Dynaudio C1 II vs Focal Micro BE vs Harbeth SHL5

I have had the chance to spend time with all three speakers - the Focal Utopia Micro BE, Dynaudio C1 Signature (MKII) and the Harbeth SHL-5 Anneversary edition. Simply put, all three speakers are of fantastic quality and they all do what they set out to do very well. My taste in music tends to be somewhat varied covering jazz, folk, new age, rap, punk rock, dance hall and electronic music. Also I listen to a lot of NPR (for the sound quality - politics aside) and watch a decent amount of home theater (tv shows and wordy movies). My source is mostly a Sonos streamed through a Behringer DEQ2496 (DAC & EQ). The Focal's were playing off of an Arcam AVR600, C1's off of a Cary SLI-80 Signature and the Harbeth's off of an Exposure 2010S2. My room is 11x13, fairly well treated. For the sake of these observations I will only be comparing the Dyanaudio's to the Focals. The Harbeth's are just too enigmatic. I'll add my thoughts where I can about the Harbeths. However they are just such a different experience, I think it will only cause confusion. That being said, I will not be parting with the Harbeths anytime soon.

I understand that my room is small. I am sure there are a lot of people who immediately dismiss the possibility of listening to high-end audio in a room as small as mine. I have always been able to achieve great imaging and sound staging. Bass can be a little strong depending on the speakers but I have the ability to digitally and gently reduce those frequencies before they get to the DAC so that any bass bloat is removed. I am talking about a gentle 1-3 dB redustion between 20hZ and 100hZ - so it is a gentle correction and nothing to be alarmed about - in my experience.

Generally, most of my observations are based off of listening to instrumental jazz on FLAC because I find that it has the best atmosphere, sound staging and the instruments are like characters in a conversation. Jazz can be a good vehicle for showing a speaker's personality. Diani Krall is a mainstay (Live in Paris - FLAC) along with various other jazz groups.

So, here are my observations along with my own made-up categories - I am sorry if this does not adhere to audiophile terminology - for me this is a hobby and I am having fun so I made up my own categories somewhat:

Position of listener - by this I mean if you were sitting in a concert venue, position of listener refers to how close or far you are sitting from the stage. The C1s give a front row feeling - as if you are right in front of the musicians, possibly only 5 to 10 feet away. It is a very intimate experience. I found the soundstage very focused on the center with a relatively muted periphery. The Focals are different. They make you feel like you are sitting about four rows back - still good seats. The stage and presentation is wider. There is more information and more to take in. Contrasted to the C1, the Focals have a more robust periphery to the soundstage whereas the center image is not the obvious focus. Simply put, The C1s feel more intimate and the Focals more grand. The SHL-5s listener position feels like it is from the second row. The soundstage is centrally focused and the venue feels more medium-sized.

Drama - by this I mean he ability for the speaker to grab you and tell you "something important is happening here!" This is an area which is probably the result of personal taste. Perhaps I should leave it out of the review but in my observations I found the Focals to be more dramatically communicative. The C1s seem to be a little more neutral - hifi like. They are here on business, it's not a social call. The SHL-5s are a dramatic speaker to listen to but still carry the British politeness. They seemed to say, "excuse me, isn't this amazing?" And it is amazing.

Authenticity - The C1s remind me the most of reality. Listening to them feels the most accurate and authentic of the three speakers. All instruments and sounds were immediately recognizable for what they are. The C1s do this with chilling accuracy. The Focals on the other hand take a break from reality - the sound has a cartoony / caricature-like personality. However, I found myself preferring the Focals because the sound was easier to process. Where the C1s are extremely real to the point of bewilderment like an HD image, the Focals are more like a beautiful painting / cartoon. The SHL-5s are hard to describe here. They are enigmatic. They are voiced with mad genius that is always interesting and fascinating but also slightly hazy which adds to their mystery and beauty. I love them but the C1s take the cake on authenticity.

