Harbeth C7 vs Proac D25 Review

Hi folks. As some of you may know I've been on the hunt for an attractive pair of floorstanders to replace my Compact 7's. I've recently had the opportunity to plug a pair of D25's into my system and wanted to share the results. Rest of the gear is a VPI Scout/JMW9 arm and Dynavector 20XH feeding an ARC SP16 into a ARC 100.2. CD player is a Rotel 971. Cables by Ridge Street Audio, Wireworld and Naim on the speakers. The room is 22 X 14 X 9 opening into an 11 X 11 on the short wall where the speakers are located. I've had the Proac's set up for about a week and have listened to a variety of music from rock to chamber to jazz.
First of all, some might question putting the $2650 C7 against the $5500 D25. First, the D25 is in the price range of where I want to be in any upgrade. Second, over the past year or so of my search the C7's have proven themselves easily able to compete with speakers costing two or three times their retail price. Both are two ways in vented boxes so here too the comparison is apt.
First, let me say that the D25 was surprisingly good. I heard them at a dealer some time ago and was disappointed by their sound--though suspected the room was hurting their performance. I was right. I'll just run down a list of comparisons and talk about both in the process.

The D25 is a more revealing speaker. I hear details in my recordings that I've never encountered. For example, in "Nightblindness" off of David Gray's "White Ladder" as the song fades there is an industrial sounding backbeat that I've never heard with the C7's. I could give many more examples. Inner detail and instrumental lines are clearer on the D25's.

The high frequency response of the D25 is among the best I've heard. Natural, vibrant and airy. The Harbeth is slightly rolled off and less airy by comparison. Soundstaging of the D25 is more precise. Instruments are more surgically placed and there is greater depth and width. The Harbeth's provide what I would say a more natural presentation--more like what you would hear live where instruments blend together to make up the entire sonic picture.

The bass of the D25 is surprisingly deep. It is also rather ill defined. I'm no expert but it seems to me this speaker would sound a lot better if the designer rolled the bass off around 35hz. The speaker is rated down to 20hz and in attempting to go so low there is a loss of speed, detail, pace and timing. This is more apparent on some recordings than others. What I hear, no matter how I have positioned them in my listening area, is a bump at the bottom that thickens the sound and muddies what resides above in the frequency spectrum. I'm not saying the bass is whooly and awful--I just think the performance in this area could be better. The Harbeth's don't go as deep and, while not particularly tuneful, do play the bass line better than the D25's.

The D25's are more clinical/analytical sounding than the Harbeth's. While I would not call them dry or hard sounding the D25's do not provide the rich and palapable midrange that the Harbeth's have. This is where the Harbeth's are (maybe) unbeatable. Voices and acoustic instruments simply sound REAL. Not so with the D25--you are still listening to a hifi system--albeit a good one. If you are thinking of the D25 I would definatly run them with tubes all the way around. Be careful with cables as well. Think warm, warm, warm with every ancillary. I've heard speakers that are clearly cooler and more analytical (the Thiels come to mind) but the Proacs do not seduce you the way the Harbeth's will.
In addition, the Proacs are more accurate to the recording. If the recording sucks, so does the sound. The Harbeths, on the other hand, tend to sound good with even bad recordings. They just sound better as the quality of the recording improves. Also, the Harbeth's could really care less what you put in front of them--they sounded good when I had a cheap Japanese receiver and cd player in front of them before I put together a better rig. The Proacs, it seems to me, have a very neutral response and therefore require considerable attention (and money?) to other components in the chain. I'm not saying my gear sucks but perhaps the D25's could get better results with some really serious tube electronics driving them. At times I heard a hardness or glare in the upper midrange that was off putting. The Harbeth's have a mild suckout in this range designed into the speaker and, while not absolutely neutral, I prefer this deemphasis.

At the end of the day while I found the D25's "technically" superior in that they had more boxes checked in the columns, the Harbeth's are my preference. When I listen to the D25's I'm thinking hifi. When I listen to the Harbeth's I'm thinking MUSIC. If they were the same price I might consider the D25's--they really do sound quite good. However, at half the price the Harbeth's retain my personal title as best value in audio today.

Hope this helps somebody out there. Go ahead and fire away.

