Piano Notes On Harbeth SHL 5


I heard this speaker recently and the slightly rolled off highs are pleasant to listen to on most recordings. However, one thing seemed to bother me - piano notes seem fat and thick. This seems in contrast to more neutral speakers like Dynaudio where the treble is more extended, rendering piano notes more crisp. I have had people say to me though that they thought the tone of the piano sounded more natural and real on the Harbeth's, so is it only me and do real pianos sound that thick?
Depends on the speaker cables used, among other things. My Harbeth's sound very natural on piano.
The fact of the matter Mikey is that different pianos produce different sounds and among pianists there are preferences. The Steinway is considered among most lay people as the gold standard for pianos simply because many classical artists were/are paid for playing and endorsing this brand and it is widely used and heard in many recordings. It is of course a great piano but there are others with different presentations. For instance a Fazioli would be as you describe what you like, on the crisp end with a clear attack of treble notes where for instance a Petrof or an old Chickering would have a richer rounder less clipped sound so as the presentation of speakers are different so are pianos. Of course ideally a speaker's purpose is to reproduce the sound, not make one of its own. So IMHO it is only wrong when it brings attention to itself. If it sounds right to your ears and engages you in the performance without your mind wondering, mission accomplished!
Sometimes when I hear a real piano it sounds brighter and livelier than I expect and sometimes it sounds about what I imagine.

I think I expect more heft to the sound than is normally there so I am biased.

fwiw the sort of tonal balance you describe is easily swayed by cable and component matching you may need to go into 'tweek mode' - and good luck with that!
If it doesn't sound natural, then by definition, it isn't. Only you can decide what is natural.

The piano is very difficult to reproduce on a stereo. I would never describe a real piano as sounding thick, regardless of manufacturer. The upper frequencies of a piano have a distinct clear and sweet sound, almost like a bell.
For box speakers, the quality of the speaker enclosures and drivers will pretty much dictate how piano tones and timbre will be reproduced. The Harbeth seems to lean more to the sound as you've described in most system, rich and warm pleasant tone.
Although speakers will dictate how piano notes would sound like, factors such as quality of recording and ancillary equipment play a part as well. Piano notes will sound "fat and thick" on the Harbeth if comparison is made with leaner or more precise speakers with extended high frequencies such as Dynaudios, Revels etc. It is difficult to ascertain which sound is more accurate, neutral or natural as everyone has their own benchmark.

May I ask what amps are hooked up to the SHL5 when piano sounded "fat and thick"? The Harbeths are inherently warm and organic sounding speakers with smooth highs, and a warm and smooth amp may just exacerbate things.

Thanks for the replies so far.

The recording is of the Keith Jarrett Trio on "Up For It" - Live in Juan-les-Pins. I looked at the liner notes to see what piano it was ;) - they sometimes say but not the case here. They did mention that there was rain onstage and leakage causing Gary Peacock's bass to be water affected and the piano to be waterlogged.

But triviality aside, I have liked the Harbeth's so far on many Blue Note quartet and quintet recordings where trumpets are usually too biting and the bass notes do reveal the different textures although they are not as tight as on the Dyn's that I was surprised to not be equally impressed by piano trio recordings. Hell, I even thought they sounded fine on US3's "Hand On The Torch" too even without the bass slam.

But rock, now that is a different matter...

Ryder, the amp was a Krell FPB 200 driven by a Cary SLP 05 - that is a neutral amp so I cannot presume that it imparted much warmth.
The Krell is a good one(tried an FPB400CX and matching Krell pre with some Harbeths). Not too sure about the Cary tube preamp though.

Bass slam can be improved with close attention to speaker placement, even if the SHL5 is in a large listening area. Closer placement to wall boundaries, especially the wall behind the speakers will tend to balance out the lack of punch in the bass whilst producing a more pronounced midrange.

