Harbeth M30.2 XD Loudspeakers Review
Mark Gusew auditions an exceptionally talented pair of compact standmount loudspeakers…
M30.2 XD Loudspeakers
AUD $8,380 RRP
It's official: Harbeth is in the process of updating all of its loudspeakers. The company has been working behind the scenes to make refinements to its existing speaker lines, denoted by the XD suffix. One of the first available such designs – and the subject of this review – is the new Monitor M30.2 XD. It's effectively an update of the M30.2 40th Anniversary Edition, which in turn was an update of the M30.1, and the M30 which in turn was a significant refinement to the original BBC LS5/9 upon which it is based. With each new model has come sonic improvements that are the result of decades of research and finessing.
I would class the M30.2 XD as being on the smaller side of a medium-sized stand-mounted loudspeaker, approximately 460x280x275mm in size. It is a two way, front-firing bass-reflex design with a 200mm mid-bass driver and 25mm tweeter. The construction of the cabinet is thin-walled timber with strategic bracing and sound deadening, allowing the cabinet to breathe sound and become somewhat of a musical instrument, rather than an acoustically inert cabinet used by some other manufacturers. This practice dates back to the research done by the BBC decades ago into reproducing lifelike sound and is very carefully applied and tuned.
The all-important mid/bass driver has a cone made of a specific polymer that was chosen during the five-year research project “Research And Development Into Advanced Loudspeaker” or RADIAL™. It's said to have properties of low mass and controlled resonance which make it ideal for speaker cones. The tweeter is a 25mm soft dome that is Ferro-cooled for better power handling capabilities and made by SEAS to Harbeth's specifications.
So with all of the above ingredients already well tested and used in the Monitor 30.2, how do you go about improving the sound? Well, it's the small things that count. Alan Shaw – owner and chief designer at Harbeth – found improvements with the 40th Anniversary Edition by using better sounding WBT NextGen binding posts and audiophile-quality polypropylene crossover capacitors. With those in mind and the desire to take things up a notch, the Harbeth Xtended Definition series was created; all current products will eventually be upgraded to XD spec.
Alan Shaw is constantly on the lookout for ways to improve the sound quality of his products and the crossover and internal wiring is the place to find to the largest gains. His latest measurement techniques are said to enable a “microscopic” representation of the frequency response, where it can uncover the smallest irregularities so they can be smoothed out. The connection terminals have been changed, so they now go directly to the circuit board, in addition to higher quality capacitors used in the crossover and upgraded internal wiring.
Weighing in at 11.6kg, this isn't a difficult speaker to move around your listening room in search of the perfect position. You will need a rigid stand that is 40-60cm in height; this speaker shouldn't be used on the floor or a tall shelf, and ideally, the tweeter should be at ear level when the listener is seated. Harbeth doesn't make its own stands but recommends the UK-based Hi-Fi Racks Ltd brand. I used a 60cm tall stand, and it placed the tweeter around 92cm from the floor, which suited me perfectly.
Harbeth ships the M30.2 XD in pairs, with a left and a right speaker tested and matched; a small L or R is printed on the end of the serial numbers to indicate the correct orientation, and the small Harbeth logo on the front grill sits to the outer top corner of each of the boxes when you have them correctly oriented. The front protective grill is designed to stay on, hiding the drivers, as the loudspeaker has been tuned to sound exactly as it should from the factory with the grill in place. Harbeth states that it makes a decibel or so difference if removed, and this has already been taken into account.
The M30.2 XD is claimed by its manufacturer to have a frequency response of 50Hz–20kHz, ±3dB, a nominal impedance of 6 ohms and a sensitivity of 85dB/1W/1m. This makes the Harbeth a little harder to drive than many small speakers – although it should still go loud with a decently powerful solid-state amplifier. I was lucky enough to have access to the incredible Dan D'Agostino Master Audio Systems Progression Integrated Amplifier, its digital card fed by my Melco N1A digital library and an Oppo 203 CD transport.
