The Harbeth 40.2 speakers sound closer to live music than most
These speakers have twin bass ports on its front baffle, and all-metal cable binding posts on its backside.
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
I review a few dozen speakers each year, and listen to a bunch more. Most are pretty decent, a few are dreadful, and fewer still are truly remarkable. This year the ELAC Debut B6 bookshelf and Magnepan .7 panel speakers topped my list as terrific values, but the Harbeth 40.2 is the one I'll remember 10 years from now. It's that good.
I favorably reviewed Harbeth's Super HL5Plus speakers earlier this year, so when the US importer Fidelis AV offered the new Harbeth 40.2 top-of-the-line speaker for review, I jumped at the chance. The 40.2 is unabashedly big, it's 29.5 x 17 x 15.3 inches (750 x 432 x 388mm), and weighs a rather substantial 83.8 pounds (38 kg). The speaker has twin bass ports on its front baffle, and all-metal cable binding posts on its backside.
It's big for a reason, there's no way a smaller speaker could present music's unrestrained dynamics, scale and power that come so easily from the 40.2. That's why I couldn't resist playing the 40.2s louder than usual, they sounded better and better the louder I played them.
When I chatted with Harbeth's owner and designer Alan Shaw, he told me his biggest export market is Japan. I was taken aback by that factoid, Japanese homes are usually rather small, but those guys love the big Harbeth speakers. Japanese audiophiles are also among the world's most demanding of build and sound quality, and the fact that Harbeth does so well there says a lot about the company. The 40.2 speakers sell for $14,990 per pair in Cherry in the US, $15,990 for Rosewood, Eucalyptus and Tiger Ebony 40.2s. My samples' real Rosewood finish was impeccable. UK prices start at £9,995 and AU$21,190 in Australia.
Behind its removable black cloth grille the 40.2's front baffle hosts a 12-inch (300 mm) Radial woofer, 8-inch (200 mm) Radial midrange, and 1-inch (25 mm) soft dome tweeter. The woofer and midrange drivers are proprietary designs, made in Harbeth's factory in Sussex, England (the tweeter is made by SEAS in Europe). The 40.2's impedance is listed as 6-8 ohms. I used Resonant Woods 16 inch (406mm) tall floor stands with the speakers.
Shaw's top priority for all of his speakers is proper reproduction of the sound of the human voice. Seems straightforward, but a lot of otherwise excellent speakers either add too much "chest" that makes voices sound deeper than they really are, or thinner than they do in real life. So when I played Rosanne Cash's "10 Song Demo" CD, the 40.2 brought new life to the sound of her voice and guitar. I've played this music on hundreds of speakers over the years, but the 40.2 was the most lifelike. Most speakers shrink, contain and limit the sound of singers, at least that's what I felt after spending time with the 40.2.
I can't say the sound was perfect when I first set the speakers up, I found the 40.2s rather finicky about placement: the distance from the wall behind them, from me and from each other. I spent weeks moving them to and fro, before I found the best spots in my room. I put tape marks on the floor to mark each position, before I settled on their final resting places.
I used my Pass XP-20 preamp, Pass XA100.5 power amp, dCS Puccini CD player, and VPI Classic turntable for most of my listening tests. I also substituted a VPI 299D tube integrated amp (review in the works) for the Pass amps a few times, and felt the 40.2 speakers also worked quite well with tube electronics.
Listening to Miles Davis playing trumpet, I'm noticing more of the way he plays his horn, his breath, his dynamics and the way he holds onto some notes. With the 40.2 speakers, I'm hearing a lot deeper into Davis' music. There was more soul-stirring life to the sound of his music, that's what really grabbed me.
With "Punk 45: Extermination Nights In the Sixth City," a collection of Cleveland-based punk tunes from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, amply demonstrated the 40.2s' stamina when cranked nice and loud. The onslaught of raucous guitars, gutsy bass and impassioned vocals plastered a big, fat smile on my face.
Late in the review process I hooked up the VPI 299D tube integrated amp to the 40.2 speakers. The sound from this 38 watt per channel amp was even more vivid and sensually developed than the solid-state amps. The sound really moved something in me, I was enjoying the sound so much it was hard to stop listening. Familiar recordings all sounded better than I thought they were.
Summing up: The Harbeth 40.2's effortless treble clarity, full-bodied midrange, as well as its robust, visceral and finely tuned bass are all magnificent. The 40.2 speakers are expensive, but the best stuff always is. I won't soon forget the 40.2 speakers' sound, but I've felt that way about all of the other, less expensive Harbeths I've tested, including the terrific little P3ESR.