No more beautiful violin sound has ever been recorded than the Sitkovetsky Goldberg Variations or Beethoven’s Pastoral in Bernstein’s Vienna recording—the one clean, transparent, slightly astringent; the other brilliant yet sweet and meltingly lyrical. I’ve heard some highly praised speakers make damned travesties of these recordings. Not the Harbeths, which reproduce them with the beauty of truthful timbre.
Familiar instrumentalists like Sonny Rollins on Way Out West [Contemporary] are rendered lifelike, lively, and nearly life‑size, with every whispered, grunted vocalism of the players instantly audible. Familiar singers—Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé, Rosemary Clooney, Harry Belafonte—emerge in all their storied individuality, their distinctiveness experienced anew. And the 7ES‑3 lets you hear how artificial a big‑time pop production like Tony Bennett’s Duets is; but it also lets you enjoy what a really good piece of artifice it is. And, wow, do the singers ever come across with heart, vitality, and conviction: “Lullaby of Broadway,” with the Dixie Chicks, is alone worth the price of admission, and Natalie Maines’ honeyed voice, projected to perfection, should allay any worries the 7ES‑3 can’t boogey with the best— that first staccato note of the trumpet erupting like a whip crack. On the SACD transfer of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon [Capitol] the reverb in the second cut is plainly synthetic, yet how vast its spaciousness; once the voices enter, they seem actually surrounded by the created atmosphere, not artificially mixed into it. I cannot overstate how fantastically these speakers reproduce ambience, whether real or synthesized, large spaces or small.
If it’s transparency, coherence, and reach‑out‑and‑touch‑it immediacy that you’re after, I won’t pretend the 7ES‑3 is the equal of my three generations of Quad electrostatics, but it comes breathtakingly close, which puts it streets ahead of most of the competition. Cue up Martha Argerich’s death‑defying journey through Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit [DG], and you may find yourself wondering what all that low‑level clicking and ticking is: It’s Argerich’s fingernails, which she refused to trim, coming into contact with the keys. There is such detail here that when she lifts her hands off the keys you can hear the release of the mechanism connecting the hammers to the keyboard. Pianistically, musically, she performs miracles of nuance, shading, and touch, all of which demonstrate the 7ES‑3s’ easy mastery of microdynamics—also macrodynamics when she unleashes her explosive, fiery fortissimos.
Problems? None to speak of, but there are two issues of limitations and one of tonal balance that require some talk. The 7ES‑3 is by design a compact monitor, so its bass response and its ultimate loudness are perforce limited (a very different thing from flawed). It plays plenty loud and clean in my 22' x 15' x 8' room, but like the Quads it resembles it’s not for headbanging. Shaw specs the ‑3dB point at 46Hz, which sounds about right and enables it to handle symphonic music superlatively. But on large‑scale works buttressed with organ, such as Zarathustra, Mahler’s Eighth, the Organ symphony, etc., you may find yourself wanting more sheer bottom‑end power and foundation than this eight‑inch driver, fabulous in almost every other way, can deliver. But as the bass is otherwise so very smooth and well behaved, it responds nicely to judicious application of tone controls or other equalization. And you could always add a subwoofer (a REL or HSU should make a dandy match).
The tonal balance issue is best approached by way of previous Compact 7s. I was unprepared for how different they sound. Among major changes, the 7ES‑3 has an updated tweeter, a new surround for the woofer, and a substantially redesigned crossover at a slightly lower frequency. The previous versions are a little recessed above the crossover, the effect being to push back the presence range and emphasize the midrange and lower midrange; the old tweeter is also brighter. This translates into a rather warm, even darkish sound, with a slightly edgy top, once response comes back up from the recessed presence range. This makes, for example, Sinatra’s voice sound darker and heavier. The 7ES‑3 gets it right—preserving the baritone but restoring what upper‑range lightness it has—because the presence region is now truly flat. Likewise so is the tweeter all the way out (okay, to be very picky, it’s got a little spice around 10kHz, but I do mean barely a pinch). The evolved Compact 7 can no longer be called either warm or bright. Not that it’s in any way lean, thin, or cool—I am slack‑jawed that Shaw has achieved such high resolution and tonal neutrality without the 7s sounding in the least clinical, analytical, or edgy; merely that it suggests no bogus warmth (but see sidebar).