Bass - the C1s are the obvious heavyweight here. I found they are proud of their bass and well integrated into their overall presentation as an essential component. However, I did find the quality of the bass to be slightly dry. The C1s emit bass that has presence like a floor stander but I do get the feeling that, "there is bass and then there is BASS." The c1s are the lowercase bass. The Focals and the other hand focus on the upper regions. The bass is very respectable but it is a second tier element in their sound. It has a genuine richness to it but it is only a compliment to the upper regions - not a major element. The SHL-5s have the meatiest, most realistic and best integrated bass. The bass has flesh on it - it is healthy. The cabinet size seems to have some advantages here because unlike the small monitors, the SHL-5s bass has depth AND authority - whereas the Focal has richness and the C1s have span.

Coherance - The C1s are by far the most seamless across the sound spectrum. From the bass all the way up onto the highs of the Esotar, I never felt that there was one area that was exaggerated. The Focals on the other hand are tweeter oriented. Depending on taste, this can be a good thing or a bad thing. I am a huge fan of the beryllium tweeter, which has never fatigued me in the least. The beryllium tweeter is a brilliant driver which enables the Focals to shine. However, the mids take a backseat. This is not a flaw as it is implemented by design to show off the amazing tweeter. However, it definitely provides a top emphasized experience.

Imaging/soundstage - The Focals provided good imaging after a lot of adjustment. The center image is a little bit further back and is rich with soft edges. I found that over time it was the easiest to listen to. I can go back to the painting analogy here - the Focals have an artistic quality that has the simplicity of a painting when compared to the HDTV experience of the Dynaudios. The C1s have a holographic central image whose distance from you is not immediately clear because of its depth. Female vocals can sound scarily real. Instruments emit with near pinpoint accuracy out of space. The C1s definitely do a better job of giving you a location for every instrument and voice. However, the Focals have a wider soundstage. The periphery/atmosphere that they provide is massive and infinite. Where the Dyns win with central imaging, the Focals win with width / bredth of soundstage. The SHL-5s center image is the most solid of the three. Where the C1 provides an solid, rich center image, the SHL-5s go two stages more. It is creepy, unsettling and borderline emotionally destabilized how real and solid the center image can be. A trumpet does not sound "like a real trumpet," - it IS a trumpet. This is the area where the SHL-5 transcends the hobby for me. The SHL-5s do not do everything other hifi speakers do but in their holographic imaging there is a shimmering brilliance.

NPR/HT Dialogue - I preferred the Focals here. They have a softer and more supple tone. I have always been a fan of muted, polite British tonality and this is where the Focal/Arcam combo shines. The C1 voices are a little bottom heavy, just a little bit too much bass to sound clean. For home theater that is dialogue heavy (comedies, Woody Allen films), the Focals are relaxing and non-fatiguing to listen to. The C1s are better suited towards dynamic films. If I was more of an action / thriller watcher, I think I would prefer the C1s because they are more dynamic and focused.

Listening Style - In general, I found the Focals to be more relaxing to listen to. I found myself passively sitting there enjoying the music without feeling pushed or prodded. The C1s are more of an "experience." I found that regardless of volume, they always hold your attention. This can be a good thing because they are captivating but also was a little too intense for me in the long run. I found the Focals to be accessible but more of a passive experience.

Character - if I had to come up with a single phrase to describe each speaker I would say "accuracy" for the C1s, "grandeur" for the Focals and "enigma" for the SHL-5s. The C1s sound real, accurate, neutral, perfect, singular, balanced. - The Focals do not sound real, they sound better than real. They produce a representation of sound which comes across as technology implemented to create art. The appreciation of art is a subjective thing so the Focals might not be everyone's taste. The C1s however are closer to what I think of as true sound. The SHL-5s character is amazing. I always get the feeling that they are like a diamond draped in silk. The sound is amazingly rich and beautiful with a little bit of a rounded off nature to keep it from being overbearing.

The Tweeters - They are both excellent tweeters. However, I do love the beryllium. I have not heard RAAL or diamond but for my taste is the best that I've heard in that it produces the most information, reveals every nuance and is completely non-fatiguing to my ears. The Esotar is also amazing in its accuracy but is slightly relaxed in the micro information it transmits. Dynaudio is playing with black space and has a slightly moody characteristic - the Focal is more of a daytime / light experience. I love them both and I could live with them both because they are some of the clearest I've heard - I am just bowled over by Focal here.

