Today, I’m checking out Harbeth’s SHL5plus XD speakers ($7990-$8390 per pair) and dedicated TonTräger stands ($1650 per pair). They are the penultimate speakers in the Harbeth lineup and are surprisingly full range in their delivered performance.
Harbeth SHL5plus XD Speakers
- Custom designed 7.9-inch RADIAL2™ Bass Driver
- Tuned by Alan Shaw, President of Harbeth
- Gorgeous, Furniture Quality Finish
- Clarity across the intended bandwidth
- Outstanding Linearity from 40Hz and up
- Dedicated stands make placement easier
- Easy to drive with a variety of amplifiers
- Designed and built in England
Harbeth Audio was founded in 1977 by H.D. Harwood, and the Harbeth moniker was achieved by combining the first three letters of his name with wife’s name, Beth: Harbeth. Mr. Harwood was winding down his career with the BBC Research Department and had discovered that polypropylene made a very accurate speaker driver material. The BBC granted him a patent on the driver, and he moved on from the BBC to start Harbeth. His driver demonstrated that a modest sized speaker could be more efficient with tighter bass and lower coloration than the doped paper cones commonly used at the time.
In the 40 years since Harbeth was formed, thousands of improvements have been made to the original design (which was the ancestor to the SHL5plus XD under review here), and we will explore the success of those improvements.
25mm ferrofluid-cooled tweeter:
20mm dome Super Tweeter.
40Hz – 20kHz, ±3dB free-space, grille on, smooth off-axis response
25 to 150 Watts Per Channel
25” x 12.7” x 11.8” (635 x 322 x 300mm)
Harbeth SHL5plus XD price:
$7990/pair in Cherry, $8390 for Walnut or Rosewood
Walnut, Rosewood or Cherry
Fidelis Distribution LLC
Harbeth, SHL5plus, speaker, monitor, British speaker, speaker review, Speaker Review 2021
The cornerstone of the Harbeth SHL5plus XD speaker is its patented RADIAL2™ 200mm (7.9 inches for those of us in the colonies) bass/midrange driver. Alan Shaw, through his research in making the most transparent driver possible, realized that he needed something with tolerances that were not only strict, but also repeatable. The vacuum-forming technology that was typically used in polymer-based drivers was inexpensive, but not adequate for Shaw’s requirements. Injection molding proved to be a superior method for achieving Shaw’s driver needs, but it was a very expensive undertaking for a relatively low volume project like the RADIAL2™ driver. This driver also called for a material which was superior to polypropylene, so the Harbeth team developed a new plastic formulation they dubbed ‘Research and Development in Advanced Loudspeakers,’ or the original RADIAL™. The extremely expensive manufacturing method and materials for the 200mm driver is just the start of the manufacturing process for each SHL5plus XD loudspeaker. The 25mm tweeter, 20mm super tweeter, speaker cabinet and crossover are, along with the 200mm driver, a complete package that make for a bespoke level of quality which would be impossible for one to recreate without years of research. Each speaker is hand built by craftsmen who test and retest every aspect of performance before it’s packed for shipping to the consumer. Harbeth’s team even does a final response curve sweep on each speaker before the packing is done, just to ensure that the quality control is intact from the beginning of construction to shipping the speaker. A Harbeth speaker may seem expensive for its size and weight, but the quality built into each one will last a lifetime and beyond.
I received test speakers finished in Cherry. The attention to detail extends to the finish, with each pair of Harbeth speakers having a matching veneer. The finish on the SHL5plus XD is understated elegance. My wife is an antique collector, particularly in wood pieces from the 1700s and 1800s. When she saw them set up on the TonTräger stands, she was impressed enough to ask if we could keep them. This was before she heard them. For her, they were a revelation. There will be more on this in the “In Use” portion of the review.
The matching TonTräger stands are an additional performance element that makes the SHL5 Plus XDs not only look amazing, but they contribute to sound quality as well. The TonTrägers are custom built for the SHL5plus XD loudspeakers. TonTräger makes a specific stand for each Harbeth speaker (and for other respected speaker companies as well). The stands are manufactured in Germany and are made in an environmentally sound manner. It is one of the few stands recommended by Harbeth for their speakers and are well worth a look.
