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August 2008
Enjoy the Music.com
The Nearfield
Summer Speaker Survey
Harbeth P-3ES2, the AV123 ELT525 and Aperion Audio Intimus 4B Speakers Go Head-To-Head!
Article By Steven Stone
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

  If you are professional audio reviewer who likes to listen to small speakers you must be forever vigilant. Like mushrooms left in dark closets they multiply. To stay on top of the little buggers this installment of The Nearfield will cover three pairs of monitors for your listening enjoyment. And we're off...

 

Harbeth P-3ES2 Speakers
Harbeth P-3ES2 SpeakersThe basic design of the $1995 per pair Harbeth P3 series has been around almost since the dawn of the stereo era. As direct descendants of the BBC LS-35A speakers, the Harbeths can claim to be among the first small sealed-enclosure professional monitors ever made. Since this column is all about nearfield listening, for me to have waited this long to review a pair is almost inexcusable. But I do have a note from my optometrist, "Steven suffers for extreme near-sightedness and just overlooked the Harbeths, sorry..." signed Dr. B Lind.

The Harbeth's basic stats read like a blueprint for the archetypical small-footprint monitor speaker a 12 by 7.5 by 7.25 (HxWxD in inches) sealed enclosure with one 5-inch polymer cone midrange/woofer and one 19mm Ferro-cooled aluminum dome tweeter. My review samples were finished in cherry veneer, but eucalyptus and other exotic finishes are also available. Instead of plastic or magnetic anchor points the grills attach via a routed channel around the outer edge of the front baffle. Except for a couple of minutes when I first set them up, all my listening was done with the grills removed. Hopefully I'll find them by the time I return the speakers to their US distributor, Fidelis AV. Bi-wire fans will be delighted to find the P-3ES2 speakers have a dual set of five-way binding posts. Single-wire proponents will be relieved to discover the P-3SE2 comes with gold-plated jumpers.

Many modern monitor designs I've reviewed use curved, specially formed, asymmetrically positioned, or acoustically damped front baffles to avoid diffraction effects. The P-3ES2's are old school with a flat wooden baffle. The tweeter is also laterally centered and flush mounted. The tweeter uses a permanent metal screen to protect it from life's little hazards. Another old-school feature of the P-3SE2 is the way the woofer is positioned. Ever since John Dunlavy released his first designs with the midrange and bass drivers placed further behind the lateral plane of the tweeter to compensate for different arrival times between upper and lower frequencies, many manufacturers have also embraced this technique for producing more phase coherent speaker. On the P-3ES2 the midrange woofer is slightly behind the plane of the tweeter. According to Harbeth's test measurements the P-2ES2 maintains an electrical phase that is less than + or 40 from 0 degrees throughout its frequency range. However Harbeth has no published specifications for their in-room phase coherency at normal listening distances.

 

That Old Time Feeling
It is far easier to describe how the Harbeth P-3ES2 makes you feel than how they sound. After only 5 seconds of listening (after placing them into my desktop system) I relaxed and started enjoying the music. Although the P-3ES2's don't present as seemingly detailed sonic picture as either the ATC SCM7 or Paradigm S1's they do serve up more than enough sonic information to keep you totally involved. You don't have to work to hear into the mix. Percussion instruments with fast rise times and abrupt decays stop and start cleanly with no overhang.

Some audiophiles complain that aluminum domed tweeters lack the extension and speed of titanium drivers as well as the smooth response of silk dome tweeters. But the P3-SE2 aluminum tweeters manage to combine the best sonic attributes of both titanium and silk. Made by Norway's Seas, these particular drivers do a superlative job of sounding natural, extended, and smooth regardless of the source. Female vocalists such as Eliza Gilkyson on her latest album, Beautiful World, have just the right harmonic balance. Her voice's natural edge comes through, but it never gets harsh or overbearing even at high SPL levels.