Oh yeah, one final thing. While at the dealer a while back I also heard the D38. It struck me as MUCH better than the D25 and well worth the extra money. While the room still sucked, the bass of the D38 was much better defined and controlled. It had greater impact but less bloom and bloat. The soundstage was far larger and the D38's created a greater sense of realism in this regard. The rest of my comments about the D25 would apply to the D38. Essentially I found the D38 more convincing than the D25 and closer to that essential musicality that the Harbeth's have in spades.
great review. i thoroughly enjoyed the read. thanks!
Interesting review...
It is clear that you like sound that Harbeth Compact 7ES-2 is producing very much. For me that is part of the problem since you like IMO old fashion british sound. Cabinet that is contributing to the final sound is part of C7 design. Harbeth is even taking different path with new NRG line.
Spendor also( S8e might be interesting for you ) with S-e line. I am talking here from almost first hand experience since my father owns same C7 as you. To me Proac Response D25 is superior speaker and I don't think they are perfect. D38 is good also but, D80 is a lot better than both D25 or D38. I liked old romantic british sound some 18 years ago when I bought my first pair of speakers( Spendor ) but, not any more. Musicality is also IMO very personal definition... I found out that even when I am talking with my friends about musicality we are not talking allways about same thing. This is not a critic of your review, just different opinion. My 'office' system: Dynaudio Special25-ARC VT50-ARC REF1-Esoteric DV50s
Happy listening!
Very well thought out, Mark! I figured I'd throw some thoughts in here, since I was the prior owner of these D25's.

I think you have hit the salient points about the D25 very well. ProAc has taken a more neutral route as of late, and as such the "D" series has taken on a less warm and more analytical character. This is only in comparison to older ProAc's, though, as I still find the "D" sound to be quite warm and musical... But you do have to match the equipment very carefully.

The D25's do indeed sound much better when driven with an all-tube chain (but I have a few caveats here I'll get to). I intially auditioned the D25's with a McCormack DNA-125 (SS), and then just for a few minutes with a ARC 150.2 (SS), and then with an ARC VS55 and VT100(tubes). Tubes worked so much better I never went back to listening to the D25s through solid state.

I will cut (this part of) a long story short by saying that I bought the VS55 that day, the D25's a few months later, and a SP16 very shortly thereafter. I then let the system settle for a few months, learning it's sound.

At the time, my rig was: SimAudio Moon Eclipse LE or Rega P3 > SP16 > VS55 > D25. MIT MH750 S3 biwire speaker cables, MIT MH330+S2 interconnects (the MITs are a tad on the warm and spacious side).

I would say after this period I felt the D25's treble was sweet although not the last word in extension, the midrange to be communicative and gorgeous, and the bass to be full and overly ripe at one particular frequency. I did notice this ripeness, although I would say less so than you; this was something that only a small amount of recordings in my library exacerbated (say, 5-10%?). In particular I remember Preservation Hall Hot 4 with Duke Dejan to become strangely lumpy in the bass line, so much so that it drove me to distraction. One issue for this was the D25's: they are ripe at certain low frequencies, I think. The other was my room: it exacerbated this. Not much I could do.

Ahh, but I could do some. I started tube-rolling with NOS and new production tubes. That is a story unto itself; but suffice to say I settled on a power tube (TS 6550 reissue, although I flirted with some NOS TS6550s) that provided excellent grip of the lower frequencies, far more extended highs, and better soundstaging. I rolled preamp tubes based upon my mood and whims (mostly Mullard 50's shortplates, although I did use some Telefunken 12AX7s when I wanted more neutrality). This provided more grip and control, while injecting an absolutely gorgeous midrange that would pull me into late, late listening. During the tube rolling exercise, the ProAc's revealed all upstream tube changes immediately. This was my first "real" tube rolling (back to back listening of MANY different tubes) and it really sold me on the value of rolling. The ProAc's were simply windows into what was going on upstream.

I wouldn't characterize them as completely neutral windows; they were editorializing a bit... Warming things up... Sweetening the highs and communicating the midrange above all else. This was VERY musical when combined with really good upstream tubes. At no time did I find the ProAc's clinical, sterile, or would I have ever characterized them as not being typically ProAc midrange champs. They just pulled me into the music in a way no other speaker yet has. They are a bit on the "wet" side of things, so if you like the B&W analytical sound you won't like these. I never did completely quell the lumpiness in the bass, but honestly it wasn't a factor in the end. I loved every minute the D25's were in my house; after settling on a good upstream mix, they were nothing short of the most musical speakers I've ever heard.

