For many years now it's been a core tenet of our company to go abroad to visit foreign audio shows and to meet manufacturers directly. In this day and age, most of audio is about marketing, not quality, and without seeing the operations first hand and making relationships with the people, it's very difficult to find the best products.
This past month I was fortunate to be in the UK and was able to spend some quality time with Alan Shaw and the other great people at Harbeth.
Harbeth is one of the last true made-in-Britain audio companies. The connotations that the word "British" bring to mind include such adjectives as "quality", "history", "tradition", and "craftsmanship". Situated about an hour south of London in the picturesque town of Lindfield, the Harbeth factory is a small and close knit operation with each employee working towards the common goal of making the finest speakers in the world.
There's a refreshing gentility and purposefulness to everything in the Harbeth operation, from the efficient layout of space to the matter-of-fact but cordial way each staff offers and receives instructions.
I saw the various drive units in production, the testing facilities and a big stack of speakers ready to be shipped out to us. Truly an end-to-end tour of how our order was built.
After a delightful lunch at a local restaurant's patio, we toured the site of the incredible Ouse Valley viaduct, a 1500 ft. rail bridge built in 1841. Seeing the engineering of this all-brick structure highlights both the distinctly British design style and also the importance of the train in the history of Britain. Still operating perfectly today, it carries 110 trains per day. It's fitting that this monument of classic beauty and utility is so close to the Harbeth factory.
Later on, Mr. Shaw provided me with a rare tour of his design studio which is housed in a remote location about 20 minutes from the factory. Situated in the quiet countryside there are no distractions or city noises to disturb the extremely sensitive measuring and listening environment.
Alan began by explaining the design of the studio with a heavy emphasis on technical properties of absorption and decay times. I love this kind of nitty gritty as it provides the foundation for the higher levels of discussion.
There was a P3ESR already setup on the measuring platform so we ran a frequency sweep test and confirmed what I already knew - it's a really great speaker!
From there, Alan dove into the intricate process he undertakes to develop each new speaker, using the exceptional new SHL5plus as the most recent example.
The long list of design concerns includes cabinet selection, performance targets for on and off-axis sound, driver modeling and complement, acoustic/electric driver delay (and measurement thereof), validity of measuring bass from the port or through a hole drilled in the speaker, physical crossover design and finally A/B testing with real music.
The process to get from start to finish can take years (or decades if you include the experience needed to do computer simulations of the performance of drive units of differing sizes and construction). This is one reason why Harbeth models change so infrequently. They are already at such an advanced state that it is simply difficult to improve upon them without an extreme amout of time and effort, or a breakthrough in technology not yet invented. It took over ten years to bring a meaningful improvement to the outgoing SHL5, which is why we are all so excited about the new SHL5plus!
I know from my own experience that being able to talk about these design concerns in such detail and with such confidence is the result of extremely laborious trial and error and a generally keen mind for problem solving. Alan Shaw is certainly a master, if not the master speaker designer of our time.
One of the "devil's advocate" questions I asked when first arriving at the design studio was "if so many companies claim to have flat frequency response, then why do they all sound so different and why does Harbeth get it right?" I realized at the end that the indepth explanation of the efforts he puts into development were an educative primer to answer my question.
To illustrate the answer simply, we selected one of the many competiting products he keeps on hand to do some head-to-head measurements. I think this is the mark of a truly broad-minded designer when he is willing to compare his creations to the classic references from audio history, as well as leading current models. The unit we chose was a medium sized bookshelf speaker from a major brand. As soon as we heard the test ones the difference was obvious and looking at the overlay graphs, the numbers didn't lie.
Contrary to their assertation that this is a "studio monitor" with flat frequency response, it was really nowhere close. Of particular note was the huge dip at about 300Hz from where the transmission line fails to produce any bass. "The transmission line is too short for this size of box to produce the correct bass," he commented matter of factly!
It's these kinds of direct measurements that immediately confirm what we've long heard in day to day auditions. Explaining to customers why you're not getting everything in the music from another speaker and why Harbeth is so special is a lot easier when you can see the lines come up on the display and hear the difference side by side.
Quite simply, one company's "flat" frequency response is not the same as another's, and nearly all of them deviate grossly from a true flat response. Some people chalk this up to excuses such as "everyone's ears are different" or "we like it this way", but the measurements don't lie. As seems too often the case nowadays, there is a lot of marketing hyperbole going on to cover up for engineering faults or plain lazyness.
The fact that Harbeth and Mr. Shaw go to such extraordinary lengths to not only study the competition but to put incredible time and effort into perfecting their own technology is one thing, but to then freely explain why it works, shows me that this is the real deal. When you're buying a product of this price and pedigree you want to know that there is real substance behind the magic.
To cap the visit off we ended in true British style by visiting a local pub. It was warm and rustic with traditional food, excellent beer and great conversation. Dessert was a British favourite - sticky toffee pudding.
Often in life, stereotypes are just an empty label that we apply in order to quickly categorize something, yet in the rare case, it can sum up the true embodiment of all the greatness of a way of doing things. Harbeth is a an example of the latter. It's quintessentially British in everything form its location to its ethos and it all shows in the products they make. We've seen it first hand and we're proud to bring it to you.