Midrange - The C1 midrange is spookily realistic and accurate. The Focals cannot keep up here. The midrange is a gem. Female voices (Adele, Amy Winehouse...) are beautiful and lush. The Focals by comparison can be difficult to listen to after such a glorious performance by the C1s. There is a rightness about the C1s midrange that the Focals can't touch. Add to the this stunning holographic imaging of the C1s and you have a performance that can give you goosebumps. - The SHL-5s however have a mid range that is even more dynamic, brilliant and gleaming than even the C1s. I can't imagine a more amazing female vocal speaker than the SHL-5. Harbeth is the clear leader here, in my opinion. T

So, there are my rablmings. Nobody wins. Everyone goes home with a trophy. Thank you if you read this far or even if you skipped to the last paragraph.

I think you pretty much nailed the character and essence of each speaker. I only have experience with the Dynaudio C1s (Mk1) and Harbeth SHL-5s and agree with most of the points that you have written on the Harbeths.

In conclusion, I guess we can all agree that all loudspeakers sound special and unique in their own ways, and that there is no clear winner since a perfect speaker does not exist.

outstanding! shoot-out.

I will second, Diana Krall 'Live in Paris' cd or dvd, truly a reference disc in any format.

Happy listening!

Thank you for your insightful and comprehensive assessment. I would probably own C1s if I didn't like my SHL5s so much. Just a couple of questions. Did you feel that the Cary SLI-80 had enough power for the C1s? Also, what was the rationale of using different amplifiers for each speaker rather than sticking with one across the board? I would think that the SLI-80 would make an excellent match to the Harbeths.

On the focal what a friend of mine did was, He replaced the tweeter with a morel tweeter 1308 and the sound had
not have the hassness, Its been very sweet to listern to
all day long.
Jafant - The Live In Paris on FLAC is also one of my favorite audio test albums. That album plus Magnepans was a holy experience for me.

Jeffreyds - The reason for the different amplifiers is that I really like the way each of the speakers sounded through those amps. The Harbeths through the Exposure is such a great sound. The crystaline edge in the Harbeths is complimented by the simple beauty of the Exposure. Great combo. The C1s were the best through the Cary but I did play them through a very high power pro amp as well (Behringer EP4000) which has about 750 wpc. With a real good dose of solid state, the C1s have greatly increased presence and determination but the Cary gave them the body they needed to sound inviting to me without giving up too much magic.

Jeff - I have the Dyn C1 Sigs and I drive them with an Octave V70SE. The Cary should have no problem with the Dyn's should you ever consider them ;)

Michael - Great write up
Xti16 and Michael,

I've heard that the Octave / Dynaudio makes a fantastic combo. Do either of you have thoughts about whether Cary 805Cs would have enough power for the Dynaudios at 50 wpc? It's down a bit from what you both use. I'm not serious about upgrading (?) at this point, but the info might be useful some day.

All I can really say about amplifier suitability is that the C1s really tell you what kind of amp you are listening to. It is a very clear difference between high power SS and tube. I would lean toward high power ss for the maximum performance as the C1 is a performer. You might make a great tube combo and enjoy it but the C1s strong points lay in the dynamics brought out by powerful amps.
Hi Jeff, I once used 60wpc (into 4 ohms) class A Pass amp on C1 Sigs. Meter doesn't move at very loud level (means amp stays in class A).
Jeff When I was looking to upgrade my Bryston B100SST I inquired about the V40SE (40W) and it wasn't available. A V70SE was and after 5 min of an in home demo I was sold so I bought it. Later as the V40 became available I asked to borrow it. The sound difference was minimal (you really have to 'squint' to hear the difference). It drove the C1 with ease.

That being said the best SS I've heard with the C1's is the Burmester but so far out of my budget that it was a dream only if I won/win the lottery LOL!
Thanks for the responses from everyone. I didn't mean to hijack the thread, but this is very helpful should I ever decide to pursue a different path in the future.

I have a Octave v70se and Dynaudio C1 as well, but every time I pay Norah Jones's "Come away with me" CD, her voice got harsh if I turned the volume up to 10-11 o'clock, I have tried Octave with Signature C1, some problem, but not a problem with Simaudio Moon 350p pre and 330A amp, it sounded much better than Octave v70se, and play loud without any distortion. Does this mean that Octave has not enough power, or mine has a problem?
I like your comparison of these speakers, very informative. Thanks for posting.
I contacted Dynaudio US, they think my amp may have some problems, asked me to send it to them for a check up, they said Octave v70se can play C1 loud without tweeter's distortion. I hope they will find the problems.
D160 - What tubes do you have the V70? Are they biased properly? I've done some tube rolling and certain combo's can sound pretty bad. I wouldn't think lack of power would cause harshness. If anything the harshness may be a tube going bad or a biasing problem.