Every speaker design requires compromises and choices by their manufacturer. What makes the Harbeth P-3ES2s so special is that they are easy to listen to regardless of the volume level or the length of time spent listening. According to Harbeth's FAQ, "Surely the paramount design objective, above all others, must be the avoidance of listening fatigue by whatever design means is necessary and regardless of cost, complexity or inconvenience." Part of the Harbeth's low "fatigue factor" stems from their self-limiting characteristics. At high SPL levels they compress dynamics slightly, which not only protects the speakers' themselves, but also the listener's ears. If you require a speaker that you can listen to 24/7 the P3-SE2 speakers were made for you.

Due to their size and shape the Harbeth P3-SE2 speakers don't image quite as precisely or disappear as completely in a desktop environment as either the ATC or Paradigm speakers, but they are on a par with the Aerial Acoustics Model 5 speakers. Soundstage size, width and, most importantly, depth through the Harbeths equals any speakers I've auditioned in my desktop system.  The Harbeths also create a decently sized listening window that allows a listener in a nearfield desktop environment to move both vertically and horizontally without fear of vacating their sweet spot.

Although for true full-range listening the Harbeth P-3SE2 speakers do require a subwoofer, alone they deliver more than decent upper and midbass weight. During the summer thunderstorm season in Colorado I typically unplug my subwoofers when I'm not listening to a system. Many times I've realized after several hours of contented listening that I've forgotten to turn on the Earthquake Supernova subwoofer in my desktop system.  After correcting my oversight I notice very little difference except at the very bottom of the harmonic spectrum. The Harbeths do such a fine job of reproducing lower midrange and upper bass weight that you, too, may find your subwoofer doesn't need to be on for you to thoroughly enjoy your music.

 

It Could Be Love
Some speakers may have a more dynamic presentation, such as the ATC speakers, while others may disappear more completely, such as the Paradigm S1s, but few speakers combine such a musical set of sonic attributes in such a competent package.  In short, if you don't like, no, let me revise that, if you don't LOVE the Harbeth P-3SE2 speakers you need to make an appointment with your audiologist because there is something seriously wrong with your hearing.

 

Going Down, Way Down
Let's say you can't afford to plunk down $2k for a pair of speakers. Are you forever doomed to the regions of audio purgatory, usually reserved for boombox and Bose owners? No, not if the good folks at AV123.com or AperionAudio.com have their way. Their smallest and least expensive offerings will set you back $299 per pair for the AV123 ELT525 or $260 a pair for the Aperion Audio Intimus 4B speakers. I've spent more money for an iPod (several times.)

 

AV123 ELT525 Monitors
AV123 ELT525 MonitorsIf you enjoy reading enthusiastic audio reviews, Mark Shfter of AV123 has written a must-read review. According to Mark, "Loudspeakers are either a very emotional friend (or enemy) there with you during periods of (your) happiness or, sadness. The trick is finding a speaker that can convey the emotion of the music and the ELT 525 can do this in spades..." Before we proceed to my own sonic analysis of the ELT 525, here are the basic specifications. It is a smallish 6.12 by 11.25 by 9.81 two-way speaker with a 1-inch silk dome tweeter and a 5.25-inch midrange/woofer in a vented enclosure with a rear-firing port. The ELT525 sports a single pair of five-binding posts and is available in either cherry satin or rosewood satin finish. My review sample had the cherry finish.

Even though a pair of ELT525s are priced under $300, they don't look cheap. In fact their fit and finish is equal to far more expensive speakers such as the Harbeth P-3SE2s or the ATC SM7s. Both the tweeter and midrange/woofer are cleanly reset into the speaker's front baffle rather than merely flush-mounted. The real wood veneer wraps seamlessly around the edges of the ELT525's front baffle, giving it a super-suave appearance. Even the speaker grill attachments display an extra level of finesse instead of the standard plastic attachments poking out of the front baffle the ELT525 has its hardware inset into the front surface so it looks as slick with its grill off as on.