In your case, I think one test is definitely in order. You need to try some new pre tubes. The 12AX7EH's you have in there are, I would characterize, a bit round and ripe in the bass, with a slightly recessed but golden midrange and highs that go on forever and get a bit spitty up top. I'm frankly quite surprised you weren't drilled in the head by the highs--but such is system synergy, and the 100.2 must be a little warm in that arena. For midrange magic, I'd try some Mullard's, both the longplate and shortplate if you can get your hands on some. I just don't think any new-production tube is going to do it for you in this case. The midrange magic of this tube will make you completely forget the Harbeth's (well, maybe not, but it will sound gorgeous!) Some reccomend the new 12AX7M GT reissues, but I don't think they come close to the magic of the originals--the tone is similar, but the magic is gone.

But that won't tighten the bass much. Just a tad. And since you don't have the option of running new power tubes, maybe some other trials are in order here. The new-production Ei 12AX7 would be excellent in that arena, but it won't have the midrange lustyness that you'd like. I think maybe some NOS TungSol 12AX7s. I didn't run those for very long in the SP16, preferring the Mullards overall, but my listening notes convey they had great midrange magic and perhaps a little more control than the Mullard tone-machines. Come to think of it, I think the TungSol's would be the ticket, at least from what I've heard.

I will concede that maybe even this won't make the D25's totally amiable to you--I still think you need a good tube amp to get the best of them. But the pre tubes are certainly worth a shot... You're just not hearing what these D25's can do. And with the right mix upstream, they are very good indeed.
there are many good loudspeakers out there, but the truly great ones do exactly what your harbeths do....they make your music collection fun to listen to and they don't favor any particular type of recording or catagory of music. i would guess most audiophiles chase the holy grail by doing everything 'but' buying a truly well designed loudspeaker.
I am a novice in most areas of audiophilia having only come to the hobby 10 or so years ago. Having read the responses I have picked up some info on B&W speakers which I own and appreciate more and more on a daily basis . I think the gentleman who suggested the spendor line as a possible alternative to the d25 is spot on, having heard the classic line they seem equally at home with solidstate and tubes and their midrange is nothing to sneeze at in the bargin, one can imagine the step up to the floorstanders plus their new driver technology as of late. thank`s guy`s
As a Spendor BC1 owner who is occasionally brooding about possible upgrades, I found your review very interesting.( I must say I too agree about wanting my speakers to be inherently "musical" and not overly sensitive to amp, wall etc.)

Your taste comes across as classic British sound. You might consider Spendor SP1/2e as well as newer ones S8e and S9e. Also, since you like Harbeth sound, one obvious channel is to look at their "higher" models, such as Monitor 40.

Finally, there are small, less well-known companies, basically one dedicated designer building speakers. Many years ago, Spendor, Harbeth, Quad, etc., were just such shops. Today's examples might be GMA, Tyler, someone recommended Chapman, and I am sure a few others. The problem is listening to them without buying first. :-)

Although in the end we must decide fo rourselves, an experienced group such as we have at Audiogon helps a great deal. Anyway I enjoyed your review and look forward to hearing about your continuing adventure.
Remember The Fly? I'd like to take my Harbeths and my Thiels and combine them at the molecular-genetic level. Sonically, that is.
I don't recall the film but I'm with you Drubin--maybe the speaker that does everything I want and is under 10K simply does not exist. I live in hope.....

