My Story with Harbeth HL Compact ES-3
A good friend of mine, who is an owner of Harbeth M30.1 wanted to see if other Harbeth speakers within the range would be better suited to his taste. He absolutely loves his M30.1 but as most audiophiles frequently do, he wondered if he could better what he had. Due to the smaller size of his listening room, he chose the Harbeth C7ES3 and managed to borrow them for a week. Before returning the C7ES3 to the retailer, he asked me if I wanted to try them. I of course said ‘yes please!’ and ended up listening to C7s for a full weekend.
The Harbeth HL Compact 7 line was launched in 1994 as a successor to their HL Monitor model. In contrary to the HL Monitor, the first HL Compact 7 speaker featured a mid-bass driver with a diaphragm made of a special blend of injection moulded polypropylene, patented by Harbeth and referred to as RADIAL. The first model was produced until 1999, when it was replaced by HL Compact ES-2. This model stayed in production until 2007, when it was in turn replaced by its latest reiteration – HL Compact ES-3.
Harbeth C7ES-3 sits exactly in the middle of Harbeth range in terms of cabinet size. It features an in-house mid-bass 200mm unit, however, as opposed to its predecessors, the diaphragm of this driver is made of RADIAL2 – an upgraded version of RADIAL. The tweeter is a Seas unit, featuring 25mm aluminium diaphragm protected by a fine mesh. The C7ES3, similarly to other Harbeth speakers are designed to sound best in domestic environments at normal listening levels (i.e. 70dB to 90dB). They are optimised for use away from walls and with tweeters at ear level – please see the Harbeth Userguide for more details.
Harbeth C7ES3 Specs
|Frequency Response:||46 – 20,000Hz (+/- 3dB)|
|Sensitivity:||86dB (1W input, measured at 1m)|
|High Frequency Driver:||Seas 25mm Aluminum Dome Tweeter|
|Low Frequency Driver:||Harbeth 200mm RADIAL2™ Cone Woofer|
|Enclosure Type:||Bass Reflex|
|Enclosure Dimensions (HxWxD):||520 x 273 x 315mm|
|Weight:||13.2kg (each speaker)|
|Production Year:||2007 – Present|
|Price When Launched:||£2,695|
Look & Feel of Harbeth Compact 7ES-3
Harbeth C7ES3 are made from thin MDF walls veneered on both sides. It is a design, based on research conducted by the BBC. All the walls inside are dampened with bitumen pads and front and rear panels are screwed on. This design is supposed to reduce transfer of the resonances between the cabinet panels, reduce their amplitude and tune them to fall way below midband frequencies. The idea being, that regardless of how rigid the enclosure is, it is impossible to completely remove the resonances, thus it is better to move them to less critical frequencies instead and lower their level.
The veneer on each enclosure is matched, and both enclosures are matched with each other. Harbeth C7ES3 cabinets are finished in satin varnish, which makes the wood texture more noticeable than on veneers finished in gloss. The single set of gold plated binding posts on the back shows the down to earth approach of the speaker designer. The grills are made using a thin metal frame with fabric stretched over it. The frame slides into a narrow grove in the front panel of the speakers and it is held there by friction. It is a better design than traditional bulky grills which can cause edge reflections, however, it is not ideal from a usability point of view. People often try to remove these by inserting a paper clip or other sharp objects between the metal frame and the groove, which frequently results in grille fabric damage. In my experience, the easiest and least invasive method is to use neodymium magnets.
The Seas tweeter and Harbeth mid-bass unit seem to be of a high quality. The crossover is relatively complicated and appears to be made of good components, although you will not find huge film capacitors or large air-core inductors here.
Overall, although the speaker finish is very nice, I’m not too keen on their look, mainly because of the square looking drivers. I much prefer the look of other Harbeth speakers with circular drivers (or mounted behind the baffle in case of the woofer). This is of course very subjective, as there are many customers our there that adore the look of Harbeth C7ES-3. According to the manufacturer, the speakers where designed and tuned with the grilles on, and this is how they were intended to be listened to. Because I’m no too keen on the look of C7s without the grills, using them with the grills on wasn’t an issue.
Sound of Harbeth C7ES-3 Speakers
When I received the Harbeth C7ES3 for testing, Harbeth M30.1 were my main speakers and I naturally started listening tests with a side by side comparison. My initial impressions were that bass does not seem as tight as on the M30.1s but this may well have been because there was more of it. When I actually played well recorded drums, the tightness and dynamics of the bass sounded very similar to what I was used to with the M30.1s. As will all other tests, I moved the M30.1s out of the way and focused on listening to Harbeth C7ES-3s only.
The quality and amount of bass is quite impressive considering their relatively small size. The speakers never made me feel that I am lacking anything in the extension of the bass, despite the frequency response rolling off below 46Hz. They obviously do not have as much low-end bass as much larger speakers, but providing that you don’t do side-by-side comparisons, you will not feel that you are missing anything in this area. The dynamics and details in the upper bass are very impressive. The bass does not go as low as for example with SHL5 Plus, but goes noticeably lower than on my M30.1s and there seem to be more of it. This quality suits quieter listening sessions (70dBA peak at the listening position), where the Harbeth C7ES-3s are more involving than M30.1s.
The midrange and treble are of very high quality as I already learnt to expect from Harbeth speakers. Vocals sound natural and even warmer than on the M30.1s. This seems to benefit some tracks like Little Fiddle by Ed Kuepper, where his voice sounds more natural and organic on C7ES3s. However, on majority of my albums I preferred the sound of voices on the M30.1s. For instance on tracks like Ghetto of My Mind by Rickie Lee Jones vocals seem a little congested on the Compact 7 ES-3s but sound more open and natural on the M30.1s. On the other hand, the addition of the extra bass generated by C7s is very welcomed. It is strange because you can clearly tell that the speakers are from the Harbeth family, yet sound different to other speakers in their range. String instruments sound good, but not as real as on some of the big dual concentric Tannoys that I experienced. Clapping tend to sound less realistic than on the other Harbeth speakers like P3ESR 40th Anniversary. Despite this, the speakers are more than capable of creating a 3D sound stage illusion, providing that they have some room around them. It is not only the width but also the depth of the soundstage illusion that is impressive. However, in comparison to other Harbeth models, the treble of C7ES-3 seems more rolled off, which changes the balance of the speaker. This can have a positive effect as it makes the ‘ts’ sibilance less noticeable which suits tracks such as Windy Town (Piano Version) by Rod Stewart. This also makes a significant difference when you listen to relatively bright tracks at high levels. Harbeth C7ES3 are the first speakers that I played Who’s Loving You by Terence Trent reasonably loud (87dBA peak at the listening position) and really enjoyed the track without feeling that my ears are about to bleed. On the other hand, there a are number of tracks that just seem to have less air around the instruments and less sense of atmosphere within the recording venue. A good example of that would be the unplugged version of Fly Me to the Moon by Tony Bennett, which sounds a lot more immersive and engaging on Harbeth M30.1.
If a lot of your music collection is not very well recorded, tend to sound bright on your existing speakers or you have a preference for slightly softer/warmer sounding speakers, the Harbeth C7ES-3 may well be perfect for you.
Harbeth C7ES3 are very well-balanced and softer sounding speakers – probably the most polite speakers of the whole Harbeth family. Quality midrange and very good bottom end extension for the size of the cabinet. Very forgiving, which is beneficial on low quality recordings but can make them sound less engaging than other speakers within Harbeth range on well produced tracks.
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Reviewed: April 2019 | Published: November 2019