View Full Version : The history of the Harbeth Company

Jeff Stake
03-02-2006, 01:45 PM
Congratulations Alan. I admire your commitment to staying in touch with the Harbeth Users.

Here is my question:

As of now, Harbeth's best speakers are all traditional, box speakers designed for use on open stands. Many other companies have shifted away from traditional boxes to floorstanding speakers. It is not hard to see the attractions of a floorstander to a buyer. The buyer need not shop separately for stands or worry about whether he will get the same sound from his boxes on stands as a reviewer got from the same boxes on other stands. The floorstander might be [or look] a bit less "tippy" than a box on a stand. And some customers prefer the looks of a floorstander, perhaps because of the narrower face. And the depth of the floorstander helps get the drivers away from the wall behind the speakers. In any case, it would seem that you, Alan, could take the RADIAL driver and an Excel tweeter and put them in a floorstanding box of the same volume as a Super HL5, perform your magic on the crossover including correction for a different baffle step, and turn out a world-beating floorstander. Why not do that?


03-02-2006, 02:09 PM
Hello Jeff,

You raise many interesting questions here, and I'll just touch on one or two answers for now.

The first one is - if I'm completely honest - that my entire experience is with "BBC thin-wall cabinets" which, by definition means "bookshelf" (= needing a stand or bracket, not actually being on a book shelf). I know a fair bit about how these cabinets resonate, how their resonances can be beneficially steered etc. etc.. For me, anything that strays too far from that well trodden path draws on a skill set that I just don't have.

Are there any really outstanding tower speakers? Does any professional sound engineer use a tower speaker at any stage of the recording/broadcast process? Do they have any technical or acoustic advantages over "bookshelf" speakers, other, perhaps, than stability on the floor as you mention?

As far as I can determine, if you put sound quality first and you have the budget to invest in an up-market "bookshelf" then you probably are not going to be seduced by tower speakers unless you buy with your eyes, as many do.

04-02-2006, 01:09 AM
Speaking only for myself, I've never cared for floorstanders. Give me a speaker on stand (preferably a 'Skylan' stand!) anytime. Better sound, better aesthetics (that's obviously a matter of opinion, but that's mine), and easier to live with (kids and pets will not scratch or knock over my M30's like they might a column speaker).

I was mildly disappointed to hear that the newest design from Harbeth (prototype) was 5 or 6 inch radial....TOWER. And not the radial HLP3 update I've been watching for all these years!

04-02-2006, 01:56 AM
I agree, personally I don't see any aesthetic attraction with typical floorstanders......an exception is the beautiful Avalon speakers eg the Eidolon.
Standmounted speakers have another advantage - they allow stand height to be selected to suit the users listening height.

04-02-2006, 09:27 AM
one french and one UK - where the 2-way monitor is also sold as a 2-way floor stander with the same woofer and tweeter is that you lose some imaging and tightness, maybe some dynamics, in order to gain some bass and "mellowness". And some say you make your wife happier.

I'm not sure if Alan is a lurker who is always listening to the competition's loudspeakers, but perhaps he can comment more generally and accurately about these tradeoffs and perhaps say something more specific about Harbeth's former and current forays into the floorstanding world.

The NRG you show a picture of - it is an NRG isn't it - scares me. Where's the glockenspeel and berylium tweeter?

04-02-2006, 10:52 AM
I think most beginner in audio will choose floorstanding speaker if the money allowed. It's simpler and they think they provide better bass.

I never own a floorstander because I don't like most floorstander aestethically and I don't have enough money to buy a good floorstander that I like.

04-02-2006, 11:01 AM
I've removed a post concerning the NRG tower. I clearly stated at the start of this thread my position, and introducing the NRG just adds confusion to this discussion.

04-02-2006, 11:07 AM
As I clearly stated, the NRG product is aimed at an entirely different sector of the market, and priced and styled accordingly. I use a pair at home in an AV system and they work really well. But towers are fundamentally different animals to "bookshelf" speakers in many ways.

Right or wrong, I do not have the time (or interest) to snoop competitors offerings except on a very ad hoc basis. I have never heard *any* speaker, bookshelf, tower or panel that, to my ears, outperforms the Harbeth RADIAL cone in the middle frequencies, so I'm not likely to gain much pleasure from involving myself with other speaker systems.

04-02-2006, 04:31 PM
I have never heard *any* speaker, bookshelf, tower or panel that, to my ears, outperforms the Harbeth RADIAL cone in the middle frequencies, so I'm not likely to gain much pleasure from involving myself with other speaker systems.

So true. And that, in a nutshell, in why we Harbeth owners are such a devoted lot.


