At the time I write this (early February), I expect it is the first of what will doubtless be several reviews of this sibling of the slightly larger Compact 7 and of the considerably larger Monitor 40. Both the Monitor 30 and 40 were designed to be professional monitors and entered the world in much plainer garb than the handsome wood veneers they now wear in their role as domestic speakers. The Compact 7 was designed specifically for domestic use. What has brought the 40 and now the 30 into the domestic world alongside the 7 has been a growing popular demand for professional monitor level performance.
There are several different interests in the 30, all of which I will attempt to meet here. This will doubtless introduce some redundancies but I will keep a thesaurus handy to make them less obvious. The chief interest is in whether the 30 offers a new definitive choice for the best moderate size/moderate cost monitor for those who prefer the British BBC monitor take on music presentation. To wit: how specifically does the 30 fare in competition with the Compact 7 and Spendor SP 1/2? Another interest is in how the 30 differs from the 40: that is, how much of a compromise does it represent and does its considerably smaller size offer any compensating sonic advantages.
That the British monitor take on music presentation might not be everyone's standard is a view I find hard to fathom, but Barry from the backwoods of Ontario with his somewhat more sensuous French speakers insists there is more in the universe than what I know. He has urged me to introduce this review with a summary description of what I think this UK take is, a task I find similar to having to describe nature, but I will try.
They tend to be smallish, feature "lossy" cabinets, are generally flat through the critical portion of the midrange enabling them to maximize accuracy of tonality and timbre, offer not a whole lot of action under 40Hz, and come with a very gradual taper of the high end, resulting in a 'natural' rather than zippy or expressive overall presentation. How's that for a sexy speaker? They are designed to present what's on the recording accurately but with some consideration for how music actually sounds in a concert or jazz hall. While this can result in slightly different voices among different designers - or even within a single line of speakers - the differences tend to be those of degree, not kind. You get the feeling after listening to a variety of them that they all have the same general ideal in sight. British monitors tend not to grab their listeners but to please and satisfy them, especially those familiar with the sound of real instruments played in a live environment. They wear extremely well over time and tend not to be traded in or sold very often. There is some guy on Audio Review who reports that he has a photograph of his Spendor SP 100's on his desk at work. Sick, but I understand.
The Harbeth Monitor 30 is approximately 18" x 11" x 11.25" (HxWxD), a size determined by its original mission, which was to be a "drop in" for the BBC LS 5/9. This means it is a little less than 20% smaller in overall volume than the Compact 7, which was designed with no such 'restrictions.' The other basic difference between these two speakers is that whereas both speakers use the same 8-inch (200 mm) RADIAL midrange/woofer, the 30 uses the SEAS 1-inch (25 mm) soft-dome Excell tweeter used in the Monitor 40, whereas the 7 uses a SEAS magnesium-alloy dome tweeter of the same dimension.
The Monitor 30 is 8 ohms/85 dB, the Compact 7 is 8 ohms/88db. The Monitor 30 retails in the United States for $3,189, $720 more than the 7. Both speakers are comfortable on Sound Anchor stands. (Use Blue Tak as a speaker/stand interface.) Experiments so far suggest that the 7 is best on a 20-24-inch stand, the 30 (whose tweeter is mounted lower in the cabinet) on a 25-28 inch stand. Both speakers are bi-wireable, though in general, designer Alan Shaw is skeptical of bi-wiring. He does not deny that it changes the sound, just not for the better. I do not have bi-wired Valhalla. The Blue Circle BC 92, which I will be using later on in the audition when I move the 30's into a smaller room with more modest equipment, is bi-wired, but I have nothing to compare its performance with, so let us trust the designer on this one. The main part of the review will be carried out on my existing system, which I know well, in our 5,000 cubic foot living room, which has proven to be a fine environment acoustically.
Front End: Naim CDSII player, Electraglide Reference Triglide ac cord, Nordost Vallhalla interconnect, RCA/XLR.
Electronics: Blue Circle AG3000 line preamp - tubed, balaced, same Electraglide ac cord, Nordost Valhalla interconnect, XLR/XLR. Blue Circle AG 8000 monoblocks - hybrid, 150 watts, balanced, high biased A/B. Electraglide Fat Boy Gold ac cords, Valhalla speaker cable.