Trumpets and strings(acoustic guitars) usually sound good on the Harbeth. Good observation on the bass texture of the Harbeth vs tight bass of the Dynaudios. The thin-wall cabinet of the Harbeth box that promotes resonance gives the bass(and lower mids) the texture and organic bloom -good for blues and jazz pieces but falls short in rock and dynamic music with lots of transients.
A good solo piano recording, such as Herbie Hancock's "The Piano" should help you zero in more on whether or not you think there is an issue. Recording-wise, this is about as perfect as a solo piano recording I know of. Good luck.
AS you know, the piano is a percussion instrument, and before you hear the string tone, you should hear the percussive sound of hammers striking the strings...then the sound of the strings coming off the sounding board should be revealed. I've heard very few systems to be able to reproduce the percussive component of piano sound...and then if you are using vinyl....the string sound should be without fluctuating to the end of its life.
I second the recommendation on the Hancock "Piano" CD.
Remember great CD players sound like ebony and ivory and so/so CD players sound like plastic and Ikea wood.
Nice theories....

back to the Harbeth 5's. They can be extremely tight on the low end and produce a piano gorgeously....it all depends on what gear you have them paired with, what stands they are, and what room they're in, and even cabling...

to say you know the Harbeth sound because you heard them in one setup is not informative. Try them with different things, and you'll hear what I mean.

(for my two cents subjectively, I would think Krell would be dreadful with them, and I hate Dynaudios-do not sound like music. Different characteristics altogether.)
"so is it only me"
No its not only you,IMO if you like the speed,transparency,detail etc of Dynaudio theres really no way to go with Harbeths.Although Ive never owned Harbeths(and never would)Ive listened to them way too many times and always came away with the same impression as what your saying..So no, your not alone
very strange ,I find highs of SHL5 more extented than on Dynaudio C1 or contour s1.4 I tried krell and shl5 for several times,and found it was not a perfect match.I think piano notes are perfect on harbeth ,but driving them with japanes Technics mosfet amp su-a3000,su-c3000 which sounds much more cleaner and have better midrange(more weight,livelier) reproduction.
Piano strings are in groups that decay in various degrees if sustained...compare a digital piano by muting it during a chord strike and then bring in the volume while it's decaying and you can demo what I mean...an actual piano has movement and harmonic waves during decay, digital piano doesn't. El Fluctuo A Mundo.

I sold some otherwise well regarded speakers due to midrange piano distortion...I listen to a lot of acoustic piano in small jazz trios or whatever and I have to have it clean or it drives me nuts.
I found my Shl5 very sensitive to speaker placement and room treatment as it creates a lot of mid bass around the room. I was having fat undefined bass and too warm sounding mids before room treatment. After placing one ceiling trap and 2 multi-traps at the back wall, the bass is now tight and defined but the mid and highs are almost too neutral to my liking. When moving the speakers a few inches in or out again changes the character of the sound. I found they are much more difficult to place then my Thiels 3.6! Anyway, once placed right, their tones, textures and mids range are very addictive!
Interesting observation. I agree that recorded piano tone can often be bothersome, but "thick" isn't a descritpive that I'd ever be inclined to use for any reproduction of piano. So, it's hard for me to comment on the Harbeth from your description, but....

Recording techniques vary so much and the pianos themselves vary so much (a new concert grand will sound rather different than an old upright with worn pads on the hammers) that it's hard to know if even really good reproduction by your system will sound satisfying on any given recording. As Wolf mentions, digital pianos (pretty common these days) sound different, too.

I've attended a recording session and watched everyone struggle - and never really succeed - in trying to get the piano to sound just right. I've also recorded my own (pretty horrible) playing on my daughter's high quality Kawai digital upright in the living room and can never get it to sound right 20' away in my listening room.