Longer reply to Nathan and others to come--gotta go to work!
Just to respond with a bit more detail to some of the comments made. First, I hope it was clear in my review that I really like the D25. I think it is one of the better speakers out there at and above the price point. I agree with Nathan that Proac has moved toward "accuracy" with the new D series having heard both the old 2.5 and 3.8 and recalling them as having a more liquid midrange and a warmer presentation. This is something I wish the new series retained, but with the extension, speed and dynamics of the current lineup. As such, and as I speculated (and Nathan confirmed), the new series is probably best matched up with tubes (and is designed to accomodate them with the higher sensitivity drivers etc.). Whether the use of different tubes in my setup or in another all tube line up can take the sound further in the direction I'd like to see it go I can't say--having yet to experiment in this area. I do feel that the bass anomolie that I am hearing will not be cured by using different electronics. As I indicated, this is noticable only on some recordings (though more that Nathan reports in his system) and is, for me, a distraction that I find hard to overcome. Of course, my room may be part of the problem but this would be the second room that I have heard it in so I'm not so sure. Again, the D38 goes a long way toward resolving any problems in this area in my experience.
Finally, I thought I would share one other set of comments about last night's listening that illustrate the differences between the C7 and the D25. I put on REM "Green" last night and cranked it up. Now admittedly this is not the best of rock recordings--but that is my point--I have a lot of records like this that I love that are no great shakes sonically. What the D25's did with this record was very interesting. First, I heard so much more inner detail--things I have never heard in this record before. For example, the Peter Buck's leads had, literally, 30% more notes played in them--thus was the speed of these drivers. I could hear these notes within the layer of sound as I never heard them before. Astonishing. However, I kept having to turn the volume down (instead of up as is my tendency) because the glare in the upper midrange (guitars, vocals etc.) was bordering on unbearable. Things simply sounded hard, white and edgy. Yes, it was dynamic and detailed. There was an aggressive quality to the sound that is appropriate to rock and most likely the recording venue. But wheras with the Harbeth's I can go louder and louder allowing me to become more and more consumed by the sound the D25's needed to have the volume trimmed. Could I hear all the details before with the Harbeth's-no. Nor did the bass go as deep, nor were the dynamics as good. But on balance I'd rather be able to pull out a record like this, turn it up and break out my air guitar and miss some of the fine details than have to turn it down to save my ears. Obviously, as they say, your mileage may vary. I'm gonna keep listening to the D25's--they grow on me more and more each day. Perhaps with the right gear they could be the right speaker, but maybe not. Thanks for listening.
You definitely do not have the right electronics for them. WIth my chosen gear and tube compliment, I *never* heard a glare from these speakers.

The thing is, and people who haven't rolled NOS haven't had this experience yet: SO much depends upon the tubes you choose (not just the fact you choose tubes, although that's a start down the right path!). It is akin to a very good component upgrade--no joke. Those D25's are only playing what you're feeding them, and that's a glare-y sound! Your Harbeths obviously mask that.

Work at this and you'll get a sound that's got all the speed, attack, detail, and *musicality* that you want. The overripe bass (which would be a factor heavily influenced by placement and room) can be mitigated with certain tube choices, but whether it will ever become nonbothersome I can't say. The D25's when fed properly are nothing but musical, tho!
Nathan. Tubes aside, I am in total agreement with you. My whole point is that the D25's are more accurate than the Harbeths and therefore when the recording has "glare" so does the sound. My only question is whether, for me, accurate is better since I have a bunch of recordings that will produce the same results. That slight dip in the upper midrange of the Compact 7's present a tradeoff--I'm just trying to figure out which side of the coin I want to be on.
I'm not thinking the recordings have glare... I think it's elsewhere in your chain.

For me, in my rig, the D25's were nothing but astonishing with good recordings... And they were unfailingly musical with bad recordings! I had no glare, ever... Now this was with a system essentially tweaked to the fullest. Although I don't recall it being difficult to get there. I will also admit the SIm Eclipse LE was also astonishingly musical, even with crap recordings. So there are many factors at work.

Good luck in your hunt! Really, I'm having a tough time finding a speaker that will fit my downsized budget that is as musical as the D25's. I don't want to analyze music--I never felt as if I was doing so with the D25s. I want to enjoy music... My current Tablettes are very hifi-ish and won't let me do that. So the search continues...

As to the D25/D38--I will be looking at the 38 next time around, as your description of their bass characteristics is very alluring...
Well, I've now logged two weeks with the D25's and they are growing on me. I just spun Lucinda Williams "Live at the Fillmore" and I have to say that the bass response of the these speakers is quite amazing. Tremendous depth and weight for such a small footprint! I am still hearing that bump on the bottom of some recordings but I'm starting to think this is a function of the recording rather than the speaker. Give them clean bass and they deliver. For a live recording this LP is pretty good and I have to say that much of the venue is reproduced brilliantly. Treatment of vocals is superb with just the right amount of rasp when she gets on it and a soft warm hue when she goes there. I've heard Lucinda live several times (a couple of these way back when in small venues) and I'm feeling the Proacs are getting it just about right. All the other stuff is there that I mentioned in my original post. The number of recordings that suffer from the revealing nature of the D25's is fairly small (Ryan Adams "Love is Hell" comes to mind) but I'm starting to feel that the trade off is worth it given the performance elsewhere. I'm thinking I may try some different tubes and cables to see how things evolve. I'll continue posting if people are interested.
Dear Dodgealum,
one and a half year later, any new findings on the ProAc Response D25?
As an owner of a pair of Response 2.5's, I always thought of the D25 as a natural upgrade-path for me (as soon as funds would allow...)

