Notes on Harbeth, Vandersteen, Avalon & Spendor

For a long time, I was on the Great Speaker Hunt, and started or added to a number of threads, particularly about the speaker makes referenced above, all of which I lived with. I was struggling with one of the real problems with (some) high end audio (as I see it): Hearing crisp highs with loads of detail can be a real turn on, especially when one is relatively new to high end audio. It certainly worked with me years ago. But I'm an old goat now; I'm 30 years away from music school, I've heard a lot of live music in fine halls, and I've also spent time in several recording studios seeing what really happens in the kitchen. The high end gear I was fairly comfortable with a decade or so ago went out the door in frustration as I experienced more and more listening fatigue, and less and less enjoyment of the music. (This also had something to do with topping out on digital, which took me a while to realize -- I have a couple of pretty fine players -- and EMM CDSA and a GNSC-modified Wadia 860 -- but I'll now take my Linn/Rosewood Koestsu/Einstein phono stage over either most any day, in the anti-fatigue department especially.)

So, understanding my bias (and I should also add that vacuum tubes became a critical component), here's how the Great Speaker Search played out:

The Vandersteen 3A's were almost the first thing out the door. In his review of (I believe) the Vandersteen Quattros, Michael Fremer noted, in better language than I could have thunk up, that the Vandersteen's suffered from "too much information distortion." He nailed it for the Quattros and the 3As in my view -- quite simply, they tended to tell me too much that I didn't want to know about the downside of much of the source material I wanted to hear, and not enough about the music underneath. I've said something like this before in this forum and gotten some pretty negative reactions. Knowing what I know now, I think it is possible that, had I been using all Cary or CJ gear with warm-sounding interconnect with the Vandersteens, I might well feel somewhat differently. However, I also didn't like what their midrange did to string orchestra sound. So I'm not in a hurry to go back and try again...but your results may differ, as they say.

The Harbeth Monitor 30's were my first experiment after the Vandersteens, followed by the newer Compact 7's. A guy named Paul Szabady reviewed several Harbeths on-line for Stereo Times back around 2007. Superb, thoughtful reviews. I've got nothing much to add, except this: Paul seemed to think that the Monitor 30's also suffered from some version of "too much information" distortion (such that, as he noted, vinyl sounded noticeably more friendly on the Monitor 30's than digital). I think with older CJ gear, the Monitor 30's are more forgiving than Paul found. And they have some of the best, most euphonic midrange I've heard, ever. So good that, even though I'm now using Avalons, I still have the Monitor 30's, and am getting ready to set them up in my study. Vocals and strings sounded so fine through those things. But they could become fatiguing with the wrong gear, or source material, feeding them.

The Spendor SP 1/2's were my next experiment. They were really fine. I had some wonderful listening sessions with orchestral music playing louder than it should have been, with a surprisingly big, rich sound. At low volumes they seemed just a bit colorless in the midrange compared to the Harbeths, but less susceptible of fatigue. I didn't use them for very long, and the 2nd hand pair I bought had some unfortunate cosmetic damage. In the end, I'll bet with the right front end, a person could get darn comfortable with a pair of these.

Then came the Avalon Ascendants. I bought them, only to have my (now ex-) wife hate their appearance (something that still baffles me). I put them aside until the separation (yes, I had an idea it might be coming...funny how that works), and pulled them back out when the time came.

At first, I thought they were too hard and too bright. I eventually figured out that they were very, very sensitive to what was feeding them. During this Great Speaker Search, I used at various times BAT, Cary, ARC, BEL, Joule, and probably some other gear I can't recall. I finally got to CJ gear, which I'd used back in the 80's, and what I did was bought some of the same gear I'd had back then, but had it substantially updated by Bill Thalman, who used to be with CJ. Somewhere along the way, too, I found myself listening to more records than CD's.

The Ascendants with a souped up CJ PV-5 and souped up CJ Premier IV were really, really fine. I was quite happy with that set-up. Imaging like the Vandersteens, or better (pretty darn holographic), lots of detail, but lots of music, too; very balanced presentation, good fat soundstage...for me, overall, it was a "this is IT" type experience.

