Review: Harbeth 7ES-2 & Monitor 30 Monitor
ADVENTURES WITH THE HARBETH 7ES-2 AND MONITOR 30
I’ve been having an affair with a pair of Harbeth 7ES-2s for a couple of years now. I had several long and intimate encounters with them back in 2003 while I was looking for something to replace well loved, but enormously large, horn-based speakers I had built for myself 25 years ago. Instead of the Harbeths, though, I ended up married to a gorgeous pair of Aerial 7Bs. I was seduced by the 7Bs tight bottom and velvety textures.
Sadly, the Aerial 7Bs and I eventually separated. No hard feelings; our tastes just proved to be incompatible. So I resumed the search for speakers I could settle down with for the long term. It didn’t take me long after that to run back into the arms of the Harbeths.
Why hadn’t I gone home with the Harbeths in 2003? I had liked the sound. A lot. Only two things caused me concern. First, with the volume turned up to more then moderate levels, the sound compressed and lost focus, completely changing the character of the music and speaker (for the worse). Second, I noticed an occasional bit of whiteness in the lower treble if, for example, the music included heavy crash cymbals.
My 2003 listening sessions used all Naim electronics, including a 50 watt Naim NAP amplifier. Naim is believed to be one of the best matches with Harbeth, but I’ve never been a big fan (sorry Naim lovers!). Revisiting the 7ES-2s in 2005, I asked my dealer to hook them up to a Sim Moon system that included the mighty 425 watt Sim W6 monoblocks. Ahh, that was better! No dynamic compression or loss of focus. I liked the Harbeths well enough this time to bring them home to meet the family for an extended audition.
That family includes a Rega P5, Musical Fidelity Trivista A21, and Magnum Dynalab FT101A as sources; Aesthetix Calypso and Graham Slee Era Gold Mark V as preamps; and a pair of Parasound JC1 Halo monoblocks for power.
By the time I got home with the 7ES-2s, I had been at the audio store most of the afternoon and was running late to a dinner party. I quickly hooked them up to my system and listened for a couple minutes. I have to admit, at that point I just didn’t get it. Having just spent a year with the vivacious and exciting Aerial 7Bs, the Harbeths were underwhelming: the highs and lows both seemed rolled off. The overall sound felt unappealingly “lite.”
When I got home from dinner later that evening, I spent a few minutes on positioning the Harbeths. Somewhat surprisingly, they actually LIKED being fairly close to the rear wall (about two feet away). Then I sat down for a serious listen. I soon realized that the 7ES-2s were not really “lite.” Every necessary element of the music was there; I just wasn’t being hit over the head with it. This allowed a more nuanced range of timbres and tones to show through in the music, like the subtle beauty in a watercolor painting’s uninterrupted continuity of shadings. It did not take me long to fall head over heels in love. Instrument sounds were real in a way that I had not heard before in my living room. Even more, the sound had a wholeness that made one think “musical performance” rather than just of tones recreated by drivers.
Given my reaction to the 7ES-2s, I could not help wondering what the Harbeth Monitor 30s might sound like. The Monitor 30s and the 7ES2s share the same eight inch midrange/bass driver, which is made out of a proprietarily blended and molded polymeric composite that Harbeth calls “RADIAL.” They also share the same “lossy” cabinet design, which uses thin wood and loose joints to dissipate vibrations (contrary to the cabinet design philosophy currently in vogue with most other manufacturers, which calls for thick mdf wood and rigid structure to damp vibrations). The tweeters of the two speakers are different, though: The 7ES-2 uses a one-inch ferro-cooled aluminum dome, while the Monitor 30 uses a one-inch soft domed Seas Excel tweeter. The Monitor 30, at 18” x 11” x 11.25”, is also almost twenty percent smaller than the 7ES-2’s dimensions of 20.5” x 10.75” x 12.5”. I have read that the reason for the size difference is that the Monitor 30 was designed as a drop-in replacement for the BBC’s LS5/9 studio monitor, while the 7ES-2 was designed, according to one review, “without any such restriction.” As a professional monitor, the Monitor 30 is also designed for flat frequency response. The 7ES-2 supposedly has a slight response dip in the upper midrange “presence” range to make it sound more natural in the home environment for which it was intended. One other obvious difference between the two Harbeths: the Monitor 30 costs about a thousand dollars more than the 7ES-2.
