Speakers

The British are coming: The Harbeth Super HL5Plus speakers

The Harbeth Super HL5Plus is a throwback to the classic British monitors of the 1970s and 1980s, and that's a compliment!

At first glance the Harbeth Super HL5Plus brought me way back to the time when I first fell in love with British monitor speakers in the 1970s. Some said they were too "polite" or reserved, but to my ears they were much more than that. They sounded honest and true, American speakers were more "exciting" and dynamic, and tended to make a lot more bass. That was then, fast forward to 2015 and the Harbeth Super HL5Plus sounds a lot better than what I remember from English speakers back in the day.

dsc1372.jpg
The Harbeth Super HL5Plus speakers Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Harbeth was founded in 1977 by Dudley Harwood, who worked as an engineer in the BBC's Research Department; Alan Shaw bought the company in 1986 and designs all of the speakers. Harbeth manufactures pro studio monitors and consumer speakers in their factory in Lindfield, West Sussex, Great Britain.

The Super HL5Plus was designed for consumers, not pros, but there's more than a little pro monitor in its DNA. Every recording's unique sonic qualities were laid bare, but I never felt the sound was analytical to the point of making average recordings too harsh or abrasive. Center image focus was unusually precise, bass was full, richly appointed, and definition was never less than surefooted.

The Super HL5Plus' midrange truth makes you realize just how rare that is, most box speakers contain and constrain the sound of voices, guitars, horns, flutes, etc. Spend some time with the Super HL5Plus or any Harbeth speaker to hear what you've been missing.

Could the Super HL5Plus rock out, to find out I pumped up The Rolling Stones' "Shine A Light" concert Blu-ray from 2008. Yes indeed, the Super HL5Plus presented the stereo mix better than most home theater systems. The Super HL5Plus let me hear each instrument and Mick Jagger's vocals more clearly; soundstage depth and dimensionality also played roles here, the Super HL5Plus decoded information that lesser speakers gloss over.

Snoop Dogg's new "Bush" albums percussive beats moved a lot of air, and the Super HL5Plus' deep bass was tight as a drum! His smooth R&B grooves really lit up the speakers, I checked to make sure the subwoofer wasn't connected to the system, it wasn't.

dsc1364.jpg
The Harbeth Super HL5Plus' two tweeters Steve Guttenberg/CNET

You want finesse? With Brazilian guitar legend Luiz Bonfa albums played with the Vinnie Rossi LIO integrated amp (review to come) the sheer clarity of Bonfa's acoustic guitar was breathtaking. I could almost "see" his fingers on the strings!

Playing LPs from the pre digital era (1982) the Super HL5Plus speakers really let me hear the depth and beauty of analog sound. Instruments and vocals appeared more fully formed, more like their true sound and less like reproduced facsimiles.

The Super HL5Plus' 8-inch (200mm) bass/midrange driver is crafted in-house by Harbeth technicians; there's also a 1-inch (25mm) aluminum tweeter, plus a 0.7-inch (20mm) titanium super tweeter on the front baffle and a bass port. Round back you'll find bi-wire speaker connectors; impedance is rated at 6 Ohms. The black cloth grilles' sturdy metal frames slide into the groove that runs along the edge of the Super HL5Plus' front baffle. Cabinetry fit and finish are superb. It's such a plain looking box, I wish it had some style, but maybe that's a good thing, the Super HL5Plus doesn't call attention to itself.

That said, my samples real cherry woodwork was awfully pretty, and tiger ebony, eucalyptus, rosewood finishes are also available for extra cost. I used a pair of 16-inch tall (408mm) Resonant Woods Linear II Series speaker stands with the Super HL5Plus. There's no denying it's a big box, 25 by 12.6 by 11.7 inches (635x322x300mm), but it weighs less than what you might expect for a speaker of this size, it's just 34.7 pounds (15.8 kg). Build quality is excellent.

Harbeth Super HL5Plus prices start at $6,695 per pair in the US with the real cherry wood finish, £3,279 in the UK, and AU$6,890 in Australia with the same cherry finish. I favorably reviewed the entry-level Harbeth P3ESR speaker in 2012, which is still in production.