Review: Harbeth SHL5 30th Anniversary Edition Speaker

Category: Speakers

These are debriefing notes I made to my self and
posted in part in another of my threads asking about
Skylan Stands. I thought they would be valuable as a kind of rough-draft review that I will add comments to and entertain questions as time goes on, since this is a popular speaker.
Thanks for reading.

Quick comments on SHL5s (2007 30th anniversary edition with upgrade OFC internal wiring) on the floor (still awaiting Skylan Stands):

Outstanding overall speaker. No offending characteristics.
No longer have to segregate my CDs based on how listenable they are--all are musical. Very nice vocals. Not state-of-the-art imaging in any direction but still has images in a nice 3D space with natural size sounds. A nice balance between fullness and image-boundary conditions. Reminds me very much of Sennheiser 650s (with a great headphone amp) but with better definition and detail. Silky and not abrasive at all. No screeching, grain, or hash or buzziness. Bass is solid and full but not boomy, a bit muddy on the floor, but really excellent on temporary tables I tried for a while. Overall, not nearly as tonally or spatially detailed as former Kharma 3.2s or Wilson WP6s,
but none of the pain from overexposure either that led me away from these. More transparent and better soundstaging than former Aerial 10Ts I had, with out the occasional overrought bass or rare piercing lower treble. But, like Aerials, I can sit for long periods with zero fatigue.
Very balanced sound from top to bottom. Deep bass or sparkling highs only hinted at, but enough to be satisfying.

Sounds better with my single-wire Cardas Golden Ref speaker cable on the upper posts, despite Harbeth's recommendations. Sounds better using EMM DCC2-SE's preamp
rather than separate preamps I have (Mac C46 or Jeff Rowland Capri). I use Stelth Indra ICs for all. (Actually, only one pair used for DCC2 to Edge NL12.1 amp.) I also use a Hydra 8 to plug in sources, and plug the amp right into the wall. The amp really grips the bass on the Harbeths well and makes it tight and formidable, but never abusive.

Again, I can listen to any disk with no fear, and that is so extremely valuable to me. What a sense of power that my system isn't dictating my musical tastes or moods. But, nonetheless,
SACDs sound extrordinary, with real focus and drive, but still relaxing, so I know the Harbeths do reflect the benefits of good upsteam equipment.

So, yes, I do miss the live, totally natural, liquid, you-are there sense you get with more sophisticated speakers with great recordings, but I need to live in the real world, too. If I only listened to classical, I would have stayed with the Kharmas with their extreme differentiation of tonality and layered micro-spatial cues that were really a joy, but I need to hear the Beatles and Boston and Blood Sweat and Tears and Chicago and Carole King and all that great British Invasion music without any abuse or abrasion to trigger those important synapses in my brain.

Associated gear
Edge NL12.1 amp.
EMM CDSD-SE and DCC2-SE digital+preamp.
Stealth Indra IC.
Shunyata Hydra 8 on all but amp.
AC cable: Shunyata Anaconda Alpha,
Kimber PK10 Palladian, TG SLVR.

Similar products
Kharma 3.2 CRM-FE,
Aerial 10T,
Wilson Watt Puppy 6,
Apogee Stage.
Just to put things succinctly after some more burn-in and listening, my impression is that the SHL5s just create this big, friendly, safe, warm and inviting blob of sound in most of the space between the speakers where all is well.

I did some listening to an SACD of Tapestry (Carole King), and the gentle distortion of her voice is now just right,
smooth but still detailed, but not harsh. That about sums up the affect these speakers have on everything. It is probably a sound where some of the nasty thorns and sharp edges have been excised, at the expense of some openness
or spaciousness, but the character of the sound, the individual personality of the vocal or instrument still comes across, just not as loud and clear as in more revealing speakers. But it is direct, but not at all forward, pushy, or heavy. Just plain nice.

And yes, I think this may be a coloration of some sorts,
as there is a bit of sameness to all recordings, but it is painted in such a pleasant way, you just go with it, in don't-worry-be-happy mode.

But again, it is not boring, or rolled off like a tone control would do. It is toned down in a non-electronic way,
as if that is the way it sounded in real life, a believable type of softness (or at lease lack of harshness) that rings true.

I think this is a a rare speaker I can recommend to people to buy without even hearing it first...
I had a pair myself for a couple weeks ( on loan ) awhile back and found that the Paul Speltz speaker cables worked very nicely on them..I had the cables on hand and tried for the heck of it and was amamzed at how well the inexpensive cable sound on quality speakers.........I didn't end up keeping the Harbeths but did have fun for the time that I had them........
Nice review - so are they keepers for you? Or you need more time to decide?
Yep, they're keepers. It's amazing how many big name speakers have some fatal flaw or need lots of tubes to work well. (Maybe I'll look at 40.1s some time but I have my speakers on the long wall and was afraid they would overdo the bass.) I'm really wary now when speakers are called revealing, which now I'm starting to think is a euphemism for painful. I don't think there's any holy grail in speakers out there.

I also like the image sizing on the Harb's. Sometimes you hear a speaker with a big wall of sound and this tiny little telephone-speaker-sized image coming from it.

The SHL5s kind of remind me of my old Apogees, which combined live realism with a kind of friendly, relaxed natural sound (a very neat trick). The Harbs can't compete with the truth of the Apogees, but have a deeper, 3D soundfield that you can just lean into.

I think, if I thought they were reliable, I would scout out Apogees (or the new Graz versions, I think). My Apogees broke (one of the woofers buzzed) and could not be repaired, and I don't want to hassle with that again. That's why I avoid Quads, too.

Thanks for reading my review, as it was just really a stream of consiousness.
I can very much connect to your becoming tired of hearing more than you wanted to know about many less than perfect recordings. Because I was having the same problem, I switched from Vandersteen 3a sigs to Harbeths quite happily for quite a while (M30's and, later, Compact 7's). Then I tried some Spendor 1/2e's, which were also very nice (in the direction of the HL5's--same size). My best guess, in part based upon a very good set of reviews of all of them that is online, is that the HL5's are more satisfying, ultimately, than the M30's or the C7's, and they were on my list, but now I've gone in a different direction for a while (back to more detail--as long as I can stand it), but when I get tired of it, the HL5's are next.
I owned the SHL5's for two years and totally enjoyed them. Everything sounds good on these speakers. I would buy them again if I was to start a second system.