To date the only times I've heard harshness is on poor recordings. I proved that just last night. I upgraded my Meridian G08 to a Naim music server with power supply and dac. With that I also upgraded My V70 to the V110. Still needs to break in. Only have about 10 hrs on the new stuff.
I use Psvane T2 grade A KT88, the input tubes are all Psvane's as well. I am sending the amp back to dynaudio North America for repair. I have talked to their service manager Emilios(a great guy), he thinks there is something wrong with my amp.How does v110 sound like right out of the box?
Thank you!
Sounds great but now that I have about 25 hrs on it the KT120's are sounding very forward. I want to get at least 100 hrs on them before making a judgement. Just before I traded in the V70SE I had the Ei KT90's in with the stock drivers (Rca 12at7wa) but swapped out the input (Sovtek 12ax7lps) for a Rca 5751 black plate which warms up the presentation. In fact when the V110 arrived the Sovtek was replaced with the Rca. The KT90 is the only other tube I can run in 'high power' mode confirmed by Andreas Hoffman.

I suggest you send the unit back with the stock tubes (I assume you tried that) and the cd that sounds harsh. BTW I've met Mick, Emilios and Mike from Dynaudio at a private showing of the Consequence UE driven by Octave Jubilee mono blocks. All are great guys.
Michael it was a pleasure discribing your speaker,s

I have a pair of dynaudio my is contour 5.4 been driven by Simadio Moon w-5 L E and a cary SLP 05.

I just want to thank you for a job well done.

Thanks again Michael Juan.
Hi Xti16, I did send three cd's along with the amp to dynaudio. I only dealt with Emilios, a true gentleman, the service from Dynaudio North America is first class!

Glad to know that you like the V110, have you compared it to V80?
I've never compared the V70 and V80 side by side but have heard the V80 many times. The V80 has even better transformers and a different topology. The V70 has a 12ax7 input and the V80 uses a 12at7. V70 uses 12at7 drivers and the V80 uses the 12au7's. If you are not too familiar with tube gains the 12ax7 has a gain of 100 - 12at7 has a gain of 70 and the 12au7 is about 20. The V110 is a beefed up V70 and again the V80 is very different. I'm going to my friends on Sat and he has the V80 driving the Dyn C4's.

BTW do you have a black box? I do and it really dropped the noise floor but at the same time made everything else more forward (because of lowering the noise floor).

I never tried KT120's in the V70SE but will handle them just fine. Personally I've been investing (or pi$$ing away) money on vintage tubes. In my mind the vintage tubes will never be made again and when the vintage ones are gone they are GONE. I also prefer the sound of vintage tubes up to now and for the most part they last a lot longer than current production.

I agree with your assessment of Dynaudio. They are first class in every way :-) !!
Excuse me, but comparing the 'boxed sounding' SHL5 to Focal MBE is just ridiculous.

The SHL5 sound good in a very specific music genres while the focal's/dynaudio's are all-arounders.

The SHL5 tweeter(s) are grained and probably the weakest spot of those.
Harbeth is a very polarizing speaker! Mine are set up well and IMHO quite fantastic. Regarding the Harbeths being genre specific, I don't notice that. I find that they are amazing for aggressive/heavy music, folk/vocals, jazz, rock. They are different from Focal/Dynaudio to be sure but I don't see the need to place them below for that reason. As I mentioned above, of the three in the comparison, the SHL5 was the only one that had a center image that was mistakable for the real thing. I think they are amazing but to each his own.
Kipikipod - The MBE tweeter is a masterpiece - I agree. How that sound can be fatiguing to someone doesn't make sense to the way I hear. As smooth as butter and lightning fast.
I think that SHL5 is perfect shot between focal and dynaudio,has bass similar to C1 and clarity similar to focals
To the Original Poster: Excellent, superbly written post.
Thanks for taking all that time to help your fellow
audiophiles. It's very generous of you. Best to you.

