Review: Harbeth 7ES-2 & Monitor 30 Monitor

Category: Speakers


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?

Associated gear
Rega P5 turntable
Musical Fidelity Trivista 21A DAC
Magnum Dynalab FT101A tuner
Aesthetix Calypso Linestage
Parasound JC1 Halo Amplifiers
Siltech interconects
Cardas power cords
PSAudio P300

Similar products
Aerial, Proac, Dynaudio, Sonus Faber, Vandersteen, B&W, Joseph, Wilson, etc., etc.
Wow--great, great review! Makes we want to hear the Monitor 30 in my home. I have the SHL5, but have not commited to it emotionally (to borrow your clever and fitting conceit). More like experimenting with communal living and open marriage.
A very good read. Enjoyed it. I heard the older Harbeth's in Halifax years ago....very would appear the legend continues....
Great review! Thanks for putting in the time. The Monitor 30 and C7 were compared a while ago by Bob Neill at and I'm not sure whether your review or that one is more thorough and enjoyable to read. Perhaps a second career in the making? If you haven't already, I'm sure the Harbeth Smart Groups site would enjoy your commentary.
I'll add just a few thoughts as a committed Harbeth lover and owner of the C7's. To preface, I must say that I have never heard the Monitor 30. That being said, you may want to hold your marriage proposal until you have heard the Super HL5. Let me explain by comparing the sound of the HL5 with the C7 (and the comments you have made about that model). First, your experience with the C7's matches up pretty closely with my own. I have been in audio for over 20 years now and have owned (and heard) my share of loudspeakers--many costing several times that of the C7's. All things considered, the C7's are the best speaker I have ever owned. They are unfailingly musical in a way that MOST other loudspeakers are not. They are not for audiophiles who listen to "sounds", but are for people who listen to music. That being said, as you say, they are not perfect--though some of the nits you cite may have to do with other factors as I shall explain.
I do not hear the same bass anomolies with the C7 that you do (or that your measuring equipment reports). I find the bass to be somewhat of the classic British style--warm, realtively full for a smallish box, tuneful, but lacking the weight and slam of larger systems. It also gets a little congested when pressed. Though I tried a subwoofer for a time (a Rel Stadium II) changing to more powerful electronics gave me most of what I wanted in terms of fuller frequency response and slam without the associated drawbacks of a sub. Still, I would agree, the bass of the C7 is a little lightweight (certainly not full range) and, because it leans toward fullness rather than tightness, can lack that last degree of definition. However, the HL5 is a different story altogether. Others in the Smartgroup have said, and I agree, that the 8" Radial driver thrives in the larger box that the HL5 provides. Here the bass goes deeper--nearly as deep as you want to go if you are a music lover and not out to impress friends with demonstration discs. It is also more tuneful with greater presence and slam. I suspect that part of what you heard and didn't like in the bass region on the C7 has to do with placement and stand height. The Harbeth's are intended for use in a "free space" application and they mean it. I would argue that moving your C7's out from the rear wall another foot and making sure that they are not in the corners of the room would have alievated the dips and peaks you heard in the bass range. This suggestion, combined with lower stands--mine elevate the speakers 20" from the floor to your 24"-- would give you demonstrably better sound. I know this because I had the C7 on 24" stands for a while before having Target custom make a pair for me. I found the bass with the 24" stands thinner to be sure. Not that the Harbeths are all that picky when it comes to stands (or much else). It's just that a lower stand and more in room placement will yield better results throughout, and particularly in the bass region. To return to an earlier point, I would agree that electronics matter. The Harbeth's like power. I, too, ran Naim electronics for a good long while (a 35wpc amp). But when I stepped up to 100wpc the difference was remarkable. Also, the Naim stuff is harmonically lean. A touch of tubes from a preamp combined with sufficient solid state punch in the amp seems a good match here. The sound with the more powerful setup became more dynamic, rythmically coherent and texturally sublime.
With regard to presentation I would again agree with your review. The C7's are midhall for sure. That is what I absolutely LOVE about them. Far too many speakers throw everything in your face. If you like that--and your comments about the Monitor 30 suggest that you do--that is fine. But if you want to retain the strengths of the C7 and simply improve upon the slight weaknesses of this design then try the HL5. It has the same presentation as the C7. Laid back and musical. The persepective, like the C7, is midhall. The main difference is that the soundstage is much larger and more expansive. Both speakers image well but the HL5 presents the recording space and the musicians within in a more lifelike fashion. The space and images on the C7 are slightly compressed and diminished. Also, you mentioned a slight degree of "grunge" in the midrange. If you had said this BEFORE I had heard the HL5 I would have vehemently disagreed. However, the thing that most struck me in my 2 hour long direct comparison was that the C7's sounded signficantly "grainier" through the mids. I know, I know--the Harbeth midrange is supposed to be unsurpassed. It is. On all their products, including the C7. I haven't found ANYTHING better--except the HL5, which is extraordinary in this regard. So, to conclude, if you like the C7 but want better bass (deeper, tighter, more tuneful), a purer midrange presentation (less grain), a more extended treble (the supertweeter provides slightly more air and transparancy), yet a midhall persepective that draws you into the music rather than drops it on your lap, I would recommend that you listen to the HL 5 (if you haven't already) along side the Monitor 30. The price is roughly the same and, though I haven't heard the 30, based on what I have read the HL5 would certainly be my choice between the two. Perhaps Drubin will chime in as he owns them!
I concur with Drubin, great review Steven; I have wanted to hear the M30's for a couple years now.
I did want to ask about the 24" stands. That may be right for the Monitor 30, but is on the high side for the Compact 7 based on everything I have read.
Thanks for all your comments. Sounds like I should try the
HL5, as well.