Room: 18 x 28 x 11 feet. The ceiling slopes from 11 feet at speaker end to 8 feet at the other. The floor is wood over slab, with 8 x 10 area rug in front of loudspeakers. The wall on listener's left is brick, 5 feet from speaker; the wall on right is books, 5 feet from speaker. The rear wall is glass, 3.5 feet behind speakers. The loudspeakers are 8.5 feet apart aimed directly at the listening position, which is 8.5 feet away.
Okay, what does the 30 sound like and how does it stack up considered as nominee for the definitive moderate-sized domestic monitor? It is forward - sometimes tending to piquant, exciting, detailed, captivating, clear, open, airy, spatially dimensional, fast, intimate, smooth, tactile, dynamic, firm, and authoritative. Its presentation is exceptionally well balanced. It is often quite beautiful, though not beguiling; there is no sense of sweetening, but its presentation is utterly engaging - if you like music in particular rather than in general. Like all good smaller loudspeakers - and it looks Lilliputian next to my Monitor 40's - it images quite well, especially front to back and generates a notable sense of spatial immediacy and palpability. I listened to the 30 with a wide variety of music - 60's jazz reissues, rocker Tom Petty, baroque chamber music on 'authentic' instruments, symphonic and choral music - and never had the sense that anything was missing. This was not the case, of course. Deep bass was missing as well as a good deal of the hall ambience that deep bass makes possible. But the speaker succeeds so convincingly in making its own case for what it does that these absences did not come to mind until I called them up.
I consider this the ultimate tribute to a small speaker and also something very rare. (Even the well-loved SP 1/2's make you aware, especially with orchestral music, that something is missing on the bottom.) I had this same 'self-sufficient' experience with the Compact 7, which tells me that, like the 7, the 30 is so clear and accurate in the bass that you tend not to notice its relative lack of depth. Both the 7 and 30 seem to go far deeper than they measure, which, for the 7, I'm told is around 5-6 dB down at 46Hz, and this feels right for the 30 as well, though it's hard to tell with its different overall balance. This remarkably fine bass response has got to be laid at the feet of the RADIAL driver, which is demonstrably superior to polypropylene in rendering detail.
The Monitor 30's are noticeably less laid back than both the Compact 7's and the Monitor 40's. Their overall balance, however, again, feels perfect, so you never get the sense you are listening to a bass thin or mid-range dominant loudspeaker. They are the most 'natural' and realistic sounding loudspeakers I've ever heard in this size and in this price range.
Rubbra - Symphony #3 [Chandos 9944] String basses clear and tactile. The clarity in the bass compensates 'ingeniously' for the relative lack of weight in an overall balance that feels absolutely right.
Gubaidulina "St. John Passion" Hanssler [#98405]. With the 30's, the bass singing in the cathedral is truly fine but he isn't quite in a cathedral. With the 40's, his voice comes out of a deeper and spatially ambient background. More moving, to me. Less immediate but more moving, finally.
"Viaggio Musicale," Il Guardino Armonico [Teldec 82536]. One of my favorite recent acquisitions of this spirited Italian 'authentic' instrument group. One of the instruments they use is a precursor of the bassoon called a "dulcianna." Its barking bass impact and clarity were made for this speaker. Exciting and satisfying.
Wayne Shorter, Soothsayer [Blue Note 84443]. Here the forward thrust coupled with the smoothness of the 30's combine to pay huge dividends. Sassy good. The world is full of speakers that have up-front presentations; it is virtually empty of those that couple forward focus with smoothness to make it thrilling rather than abusive.
Kanchelli, Magnum Ignotum [ECM 462713] When I hear a cello, I want to hear the rosiny bow and the instrument's wood body. A cello played (and reproduced) right doesn't just sooth with warmth, it also gets up into your sinuses and makes your brain's pleasure centers vibrate. The 30's let Rostropovich do this exquisitely. And when the cellos in the orchestra double him, it's not a hum but a thrum. This is why we assemble accurate systems. This is what we pay the big bucks for.
Bach, Cantatas Vol 9, Koopman [ERATO 27315] Violins and voices ring clear and smooth. Lower strings are clear and present, if not quite foundational. The basses are not missing, just not as big a deal as the bassists would like. With a large chorus, the 30's 'small speaker' ability to spread the sound out and extend it to the rear is especially noticeable. And the 30's gradual sloping high end (also a characteristic of the 40's) keeps everything beautiful rather than unnaturally piercing.