Then, I had a shot at trading up to a pair of Avalon Eidelon Visions. I was scared to death to mess up a good thing, and almost didn't do it, but couldn't pass them up in the end. I'm using some different CJ gear in the front end now: a Premier 14 pre with Mullards, and a Thalman-modified Premier 11 (modified to be more like old-style tube-y, or at least that's how I express it). The overall effect is more of the same compared to the Ascendants, but with better extension, more solid, serious bass, and wonderful separation and detail.

I will add that, during the trade-in wait, I had the Harbeth Monitor 30's up for a week with the CJ gear, and I fell for them again -- just super mid-range, and the CJ gear was a great match (given my preferences).

And I will also add that, much as I enjoy the Avalons, I still have CD's and Lp's that I try to play on them that wear on me. I hate it when that happens (which is part of the reason I'm setting up a separate, less-picky (I hope) system in another room). It just doesn't happen near as much as it used to, and when everything is on, or even close, the effect is really swell.

So, I hope this is of some use to somebody. My preferences are very much my own -- having gotten somewhat involved with the Houston Audio Society over the last few years, I've heard more than ever first hand the differences there are in hi-fi listening preferences. I'm sure some folks would say that my system is a little "polite" for their tastes. But, at least directly to me, most of them say, "that's one of the warmest systems I've heard." And that's how I like to listen.

Good listening.
Having owned Quatros for 6 months now, I have to say I have no idea what Fremer meant by TMI as it relates to these speakers. Maybe my associated equipment is not "good" enough. Most of my listening is classical music on mainstream RBCD.
As I'ver recently overcome any urges to pursue Vandy's speaker line up, the Harbeth 30s are on my back burner 'day dream believer' list.

Would it be wrong to say the 30s are a more listenable speaker that don't convey as much punch and extension quite so solidly and aren't as articulate as most studio monitors normally are?

Their numbers on especially sensitivity seem to indicate an easier reproduction sort of listening device.

True? False? Kind of... ?

Avalons aren't even in the 'famntasy' league for me.

Thanks much.
Nice note, thanks for sharing that. It's good to finally realize what you like.
My experience has been that the recording medium and media have been the weakest link in my system. I prefer higher resolution speakers but this places massive limitations on what I can play to get a truly live detailed sound without hearing background noise or errors in mixing. I've heard the Monitor 30 beside a pair of NS-1000M and they shared an almost identical response in that room. The M30 had a color or warmth, a wood note and was quite forgiving of material and gear even though it had more treble, but was still more detailed than many other speakers that I remember. I enjoyed them. The NS-1000M was incredibly neutral from what I could tell, dynamic, let me hear far too deep into what was playing in the audition, to the point where what I was hearing was almost programmed sounding. Things like distant sounding strings with a close sounding vocal that doesn't fit stood out. When I ponder about recordings maybe they should use speakers like those to know what they are doing to a recording, I think most listeners want to hear more music, less recording process.

I always thought that the M30 was a little overlooked in the Harbeth line. It has a smooth midrange coupled with sweet highs because of the silk dome tweeter.

The low end is both punchy and well defined. My only "slight" criticism, things can get a little "conjested" musically as it is only 2-way monitor and may not have the resolving power of a full range. It was fairly neutral in my system. My wife really enjoyed hearing vocals with the M30s. I used both tube and ss amplification.

It's a classic loudspeaker, one that I may revisit.
How does the HL5 compared to the M30? They seem so similar "on paper".
Blindjim - I've recorded in 4 studios (only one very fancy). I think the Harbeth M30's would generally qualify as "more articulate" than the monitors in those studios (going mainly by memory) -- meaning they seem quite articulate to me. My understanding is that they are relatively common studio monitors in the UK. I think you can (and do, too often, in fact) find studio monitors with plenty more "sizzle" in the top, and I don't mean that in any kind of complimentary sense at all. And, FWIW, I think the M30's are relatively punchy (by "polite" UK standards). They were certainly able to get my blood going, with the right material.