My first impressions of the ELT525 were largely favorable. It is a highly musical speaker that errs on the side of euphony even when driven hard. The rear firing port can, especially in a nearfield set-up, deliver a bit too much lower midrange and upper bass. But installing a soft foam port plug reduced the extra woof nicely. I especially enjoyed the smooth upper frequency presentation. Even with less than ideal source material the ELT525 never lost its sonically sunny character. If you often listen to less than fully audiophile-approved music (such as MP-3s) you will appreciate the ELT525's ability to make many recordings sound way better than they deserve.

Designing a modestly priced speaker necessitates sonic compromises.  The ELT525 is no exception. It is not as high resolution as the best small monitors, such as the Paradigm S1. Some inner detail is homogenized, not so much that the ELT525 sounds muddy, but enough that some of the finest inner details are smoothed over. The ELT525 is also not as micro-dynamic as the best small monitors, such as the ATC SM7 or Aerial Acoustics model 5. The ELT525, though, does a better job with macro-dynamics and overall headroom. It can be cranked up to a surprising level before it begins to gently compress dynamics, not unlike the Harbeth P-3SE2s. If you try to push the ELT525 past its comfort zone (which should, for the sane, occur well after you've gotten to your own happy place volume-wise) they will simply get increasingly hazy.

All small speakers image well, but some small speakers image more precisely than others. The ELT525 does a quite decent but not exemplary job when it comes to both lateral and front-to-back imaging. It's not as specific or tightly focused as some speakers such as the Role Discovery or Gallo iDiva speakers, but the ELT525 still manages to place all the instruments in the approximately right places on the soundstage.

As I mentioned earlier the ELT525's harmonic balance leans toward the warm side. Before it begins to roll off (the published spec lists -3dB at 60 Hz) the ELT525 has a lower midrange/upper bass bump that begins around 400 Hz and peaks around 200 Hz. Given the likelihood it will be mated with entry-level electronics that usually veer toward the lean hungry side of the harmonic spectrum I think the ELT525's balance makes sense. If you mate it with an old tube amplifier, such as a stock Dyna Stereo 70, the end result may be a bit thick and slow on the bottom end. But with a well-damped solid-state power amplifier, such as my Accuphase P-300, the bottom end remains taut even if it is a tad warm.

Given the warmish bottom end you might want to try using the ELT525 speaker sans subwoofer. Personally I much prefer the ELT525 with subwoofer augmentation.  But whether a sub is a "must-have" depends on your personal tastes. If your musical diet consists primarily of large-scale classical or rollicking rock and roll you'll want the additional slam and bass fundamentals provided by a sub. If acoustic folk and classical chamber music is your thing, you may be able to get by without one.

 

ETL525, Call Home
So there you have it. For $300 a pair the ELT525 is a superb value. Heck, for $400 a pair it would still be a killer speaker. To find anything that combines as many positive sonic attributes you'll have to anti up to at least $450, which will get you a pair of Focal Chorus 705V speakers. But if you're on a tight budget, the ELT525 speakers will deliver a healthy portion of high-end sonic quality.  As Mark Shifter says, "I want to afford all of you a large slice of "The High-End" while charging more down-to-earth prices." The ELT525 achieves this goal admirably.

 

Aperion Audio Intimus 4B Bookshelf Speakers
Aperion Audio Intimus 4B Bookshelf SpeakersAperion Audio's website is worth checking out even if you have no intention of buying any speakers in the near future. It's well thought out and full of useful info. Aperion has garnered a well-deserved reputation for combining outstanding speaker design and value with first-rate customer service. All Aperion products have a 30-day no-questions-asked return policy. If you decide you don't like an Aperion product for any reason you can return it and Aperion pays the freight charges BOTH WAYS.

