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Thread: The Harbeth integrated amplifier

  1. #1
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    Default The Harbeth integrated amplifier

    We raised the subject of a Harbeth stereo remote controlled amplifier and discussed it in depth here (link to follow). I and my distributors here the the Far East have discussed this together in depth. We've also looked at the positive and negative (or let's rather say, cautious) comments the subject generated. My reading of the situation is this:

    • Those of us 'in' the business on the supply side unanimously believe that for Harbeth to offer an amplifier would benefit the Harbeth brand image and solve the anxious customer's concerns about what amplifier to use - even though I have stated many times that Harbeth speakers are a universal load. There is only approval for the idea from this side of the desk.
    • Some consumers are luke-warm to the idea citing anecdotal reasons why the Harbeth brand should not extend beyond its core loudspeaker products. None of these stand careful scrutiny, especially in China, where brand leverage is normal and expected; example Mercedes cars and Mercedes watches.

    Entering the amplifier market will strengthen the Harbeth brand but only if executed carefully in a controlled step-by-step way. Of that I am in no doubt. As the amplifier assembly, test and packing will be subcontracted it will not be a management burden to Harbeth UK. So, I have decided to proceed and to test-market the amplifier in the far east where (self-evidently) our most enthusiastic and critical users live. That means Hong Kong/China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. It will not be available in any other markets initially. It will not be chasing reviews: I am unconcerned about such appraisal - it is designed to do a simple job well and at a reasonable price and for a long service life, and that is exactly what it will do.

    The amplifier has an extra set of inputs and outputs which are being fitted in anticipation of the next step - the Harbeth Magic Box.

    More on this project when I'm back in the UK.

    Alan /Our East somewhere
    Alan A. Shaw
    Designer, owner
    Harbeth Audio UK

  2. #2
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    Alan, you can't leave us dangling like that! Well you can, but it's very naughty!!

    "Harbeth Magic Box"? DSP for room correction? And if DSP then that means ADC and DAC, so it might as well have a direct digital input.

    Extra set of outputs? For driving a two way loudspeaker actively - ie power amps straight onto the drivers and crossover in the digital domain?

    Talk about cliff hangers . . .

    I would say YES to a Harbeth amp driving a two way Harbeth speaker with no passive crossovers, or old crossovers out of circuit.

  3. #3
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    Wow. Big news indeed.

    Despite being subcontracted, there are two ways in which this product could nonetheless be a "genuine" Harbeth.

    First, provide genuine quality: design and build to a high standard, charge a fair price. I think this is a given.

    Second, offer a useful and distinctive capability that no one else offers, or that is only available in competing products at higher prices, or by assembling a number of pieces of gear. Sounds like the "magic box" might be just that.

    In which case, while I understand initially launching the product in the Far East, I hope those of us in the rest of the world get a crack at it too!

  4. #4
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    A "magic box"? Well, if it's a power supply, maybe. Perhaps a phono preamp. Or a headphone amp. Beyond that, when someone uses the word "magic", I am skeptical. Even when it's someone whose product I use and am impressed by every day.

    Having said that, I would really like to see what Harbeth can come up with in this field. And as an economic step, it might be wise to branch out into electronics. For most Harbeth owners, I would guess that the purchase of speakers is a very long-term investment. I know that I won't be buying new speakers for quite a while; at least a decade. So to keep the revenue stream flowing, why not electronics?

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by EricW View Post
    ...Second, offer a useful and distinctive capability that no one else offers, or that is only available in competing products at higher prices...
    I often heard Alan said that no improvement were made on amplifier in the last decades. Also that the amplifier is an audio gear of less importance in a system. Only needing one that can work in is own specification.

    Harbeth rely a lot on his BBC heritage, which I understand and already experimented. While entering the "amplifier scene", there is so much companies offering pretty good amplifiers even at realistic prices. In a way, I also feel that amplifier's market is saturated.

    What will the Harbeth amplifier will bring that the other companies haven't ? For me, this is an important question. If Harbeth assume and answers this, than I think it will have his part of the market.

    Maybe I miss a thing and people in the Far East are ready to buy an Harbeth product "eyes wide shut".

    By the way, what's Harbeth background and experiences in amplifier design?

    Sebastien

  6. #6
    Hu Guest

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    Oh, this great news is too late for me.

  7. #7
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    Who will be the designer of the Harbeth amplifier? And I thought there isn't any "magic" in amplifier design which was said to have seen no improvement throughout the decades? Is the Magic Box a power supply?