Greetings from Belgium,

The D25's remained in my system on loan for about a month. In the end I came to the conclusion that while a very nice speaker it was not the best value for money--particularly given the dollars decline. The bass continued to perplex in my room--more often than not less tuneful than I would like. The speaker also lacked a sense of realism and musicality that other speakers in the same price range had. For me the D38 is a much better speaker and though considerably more expensive, I would recommend waiting till you can afford it rather than trading the 2.5 for the D25. My recollection of the 2.5 is that it is nearly, if not, equal to the D25--slightly warmer, more romantic and less dynamic.

I ended up with a pair of Daedalus DA-1's. Hand made from genuine hardwoods (mine are oak) this 5 driver 3.5 way speaker was simply the best thing I heard in my price range. Dynamic, warm, musical and non-fatiguing the DA-1 had nearly all of the midrange qualities of my Harbeth's but was better across the board in all other respects.

Hope things are well with you and best of luck.
Thanks a lot for your useful reply!

Daedalus are unknwown over here. Glad you're happy with them.

But there might be another ProAc-alternative coming up : they've just released a RESPONSE D28, taking over the "bass -system" of the D38's, albeit in a smaller package (they must have found out about the bass problem too, in the end).

And the there's always the "Living Voice" speakers from the UK that seem to gain popularity fast...

Musical regards!
Very interesting--I'll look for the D28.
I own a pair of D38's and I concur that the newer ProAc's have moved from a sweeter more honeyed sound to one which is more detailed. The amount of detail my system resolves with my SET's and SACD front end is simply astonishing. Sure I have heard better - IMO the Quad 989 is sounds even better and it's cheaper as well. However I wasn't willing to put up with the room and bottom end compromises that accompany Quad speakers so I got the ProAcs.

It is a very easy system to listen to. Whilst I enjoy meeting with my fellow audiophiles and hearing their systems, I am always glad to come home and listen to my own system. One could argue that the ProAcs color the music and I would not disagree - but it's such a pleasant and sweet coloration that I would never complain.
My Response 2.5's sing very well in my smallish 20m² room. I suppose the D38's would be too much in these conditions??
(amplification is Audio Reseach VSi55)
I cannot understand why some would prefer the coloured sound of the C7. Transparency and neutrality have to be the ultimate aim of audiophile, to listen to what the sound engineer wants us to hear no matter how bad the recording is. The C7 makes Carrie Underwood sounds like Anita Baker. The overly warmness will please most for a while at most before moving on. The ProAc will reveal what the weak chain(s) are on the upstream. The C7, on the other hand is a filtering choke on the downstream - A pity indeed.
Transparency and neutrality have to be the ultimate aim of audiophile, to listen to what the sound engineer wants us to hear no matter how bad the recording is.
But not necessarily the ultimate goal of a music lover. Most of us are part music lover and part audiophile. Balancing the two instincts is what fuels the hobby.
Shsohis--you drastically overstate the degree to which the C7 departs from neutrality. To the degree that it does I'd say the results are stunning. I'd take the C7 over any speaker at anywhere near the price. With the C7 your great recordings sound great and your lousy one's sound quite nice, thank you. Better this than recycling the same limited number of audiophile "favorites" on a pair of ultra-neutral, transparent and revealing speakers.

I'm squarely with Drubin in the "music lover" camp on this one.
Put me in the same camp. Neutrality is meaningless in an electronic reproduction. You are starting with something that is very artificial and trying to reproduce the experience of listening to music (live music). Enjoyment is what I am after. Precision I'll save for my job where I make precision electronic measurement equipment. No system has ever come close to sounding like my local jazz club. But the very revealing systems in some ways are the worst of the bunch. Besides, let's face it, most recordings stink. Unfortunately, if you love music rather than merely sound reproduction, you have to listen to those recordings.
I'm confused, you seem to prefer the Harbeths in many ways but then say if they where the same price as the Proacs you might take the Proacs. That seems inconsistent. Proacs retain their value very well too so the initial outlay is more but when it's time to trade up, you'll get back a great deal of your initial investment. To me that is money well spent.