The new Intimus 4B speaker replaces their 422RL speakers (which I reviewed in The Nearfield #9). The 4Bs are $60 more a pair than the 422Rl speakers, but for the extra $60 you get a slightly taller and thicker cabinet, a new 1-inch silk dome tweeter, and a woven fiberglass 4-inch midrange/woofer. For complete specifications see Aperion's website. The 4B comes in either a black piano black lacquer or real cherry veneer finish. My preference is for the black finish which is so highly polished that to protect it Aperion ships each speaker with its own soft cloth protective sack. Aperion's packaging ranks among the best I've ever seen. The speakers were double boxed and encased in custom fitted closed-cell foam padding. If every speaker company packed their products as well the world would have far fewer UPS-trashed speakers.

After breaking them in the first thing I did was compare the new 4B to Aperion's earlier model, the 422RL.  Both speakers have somewhat similar harmonic balances, but the new 4B is slightly warmer with a smoother upper midrange and treble delivery. The 4B dives slightly lower on the bass and rolls off smoothly, making integration with a subwoofer an easy task.

While we're on the subject of subwoofers, Aperion sent their newest subwoofer, the Bravus Digital 8D with the 4B speakers. This $499 subwoofer uses dual side-firing active 8-inch aluminum drivers coupled to a 150 watt BASH amplifier. It also features a complete digital display controlled by remote control. With customizable EQ settings and pre-set modes for movies, music and games (you can use these presets however you wish) this diminutive 13.5 by 12 by 12 sealed box subwoofer is a perfect companion for the 4B speakers in a nearfield desktop set-up. Specifications list the Bravus 8D down 3dB at 35 Hz, but for all but the most dedicated organ music fans it delivers enough low bass punch to keep bass fundamentals intact. For audiophiles with the right test discs (you'll need one with both low frequency sweeps and stepped frequencies) the Bravos' built-in parametric adjustments will let you correct one band of low bass. I recommend reducing the worst peak frequency rather than trying to boost a trough.

Returning to the 4B versus 422RL shoot-out, the 4B throws up an equally precise soundstage as the 422RL, with excellent lateral focus and definition. The 4B also performs as complete a disappearing act as its smaller predecessor. To its credit the 4B's soundstage is about 10 percent bigger than the 422RL. Also the 4B plays louder with fewer signs of distress. If played too loudly the 4B's top end gets spitty and the midrange muds up, but you have to really floor your amp's gas pedal to push these speakers past their comfort level.

Compared to the similarly priced AV123 ELT525 speakers the Aperion 4B's deliver a bit better low-level resolution, but the ELT525's have a more relaxed and musical presentation. And while the ELT525 could be used without a subwoofer, the 4B definitely needs to be mated with a subwoofer for maximum enjoyment. As you might expect, given their smaller size, the 4B speakers deliver substantially better image specificity and disappear more completely in a nearfield listening environment. Although both speakers utilize silk dome tweeters, the ELT525 has a smoother, sweeter treble presentation while the 4B seems to have a bit more top end air. Is there a clear winner? No. My favorite wavers depending on the music source and my mood at the time. Both are pretty darn remarkable...

Put up against a far more expensive monitor, such as the Paradigm S1, the Aperion 4B's shortcomings are readily apparent. The Paradigms are far more dynamically responsive with substantially wider contrasts between loud and soft passages. The Paradigms also deliver more low-level detail and greater harmonic complexity. Actually the only area where the 4B speaker bested the larger Paradigms was its ability to disappear. When it comes to performing a vanishing act smaller speakers usually win handily.

 

4B For U?
In the bad old days of audio the most you could hope for in a pair of under $300 speakers was that they didn't suck too badly. Aperion and AV123 have substantially changed what you can expect for short money. Not only can the Aperion Intimus 4B produce a satisfying soundstage, it also has no glaring flaws. Sure, you need a subwoofer for a full-range presentation, but I know of no sealed-box speaker with similar dimensions that doesn't.  But when used in a nearfield environment (don't even think of trying to use this or any other small speaker to pressurize an entire room) the 4B does a wonderful job of preserving music's best intrinsic qualities. Boy, is this new millennium great or what?

 

Manufacturer Links

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