Harbeth's Monitor M30.2 XD is a loudspeaker with a very easy listening feel; there's some gentle midrange warmth that seems to add to rather than diminish the sonic experience. Still, it's pretty transparent all the same, meaning that it favours good recordings where it stays out of the way more than you might expect. It certainly doesn't sugarcoat bad recordings, that's for sure. In addition to this, the Harbeth shows real musicality; it accurately handles rhythms and dynamics, whilst never shouting at the listener.
Jeff Buckley's Lover, You Should've Come Over sounded balanced and colourful, with good dynamics and oodles of detail. It showed this speaker up as a strong performer for such a modestly sized design and remained tightly controlled, yet expressive at all times. It's also blessed with a surprisingly wide bandwidth, considering its size. Vision Of Her by David Elias was impressively full range, with a coherent top to bottom balance, good bass weight and plenty of well-resolved detail in between. The speaker was devoid of any excessive bloom or bloat, despite that thin-walled cabinet which by many people's conventional wisdom should cause some.
Tonally it's a very agreeable speaker; it has unassailable good manners that make listening to music very enjoyable. I enjoy Vivaldi's many Baroque pieces, so listened to the strings in Concerto Grosso D-minor by I Solisti di Zagreb. I was beguiled by how clean and detailed it sounded; it was vivid but not overly bright. Still, you never sensed that the violins sounded sanitised or airbrushed; their natural, raw timbre was left intact. I heard outstanding midrange clarity and excellent smooth integration with the treble, producing realistic tones.
This, I would say, is Harbeth's stock-in-trade – and it's also a generic characteristic of many established British speaker brands. Voices proved a particular treat via the Monitor M30.2 XD; both male and female vocals shone out. Male artists like Ivan Rebroff and Tom Waits had all their natural timbre reproduced, while female singers like Ricky Lee Jones and Carmen Gomes maintained their uniqueness.
This extended to acoustic instruments too. The guitars in 2 Weeks by Luukc sounded very lifelike and expressive, with lots of detail and timbre being imparted. It was interesting to compare the Bowers & Wilkins 705 Signature here; it sounded a lot cooler and noticeably more opaque. Even complex tracks like La Lluvia by Rubén González were very well resolved by the Harbeths, along with all the ambient information of the instruments playing in a recording space.
Another highlight of the Monitor 30.2 XD's performance is its skill at conveying the natural rhythms of a piece of music. Sioux Lookout by Daniel Lanois made perfect sense, the music flowing like a river. It was the same story with Odyssey by Rival Consoles – the pace and timing were spot on, from bottom to top of the frequency range. Attack transients were fast, giving a natural feel to the leading edge of notes, whatever the instrument but especially with percussion. Hearing the opening thirty seconds to Bad Man's Song by Tears For Fears almost had me wanting to purchase a pair of these Harbeths on the spot!
Spatially this speaker is highly capable too, although it does need to be positioned carefully to give its best. Image width and depth really grew when I settled on two metres apart, and two and a half metres from my listening position, for example. In addition to this, the speaker worked best about a metre out from the boundary wall, and slightly toed in. This done, the Monitor 30.2 XD delivered the proverbial wall of sound. Darkside's Paper Trails sounded incredible, with claps and deep vocals that leapt well forward of the plane of the loudspeakers, out into the room. The Harbeth served up a tall and wide image that easily filled my listening room.
Not having the pre-XD version of the Monitor M30.2 XD to compare the new model with, I cannot comment on the improvements. Yet I'm well able to applaud what's now on sale. Certainly, this Xtended Definition edition is easily the best Harbeth I've heard so far – to me, it sounds very special, especially when playing through a serious amplifier. It may not offer any particular technological frills, but this is still one of the finest speakers around at its price and will put a smile on many faces.
Starting his first audio consultancy business in the early ’80s whilst also working professionally in the electronics industry, Mark now splits his time between professional reviewing and AV consultancy.