Amplifier/Harbeth matching at Noel Nolan’s (Skylan Stands)
Disclaimer – My comments need to balanced with the fact that we (Grant Fidelity, GF) represent ShengYa and Jungson in North America, we have our own GF Speakers and Amps made by Jungson. That said, I have turned my hobby into a business and feel I have no problems reverting to a hobbyist and giving my opinions based on what I am hearing .
Purpose – Put on FrugalPhile hats and select a budget priced amp for Noel’s HL5′s, from Noel’s amps and some of the GF offerings.
Room – Large living room, probably 20×20 opening into Kitchen, no room treatment.
Harbeth HL5 ($5000+) www.harbeth.co.uk/hifispeakers/superhl5/index.php (on Noel’s HL5 Stands)
Grant Fidelity LS3/5A ($980) www.grantfidelity.com/site/LS3-5A_Speakers (just sitting on top of the Harbeth’s)
Jungson JA-88E ($800) www.grantfidelity.com/site/Jungson_JA-88E_Integrated_Amplifier
ShengYa A-S90 ($950) www.grantfidelity.com/site/Shengya+A-S90_Receiver
ShengYa A-216 ($1850) www.grantfidelity.com/site/Shengya_A216
ShengYa A-206 ($2850) www.grantfidelity.com/site/Shengya+A-206
Nuforce Reference 8 ($1600) www.nuforce.com
Cambridge 640A ($650) www.cambridge-audio.us/summary.php?PID=105&Title=Azur+640A+(Version+2)+amplifier
Grant Fidelity A-34 ($920) www.grantfidelity.com/site/A-34+EL-34+Tube+Amplifier
Pioneer Elite DV 47AI CDP as a Transport
Yulong DAH1 DAC
Various Skylan isolation devices and Harbeth HL5 matched stands. The GF LS3/5A was just placed on top of the HL5′s, goal was to hear how close sonic signature in mid-range was (very similar). No room treatment.
Music – Brian Ferry and an Irish Folk singer (Noel?)
We’ve heard the HL5′s at Noel’s often, for me I never quite got the magic that Harbeth are renowned for at Noel’s and do really like the ‘British’ sound. My all time favourite vintage speakers being the Radford Monitor 180′s and growing up with my Dad’s Quad system. Being quite familiar with recording studios (owning, operating, designing and building) I’ve often heard of Harbeth and Rogers LS3/5A’s, but never really had a good listen to them as North America has it’s own sound and I usually ended up with JBL Studio Monitors, until I got the Radfords and that was the end of my 25+ years of using JBL’s. It takes about a minute of hearing the original Roger’s LS3/5A’s to go; nuts, wish I had been using those as near-field monitors. I have the same, ‘nuts’ statement about being taught that we can’t use tube amps in the studio too.
When Noel phoned me and said he needed to try some more amps, I jumped at the chance to organize some listening sessions to find out what the Harbeth sound is all about, compare our speakers to them and see what kind of synergy our amps have with Harbeth. Noel of course is quite the expert on the ‘Harbeth’ sound having developed speaker stands for them for quite a while.
Noel is a character (Irish!) and only does the audiophile thing while working, the rest of the time he listens to the music, and needs a warm yet accurate representation of the vocals and instrumentation as a music lover (his words). Noel does not have any permanent seating in the driver’s seat of his system. And a big side note, Noel is a solid state guy, doesn’t care for the fuss of playing with tubes, just wants to turn on an amp that works with his speakers and be done with it.
Hopefully Noel will jump in and add his own comments and tell us what other amps he has tried.
Cambridge 640 on the Harbeth HL5′s
Noel’s comments – vocals sounded like they were muffled.
My comments – grainy and compressed, no magic at all with the Harbeth’s.
Grant Fidelity A-34 on the Harbeth HL5′s
Noel’s comments – Better than the Cambridge, better again with Mullard tubes rolled in, but did you miss the point, don’t want tubes.
My comments – Not bad at all, but the Harbeth’s deserve cleaner amplification that an entry level EL-34, no matter what tubes are rolled in.
NuForce Reference 8 Class ‘D’ Digital Mono-Blocks on the Harbeth HL5′s
Noel’s comments – best match he’s heard so far, vocals just right.
Ian’s comments – not bad for a Class D amp, but doesn’t sound right to my ears.
Jungson JA-88E Integrated SS on the Harbeth HL5′s
Noel had been burning this in for a while for me, so some consideration has to be given to his ears getting used to the sound of it.
Noel’s comments – I want to buy this, it is as close to the NuForce as I remember. (One of NuForce’s packed it in, which led to Noel’s search)
My comment’s – Just walking in the door with the system on I could hear the magic, the Harbeth’s had never sounded so good at Noel’s place. Once in the driver’s seat I could here why, the mid-range was excellent, deep accurate sound-staging, excellent imaging, deep and solid accurate bass, detailed, clear and relaxed top end. This match is going to be very hard to beat without spending much more for amplification. The JA-88E/Harbeth HL5 almost sounds like a great tube amp system, non fatiguing with lots of power driving the Harbeth’s to any volume imaginable.