    This new Harbeth amplifier will appeal to new Harbeth users for sure. Just make sure it will perform up to expectations. Then again sonic differences between amplifiers are said to be negligible to the point of non-existent so it doesn't matter anyway as folks who settle for the amp will not be able to hear any appreciable difference between different grade of amplifiers.

    An add-on, I guess the amplifier will come with tone controls since this feature was said to be desirable previously if Harbeth were to build their own amplifier one day.

  8. #8
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    No one can dispute that Harbeth as a loudspeaker is the best in vocals and midrange. Honestly, when I bought the SHL5 I have to practically shut my ears to the constant suggestions, persuasions that Harbeth sounds the best with Quad. ( Don't ask me why it should be a Quad). I always argued that any well designed amp should able to bring the best of of Harbeth.

    After, 6 moths or so Amp is no longer an issue. Now, Harbeth is venturing or diversifying its business to a very controversial area. If I am correct, Dynaudio used to make amps to drive their 4 ohm loudspeakers. Now, they stopped. Did they know something we don't?

    Naim too makes loudspeakers but there are many user in this forum would swear that Naim amps are best paired with Harbeths( I am not one of them). My only concern would be my credibility when I have to face my earlier critics who said Harbeth needs X or Y brand amp to sound correct now going to tell straight to my face " see I told you so, amps make a difference, why would HArbeth make Amp now?..etc..etc .

    Expect another round of shoot out to find which speakers sounds the best with Harbeth Amp.

    ST

  9. #9
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    Default Thoughts and comments on the amplifier project ....

    I've read the last few comments, and I'd like to add the following:

    1. I thought that I made it abundantly clear that we are not the designer of the amplifier. This has been subcontracted. Hence any skills we have or do not have in amplifier design are irrelevant. We know what we want and we set about finding a supplier who can deliver it to a quality and price. We do not have (adequate) skills in cabinetmaking - that we also subcontract to those who do have
    2. I was surprised when I explained what our digital signal processing experiments had yielded a month or two back that nobody took the bait, so now that I mention the code word 'Magic Box' it seems that you're not prepared for the concept! I did elaborate on our findings in one of the two talks I gave in Singapore.
    3. I have no intention of abandoning or bypassing passive crossovers. The amplifier project is a conventional two channel unit that will drive all current, previous or future Harbeth passive speakers. I am not interested in bi-amping as a concept nor do I recommend it at this time.
    4. I am not interested in headlong competition with the dozens of long established amplifier brands. I assume that a specialist amplifier brand will have accumulated technical expertise that a subcontractor won't have. It follows therefore that a specialist brand could (or should) have the technical edge - whether or not that translates into any audible difference I doubt somewhat, but I could well be wrong.
    5. I am not in the slightest concerned what a reviewer may think of the amplifier - good, bad or indifferent. It will do a job and it is endorsed by me. That really is all our users need to know. In a consumer democracy the consumer is entirely free to spend out on whatever amp he wants - our will be promoted as a 'one-stop' solution to those who want such. We will not make any overblown claims about sound quality. My long-held opinion as you know is that under controlled conditions amplifier differences diminish to almost nothing.
    6. To properly evaluate any amplifier a blind ABX instantaneous switch-over is required plus equipment to measure the loudness at the listener's ears to be sure like is compared with like. We have no interest, desire or need to present the amplifier for the approval of the reviewing community, doubly so if it is not tested under controlled conditions. That does not mean we will withhold it from genuine interested parties when the time is right.

    Hope that clarifies the position.

    Alan /Out East still
    Alan A. Shaw
    Designer, owner
    Harbeth Audio UK

  10. #10
    yeecn Guest

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    [I have personally edited this post to draw-out what I think is intended. Upon first reading, it looked like a post hostile to the Harbeth amplifier project - I don't think it is. If I'm wrong please let me know and i'll re-edit it. My comments in BLUE]

    Below is what I think a Harbeth amplifier will add to the consumer. [Meaning: Below are situations which typical high-end audio consumers face:]

    - Purchasing high-end audio equipments is tough choice. Consumers are always wondering whether a certain is high-end enough.
    - Some will wonder whether Harbeth is 'high end' because it doesn't look fancy, and it is a lot cheaper than some of the high end speakers.
    - Even after choosing Harbeth, the proud owner will invariable worries whether whether this or that brand of amplifier/source will bring out the best sound of Harbeth.
    - Many will ended up spending a lot in upgrades of amplifiers/sources/cables and whatnot.
    - Many who can't afford will feel unsatisfied for being able to afford the best sound - and not able to enjoy Harbeth fully because of the neurosis.
    - A few will get into debt and get into financial ruins because of it.