05-02-2006, 02:47 PM
This is to Alan
Can you elaborate more on the recently sighted tower harbeth at the CES?
Is this a new initiative by Harbeth?

06-02-2006, 09:28 AM
This is to Alan
Can you elaborate more on the recently sighted tower harbeth at the CES?
Is this a new initiative by Harbeth?

This is a prototype tower system. It has a brand new 6.5" Harbeth-designed midrange unit, and a pair of Harbeth-designed high power 37mm voice coil bass units. It has been shown at CES twice now, as we test market the concept.

Damian L.
06-02-2006, 12:55 PM
At the end of last year there was a thread about single-wiring terminals. If I remember correctly, the drift was that very soon all Harbeth speakers would be supplied with such terminals.

I am interested in buying a pair of S-HL5s or Monitor 30s. My question is: Are these models now fitted with single-wiring terminals, and if not, are they likely to be in the near future? According to the Harbeth website, they still have bi-wiring terminals.

06-02-2006, 11:01 PM
It is true that we have been looking at simplifying the connection arrangement for some time.

The only advantage that I can really imagine for the current 4-post system is for identification of HF and LF issues at the point of manufacture and testing. The reason we continue with the 4-post arrangement is to provide maximum flexibility for a very few users who wish to experiement with alternative bi-wire links.

It is likely that we will offset ever rising overall costs with the saving on deleting two of the four terminals - the issue is just 'when?'.

07-02-2006, 09:07 AM
The Harbeth numbering scheme is historical. Yes, knowing what we do now, I guess one could renumber but of course, its far too late.

The Mk1,2,3,4 became the HL5, that begat the HL5ES, HL5ES2 and then the SuperHL5.

The HL Compact, introduced in 1988 was about 15% smaller than the then HL Mk4 and so was more 'compact' but with no sacrifice of sound quality. Of course, by today's standard of micro hifi systems it's hardly 'compact' but having sold tens of thousands over the years we're not going to rename our icon speaker. The HL Compact 7 was introduced in about 1995 and that led to the C7ES (with Harbeth made bass unit and bevelled from edge) and then the current C7ES2 with a rounded front edge.

The Monitor 20, 30 and 40 (actually introduced in reverse order and with a clear marketing intention to use those numbers) is a very clear lineage.

Tony L
07-02-2006, 09:56 AM
The HL Compact 7 was introduced in about 1995 and that led to the C7ES (with Harbeth made bass unit and bevelled from edge) and then the current C7ES2 with a rounded front edge.

My C7ES have the rounded edge!


07-02-2006, 10:47 AM
My memory is going. You are right: the original C7 has bevelled edges.

07-02-2006, 11:00 PM
Harbeth was founded in 1977 by Dudley Harwood, the senior engineer in the BBC's Research Department at Kingswood Warren, a large country house near London http://www.bbc.co.uk/heritage/buildings/kingswood_warren.shtml

The name Harbeth is an amalgam of HARwood and elizaBETH, his wife. Harwood followed D. E. L. Shorter as one of the pioneering minds underpinning the British audio scene of the 1950's through to the 1970's. It was Harwood's discovery and patenting of the application of polypropylene plastic that paved the way for him to retire from the BBC and found Harbeth in 1977.

The original Harbeth HL Monitor (known as the Mk1) was the world's first loudspeaker to use the brand new polypropylene cone. Other contemporary monitors used bextrene as the bass/mid cone material, which performed well but only if heavily doped by hand. Harwood's polypropylene did not require doping as it was inherently better damped, so it was lighter, louder, cheaper and more repeatable to manufacture.

Unfortunately for Harwood, when drafting the Claims of his patent there was either a typing error which was not picked-up or the Claims were too tightly specified: his polypropylene patent was soon challenged and proved unenforceable. Harwood's novel material rapidly became the de facto loudspeaker driver material across the world. Bextrene had had its day.

John Parkyn
08-02-2006, 12:18 AM
Interesting material Alan.

Please tell us something about how you came to be with the company.

Also, are any members of the founding families still involved in the operation of the company?

08-02-2006, 02:21 PM
...Also, are any members of the founding families still involved in the operation of the company?
No, my involvement with Harbeth followed from a chance encounter with Mr. Harwood in the spring of 1986. I was 29, one of the first UK employees of the Japanese NEC Corporation, slithering rather nicely up the greasy pole: Harwood was actually fast asleep in his workshop beside an electric bar heater: the business looked dormant.

It's a long story, but in essence, I'd been avidly following the "BBC speaker philosophy" since my teens, and Harwood, Shorter and Hughes had been (and still are) heroes. As I walked back to my nice new big shiny company car I was certain that destiny had brought us together. "The right man, at the right time, with the right enthusiasm" - and with a vision if only a smattering of knowledge.