Bruckner, Symphony No. 8, Gunter Wand [RCA 60364] The presentation on this recording makes up in space for what it lacks in ultimate sonic depth. Wonderfully present and surprisingly monumental for a small speaker. Would I rather hear Bruckner through the 40's? Of course. Anyone with the space and money would prefer 40's for Bruckner. But this is not the point. The 30's can get you most of the clarity and detail and enough of the size and weight to make you very happy. I live with Monitor 40's and find the 30's quite satisfying and very exciting. What they do they do so well they seldom bring the 40's to mind.
Small loudspeakers succeed, when they do, by lowering our expectations and then exceeding them. I had high expectations for the Monitor 30's until I saw them - saw how small they were. At that point, my expectations sagged and, of course Alan Shaw had me. From the first note. When they said "hello." (Sorry.) Only two speakers I have ever heard have taken me that early in the game: SP1/2's and now the 30's though each in a very different way. The 40's, which I have grown to believe are the best domestic speakers available for less than mortgage money, took longer. I had to get the stand height (12-inch woofers are a challenge) and listening position right and then had to get them associated with Blue Circle hybrid AG8000's, which to be fair, the M30's started out with. And even then, the 40's sneak up on you. The 30's lay their virtues on the table and, unless your taste is very far from mine, win you over immediately. Their modest shortcomings of scale and ultimate smoothness, compared with the 40's, appear later, when you're essentially beyond caring.
Monitor 30's and Compact 7's
Are the 30's better than the 7's? As I've said elsewhere, the Compact 7 is an extremely good speaker. Three of my web friends who own them tell me they are "married for life." (Who but Harbeth, Spendor, and Quad owners would say that?) The 7 goes up against its better known rival, the Spendor SP 1/2, in the market on a regular basis and wins its fair share of the matches. I have no idea what the numbers might be but now that the Harbeth name is beginning to get around I am told they are doing very well, thank you very much. They compete well because they offer a distinctive alternative to one of the most charming and beguiling loudspeakers in the history of audio. When they win, they win on the appeal of the uncanny Harbeth accuracy and honesty through the heart of the midrange, where their RADIAL mid/woofer driver dares to tell the entire musical truth and - surprise - truth of timbre and tonality ends up winning friends without additives - or, as it turns out, subtractives. I have come to believe that in terms of absolute sound the Compact 7 is a better speaker than the SP ½. This personal judgment aside, it clearly has different virtues than its rival and it is a fascinating business to sort them out. More on that comparison later. And a great deal more on the Spendors in their own review also included this month.
My only reservation about the Compact 7 when I heard it for the first time a year or so ago in this same room - and it is not one that stuck its head out - was a trace of dryness through the upper mids. Not everyone hears this, so I allowed at the time that it might be to some extent conditioned by adjacent equipment. I also speculated it might be a byproduct of the 7's designed in 'BBC curve' -/+ 1.5 dB swing in the upper midrange - an artifact engineered into some small speakers to make them more suitable for a domestic environment where early reflections of the higher instruments from typically nearby walls and an 8 foot ceiling can raise havoc. (Neither the SP ½'s nor the Monitor 30 uses this curve.) And then, as I said earlier, there is the difference in tweeters. To repeat, while both the 30's and 7 used the identical RADIAL mid/woofer, their tweeters are not the same. Both the 30 and 40 use the superb soft-dome SEAS Excell, whereas the 7 uses a SEAS magnesium-alloy dome driver. Now that I have heard both speakers head-to-head, I think the difference is tweeters is probably not involved in this matter, though I do think the soft-dome adds a measure of refinement and finish to the high end.
