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Pint-size Harbeth P3ESR Anniversary flabbergasts with high-end sound

The Harbeth P3ESR 40th Anniversary speaker is a force to be reckoned with and will suit audiophiles who like to listen to music up close.

Harbeth P3ESR 40th Anniversary speakers shown without their cloth grilles
Jim Holden

I've spent quite a lot of time with the Harbeth P3ESR 40th Anniversary mini monitors and every time I listen to the speakers I hear something different, which is always a good sign. This review has taken a lot longer to write than most, however, because it's harder to get a handle on the sound. 

The speaker is a total chameleon, sometimes I am seduced by its luscious midrange, or its huge soundstage, or supple bass. The P3ESR is the sort of speaker that takes on the sound of the recording you're playing, it's a real shape shifter. The P3ESR 40th Anniversary sells for $2,995 a pair in the US, £2,495 in the UK and AU$4,400 in Australia.  

Made in the UK, the speaker uses a proprietary 4.5-inch Radial mid/woofer and 0.75 inch tweeter with an impedance is of 6 ohms. The handcrafted cabinet, finished in scrumptious real olive wood veneers feels extra solid. It's comfortably small, just 12 inches high by 7.5 wide and 7.2 inches deep. The P3ESR is a sealed box (not ported) design, and this could be why its bass definition exceeds most small speakers I've heard. 

The 40th Anniversary model differs from the regular P3ESR ($2,295, £1,795, AU$3,450) in that it features higher quality WBT-Nextgen binding posts, British-made poly capacitors and Harbeth's 40th Anniversary ultrapure copper internal cable. The speaker sports Harbeth 40th Anniversary limited edition front and back badges to impress your audiophile pals. Do any of these upgrades improve the sound? I can't say since I didn't have the plain vanilla P3ESR on hand for comparison, and Harbeth isn't claiming sonic improvements for the 40th Anniversary model. One thing is certain, you can't buy the standard model in the lovely olive finish.

Listening impressions

The P3ESR's sound is at once romantic and musical and yet never feels overly cushy. The midbass is full, but never sloppy, the P3ESR's low-end is more satisfying than you might expect for a speaker as small as this. Baritone singers like Leonard Cohen sound fully present and in no way miniaturized.

The little speaker projects a positively huge soundstage that extends a few feet beyond the locations of the speakers in my room. It's big alright, but not diffuse on Miles Davis' In A Silent Way album. Davis's trumpet, McLaughlin's guitar, Herbie Hancock's electric piano and Tony Williams' drums are alive and kicking.

Get closer to the music

Listening to the P3ESRs from 7 or 8 feet away is enjoyable, but moving in to 3 to 5 feet everything about the sound improves because the room's reflections are minimized and the speaker's direct sound increases. At close range the speakers sound bigger, bass filled out, and stereo image focus is clearer.

The Springsteen on Broadway album leaves no doubt about these smallest of all Harbeths, they have the right stuff. The Boss makes a personal appearance in my living room, I swear he is right there. The sound pins me back in my seat, Springsteen's full-chested vocal on Born in the USA has me shaking with excitement.

I repeat the close listening approach with the KEF LS50 bookshelf speakers, and again enjoy the nearfield experience, but the sound isn't nearly as tonally rich. The P3ESR 40th is also more transparent, I hear more inner detail and clarity. While the LS50 is very respectable in those areas, the P3ESR digs deeper. There's more there there.

Getting closer has no downsides, the P3ESR is so darned little I'd recommend moving them way out into the middle of your room for serious listening sessions, and park them up against the wall the rest of the time.

The Harbeth P3ESR 40th Anniversary speakers are just the ticket for well-heeled audiophiles living in smallish apartments or homes. 

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