they won’t exactly come in first place for speed and articulation either. As an aside, I must tip my hat in respect to Alan Shaw for advertising what my ears tell me is an honest -3db rating. I find it sad how many manufacturers resort to inflating the specs of their mini monitors in order to make a sale. At least with the P3ESR’s, you know you are getting a set of speakers that will deliver solid output from 75Hz on up. Given their incredibly small stature, that’s not a bad thing at all.
Imaging: If there’s one thing that nearly all compact monitors do well, it’s reproducing a great stereo image. Keeping true to their ilk, the P3ESR’s broadcast a wide soundstage that is both stable and accurate. Like with most loudspeakers (be it bookshelf or floorstanding), the width and depth of their soundstage will vary depending on how they are set up. The best rule of thumb here is to experiment with room placement and positioning until you find a balance that suits your room and taste. Thankfully, the P3ESR’s great on and off axis performance should make the setup process a breeze.
Dynamics: Talking about dynamics in the context of a speaker that’s smaller than a shoebox seems inherently ridiculous. That’s because for the most part, it is. With the P3ESR’s, you get what I’d refer to as adequate dynamic expression. While they may fall short on the task of capturing the thrill and bombast of say, Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture’, the P3ESR’s nonetheless flex a decent amount of dynamic muscle given their design type. It may never be visceral, and it may never be outwardly stunning, but at least it’ll be there and to the point of allowing insight into what the artists were going for.
Although the above format makes for an easy (and hopefully informative) read, the problem I have with it is that it’s not always able to adequately cover all of the subjects that influence a products performance. So now it’s time to take a quick look at the last remaining parameters that I’ve yet to cover.
To grille or not to Grille?
Personally, I prefer the sound of the P3ESR’s with their grilles on. Sure, you may get a more lively and forward presentation with the covers off, but to my ears, it comes at the slight expense of tonal accuracy. It’s a shame that I’m such a tone whore, because I really love how the P3ESR’s look au naturale’!
For those of you who want to make your own determination as to what configuration sounds better, you’ll first need to figure out how to safely remove the grilles. Tips on how to do so can be found here:
(Scroll down to post number 9)
No one speaker should have all that power
There’s this idea floating around that all inefficient loudspeakers require gobs of high current juice to perform well, and it’s flat out untrue. Take the P3ESR’s for instance. Despite their efficiency rating of just 83.5db, I have zero problems driving them with my 35 wpc tube integrated amp. Everything that I’ve come to know and expect from the P3ESR’s is there. Great imaging, glorious mids, full bass, and lots of musical fun. The only real caveat with this pairing is that it doesn’t have the cajones to push out ear bleeding SPL’s. That said, in a small room, 35 watts of high quality power should be more than enough to push the P3ESR’s to uncomfortable listening levels.
So that begs the question. Do these speakers need tons of power? To me, the answer is… it depends. For some users, 15wpc is fine. For others, stepping into some serious high current muscle will yield very audible benefits. Though I hate to put a general rule of thumb on something as ambiguous as power handling, I’d say that a solid 50 to 60 wpc is all that most users will need to comfortably driver these particular mini monitors to satisfaction.
Apartment dwellers speaker of choice!
One of the more salient attributes of the P3ESR’s is their ability to keep their poise while playing at whisper soft volumes. Though it’s not terribly unusual for high end loudspeakers to sound great at ear crushing volumes, few remain steadfast and balanced at low listening levels. This talent, especially when combined with the speakers lack of dynamic bombast, should make the P3ESR’s an excellent candidate for the audiophile who must find a happy balance between personal musical enjoyment and maintaining a good relationship with surrounding neighbors/family members.
For those of you who are interested in using the P3ESR’s in a nearfield environment, I have only this bit of advice to impart: DO IT! Seriously. These little Harbeth’ hit a fifth gear when used in this application. Think of it like an injection of aural steroids. By moving the speakers closer to your ears and walls, not only will you be able to ramp down on the horsepower required to fuel these speakers, but you’ll also experience big sonic gains in terms of treble articulation and dynamic power. Now I’m not saying that the P3ESR’s will suddenly sound full range when set up this way, but I am telling you that there will be an added sense of weight and presence that you just won’t get out of these speakers in a more traditional stereo setup. The best news is that there are no damning compromises with this arrangement. Simply plug, play, and enjoy.
After spending many months with the P3ESR’s, I now understand why so many audiophiles cotton to the Harbeth sound. They are the kind of speakers that forgo to the common tenets of frequency linearity, liveliness, and jaw dropping resolution, for the sake of making it easy for the listener to focus on their music, instead of the gear that’s reproducing it. Thus, their unique presentation is one that you’ll either love or disregard.
Listeners that want a lively, ‘up close and personal’ perspective will likely find happiness elsewhere. On the other hand, if you’re an audiophile that is completely burnt out on the gig and would like nothing more than to settle into a pair of compact monitors that won’t tear apart your music collection, annoy you with aural fireworks, or require major changes to your existing component chain, then the P3ESR’s may be your proverbial key to salvation. This holds especially true if you tend to listen to relatively undemanding music at modest listening levels (between 70-85db).
As for myself, I like the P3ESR’s, and when I attach them to my desktop system, that like quickly turns into love. So much so, that if someone were to tell me that these were to be the last pair of speakers that I could ever run on my desktop rig, I’d be perfectly content. There are many reasons for why I feel this way, but the reason that is most pertinent to this review has to do with how the P3ESR’s allow me to sit down and enjoy song after without ever inciting me to obsess over whether or not there’s ‘too much of this’ or ‘too little of that’. This is, in my opinion, the mark of an excellent transducer.
So if the above description matches your needs, and if you are looking to step into a pair of mini monitors that can stay with you for the long haul, I cannot recommend the P3ESR’s highly enough. Give em’ a shot. It’s a decision that could lead to years of musical happiness.
Addendum: A very special thanks goes out to Walter Swanborn, the man who serves as the US distributor for Harbeth (whose company information is listed below). A combination of life events, along with an epic case of writers block, all came together to delay the release of this review. Walter has been very patient throughout the entire reviewing process, for which I’m greatly thankful for!
US Distributor: Fidelis AV
Equipment used during the review
Source: AMR CD 777, E-Mu 1212M,
Integrated Amplifiers: Karan Acoustics KA I-180, Vista Audio i34, Virtue Audio Sensation M451
Cabling: MIT Cable CVT Terminator2 interconnects and speaker wire, Pangea AC-9 power cords
Other speakers on hand: Wilson Audio Watt Puppy 5.1’s (updated), Totem Acoustic ‘The One’s, WLM Stella’s, B&W CM9’s, Klipsch RF-7 II’s