Okay, what do I hear this time around? I hear a wonderfully robust and slightly warm presentation. On a 1961 Art Blakey' Buhaina's Delight [Blue Note 84104], on the 7's I hear rich and crisp Freddy Hubbard on trumpet and Curtis Fuller on trombone, a percussive Cedar Walton on piano, a strong throbbing Jymei Merritt on bass, and a smooth, warm but clear Wayne Shorter on sax. Overall, I hear great energy, great dynamics. On the 30's, everything is a bit more open and all of the instruments have a little more light on them. On Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever [MCA 6253] on the 7's Petty himself is less forward than he is on the 30's, held back a little, a trifle boxed in. There's the trace of dryness. On the 30's he's clearer and the whole presentation has more snap. The upper mids seem a little less smooth on the 7's but the slightly laid back presentation almost neutralizes that. I notice that the perspective of the 7's actually seems closer to that of the 40's than of the 30's.
With choral music, the 7's have great coherence and a wonderful firmness to their presentation - the latter a characteristic that distinguishes them from the Spendor SP 1/2's, by the way. The 30's are more open so that the strings accompanying the chorus sing a little more and individual choral voices are distinguished a little more clearly. The 30's are notably airier. A baritone in the middle ground has a spot on him with the 30's and the tympanis have more snap. With the 7's, the light goes down a bit and details are less pointed. But they are there.
On Bach's sonatas for violin and harpsichord, Huggett/Koopmanl [Phillips 410401], with the 30's the eighteenth century violin is very present. Both violin and harpsichord have their natural cutting edges clearly defined, insisting on their different voices. With the 7's, everything is warmer. The violin has less piquancy and the harpsichord is less insistent. I expect all but true early music fans would prefer the 7's on this one. On this recording and several like it, the 7's warmth feels very natural.
I like the Compact 7's much better this time around - though my ancillary equipment has improved since the first go-round. I think it represents a clear and useful alternative to the Monitor 30's. And Backwoods Barry, who had them for several months, tells me, that when I hear them in a smaller room, which is their intended milieu, this opinion will get stronger.
For more on the Compact 7's, check the Harbeth website, where both Martin Collums' and Robert Greene's reviews are archived. Greene's review of the Monitor 40 review is there as well.
Monitor 30's and Monitor 40's
These two loudspeakers offer very different presentations, considering that they share the same RADIAL and SEAS drivers. (The 40 also has a 12-inch paper-based woofer.) The Monitor 40 is notably less forward and, predictably, its scale is larger. Music seems to exist in a larger and deeper space and has more ambience, warmth, and beauty. There is considerably more overall ease to the presentation and more of a sense of venue. Again, with the 30 you feel you are closer to the performers; music tends to feel more intimate and more conspicuously detailed. You have the sense you are hearing them before the music begins to take on the characteristic of the performance space. With the 30's, you are aware of background, of performers playing behind those in the foreground, and there is a little more air than with the 40's that, like most large speakers, have some trouble getting out of their own way. But with the 30's, you are not as much aware of a venue. Jean-Marie Reynaud says the same thing is true when he compares his Offrandes with their larger siblings, the Grand Operas. This is clearly a primary effect of the presence of greater bass response, both altering the overall balance and admitting the ambient information on which the expression of performing space depends.
The 40's ease is a quality that Monitor 40 owners much admire and that some of its critics object to. Monitor 40's become more expressive when you crank them up a bit but at moderate to low volumes, they are characteristically restrained. Compared head to head with the 40's, the 30's are somewhat less beautiful and refined than they seem without a 40 to compare them with. Music is considerably more intense coming from the 30. Occasionally, there is a hint of strain and congestion when a lot of instruments are fighting to get through, but this is something I only really noticed in contrast to the 40. This is presumably the direct result of the RADIAL driver's having to deal with more bass information than it does in the 40 where, as I say, there is a 12-inch woofer to take over below 200Hz.
In my judgment, the Monitor 40's are "better" speakers than their little brothers, but I can see how the preference might go to the 30's with those who value intensity, prominent detail, and immediacy above all else. Were I assembling a smaller system for my current listening room, the 30's would be the speakers of choice. I prefer what I take to be their 'absolute sound' to that of the Compact 7's. But while the 30s' brilliance can make us forget for a while that there is more to music than they can imagine, returning to the 40's, for this listener, is a dramatic reminder that 12-inch woofers and large cabinets are not for nothing. The music gets bigger, fuller, richer; the air gets thicker - and all this without losing a trace of the detail, though it is less prominent. Initially, they sound warmer than the 30's - and they are - by virtue of having more bass that gets the bottom of the instruments and also enables them to reveal more room, more reverberant space. But finally the warmth ceases to be warmth and simply becomes reality. And the 30's presentation, in the mind - at least mine - becomes the brilliant compromise it must be.