There are occasions when it's pretty evident that the system is the culprit, but I rarely use piano recordings to reach that conclusion. When it comes to problems in reproducing piano, I'm always wondering about the recording and reluctant to blame the system.
I heard exactly what you (the original poster) did with my SHL5s and always found myself leaning into the speakers trying to listen for more. Eventually I sold them due to this thinking this sounds more like mid-fi (despite the protests over on the Harbeth Users' Group saying there must me something wrong with my ears).
Rgs92, there is nothing wrong with your ears. It is typical of any ardent or overzealous fans to come into the defense of the Harbeth on the user forum. That can happen on any manufacturer's forum, and the same thing can be seen on the Naim forum. Though I have to admit that some chaps on the Harbeth user group seem to be totally stuck on the speakers and regard the Harbeth as somewhat flawless and most natural speakers in the world.

I do agree that the Harbeth lacks that extra bit of detail and resolution causing it to sound slightly soft and rounded in the highs. In comparison to ultra-revealing and transparent speakers out there, one can consider the Harbeth to be mid-fi. There are many other high-end speakers that offer more detail, resolution and tighter punchier bass but too much of detail may render the sound to be bright, cold or analytical. I believe balance is the key to a musical speaker and/or system. Everyone has their own benchmark or reference as to how their music should sound like so inevitably one speaker will not cater to all listening preferences.

Back to the quality of piano notes on the Harbeth. Martykl made a good point. The quality of piano recordings do differ greatly with the use of different recording techniques. Although the tone of piano sound warm and soft on some recordings, it can sound lean and bright on other recordings with a crisp and lighter feel. Thankfully the different tonal quality of the piano on various recordings shows through the Harbeth. If they all sound the same then it would be worrying.
As the OP, I am pleasantly surprised that this post has lasted for so long. I passed on the SHL 5's for the reasons I mentioned, which seem to be shared by Rgs92.

So which speaker has the best of both worlds? To paraphrase Ryder, bass(and lower mids) with the texture and organic bloom of the Harbeths with a slightly rolled off top end which makes harsh recordings listenable (for Jazz and Blues)but yet extended and resolving enough to make music with lots of transients (like Rock or Pop) enjoyable.

Ryder, I saw on another thread that you were asking about the Dynaudio C2 Sigs? Are you thinking of replacing your SHL 5's?
Mikey8811, I'm looking at an alternative speaker to complement the SHL5s. I will be keeping the Harbeth as I still like what they are capable of doing. Like Rgs92, I am looking for another speaker with more resolution and detail than the Harbeths so that I can have best of both worlds. In my opinion no speaker can do it all. You gain some in one speaker and lose some in another.

Yes, I was looking at the Dynaudio C2 Sigs but not at the point of getting them. I have briefly listened to the Confidence C1's three years ago and they do have the resolution and detail that are absent in the SHL5. Nevertheless, the C1s also do not have the warm organic bloom and sweet airy highs of the SHL5s. No doubt the C1s are a high-grade mini-monitor, but I'm not sure if I can live with the squeaky clean sound of it in long-term and connect to it emotionally(on a good day I can listen up to 6 hours with the SHL5). To top it off, the C1s have limited bass response and does not go low down the frequency spectrum. The C2s look good but I would be more interested in a bookshelf than a pair of large floorstanders at this point of time in my life due to personal priorities.

In other words, I am looking to acquire another bookshelf for short-term thrills. The Harbeths are keepers in my main system. My other backup PSB monitors failed to live up to expectations and have been relegated to HT duties.
harberth speakers reckon back to the age of Bozak's...very musical but definately not state of the art in definition. They are a most conventional speaker with pleasant tone...that's it. Oh, and to answer your question...NO, a piano does not sound thick:O) Live music is vibrant, dynamic, transparent, crisp and full of action. Harberth's are more on the mellow yellow side. You can try to bandaid the situation with upstream cables and gear, but the signature will still be there.
Try Avalon if you are seeking tonality, detail, and dynamics.

I absolutely adore the sound of piano on my system. It took some component and wire matching, but nothing at this level is plug-and-play.