When I returned the demo pair of 7ES-2s to my dealer, I was told that if I purchased a pair they would arrive in about a week from Harbeth’s US distributor (Fidelis, located in Derry, New Hampshire). If I wanted to demo the Monitor 30s, they would need to be ordered from the UK and would take six to eight weeks to arrive. So I bought the 7ES-2s. But I also asked that my dealer bring in a pair of the Monitor 30s so that I could audition them in the future.
In my time with the 7ES-2s, I have become more and more convinced that they are some of the most likeable speakers around: world class midrange, always musical, never glaring. They are also impressive in ways that you might not expect from a fairly wide-baffled box. Image placement and depth is fantastic, with the ability to “hear into” the soundstage. I found myself listening to a lot of small jazz combos and being transported to the original recording space (often, Van Gelder’s famed studio). Atmospheric music, like Califone, Kinski or Sigur Ros, was also particularly enjoyable, with the deep natural ambience of the rooms where it was created being seductively reproduced in front of me.
So what are the tradeoffs with the 7ES-2? For one, that bit of whiteness that I mentioned before; by which I mean a small loss of transparency and definition when treble passages get complex. There is also a slight dullness at the top of the midrange that robs a bit of bite from Jimi’s Stratocaster, some of the mouthpiece reediness from Ornette’s alto saxophone. On the other hand, this slight dullness also removes the glare from bad recordings and, for the first time in my system, renders those recordings listenable.
My last quibble with the 7ES-2s is in the bass, which, while generally sufficient, is sort of “missing in action” between 50-90 Hz in my room. This finally led me to buy a Velodyne DD10 subwoofer to fill in the low end. The DD10 comes with a microphone, sweep tone generator and onscreen frequency analyzer. Using these tools, I was able to minimize the 50-90 Hz suck-out. I also discovered that the 7ES-2s have a significant bump at about 40 Hz (in my room, anyway) and then roll off very steeply with pretty much nothing going on below that.
Over time though, the 7ES-2s were so enjoyable, so right where they needed to be right, that I started to wonder whether it was really worthwhile to audition the Monitor 30s. Would the Monitor 30s, with their smaller size, diminish the deep natural ambience that is a strong suit of the 7ES-2s? Would the Monitor 30s, without the presence region frequency dip, be too forward? Given the apparent minor design differences between the Monitor 30 and the 7ES-2, could the Monitor 30s possibly sound a thousand dollars better?
After I had been listening to the 7ES-2s for over a month, my dealer called to say the Monitor 30s had come in. In fact, she said she had been listening to them for several days. Uncharacteristically, she almost gushed in describing the richness and depth of the speakers and their gorgeous recreation of string tones. She mentioned that she was considering purchasing a pair for herself.
I set up the Monitor 30s almost exactly where the 7ES-2s had been, maybe a half foot further from the rear wall, on the same 24-inch stands. When I turned them on, my jaw did not drop (come to think of it, my jaw never really drops; from what I’ve read, though, jaw dropping is apparently a fairly common experience among audio reviewers and their friends – usually when they’ve replaced an esoteric $3,000 power cord with an even more esoteric $6,000 power cord). However, a broad smile did spread across my face as I realized that these speakers have an endearing rhythmic bounciness. Beat driven music sounds fantastic on them. Put on “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” by LCD Soundsystem and just try to keep from moving!
I started out using the Monitor 30s without the Velodyne DD10. The Monitor 30s can get away without using a subwoofer much better than the 7ES-2s. They are more accomplished at the sleight of hand involved in making one forget that the last octave of bass is missing. Measuring the Monitor 30s with the Velodyne’s microphone and sweep tone showed that they rolled off steeply, and almost identically to the 7Es-2s, at 40 Hz. The difference was that the Velodyne measurements showed that the Monitor 30s had a lot more going on between 40-90 Hz than the 7ES-2s did.