Monitor 30's and Spendor SP 1/2's
Enter the indomitable Spendor, wishing to reclaim its place in my heart. As I said above, the Spendor gets its own separate review this month, but I can't resist making the comparison with the Harbeths while the latter have the stage. First a few facts. They are 40% larger than the M30's - and most of this is in height. They are 25 inches high compared with the M30's 18 inches. They are three-ways. Their woofers and midrange drivers are made in-house; the tweeters are Scanspeaks.
The last time I heard the SP 1/2 was nearly two years ago and I will confess that on first listening it literally stole my heart. Everything I threw at it came back lyrical. Not so much colored - Greene assures us in his excellent TAS review that they measure commendably flat through the critical midrange. Lyrical. Very pleasing, somewhat softened and idealized. On orchestral music, they lacked some foundation but their overall appeal was such that once I noted that, I moved on to what they did so well. Which was to charm. I found them utterly charming.
That was then and this is now. I have wanted to revisit these speakers ever since and finally persuaded US Spendor importer QS&D to give me an opportunity. When I reviewed them for a discussion board a while back, based on my experience of that first audition, I did not find them superior to the Compact 7's but liked them a bit more. Nonetheless, I tried not to let that show through the review because it felt irrelevant. I found the two speakers' differences more interesting than my opinion about those differences. This time around, having come to know and love Harbeth's flagship, my intent was to look a little more closely into this matter of charm.
This time around, I found the SP 1/2's charm intact but I was more aware of the trade-offs. Compared with the M30's, they are considerably less open: the top end is rolled off more dramatically than the natural roll off of the Harbeths. Compared with the 30's and 7's, they are less bold and their bass foundation is even more conspicuously weak. With the Spendors, you are focused almost exclusively on their justly legendary midrange, which in a large room is palpable, alluring, and solicitous. On classical music everything is so delicious you can cut it with a dessert fork. On rock and jazz, however, they are surprisingly punchy - less so than the 7's, maybe more so than the 30's. The midrange focus can sometimes make everything feel a bit closed in, especially in contrast with the more forward, more open M30's with their wonderfully refined high end. As Herb Reichert reported, in his generally enthusiastic Listener review, they can get a little "stuffy" and "shut down." The Spendors are airier, softer, and bloomier on classical music than either of the Harbeths. They are less dramatic and incisive on jazz. They are clearly yin to the Harbeths' yang, Aerial's loudspeakers rather than Caliban's - "blue-eyed" as Reichert says.
I would say that the most conspicuous difference between the Spendors and both Harbeths on this hearing is that the Spendors have more of a personality of their own to bring to the music than the Harbeths. The Harbeths tend to let the personality of the recordings play the central role. This is a bit of a cliché in this field, but some cliches are true - all of them were originally. Spendors tend to kiss everything that passes through them. This is not always an intrusive or even all that conspicuous an interposition. It is, as I say, charming. And it is clearly a charm that wears well, witness the hoards of Spendor faithful. But it does, in contrast with both the M30's and 7's, rob music of some of its natural force and individual voice. It tames rather than releases the music. It beguiles rather than excites. I will go much further into this matter in the review of the SP 1/2's. Some of their charm clearly has to do with the polypropylene that their drivers are made of, a material, which both its admirers and detractors will concede, provides a bit of 'polypropylene bounce;' and which Harbeth's Alan Shaw says "eats detail."
Into the Smaller Room
Nobody but nobody is going to be driving Monitor 30's (or Compact 7's or SP 1/2's) with $26,000 worth of electronics - and all that Valhalla - in a 5,000 cubic foot room. Fair enough. If the primary goal here is not only to hear and describe what the M30's 'really' sound like, a secondary goal is to begin the speculative process of building a 'modest' music system for "normal" circumstances, so let's introduce some compromises. I'll try to keep this short. We are running a little long here.