    [Now the post affirms that a Harbeth-endorsed amplifier would solve many of the above concerns]


    I am talking as somebody who has gone through a few months of unnecessary mental torture because of this. I am all in favour of a reasonably priced Harbeth amplifier, one that is 'certified' to be able to bring out the best in Harbeth. I think this will be especially valuable in Far East, where money is tight and people usually have to save up for years for their sound equipment.

    I pick up the DSP thread. I had wanted to ask you some questions about it, and relate to you some experience I had with it ... in due time. And the black box....
    Last edited by A.S.; 16-05-2010 at 03:34 PM. Reason: Clarification - hopefully

  11. #11
    yeecn Guest

    Default Mental torture of endless uprades

    I have to add - thewhole audiophile industry is about getting one hooked into endless loop of upgrades. It was a lot of hard work - let me say it again - months of HARD WORK and mental torture - for me to extricate myself. So much blatant lies, so much falsehoods, so much deception. Really despicable and absolutely disgusting.

  12. #12
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    Quote Originally Posted by A.S. View Post
    I was surprised when I explained what our digital signal processing experiments had yielded a month or two back that nobody took the bait, so now that I mention the code word 'Magic Box' it seems that you're not prepared for the concept! I did elaborate on our findings in one of the two talks I gave in Singapore.
    Could you please point to what you have already said on DSP, Alan, and add what you can? As a relatively new member of this forum I had picked up a comment or two by you on DSP for room correction, so that was my first line to draw you in this thread.

    For my part I cannot understand the concerns and even negative comments of some in this thread to a Harbeth badged amp. If someone trusted (let's call him AS) can recommend a good product at a reasonable price that will do the job needed that can only be a benefit.

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    Default Real world values

    Quote Originally Posted by Labarum View Post
    If someone trusted (let's call him AS) can recommend a good product at a reasonable price that will do the job needed that can only be a benefit.
    That's my thinking too. I stress again, we are not kidding anyone that miraculously, overnight, we have discovered the holy grail of amplifier design. That would be a ludicrous suggestion. It will be a 'solid product' for real people, on real budgets who want something functional that will last, very much in the tradition of, say, solid British amplifier brands of the 80s and 90s.

    I have no doubt that there will be voices not on the same real-world wavelength as us here who will take the opportunity to denigrate our fledgling amplifier. Frankly, I couldn't care less. We offer what we believe is right for our customers in the long term. We have a track-record in real-world solid value for money products that last. Any related products that fit into that philosophy should enhance our customer's musical experience and can only do the Harbeth community a service.
    Alan A. Shaw
    Designer, owner
    Harbeth Audio UK

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    Quote Originally Posted by yeecn View Post
    I have to add - thewhole audiophile industry is about getting one hooked into endless loop of upgrades...
    Yes, it is true and I'm a bit into it. Actually, I'd like to built a system that will satisfy me for a long time. Also, I figure that a lot of HUG members have a bunch of friends who enjoy music and audio gear. This bunch of friends influences you. Plus the audiophile industry. Sometime, you hear at a dealer or in a audio even some $xxx.xxx system and you're telling you (and your friends) "Sound's better at home."

    After the comment above by Alan and others, it makes me understand that an "Harbeth amplifier" can be usefull and secure for some people.

    To Alan: have you already found your amplifier's subcontractor? If you're looking there, there is so many companies in the Far East: Marantz, Denon, Sony, Cayin, Yamaha, Primaluna, Leben, Luxman, Accuphase, Antique Sound Lab, and so much more... Which one to choose?

    Sebastien

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    Default European subcontractors

    The Harbeth amplifier - or to be specific, the Harbeth solid state amplifier - should at least initially be made in Europe. I can't speak for our policy in the future, but to kick-start this project we need a supplier on our doorstep, not in far away China.

    Buying from China is extremely complex. Personal relationships are more important than the written contract. It takes time to establish a relationship with a supplier, even longer to hammer out the technical specifications and then time is needed to debug the design and even the production parts. I have much experience in China and I can assure you, that this is not the moment to introduce such a complex product to China subcontractors. There is no doubt that they could make it; the question is whether they should make it.

