On Saturday, August 16th, Audio Vision San Francisco celebrated the grand opening of its new location with the North American debut of KEF‘s Reference 5 speakers. If the attendees and the proprietors seemed a bit giddy, it wasn’t just the wine; this party constituted a true community celebration, as well as an opportunity to hear some great new gear.
Late last year, store owners Randy Johnson and Antonio Long received some unpleasant news from their former landlord: they would not be able to renew the lease on their Pine Street location. Faced with renovating a shell a block and a half away and relocating the entirety of their gear, the folks at AVSF turned to the community of audiophiles who had supported them for fifteen years, asking for assistance via an Indiegogo campaign. The audio family responded by collectively contributing more than $24,000 to ensure that brick and mortar hi-fi stayed in San Francisco. It’s no wonder, then, that the atmosphere was electric.
The new space will be a joy to any visitor, with a headphone display up front (somewhat displaced by wine, cheese, and a cooler of beer on Saturday night), three listening rooms, and what appears to be ample storage space. Even the bathroom floor makes it clear that it’s all about the AV.
The KEF Reference 5’s took pride of place in the largest listening room, which quickly filled to fire-code-threatening capacity with enthusiasts eager for a listen. Phil Jackson, KEF’s regional sales manager, was on hand to demo the flagship speakers of KEF’s new Reference line. The Reference 5’s have a projected retail price of $18,000 and feature aluminum drivers, a 40Hz-35 kHz frequency response, and a sensitivity of 90dB. In this case, they were paired with Devialet 800 amplification, but Phil assured the audience that the Reference line is designed specifically to be friendly to a wide range of equipment (although they do like a bit of power) and exceedingly room-friendly as well. The line, which is expected to start shipping in mid- to late-September, also includes the smaller Reference 3 floor standers (which were not present on Saturday night, but will have a MSRP of $13,000) and the Reference 1 bookshelf speakers ($7,500, or $8,500 with stands). Any of these can be supplemented with a center channel ($7,500) and subwoofer ($6,000).
A room packed to the gills with people isn’t the most audition-friendly environment, but I was impressed with what I heard from the Reference 5’s. They seemed to be a bit less room-sensitive than the Blades — or at least a bit easier to fit in a room — and although the piano black finish has plenty of high-gloss bling, they are visually more understated as well. An attendee produced a copy of Gillian Welch’s Soul Journey, much to my delight, and after a little cajoling from the peanut gallery, Phil agreed to play “Look at Miss Ohio.” Really, I couldn’t have asked for an audition more solidly in my wheelhouse. The tone and texture of Welch’s voice was beautiful, and I appreciated the impactfulness of the drums, as well as the sharp twang on the guitar. The system handled this and the other tracks I listened to with a kind of easy assurance that is always a pleasure to experience.
After a too-brief listen, I decided it was time to give up my seat to another eager listener, and eased my way into the crowd to chat with new and old friends and possibly avail myself of some liquid refreshment. By this time, the crowd had spilled out into the cool night, the store and surrounding area filled with so much talk and laughter that the doors on the listening rooms became a true necessity. What a lovely problem to have.