Let us move into our 12 x 24 x 8 foot bedroom and we will try some real-world electronics. I have been told and have come to believe that the French company Audiomat is very likely making some of the best reasonably priced integrated amps in the world. I have heard the $2,300 Arpege and liked it a lot driving Triangle Venti's in Barry's system. Since then (last summer) I have been badgering Pascal Ravage of North American Audiomat importer Mutine Audio of Quebec, to send me the top-of-the-line and more robust Solfege ($4,350) to try out as the centerpiece of a moderate priced and smaller scale system - with loudspeakers a little harder to drive than the efficient Ventis. The Solfege uses 6550's rather than the Arpege's EL 34's has a larger power supply and, as Mutine makes clear on their website description, is less forgiving than its stablemate. The Solfege is getting its own review next month, but so long as I am trying to provide a real-world impression of the Monitor 30 loudspeakers here, I will offer a preview of how they sound with a Solfege. (Also with the Compact 7's and SP 1/2's.)
Again, room is 12 x 24 x 8 feet. Wall to wall carpet over slab. No wood, sorry about that. Speakers are around 3 feet from the side walls, 42 inches from the wall behind them which is glass from waist level on up but drapes are drawn about half-way in front of them. They are 6-7 feet apart. Bookshelves on the listener's left, standard dry wall on the right, with a largish oil painting about where the first reflection hits. Speakers aimed directly at listener to reduce side reflections. Ceiling is rough plastered dry wall. Naim CDSII/Electraglide AC cord. Valhalla IC. Solfege/stock power cord. Blue Circle 92 speaker cable/bi-wired. Monitor 30's and Compact 7's on 28" rock solid proprietary stands - a tad too high but I can adjust the listening position for an audition. SP 1/2's on 15-inch Sound Anchors. Listener is about 7 feet away.
As you know, it is a very different experience listening in a smallish room, especially a fully carpeted one. Everything feels more intimate, less spacious. I do not like it, never have. Interestingly, I discovered immediately that the smaller dimensions of my bedroom played to the coherence and warmer balance of the Compact 7's. On a wide variety of music, essentially the same stuff I used to audition in my larger room, the Monitor 30's were more open, more complex, giving the sense that more information was coming through; but this could sometimes be a little overwhelming. The same music coming through the 7's was more engaging than through the 30's. Firmer, more emotional, and actually the sound stage depth appears deeper, especially on orchestral music. The slight boxed-in effect I heard on voices was diminished to the point where I had to listen for it. There seemed to be an increased sense of smoothness to the 7's in the smaller room. I know the Solfege was a factor here, but after a while, switching the speakers in and out, I do not think it favored one over the other. It is ever so slightly warmer than my AG's, but otherwise it seems like a very neutral amp. I had tried the Solfege the night before on the Monitor 40's and from that less than ideal experience developed a sense that it might be plumby and hazey. Not at all with the smaller speakers.
Monitor 40's are a hard load for a small tube amp, even Class A. With the smaller Harbeths, it seemed admirable. A good match with either. My bedroom is not set up so that I could try the speakers on the long wall. This might have eased the 30's presentation a bit, but the close ceiling would still be there. The Spendors, surprisingly, did not fare so well in the smaller room. The closer boundaries did not add fullness or reinforce the bass as I expected. And some of their midrange magic disappeared. Perhaps they need a little more lively acoustic space to thrive. At any rate, the Compact 7 emerged as the champion of moderate sized, heavily damped listening quarters.
This has gone on long enough. In a large room, if I could not afford the Monitor 40's and a proper amp to drive them, the Compact 30's would be my choice for the 'definitive' small British monitor. Their boldness and clarity coupled with exemplary smoothness makes them a clear choice to my ears. In a smaller room, well let's just say I now understand my many Compact 7 owner friends' enthusiasm for these speakers. In a small room, they do indeed come alive. They appear to have been brilliantly engineered for the normal domestic listening environment.
These numbers should probably be read in conjunction with those for the Monitor 40's. As I have pointed out above, the 30's give away a good deal of low level ambience and hence decay because of their considerably more modest bass response. Mainly because they are two-way speakers, I expect, they are also not quite as smooth as the 40's,which, to be fair, are extraordinary in this respect. This slightly reduced smoothness shows up in the "tonality" and "midrange," "high frequency," and "inner resolution" scores. On the other hand, their small size also enables them to image a bit better and do a somewhat more convincing job in soundscape delineation. And finally, because they are more forward, they seem to have a faster attack.
Price $3,189, plus stands