    Above all, dealing with Chinese suppliers of even very simple parts need time.
    Alan A. Shaw
    Designer, owner
    Harbeth Audio UK

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    Quote Originally Posted by A.S. View Post
    The Harbeth amplifier - or to be specific, the Harbeth solid state amplifier - should at least initially be made in Europe...
    Yes, I imagine that it would be a solid state one but not necessarily from Europe. The clarifications you gave made me understand some limitations of globalization. At first, I thought that it is cheaper to make them in the Far East.

    About Europe's amplifier designer, no doubt there's a lot of good choices. UK only suffices itself.

    Sebastien

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    Sounds a very interesting project.
    Given the superb track record of Harbeth in producing musical speakers, I hope that you will have a strong hands-on influence on the amp. If it is to be good and affordable I guess that there may be some difficult choices on layout and components. Because "more expensive" does not (necessarily) mean better sound quality I hope Harbeth will be directly involved in the choice of layout and components to get the best price / performance design with any decisions being based firmly on listening to how music is produced by the prototype amp (I assume that the circuit designer will also be involved in this process).

    I disagree with the opinion aired elsewhere on this thread that all amps sound basically the same. While variability between speaker designs is much greater than that between amps, in my experience the latter can significantly affect the enjoyment of music. Thus I got more pleasure from a Sumo 9 plus class A amp than I did from a Lentek class B amp (very similar power and price) and I don't think that this was purely a matter of class A vs class B.

    This discussion above about mental torture of endless upgrades prompts some thoughts:
    Hi Fi as a music-appreciation hobby in the UK seems to be more of an individual pursuit rather than a community activity: I'm not aware of many (any) Hi Fi music clubs in the UK or even frequent informal 'get togethers'. Thus in the UK we have to rely on trusted contacts for advice. My approach is to get to know dealers and understand reviewers in quality HiFi magazines so that I can identify those I can trust to give an objective opinion. In some cases I can get 4 different opinions from 3 dealers! Then I try to compile a short list of items that may give a worthwhile improvement in my system. The next step is to audition components at home where there is no pressure to buy. Perhaps we are fortunate in the relatively high-density of dealers in the UK compared with elsewhere - even if one dealer has not got access to all the items we wish to audition it is usually possible to reach one that does within an hour or 2. Elsewhere in the world where this is not possible I can see the danger of having to rely on second-hand views of an item.
    Thus I doubt if the question of peer-pressure from friends and acquaintances arises in the UK; we each have decide when enough is enough by asking ourselves "Is there any point in trying to make further improvements?"

    David

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    I recently ran across this quote from Kevin Halverson in an interview on the "6moons" website. Halverson is the designer of the HRT series of USB DACs, which have received excellent reviews. I thought it was interesting because it seems to parallel Harbeth's philosophy as it would expect to be applied to amplifier design:

    "I never really liked the laundry list parts mentions that seem so prevalent. If we can focus on the things that actually matter, all the better by me. My mantra has always been that the three most important things in any audio design are topology, topology, topology. I am so not about pedigree parts. I have often claimed that even if one were limited to crappy components, if one developed the right topology, one could still have a great performing product."

    Okay, the reference to "crappy parts" may be a bit of hyperbole. But if you read enough audio reviews and sales bumpf, you know exactly what he's talking about: Mundorf this, Vishay that, Cardas the other. I don't doubt they're good components. But does a "high end" capacitor (for example) really sound any different from a "normal" capacitor, or is this just clever marketing? It certainly does add to the cost, though, and perhaps reassures some customers that they're getting a truly "high end" product. But is it well designed - who knows?

  19. #19
    honmanm Guest

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    Quote Originally Posted by yeecn View Post
    I have to add - thewhole audiophile industry is about getting one hooked into endless loop of upgrades.
    A dealer (not a Harbeth dealer or UK based, I might add) once explained the "black hole" strategy of keeping the customer's system unbalanced so that there was always some component that could be pointed out as in need of upgrading... he was then careful to sell the customer an upgrade that would be better quality than the rest of the system, perpetuating the cycle... even encouraging the customer to take on debt to cover the purchase... despicable indeed, even if the customers were wealthy people buying the gear to impress their peers rather than to listen to music.

    Oddly enough (considering davidlovel's post here) I got to know this guy through buying a secondhand Sumo 9 from him. What an open, transparent, and well-mannered amp... total cure for the "amplification itch" until it was taken out by a power surge.