In fact, I have been constantly impressed with how good the Monitor 30’s bass is, and not just for its relatively small size. It actually has some slam. Acoustic bass, like Dave Holland’s on Geri Allen’s album “The Life of a Song,” is nicely propulsive and has well defined string tone. The only caveat is that, if the bass on the source material was EQ’d too high, the speakers can take on a smidgen of “wumpy” character.
Not surprisingly, the midrange of the Monitor 30s and the 7ES-2s is very similar. However, with the 7ES-2s, there is a barely noticeable grunge that shows through occasionally on vocals. It is easily overlooked. But it is gone with the Monitor 30s. Maybe the superior tweeter in the Monitor 30s has something to do this. I also wonder whether the Monitor 30s may have some higher quality crossover components.
That brings us to the treble, which, in my opinion, is the most significant difference between these two speakers. In short, the Monitor 30’s Seas Excel soft dome is sweeter than the 7ES-2’s metal dome. One aspect of that sweetness is that the Monitor 30 goes higher with full definition; that is, with the harmonic structure intact, rather than stretching thinner as it goes up in frequency. This gives noticeably more body, more brass, to cymbal crashes. Another exceptional aspect of the Seas Excel tweeter is its ability to stay relaxed and detailed when the music gets intense. As a result, the slight “whiteness” that bothered me in the 7ES-2 is eliminated in the Monitor 30.
The Monitor 30’s attributes add up to a rich and compelling speaker that draws you in and invites you to listen. I used watercolor painting as an analogy to describe the 7ES-2’s sound. The Monitor 30 is more like an oil painting: the deep intensity of the colors helps define the differences between dark and light and makes both more vibrant.
Stereophile’s Sam Tellig occasionally reviews Harbeth speakers. He always raves about the sound, says they’re great for “serious” music, and then adds a comment like this: “rock fans and others looking for excitement can go elsewhere.” Sam (who seems to clearly not be a rock fan) has never, to my knowledge, reviewed the Monitor 30s. They are speakers that are never less than exciting. While the 7ES-2s gives you a mid-hall perspective, you are pretty damned close to the front row with the Monitor 30s. Try putting on The Legendary Shack Shakers cover of “Shake Your Hips,” from their album Cockadoodledon’t, and give it some juice: guitars gnash; harmonicas scream; singers spit. As an unabashed lifelong fan of good old rock-n-roll, I can give the Monitor 30s the Unconditional Seal of Rawkin’ Approval.
Are the Monitor 30s perfect? No, but the nits to pick are small. First, they will play fairly loud, but do not have the seemingly unlimited volume ceiling of some larger speakers. On the other hand, the Monitor 30s sound great at late night low volumes, while speakers with unlimited ability to suck current tend to need some decibels to sound decent. Second, like all ported speakers, they can “chuff” a bit and sound a little loose if the bass program is focused near the port’s tuning frequency. Finally, while they’ll be honest about what is on a recording, warts and all, the Monitor 30s also tend to be more forgiving than “ruthlessly revealing.” As a result, they aren’t the last word in detail. Instead, they are phenomenally musical, which is their most endearing trait.
From the foregoing, I think my feelings for the Monitor 30s are clear. So, as much as it’s been fun flirting with the 7ES-2s, even living with them for awhile, it’s time for me to make a commitment. I can see why some might prefer the 7ES-2s. They have a deeper soundstage. They are more laid back. Maybe, with their bigger cabinets, they’ll play slightly louder. The bass is less prominent, too, which allows the midrange to shine as the main attraction.
For me, though, it looks like the 7ES-2s are once again the bridesmaid and not the bride. I’m shacking up with the Monitor 30s for the long term. Still, I keep procrastinating about boxing up the 7ES-2s and sending them on their way. Polygamy, anyone?
Rega P5 turntable
Musical Fidelity Trivista 21A DAC
Magnum Dynalab FT101A tuner
Aesthetix Calypso Linestage
Parasound JC1 Halo Amplifiers
Cardas power cords
Aerial, Proac, Dynaudio, Sonus Faber, Vandersteen, B&W, Joseph, Wilson, etc., etc.