My only comment (from my own time as an SHL5 owner) was
that, indeed, the midrange imaging was astounding, with
vocals in free-space very solid and free from the speakers.
But, there was some resolution problem, like some of the
character and details of vocals (and some instruments) on
long-familiar recordings were glossed over, or missing in
action. I kept leaning in to try and hear the small
inflections on, say, Beatles music or some Liszt that I've
listened to for decades, and it was just not there.

The Harbeth sound was very listenable, but it was just not
challenging enough.

I guess your V110 has fully broken in, how much is it better than v70se? My v70se is defective, Dynaudio US going to give me a new unit.
The V110 has slightly better with control over the V70SE in high power mode. Haven't gone to 'low' 6550/KT88 power yet. Personally I don't care for the KT120's. Very forward and somewhat bright. I still need to play with input and driver tubes to possibly tame the KT120's. Right now I am running some Ei KT90's at high power and like the sound a lot better. BTW the KT90's are fine in high power. But that being said the extra 40W doesn't really make a whole of difference.

What's the problem with your V70?
Forgot to mention. The KT120's sounded real good for the first 15 - 20hrs. I ran them for 150hrs and at around 100hrs I really didn't care for the change in sound YMMV. Now at the same time as getting the V110 I also replaced my Meridian G08 with a Naim Unitiserve 2Tb nDac and XP5 XS power supply. So I didn't want to judge the sound until I had at least 100 hrs. At 150 hrs I changed the tubes.
I thought about upgrading to v110, now I am going to keep the v70. Few resistors gone bad in my v70, since it is still new, they decided to replace it with a brand new one, but I have to wait few weeks for a black one. Emilios is a very nice gentleman to deal with.

Just bought a pair Dynaudio sub 500, have to wait till new amp arrive to test.
The guys from Dynaudio are great. I met Emilios Mike and Mick. Have you rolled any tubes in the V70? I would kind of compare the Kt120's to the Sed 6550 but on steroids. Not that much louder just more of everything. The main reason I went back to the KT90's is because that's what I had in when the V110 was delivered. And yes the KT90's sound better in 'high' power than compared to normal.
The amp came with upgraded EH KT88, then I replaced all the input tubes with Psvane, very nice sound, then replaced EH KT88 with Psvane Grade A KT88, before it break in, I sent amp to Dyanaudio for repair. I did not try many tubes, and don't want to, too much money will be wasted if I do.
Hi Michaelkingdom, I remember we talked about setting up the Focal Utopia
Micro Bes when you got them, but somehow I missed this thread. I
stumbled on it just now. I would like to make two comments:

1) One often reads that the Focal Utopia Micro Be speakers are "tweeter
orientated" or that the Be tweeter is a bit too forward or too hot. In my
experience that is the case only when the speakers are paired with the wrong
amp. When driven by appropriate electronics the Micro Bes are a very well
balanced speaker certainly detailed but without having a forward and/or
fatigue tweeter. Some examples of amps/integrated that did a very good job
when driving the Micro Bes are: Accuphase (E-350, E-408, E-450, E-550 and
A-45), Graaf M50, Musical Fidelity A5 (a very good combo given the current
price of this amp), Nagra (I've forgotten the model). Pass labs and Jadies are
also known to pair wonderfully with the Micro Be speakers. The Micro Be are
simply too good speakers to be paired with an audio-video receiver.

2) IMO most of Diana Krall's CDs (including the one you have used) are not
good tests for speakers and or systems. The reason is that these CDs will
sound good on pretty much anything. These CDs always give the impression
that a 2-3K system gives at least 90% of the experience of a 100k system.
Well, it is some months later and I have sold the Focals. I am not happy about it but I am a wandering man. The Harbeths are still with me.

So, I'm thinking about revisitng the C1s - the originals this time as I have purchased an Octave v40se. So we meet again!
The biggest difference between the original C1's and the MKII is the MKII sound better at lower listening levels. But that being said I think the originals will play a little louder. The V40se will be fine. Which tubes are in the V40?
I currently have the Svetlana EL34 Winged Cs. I have heard that the Winged C KT88s are great. Any thoughts on tubes you like for the C1s pairing?
My V70se came with the Sed KT88's and I purchased a quad Sed 6550's and Sed EL34's from Octave. The EL34 sure have great almost magical mids but do lack in the the lows and highs. The 6550's are very linear and more detailed without missing any of the highs or lows. The KT88's are much warmer than the 6550's. So out of those three I prefer the KT88's. The Ei KT90 have the mids of the EL34 but also have the lows and highs and can be pushed harder than the KT88 or 6550. But my absolute favorite is the original Tung Sol 6550 solid black plates.