Regarding room placement, I would note that in the Harbeth setup brochure (it comes with the speakers and is also available on the Harbeth website) shows a typical placement of 0.75 meters from the rear wall. That's a little over 2 feet, which is where mine are. On the issue of stand height, I have higher than normal Victorian style furniture. The tweeters on the 7s end up being right at ear level (per Harbeth's instructions). If anything, in my room, the tweeter on the M30s is a little low.

One thing that draws me to the M30s is that they are a professional tool. Most consumer versions of pro products, be it cooking appliances or sports cars, is that they are "dumbed down" to make them easier for the amateur cansumer to use. I think pro monitors are different. For example, one of the key design elements of the M30 is to make it easier for the audio professional to use: easier to listen to for a long time; easier to hear what's happening in the performance without needing to listen through colorations; easier to repair in the field; and (relevant to our discussion) easier to place. In other words, what makes them a good choice for the pro in the studio should also make them a good choice for the music lover who doesn't want to spend a bunch of time futzing with his or her speakers at home.

My experience is that both the 7 and the M30 are pretty easy to get to sound good. Unfortunately, that's often not the case with most speakers marketed to audiophiles today. My Aerial 7bs were a good example of that. With a very narrow baffle, almost ridiculosly deep sides and a rear firing port, they had to be placed way out into the room to sound good and micro changes in positioning made significant differences in sound quality. How can a manufacturer claim with a straight face that a speaker like that is fit for general home use?
Steev-n. I think most people who have heard both the C7 and the Monitor 30 prefer the latter. As I said in my post, I haven't heard the speaker. Knowing what I know about the C7 and HL5, I'm sure it is fantastic. The point of my post was to indicate some possible reasons why you got the results you did with the C7, namely, that the 24" stands may have denied you some floor reinforcement of the bass that the speakers are designed to have. As I said, I originally had the same height stand as a temporary solution and found that the bass response of the C7 got noticably better with the 20" replacements. Obviously, your furniture and other room conditions may dictate a higher stand. I just thought I would point out the probable negative impact on the bass response that I found to be the case in my own experience. As far as the ease of getting good sound out of the Harbeths, I would agree. These are by far the least fussy speakers I have owned. My original electronics were an old Yamaha receiver and a cheap Sony cd player and I got what most would consider spectacular results. As I improved the rest of my system in front of the Harbeths they only got better and better. I simply do not think there is a better speaker out there for anywhere near the money. I recommend them to anyone who can live with their size and appearance. If I were in your shoes, I would listen to the HL5 and the Monitor 30 head to head. See whether you like the midhall perspective of the former or the more upfront sound of the latter. For me, its a no-brainer. While the 30 may be more accurate, the HL5 is made for the real world conditions of YOUR listening room, not some studio nearfield situation. I would wager that the sound of the 30's will get old while that of the HL5 will wear well over the long haul. But, of course, this is just my own preference. We are really talking apples and apples here, since you are staying within the family line and you really can't go wrong with any of the Harbeth speakers. Best of luck.
Sorry about the slight incoherence of my last comments. I shouldn't try to write before I've had my medication in the morning!