So it was then that I resigned from NEC - where I was responsible for their semiconductor business with (Sir) Alan Sugar (of whom I have immense respect for straight talking - I was on the receiving end of it many times), Sir Clive Sinclair and the very first build of the IBM PC in the UK. But it just had to be done.

Harwood made it clear that he wished to completely retire (he's have been about 70 years old) and that I was entirely on my own. That was the best legacy that he could possibly have given me (because it forced me to hit the ground running) although in Japan, a big market for Harwood, the importer could only manage the transition from Harwood to me by running-up a story that I'd been his apprentice. Not true.

So, I inherited the BBC's 'loudspeaker legacy' from H. D. Harwood and have concentrated my entire efforts on progressive detail improvements (such as the RADIAL cone material). I wholeheartedly believe in the BBC's approach to loudspeaker design for three key reasons:

1. Every step of their R&D was documented by the hands-on engineers. It was passed to heads of department for comment, signature and approval. A few Reports made their way into the public domain - most didn't. International engineering reputations - even careers - depended upon the integrity of the BBC's published measurements, the accuracy of observations and the conclusions drawn. Engineers around the world trusted the BBC Reports as completely true, reproducible, impartial and fair.

2. The BBC had limited funds. They had to extract real value from every pound of public money sunk into R&D. They had to be able to demonstrate to their masters in government that the consequence of their loudspeaker research was better and cheaper real physical products. Those speakers had to outperform anything they could have bought in the high street.

3. They were almost oblivious to the cut and thrust of the commercial world: boffins working at their own pace in the pursuit of excellence.

Will we ever see the likes of that purist approach to engineering again? Was it just self-indulgence? Or philanthropy? Whatever: it was good and it lives on here. Pragmatism rules in my book.

19-03-2006, 01:45 AM
Not sure where to post this. Does anyone know if Harbeth speakers will be making an appearance at the HE SHow in June in Los Angeles? Exhibitors at that show include manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, so several ways for the brand to make a showing.

I would sure love to hear the Monitor 40s sometime.

19-03-2006, 01:35 PM
Alan, I think all of the harbeth fans in China know how the brand name came to being, but few know how you got involved and attached to the name. Your story is fairly interesting to us.

22-02-2007, 04:40 PM
Hi Alan,

Have been reading your reply to John Parkyn (8th Feb 2006) on your meeting Dudley Harwood and how you eventually took over the Harbeth company.

It must have been in 1977 that I first came across original the HL Mk1 speakers in a hi fi dealers somewhere in London

27-02-2007, 02:30 PM
... Dudley Harwood slumped in has chair sitting by what must have been the very same electric bar fire! Strange what one remembers after all the years, but it was the one bar fire in your story that bought my memory ...It really was like that! You walked away with your speakers updated; I walked away from the first encounter and back to my nice, big, white NEC company car thinking 'I can not let this business collapse and all the accumulated 'BBC knowledge' disappear.' It was one of those moments where there is not the shadow of doubt that the monumentous life-change that you intend is prudent, do-able, and with luck, the best use of ones modest abilities.

I've hunted around for some photos, and this is the first time I've published them. They were taken in 1986 outside Harbeth's second premises, known affectionately as 'Rear of Newton's Yard'. Harwoods office (with companion fire) had a window to the right behind the brick archway, and the entrance door further round to the right. The chain fence on the left was that of a school playground. The production area was behind the up-and-over door where Harwood worked alone assembling his speakers, to order.

You had to see it to believe it: the whole operation had a dream like quality about it: one of the most influential and legendary audio engineers in the world supplying Japanese, Hong Kong and Korean customers from humble premises in a back street of south London!

In the other picture (I'd be 29) you can see my daughter Leanna (then three years old). I must have taken the day off NEC.

My then final words to Harwood on the day of completion of contract for me to buy Harbeth was 'Well Dudley, would you be interested in some consultancy work?'. He wheezed a for a moment or two as he mulled it over. 'No', he said 'I'll be quite content tending my roses'.

I was on my own - except in Japan, where I discovered many years later, the transition from one generation to another presented such an alarming marketing conundrum that it was explained (and was a complete fabrication) to the market that I had shadowed Harwood as his apprentice for several years. The fact was that there was a completely clean break, and that although I tidied-up and continued to manufacture Harbeth's HL Mk4, from the HL Compact (original version, 1988) onwards, you can only blame me!

27-04-2007, 09:25 AM
The very first announcement of the formation of the Harbeth company was a Press Release in Hi-Fi News magazine, April 1977 - exactly 30 years ago this month.

You can read about it here in another thread: http://www.harbeth.co.uk/usergroup/showthread.php?t=251