The Harbeth SHL5plus XDs were installed on their custom designed TonTräger stands which elevate the speakers to the suggested listening height. I placed them 30 inches from the back wall of our dedicated two channel listening room, 32 inches away from the side walls and nine feet apart with 15 degrees toe-in, measuring from the center of the 200mm bass/midrange driver. Sources were a Yamaha CD-2100 CD/SACD player, Cambridge Audio Edge NQ pre-amplifier with built in streamer and a Cambridge Audio Edge W power amplifier. Cables are Better Cables Blue Truth ULTRA balanced XLR Cables between the Yamaha and the Edge W pre-amp, and between the preamplifier and power amp with Better Cables Blue Truth Reference speaker cables between the Cambridge Audio Edge W power amp and the Harbeth speakers. I allowed about 200 hours of break-in with a special disc of white noise played in a loop before serious listening sessions began.
Dire Straits: Making Movies
Making Movies is Dire Strait’s third collection and is a personal favorite rock album/CD of mine. Mark Knopfler took the band in a direction that combined old fashioned rock and roll with a blues feel to many of the songs. Harbeth speakers are widely considered to be great speakers for jazz and classical music, but not as good for rock and roll. Being the contrarian type, I had to start the serious auditioning process with this rock and blues collection. The SHL5plus XDs brought the thunder from this performance with an ease and clarity that made one feel that a much larger speaker was in the house. The opening song is called “Tunnel of Love,” and after a carnival organ opens, a powerful kick drum brings us into this song in all its glory. The drum is centered at about 50Hz, and the Harbeths pressurized one in the chest. Knopfler’s gravelly voice is presented without the bloating that lesser speakers often introduce to the mix, while the guitar work is impeccably reproduced.
The disc then moves to “Romeo and Juliet,” a love story of betrayal for fame and fortune. When Knopfler is almost whispering to Juliet at the end of the song, he comes through with a clarity one would expect from a pair of Quad ESL 2912 speakers. Bass lines are taught and surprisingly deep. There is a wealth of emotions, both soaring highs and heartbreak, and the Harbeth speakers brought the goose bumps. The question is, do they rock? The answer is, absolutely, just give them a quality signal, and the SHL5plus XDs will bring the listener into the performance.
Little Feat: Waiting For Columbus
Waiting for Columbus is another collection that has weathered its 40 years of life with a wealth of staying power. It brings a variety of sonic wonders into one’s listening room, and is a testament to an engineer making sure the details of the concert are put on the disc. It starts with a completely silent background, then someone (Lowell George?) telling the engineer to “roll the tape … roll the tape.” The band then does a tune up called “Join the Band,” which warms up the audience while letting the band and sound guys to do their final check.
The announcer then extols us to welcome “F … E … A … T … Let’s welcome Little Feat!!” Cowbell, percussion, bass guitar and an increasing tempo bring the audience to life, and soon, Lowell George is in full form. Every song is a toe tapping, smile making delight.
So, let’s talk about how these speakers can rock. “Spanish Moon” starts with some deft percussion work, building until the drummer is hitting the snares with everything he has, and the SHL5plus XDs sound like … DRUMS! The keyboards, bass guitar and the Tower of Power horns add to Lowell’s singing to make this one powerful anthem of a song with a groove that can make me shake off the worst of moods.
“Spanish Moon” hands off the sonic treats to “Dixie Chicken.” By now the audience is going crazy, and the applause is wonderful. The SHL5plus XDs can make humans clapping sound like … humans clapping. “Dixie Chicken” opens with a close microphoned piano, which many speakers cannot handle without distorting. The Harbeths delivered this with ease and had me smiling ear to ear. Every Lowell George lyric came through like he’s sitting here, singing. The bass line with the piano work is SO much fun. Who was it that said these speakers don’t rock? They rock. All they ask for is a quality performance.