Petek - I agree that the M30's are overlooked -- I thought they had more magic than the Compact 7's, and I think it's the tweeter that does it, which is indeed "sweet," though I agree with Paul Szabady that they are also pretty revealing, and can become fatiging when subjected to too much digitis, especially with the wrong electronics.

Which leads me to Bwcanuck -- yeah, man, it is really, really annoying when you're listening to some tune you really like through very revealing speakers and you realize, for example, that the vocalist is standing in a sound booth with completely different reverb characteristics than the rest of the instruments, and nobody has bothered to make enough adjustments to at least give you a different illusion...(I mean, most pop music is all about illusion anyway, soundwise, right?) The Harbeths will tell you that, but, generally, they are not as "in your face" about it as other speakers I've spent time with.

And, Petek, I would add that some of the congestion issue with the Harbeths may depend upon amplification. The M30's SEEM relatively comfortable with less power than their ratings would suggest, but for me, they seemed to particularly shine with the CJ Prem 4, which is (I think) 100 watts of EL34 power (although I think I was running them off of the 4 ohm tap, which would be a bit less).

A dealer I've known for years, who moved to another city, told me a while back, "Harbeths are for when you're tired of everything else." That's what started me on them, and (as I guess is obvious), although I'm using Avalons now, I have very fond feelings about them, and am looking forward to hooking up my pair when I get my 2nd system sorted out. (But what kind of nut needs two stereos in the house?? -- Don't answer that...)
I believe I was actually thinking of a Harbeth model a bit further up in the line. 60? 70? ...I recall the selling price of around $12K on a pair I read about not long ago. I believe it had 3 drivers and was stand mounted.

I had initially felt they would need more than the 100 - 120 wpc my EL34 mono's provide, though.
A very interesting write up, thank you for sharing; I have wanted to try Harbeth speakers for a long time and the itch has only grown greater as time progresses.

Blindjim, you are thinking of the M40.1's.
I have heard (and drooled over) Avalons run with tube equipment (CJ, Sonic Frontiers, LAMM, Jadis) and find it a very satisfying, very musical listening experience. It no longer becomes about the equipment. I am not surprised your search has ended (at least for now).

BTW - isn't Bill Thalmann a pleasure to work with?

Your right Eweedhome. It extends outside popular music and into classical now more than it did years ago though, but there was many poorly equalized recording back then as well. Listening to some classical on my own system at any point there are occasions when I can hear the plates merging that were recorded at different times. Some classical music has a false reverb and some technicians like to play with the dynamic range & volume, and pan the bass to center but the stand up bass used to be mixed off to one side or the other in original recordings, the way a live performance would be. Overall though it appears classical pieces and ballads are put together better.
What new popular music I expose myself to for the sake of being open minded has mostly been quite disappointing. It's electronic and has distortion effects mixed in intentionally. Some of Tina Turners older pop was quite odd, in my opinion. They didn't even bother to try and equalize the mic tracks equally or stick to the same microphone, so at different points you hear her voice tone change for a chorus or a few lines.

I'd like to reiterate that the Monitor 30 is a fantastic sounding speaker.



Someday perhaps, I'll get past the thought more than two drivers are needed to produce better sound and look closer at something like the 30s.

That said, when I do listen routinely to some of my own two ways, I am reminded how much of the musical pictorial just a pair of drivers can reproduce. In fact I have a 30 year old pair of Phase Tech PC 6.5s as my mains in one system... 100% rebuilt (grills drivers & networks) 3 years or so ago.
I have owned spendor, Avalons. Currently still have Harbeth m30 and Verity speakers. We may share listening taste. When I had the Diamonds, they always sound better with warmer Class A SS or tubes. Trouble is not many tube amps have sufficient power. The ceramic midrange can lack suppleness and texture comparing to other midranges. Piano sounded a little brittle and violin sounded too metallic. If you love the Harbeth, Verity is worth a shot. Some texture with more transparency, more extensions top and bottom.