I did try the the 6550's and KT88's when I had the V40se and they sounded fine. Didn't try the EL34's though.
You have the same problem as I do, liking too many different sounds when I hear them. :^)

Works much better than targeting the "ultimate sound" IMHO, but it sure is tempting sometimes to get stuck in that trap.

Nice write-up. I don't think I read anything that surprised me too much.
One thing I might point out is the room is small so that probably enables most any speaker to put its best foot forward.

For comparison, I have compared and contrasted my Dynaudio Contour 3 mkII speakers with my Triangle Titus XS in various room in my house. I find the Dynaudios in particular can hit above what their size would indicate in a larger room. The Triangles are more challenged in larger rooms. In my 12X12 room, the differences are more subtle. Kef ls50 is another smaller monitor that I have heard in my house recently that seemed to do much better in the smaller rooms.
Xti16 - Your observation of the EL34s lacking in lows/highs while having a magical midrange is also my experience. Which do you think images the best?

Mapman - There is a speaker builder called Soundfield Audio that used to build monitors using the Kef UniQ driver and an active 8" sub in the same box with a plate amp on the back. I demoed them in my room and they were great.
When I try different tubes I mainly listen for tonality. I will say when I first tried the Ei KT90 I was blown away how much bigger the soundstage sounded. My first impression was they sound like EL34's on steroids with the highs and lows the EL34's lack. In all honesty I really don't pay too much attention to imaging - soundstage and depth. The original TS 6550 black plate have the most magical mids with great lows but an ever so slightly rolled off highs. The solid grey plates are very close but the mids are just a hair more forward.

That being said the only time imaging really jumped out and bit me in the nose is when I heard a demo of Raidho D1 and D3 speakers. The D1's were driven by Naim and the D3's were driven by Burmester. I am seriously considering an in home demo of the D1's (if I can find the funds) to pair up with the V110.
Well all, since I wrote this posting over a year ago, I have taken the plunge and become a Harbeth dealer. It was a natural progression. I finally found myself owning every Harbeth model and I thought "...maybe I like these enough to sell them..." So I started Blue Jay Audio. And the rest is history!

I really loved your shootout. I am currently in a transission from my former Monatan EPS2 which I really loved, to a monitor speaker, due to placement at another place. I have to let Montana go.
So my candidates now are the Harbeth SHL5 Plus, Dynaudio C1 and Diapason Adamantes 3 25th anniv. Maybe also Wilson Audio Duette, which is a bit more expensive than any of these. I have listened to H 40.1 and really liked it, but it they are a at my place.

Would I get the same midrange magic with the SHL5 Plus, as I felt in the 40.1? Are they the same midrange driver? Are the 40.1 if not caring about more bass, worth buying before Shl5 Plus?

Do you also think SHL5 Plus could compare with Wilson and Diapason, which I also found mesmerizing?

If I decide for the SHL5 Plus, it will be without having heard them, my location is far from the nearest dealer.

Congrats on your shop btw, that was great:)

I really loved your shootout. I am currently in a transission from my former Monatan EPS2 which I really loved, to a monitor speaker, due to placement at another place. I have to let Montana go.
So my candidates now are the Harbeth SHL5 Plus, Dynaudio C1 and Diapason Adamantes 3 25th anniv. Maybe also Wilson Audio Duette, which is a bit more expensive than any of these. I have listened to H 40.1 and really liked it, but it they are a at my place.

Would I get the same midrange magic with the SHL5 Plus, as I felt in the 40.1? Are they the same midrange driver? Are the 40.1 if not caring about more bass, worth buying before Shl5 Plus?

Do you also think SHL5 Plus could compare with Wilson and Diapason, which I also found mesmerizing?

If I decide for the SHL5 Plus, it will be without having heard them, my location is far from the nearest dealer.

Congrats on your shop btw, that was great:)