Cowboy Junkies: The Trinity Session
Trinity Session was recorded with a single microphone at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It opens with a solo by Margot Timmons that sets the mood for almost an hour of some of the best acoustic music available in any collection. This solo is called “Mining For Gold,” and Margot is telling the story of coal miners, and the perils of the job. The SHL5plus XDs make Margot’s voice so lifelike that I almost asked for an autograph. “Mining for Gold” flows directly into “Misguided Angel,” in which Margot is singing to her family about finding her dream man, even if he isn’t the dream her family had for her. Her emotions as she is explaining to her crying father that even if he can’t give her the life that daddy wants, she loves him anyway, are palpable. Margot Timmons has a rare quality in her singing; a tempo that works in perfect harmony with her band mates. A great speaker will bring this tempo to life, and the Harbeths were made for this performance. The guitars, harmonica, backup vocals and her voice can lull one into a very deep state of relaxation in the music, and the Harbeths handle the delicacy of this performance with ease.
Margot’s rendition of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” brings her seductive pacing ability front and center. How she can perfectly land each word and note is a wonder. The Harbeths are not challenged by this type of performance, they are made for it.
The Eagles: Hell Freezes Over
What is going on here? Would someone tell the reviewer that we have had about enough of the rock and roll stuff? These are British monitors, where is the classical music content? Ok – my apologies for putting another rock collection into the mix here, but hopefully you will understand. As with many wives, my wife finds my love of audio equipment a bit weird. I normally only get a pass because it “isn’t a boat.” She really hates boats.
I wanted her to listen to these modest sized speakers, and Hell Freezes Over is one of her all-time favorite discs. She was enjoying the music of “Get Over It,” “The Girl From Yesterday” and others. Then track 6 started. Track 6 is “Hotel California.” The guitar leads into one really well recorded kick drum. Then Henley starts singing, and I noticed she was being really still. Halfway through the song, she had tears running down her face. I said nothing, but when the song ended, I forwarded up to her other two favorites on the disc: “New York Minute” and “The Last Resort.” When they were finished, I paused the music. She stood up and turned on the overhead lights. She walked to the speakers and looked them over. She finally decided to speak … “These are beautiful! I love the size, the finish, and how cool they look on the stands. Can we keep these speakers? You never had speakers like these! How can they sound so good? This sounds like when I saw them live in 2003!”
And that is why Hell Freezes Over made the list. In 31 plus years of marriage, she has never had this reaction to a speaker. It’s usually an eye roll and a quip about “man stuff.” All the technical talk about crossovers, RADIAL2™ drivers and the decades of research by Mr. Harwood and Mr. Shaw became, “Can we keep these speakers?” She doesn’t know anything about the science, but she knows the emotion that good music brings, and the Harbeths made her love the performance.
Living Stereo Brahms/Tchaikovsky SACD Violin Concertos
Recorded in 1955 and 1957, featuring Jascha Heifetz and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, this Fritz Reiner conducted pair of concertos is a tremendous addition to any classical music collection. The effort to put these two-track and three-track (down mixed for stereo) performances into SACD format is much appreciated. The pace and timing of the performance is flawless, and the quality brought to life from over 60 years ago is a treasure.
When Jascha Heifetz is featured, it is done with such clarity and sweeping emotions that it is one of those rare discs one doesn’t start if one doesn’t have the requisite 65 minutes available to enjoy the performances in their entireties. Mr. Heifetz was born in Russia in 1901, and he became a citizen of the US in 1925. He was fiercely devoted to his adopted country, and during World War II, he would often play for troops in Italy, France and Germany, many times near the front lines. His nickname as a violinist was “The King,” long before Elvis thrilled the world.
The larger Harbeth loudspeakers are known for the ability to deliver the grandeur of a live orchestra, and the SHL5plus XDs saved their best for this SACD. Heifetz makes one lean in as he plays with a delicacy combined with complex nuances that few violinists can achieve. As one gets accustomed to the softness of the solo, the full orchestra bursts forth with a vengeance, and the listener is thrown back into his or her seat. The Harbeths brought this with a balanced believability that made for the feeling that greatness was being witnessed in person, not from a disc and speakers.