ShengYa A-S90 Receiver SS on the Harbeth HL5′s
Noel’s Comment’s – Very nice, deep bass, sweet top end, but magic on Vocals not happening as with JA-88E.
My Comments – agreed with Noel, more of an audiophile presentation without the magic of the JA-88E Harbeth combo.
ShengYa A-216 Hybrid on the Harbeth’s
Noel’s Comments – Nice step up from the A-S90, warmer sound, more detail, but still not quite the same vocal magic as the JA-88E
My Comments – Excellent match, everything well balanced and defined, impressive layering in the sound-stage and more powerful and controlled sound, vocals sound fine to me.
ShengYa A-206 Class A SS on the Harbeth HL5′s
Noel’s Comments, exceeds the vocal magic of the JA-88E, sounds amazing, but almost 3 times the price of the JA-88E. I’ll still buy the JA-88E.
My Comments – agreed with Noel, this takes the Harbeth’s to a whole new level of performance from the combo’s I’ve heard. Stunning what the Harbeth’s sound like with high quality Class A power. Compared to the JA-88E I’d go with this combo if budget isn’t a concern.
Fixed the NuForce (you know that let’s open her up, poke around, put her back together and bingo, she works again type fix) and put them back in, not as good a match as the JA-88E at all to both our ears, but Noel said he would do some more A/B between them.
ShengYa A-206 Class A SS on the GF LS3/5A’s
Noel’s comments – Sound amazing, same vocal magic, warmth and detail. Not bad bass for the size.
Ian’s comments – same sonic signature as the HL5′s, completely vanished from sound-stage, bass would be better with speakers down at ear level. Crossover is not audible.
Swapped in the other ShengYA and JA-88E amps again with the GF LS3/5A’s and basically the same comments were noted as with the HL5′s. Of course these speakers are completely different designs, but they both have ties to the ‘BBC’ sound and in that they shared more similarities than differences.
Conclusions, suggestions and recommendations based on the amplification above.
It was a lot of fun and quite the ear opener to finally hear Noel’s Harbeth’s sound like the reputation they have as a wonderful warm, detailed and still accurate speaker. Noel told me that Harbeth promote their speakers as working with any amp and still sounding great. In some ways I can see that as being true, but that concept can be a detriment to what these speakers are capable of. I hope to borrow Noel’s HL5′s to do some testing with our bigger amplifiers (RITA-880, Jungson JA-99D, etc) which are more of a price match to the HL-5′s. I’ll then put them thru their paces with my demo music in my room. Then go back to the more ‘affordable’ amps to get a feel for their performance with a wide range of music, that is hard for many even more expensive systems to reproduce properly.
The Yulong DAH1 DAC was very impressive, whatever modded DAC Noel was using prior (Noel?) just didn’t compare well at all. The source was much more than adequate for doing these tests and should be considered comparable to a $1k SS CD player.
For the Music Lover on a budget, the JA-88E is the winner out of the amps mentioned above when mated with the HL5 or GF LS3/5A. The match is excellent and while the price of the JA-88E may be deceivingly low, it could very well be an upgrade over many much more expensive amplifiers if again you lean more towards being a music lover over a being an audiophile. I know the JA-88E well and it has found itself being played often and has replaced our A-34 tube amp as my favourite ‘bang for the buck amp’. (note we discontinued the A-34, so I kind of have to say that . It handles complex music with ease and btw, it was a joint venture design between Jungson and British audio company in it’s original form. Not allowed to say who as Jungson also OEM’s for many popular brands.
For the Audiophile on a budget, the ShengYa A-216 is an excellent match, tubes in the preamp, balance out the YBA’ish ‘high bandwidth’ sonic characteristics of the ShengYa SS sound. This is a good blend of music lover and audiophile performance with the Harbeth’s, plenty of detail and layering without exposing the faults of the recordings too much and Noel’s choice of listening music would be hard pressed to be ever considered a audiophile recordings. Side note, that is what a great audio system is all about to me, what does it sound like on the rest of my music collection. Many of us have 20 or so amazing sounding albums (that we may not even like) that likely sound pretty amazing on just about any system. I want systems that help make my so-so recordings enjoyable. Some would call that colouring, I call that so what
For the Audiophile with some coin to spend, I would consider the ShengYa A-206 worthy of an audition, but now we are into the above $2.5k category for amplification and once you above that price range, $5 to $10k on amplification is not out of reason and there are lots of options for excellent amplification in the above $2.5 price range (yes, lots of options in the less than too . While Class A SS is desired by many and to me is a great match with the Harbeth’s I’d be thinking of going with tube amplification for the HL5′s. If I do get Noel’s HL5′s at my place for some testing I’d love to see how they mate with our Rita’s. I can guess now how great that will sound, but would like to also see what they sound like with 100w/ch of Class A (over the A-206′s 20 in Class A, 200 A/B) and some SET tube amps.