I do not mean to put down ceramic midrange. It has great transient attack. Different speaker manufacturors, amp pairing can overcome this problem.
Glai - I respect your comments about ceramic drivers -- I was very concerned about that with the Eidelons. With the wrong electronics, I think, quite as you say, pianos can sound brittle and violins too metallic. That's why I would characterize the Avalons, in general, as being very reflective of the equipment used to drive them. (This goes for the Ascendants as well.) With the CJ gear, I'm not having that issue. As one of my more experienced audiophile buddies opined, "Some designers know how to design with ceramic drivers, and some don't." Maybe he's right.

The Eidelons are among the less-efficient Avalons, and I'm not having any problem driving them to the point of "bleeding ears" in my room, which is about 15x20, with a Premier 11, which I think is 70 watts.

Flyfish2002 - yes, Bill is great to work with, and he still has some gear of mine he's working on, so I almost hate to mention his name here -- don't want him to get TOO busy! He listens very carefully for what the client is trying to achieve, and does a very nice job of both describing what he can do, and delivering.

Blindjim - I think even the Harbeth M-40's can likely be driven by 100 watts of tube power. I think you will find that Harbeth users in general would say that the rated efficiency for the Harbeths does not seem to correctly describe their (relative) drive-ability. The M-30's on paper are relatively inefficient, but even 50 - 70 watts of tube power gooses them pretty well.

Bwcanuck - You're right about classical recordings, and it goes for old or new. A lot of Columbia records (meaning Lps or CDs) sound too bright to me on a system that otherwise doesn't have that problem -- especially the old Szell and Walter recordings. I think there might be some phono equalization issues there, at least with the Lps. But I'll tell you a great secret -- some of the most enjoyable recordings I have listened to in the last year have been old mono Deccas and EMIs. Not all, by any means, but a lot of the mono Ansermets are very good, and a lot of the chamber music is wonderful. Evenutally, I intend to get a separate turntable and a mono cartridge, and that is part of the rationale for setting up a separate system with my M30's.

Many thanks to all for the comments.

Interestingly, I also went from the M30s to Verity Parsifals. Both share some similarities, with a natural and smooth sound that does fatigue. The Parsifals are a fuller range loudspeaker that are even more refined. They remind of the M30 in that the top loudspeaker unit (above the granite slab) appears to be a an exceedingly good monitor that just happens to be well integrated with a woofer unit enclosure below the granite slab. This integration is part of their magic.

I also had the Spendor S3/5se prior to the M30s - great little monitors which sounded better every time the electronics improved (esp. amplification).

I agree with Glai, give the Verity's a listen. You can't go wrong.
I received my Ascendant two weeks ago to replace my Vandersteen 2 Ce Sig II and have put 400 hours of current through them, but probably more like 200 hours in driver workout.

I have experimented over the last few days and was blown away when I moved the speakers in from 8' to 7'. I also found that my initial listening distance of 9' was too much, so I moved in to 8' and thought I was part of the performance. I've found when I had my Thiels and Vandersteen, 9'+ was where the magic was but so far 8' listening distance with the speaker seperated 7' apart, 4' from the back wall and the left spkr 4.5' and right spkr 3.5' from side wall.

I'm going to give them a little more time to settle in and do some more experimenting. The level of detail and soundstaging in their current positions blow away 2 Ce Sig II. I'm still amazed at the ambiance and complete coherence of this design since it doesn't have the traditional midrange driver.

I still have not heard the Quatro Wood sig but I believe I made the right decision in going with the Ascendant. Please feel free to give any setup techniques and advice since I'm just entering back in the hobby.

How do I ensure that my pre-amp/amp balance is accurate in both channels?

perhaps the most enjoyable thread i've yet to read. not because of the topic but for the prose. a well written thought is akin to a lovely tune...

My Ascendants are 5 weeks old now and have really opened up quite a bit. I have been experimenting with placement and find that 7' seperation from tweeter to tweeter provides the best overall sound with a listening distance of 10'. My 2 Ce Sig II sounded better at 7' also with a 9' listening distance. My current toe-in is 3/16", I would be curious to find out what everyone else setting are.