We have a few amplifiers available for listening with speakers which are under review. The Harbeth SHL5plus XDs are fairly efficient and are also an easy load to drive for an amplifier. We tried amps from NAD (a 12-year-old C372 integrated amp), Akitika (their budget GR-102 and PR-102 amp/pre-amp pair @ about $1000 for both pieces. They are available in kit form, or the company will assemble the products for you), Axiom ADA-1000-5 and the $4000 Cambridge Audio Edge W power amp.
The sonic presentation from each of the amplifiers was stellar. Alan Shaw’s devotion to science pays big dividends in these large, stand mounted speakers. The Harbeths loved the juice from Cambridge Audio’s $4000 gem, while also delivering amazingly detailed music from the $1000 combo from Akitika. The NAD amp did not present much, if any, compromise, and the Axiom ADA-1000-5 seemed to have limitless reserves.
Mr. Shaw and his team have delivered to the market a high-end speaker that can, if one needs to stay on budget, make beautiful music with any one of the many sub-$2000 amplifiers on the market. While I preferred the Cambridge Audio’s detail combined with warmth, the less expensive amps were also quite adept at bringing the performance to life with the Harbeths.
Our dedicated two channel listening room is my favorite place for both music listening and for reviewing loudspeakers. For measurements, I use the Dayton Omnimic 2 system. As with all speakers tested here, I ran a response curve from the listening position. Our room has a strong house curve (or sound power curve) from about 63Hz to below 20Hz. Many full range speakers will show a bass level in the 18-63Hz bandwidth that is elevated by 8 to 10dB above the 63 to 10,000Hz bandwidth.
The Harbeth SHL5plus XD is nominally flat from about 40Hz to over 18,000Hz in an anechoic setting. In our listening room, they were within a +4 dB response from 20Hz to 20,000Hz with the exception of a 5dB bump around 100Hz. Most of the performance below 40Hz is due to that house curve. We don’t use any room correction in our system, and this is excellent performance from such a modest sized speaker. In a more typical room, we would expect less bass below 40Hz. Overall, the response curve backs up the listening performance brought forth by these transducers.
The SHL5plus XD loudspeakers are in the monitor range for size. This means they require a stand for optimal performance. For this review, we used the highly esteemed custom stands made by Tonträger. They retail for $1650 per pair and are a story all their own. TonTräger is located in Frussen, Germany. All their stands are custom built for each speaker model, and the stands we have here made for a most elegant look with the Harbeths. The company takes justifiable pride in using hardwoods from local FSC Certified Forests and combines them with solvent free oils and pigments to make an heirloom quality stand that adds to the Harbeth experience. There are other options available, but I would encourage one to consider this custom option to go with a special loudspeaker. As with Harbeth, Fidelis Distribution LLC is the North American Distributor.
HARBETH’S SHL5PLUS XD LOUDSPEAKERS aren’t inexpensive at $7990 to $8390 per pair USD, but they deliver the delicacy, power and bass of far more pricey models while being amp friendly.
- Detailed midrange
- Extended treble
- Accurate yet musical
- Amazing micro dynamics
- Decorator approved fit and finish
- Surprising power crescendos
- One more octave of bass
I came into this review expecting a nice, polite British loudspeaker. Over the last 20 plus years, I have had the opportunity to live with Magnepans, Legacy Audio Signatures, Axiom LFR-1100 Actives and a host of other speakers in the $6000 to $20,000 range.
What I experienced was something far above my expectations. Alan Shaw’s dedication to making the 200mm RADIAL2™ an edge of the art driver has brought to the lover of music a transducer that makes a variety of instruments come to life. It does so with the delicacy and power that one might expect in a far larger, more expensive loudspeaker. While the investment in these speakers is not inexpensive, its performance in every aspect makes the price of entry quite reasonable. They are my new reference standard for a passive loudspeaker. When I unboxed the Harbeth SHL5plus XD’s a little over three months ago, I commented that it would be nice to have a pair of speakers that were easy to pack up and return to the manufacturer after the review. It turns out this was not going to be easy at all. I am purchasing the review pair. What better endorsement can there be?