Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Harbeth Monitor 40.1 loudspeakers

(This review was never finished, which is why it didn't appear in TONE. These were the speakers I was using when I left. To put it bluntly, these are my favorite speakers in the entire world, and I hope to buy a pair one day and get off the audio merry-go-round. I'll pair them with the LFD NCSE integrated amp and then retire to a cabin in the mountains...)

A few years ago, I was discussing some of the more conventional BBC monitors from England with a dealer friend of mine. He told me that many of these “big boxes,” such as the classic Spendors and the Tannoy Prestige series, were falling quickly out of favor since consumers seemed to want tall, slim floorstanders these days. It seemed like such a shame, since many of my favorite loudspeakers were BBC-licensed behemoths.

Fortunately, someone forgot to tell Harbeth about this marketing trend. Not only was their flagship Monitor 40 one BIG box, but there’s been a long waiting list for potential buyers ever since the first pair made their way into the US a few years ago. There’s a reason for that.

I still remember the first time I heard the original Harbeth Monitor 40 loudspeakers. I remember the second and third times just as well. I remember the associated equipment used on each occasion, and the music that was selected. I can instantly retrieve my impressions of the soundstage, the imaging, the tonality and the performance at the frequency extremes. At the time there were three or four loudspeakers I longed after and hoped to own one day. After my relatively short time with the 40s, I never seriously considered them again.

The Proverbial Big Box
This world-class loudspeaker might look a bit frumpy next to its more svelte and fashionable competitors. It is, for lack of a better word, a big box. Its front baffle is much wider than the diameter of the woofer. Despite its size, it still needs a stand, albeit one that raises the Monitor 40 just a foot off the ground or so. (I used the dedicated stands from Skylan.) When you set these down in your listening room, they don’t quite blend in like those slim piano-black towers your wife preferred. They puff out their chests and say, “Congratulations…you are the proud new owner of a pair of Harbeth 40.1 loudspeakers.” Every guest that visits your home will be treated to the same stoic proclamation.

That said, the 40.1s are surprisingly easy to move around. They’re more bulky than heavy, thanks to the thin-wall construction.

Damning the 40.1s
It might seem as if I'm waxing rhapsodic about a mere pair of loudspeakers. The more objective and skeptical among you may take the opposing view and say that if my impressions of these speakers are that pronounced, that if the Harbeths sound so different from every other transducer on the market, well, maybe they're doing something wrong. Maybe they're too euphonic or rolled off. Maybe they're too warm and romantic. But now that I've spent a significant amount of time with the new 40.1s, I know why I find them so utterly memorable and engaging. They are simple the most relaxed loudspeaker I've ever heard.

In the wrong context, it may sound like I'm damning the 40.1s with faint praise. I keep discussing the fact that they're laid-back, as if they are rolled off or overly smooth. They’re not. I've always felt that the difference between the truly great pieces of audio gear and the runners-up is the feeling that all of the musical information is being laid out in an expansive manner that allows your brain to easily translate all of the sonic information. This means that the music never sounds overly-aggressive or forward (unless that's the mastering engineer's intention), complex musical passages never sound confused or overlapped and that listener fatigue is a downright alien concept.

Originally I was concerned that the 40.1s would be way too much speakers for my relatively small room and thought that the Monitor 30s would be a better overall solution. But Alan Shaw states that the 40.1s only need a few feet of space between them for the best sound. Then I started thinking of all of those BBC photos with the 40s crammed into tight spaces between impressive banks of video monitors, not to mention the fact that some 40 owners actually dig these monoliths in a near-field listening arrangement, and I took the plunge. I pushed my sofa as far back as it would go (I hope the ADA doesn't inspect my listening room anytime soon) and the Harbeths wound up sounding their best with only about six feet of space between the inner edges of the cabinets. I toed them in directly toward the listening position as well.

To my surprise, the Harbeths were quite happy in this relatively tight space. In fact, they seemed to jump up a notch in immediacy and clarity when I sat forward slightly in my sofa, my head even closer to the baffle.

If I had only one gripe about the Harbeths, it would concern the performance in the deep bass region. These are big speakers with a tremendous footprint, and it seems like demanding that this level of owner commitment should result in flat frequency response in the 25 to 30 Hz neighborhood. (Lowther owners need not respond to this comment.) Alas, the 40.1s only make it to about 39 Hz, which is very respectable but not quite earth-shattering. The Harbeths can reproduce the visceral impact of most kick drums (ably and thunderously demonstrated in “Mirrorball” from Elbow's The Seldom Seen Kid), but they may come up short when it's time to drag in Virgil Fox--or Tony Levin, for that matter. This brings up the subwoofer question, but I would only use the finest examples with almost unlimited flexibility when it comes to matching and blending. I wouldn't want to compromise the 40.1s delicate balance just to get that last octave. Plus, do you really want another big box in your listening room at this point? I don't.

Stop the audio world…I want to get off
To summarize, the first time I heard these Harbeths, I thought that they might be the best speakers I'd heard up to that point. This was back when the US distributor told me that there were less than a dozen pairs in the US, and the price was still close to the current line of Quad ESLs. The second time I heard them, I completely lost interest in the Quads altogether. By this time, I had a couple of Harbeth dealers ask me for my opinion, since they couldn't get in a pair in for audition. The third time I heard them, I was told that I was listening to one of the last production pairs in existence, and that the 40s were discontinued because the woofer was no longer being made.

Now that the 40.1s are here and readily available, I can't help but feel lucky. Having them in my listening room for the last few months was a genuine highlight of my audiophile life. When it's time to retire and get off that proverbial audio merry-go-round, I can't think of a speaker I'd rather own than these.


  1. Marc,

    How big is your room?I have mine in the hall but cant get the jump factor.perhaps a smaller room may be it.

  2. At the time I had a room that was roughly 16 by 24 with an open end behind the listening chair. But due to furniture along the sides, I had less room to work with.

  3. Hello Marc
    I have read your review and have to agree with your comments on the Harbeth Monitor 40.1, they are my favorite loudspeaker system also and my reference speaker system.
    Jason Parmenter.

  4. I own a pair of M40.1 together with Naim's top line of 'olive' series cdp/pre/power amps. They are a perfect match and I would never trade them for any other gear.

  5. Same here. I use Monitor 40.1s with Naim and the synergy is to die for.