    And following on from EricW's post, its performance is based on clever topology (though the Nine used some special-spec transistors, the Nine Plus uses more generic components). Having messed around with capacitors, yes they can make a difference (*note) but no amount of component selection is going to fix a poor design. It's like the endless speaker coupling debates... different approaches may make *your* speakers sound better in *your* room but if you start off with a flawed speaker the best you can hope for is to tame some of its excesses - and these tweaks are not necessarily transferrable to a different setting.

    I'll certainly look forward to info on the Harbeth DSP offering, sadly it will likely be a long time before they're available secondhand!

    *Note: IIRC the famous Marantz CD65 was basically a Philips player with superior capacitors in its output stage.

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    Quote Originally Posted by davidlovel View Post
    Sounds a very interesting project.
    Given the superb track record of Harbeth in producing musical speakers, I hope that you will have a strong hands-on influence on the amp. If it is to be good and affordable I guess that there may be some difficult choices on layout and components. Because "more expensive" does not (necessarily) mean better sound quality I hope Harbeth will be directly involved in the choice of layout and components to get the best price / performance design with any decisions being based firmly on listening to how music is produced by the prototype amp (I assume that the circuit designer will also be involved in this process).

    I disagree with the opinion aired elsewhere on this thread that all amps sound basically the same. While variability between speaker designs is much greater than that between amps, in my experience the latter can significantly affect the enjoyment of music. Thus I got more pleasure from a Sumo 9 plus class A amp than I did from a Lentek class B amp (very similar power and price) and I don't think that this was purely a matter of class A vs class B.

    This discussion above about mental torture of endless upgrades prompts some thoughts:
    Hi Fi as a music-appreciation hobby in the UK seems to be more of an individual pursuit rather than a community activity: I'm not aware of many (any) Hi Fi music clubs in the UK or even frequent informal 'get togethers'. Thus in the UK we have to rely on trusted contacts for advice. My approach is to get to know dealers and understand reviewers in quality HiFi magazines so that I can identify those I can trust to give an objective opinion. In some cases I can get 4 different opinions from 3 dealers! Then I try to compile a short list of items that may give a worthwhile improvement in my system. The next step is to audition components at home where there is no pressure to buy. Perhaps we are fortunate in the relatively high-density of dealers in the UK compared with elsewhere - even if one dealer has not got access to all the items we wish to audition it is usually possible to reach one that does within an hour or 2. Elsewhere in the world where this is not possible I can see the danger of having to rely on second-hand views of an item.
    Thus I doubt if the question of peer-pressure from friends and acquaintances arises in the UK; we each have decide when enough is enough by asking ourselves "Is there any point in trying to make further improvements?"
    David
    Astute observation David. I believe only a handful of folks here in HUG who thought that all amps sound the same, and since the designer himself shares the same belief most who thought otherwise would be less inclined to contribute their thoughts out of courtesy, since this is a Harbeth forum.

    About mental torture and upgrade brought up by a forummer here, if you read through his previous postings you would realise that he has an extreme hate towards the whole audio industry and label everything as snake-oils and rubbish. I do not blame him as I feel he is disillusionised by some of the irresponsible dealers, reviewers and some random article posted on the website. What that never ceases to amaze me is his repeated condemnation of the audio industry which implies the gears that most of us are using in our systems right now are rubbish as in his mind they all sound the same as his Denon AVR amp. I reckon this applies to CD players as well. This opinion is formed without having actual experience of listening to a variety of gears since he has shut down his options once and for all.

    And for endless upgrades, if one cannot afford to upgrade his/her equipment for musical enjoyment just stop where it is. There are many others who do this without complaining.

    Part of the problem I feel that contributes to this phenomenon is when one does not get any appreciable improvements when making the jump from budget to the mid-end. One can get musical enjoyment at the budget level, and when one wants more he jumps to the mid-end level seeking for higher level of enjoyment. At most times we get minor improvements(or none) jumping from budget to mid-fi level and that is when our expectations are not met and we feel shortchanged. When we cross over to a certain level into the higher-end bracket then only we will start to notice the differences. The question is to what extent and cost as everybody has their own budget to work with and not everyone can afford to cross over to that level. If one is able to cross over then the hifi objectives can be met. Otherwise it would be futile as more doubts and dogmas are formed.

    I know most people will disagree with my thoughts since this is a Harbeth forum, and I have no problems with that.

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