Here's another point of reference on the issues of stand height, tweeter placement and bass response, taken from the Harbeth User's Guide: "Ideally, you should select stands that put the tweeter approximately level with your ear .... Tall stands have the advantage of moving the speaker further off the floor which improves the bass quality, but there is always a compromise between the cosmetics of tall stands, ideal listening height and stability."

Based on Dodgealum's last post, I've decided to keep both the M30s and the 7s. I'll trade them out every two weeks. That way I'll never tire of either the midhall perspective or the front row perspective. (Just kidding!).

Thanks again everyone for your comments. If I get a wild hair and audition the Super HL5s, I'll post an update.
Steev-n. Interesting--the guide and my experience are at odds. Oh well, who can figure with all the different variables of room acoustics, material construction, etc. Don't deny the wild hair--you won't regret it!
I expect 20" stands puts the Compact 7 tweeter at ear level in most situations. But if your furniture is especially tall, or you are, that could change.

The conventional wisdom with the HL5 seems to be 16", but that is clearly wrong I think. The HL5 has two tweeters, the main one being about the same distance from the bottom of the cabinet as the tweeter on the Compact 7. That's the one you'd want at ear height. But the problem with putting the HL5 on a 20" stand is that it doesn't look very good. I'm still experimenting with height.

By the way, I'm not all that happy with the bass I'm getting from the HL5, and I'm pretty sure I'd appreciate the better tweeter that is in the Moniitor 30.

Your comment about the HL5 tweeter is interesting. My experience with metal domes is that they tend to be "dryer" than soft domes and that dryness, to me, can be fatiguing. That said, the C7's tweeter is the least fatiguing metal dome I have heard by far (in fact, for the C7, I think that it is close to a non-issue). I had wondered whether the HL5's super tweeter had any impact on the usual metal dome sound. What's your experience?

I don't notice any of the traditional metal dome problems with the tweeters on the HL5. I can't imaging fatigue ever setting in. Where I think it could be improved in is overall openness, that sense that the music is existing or floating in space independent of the speakers, the sense of huge space surrounding a cymbal on a clean, quality jazz recording. I'm not sure how possible this is with a Harbeth given the large baffle and lossy cabinet. Indeed, this may not be a priority at all for Harbeth or fans of its speakers. But having had that experience with other speakers, I sort of miss it. The treble always sounds a little closed in or constrained. I wonder if the Seas Excel in your Monitor 30's improves in this area.

My impression is that the M30's Seas Excel does offer more definition at higher frequencies than the 7's metal tweeter. On a high quality recording, this makes the cymbals sound fairly realistic and defined in space. That said, you might find more "floating in space" effect with other speakers (the Proac D25 comes to mind).
Funny, I used to own the Response 2.5. Can't see going back there, but I haven't heard the D25.
I auditioned the D25 recently and commented more extensively on another thread. A very nice speaker, indeed.
Has anybody compared the Harbeth monitor 30s to sonus faber guarneri memento??? Some advice please.