KEF. The Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Audiophile. Its 55-year mission: to explore strange new worlds of sound, to bring forth new creations and new possibilities, to boldly go where no ears have gone before.
I suppose I really ought to spend some time talking about KEF, the company’s storied history. How it’s designers have changed the way we currently view the high-end. How the brand is now considered “iconic”, and yet, is still relevant to today’s consumers.
Blah blah blah. Look — Ken Kessler has already done this. I’m not Ken Kessler, have no real plans to be Ken Kessler, and quite frankly, I’m okay with all that. But Ken Kessler literally wrote the book on KEF, so I’m not going to bother chasing Ken. You want? Ken’s got.
I think, instead, I’ll tell two stories.
The first is from this past year’s Capital Audiofest in Rockville, MD. That show featured all manner of incredibly great sound, and it didn’t matter if your taste was toward the extreme hi-fi end of “the high-end”, or you were bent toward the nostalgic, whether you were a fan of forgotten analog or on the bleeding edge of digital. CAF had it and it sounded great.
I mention it here because it bookends another mind-bending KEF experience that I enjoyed some 30 years ago, courtesy of my buddy’s dad’s KEF Reference 107 system. Back then, I had never heard of “high-end audio”. My exposure? From skipping school and making mixed tapes from that incredible LP collection. I didn’t know what a Nakamichi Dragon was, or why an amplifier from Conrad-Johnson was special. All I knew is that I could make great tapes. So I did. Hundreds of them, all with stunning sound, just pouring out of those 107’s. And that was my “sonic reference” for several decades.
Lately, I’ve heard and seen a lot of movement in the “affordable” end of the market. I can’t help but think that’s a great thing for budding ‘philes, especially those that are looking to graduate from the extreme individualism of personal audio into the world of “sound in real spaces”. For them, the LS50 ($1,500) was a breakout hit/runaway success/[insert relevant cliche indicating that KEF made oodles of noodles on this model]. That speaker, a 2-way stand mount featuring the iconic UniQ driver (tweeter and woofer are arranged concentrically) and clad in an array of bright, shiny colors, won awards, won fans, and generally won over an entire generation of audio lovers, leading to much swooning and overtones of lust and joy.
When Dipin Sehdev, KEF’s US-based captain of Internet Marketing & Brand Relations, suggested I explore some of their fine treasures, I was clearly not made of stuff strong enough to resist, especially when Dipin started dangling words like “Reference” and “concentric drivers” and “Blade” and “Muon” in front of me. Being weak and easily manipulated, I took delivery of whatever he was willing to send me — which turned out to be a pair of R300 speakers.
Now, there’s a reason I wanted to look at these first — but mainly, because they’re not the “little speakers”. Don’t get me wrong, that LS50 is sweet, and with their concentric driver array, tend to offer a masterclass in “disappearing act” sonics. That said, I never warmed to them the way that some of my colleagues have. They’re fine-sounding instruments, and given that they’ve been pretty much everywhere in the years since their introduction, finding a pair “suitably equipped” at an audio show has been rather routine. That said, bookshelf speakers genereally have to do a lot to get me to sit up and take notice. In the end, it’s just that I prefer a little more meat on my sonic bones than is usually possible with a small speaker, regardless of the majesty of the design.
Which is why the R300, as a 3-way design, is so very interesting.
There are many that will tell you that a 2-way design may well be the pinnacle of speaker design. Yeah, yeah, yeah — poppycock. Simple is not equivalent to better, regardless of the Facebook meme that is fronting it — “good design” always trumps all. Always. In speakers, it is always better to let the driver in question “do its thing” in its performance sweet-spot than to ask it to perform well past the margins of its design parameters; it’s in the graduation beyond the 2-way designs that we’ve entered the sweet-spot for full frequency loudspeaker performance.
The R300 retails for $1800, or about 17% more than the 2-way LS50. They trade a bit of that ultra-mod/über-elegance of the LS50 for a more “traditional” look and a significantly larger cabinet, all of which makes room for an additional 6.5″ woofer. And guess what? It matters. A lot. The sound coming out of these speakers is so full, rich and dynamic that the words “Kick” and “Ass” will be bandied about in ways that usually require capitalization. Oh, yesss. Bring it! Bring it! Bwahahaha ….
Bass, at least in my 14′-wide room, was delightfully percussive — and easily bested the other “bookshelf speakers” I had on hand including the magnificent $3,500/pair Carrera 7 BE from Fritzspeakers (review forthcoming) and class-killing $500/pair ELAC B6 (review) loudspeakers. And by “easily bested”, I mean “crushed like an egg.”
The R300 play larger than the Carrera 7 BE from Fritz, in that they seem to clearly go lower — and in a stand-mount, that level of reach is just wonderfully surprising. Fanfare for the Common Man, from composer Aaron Copland on the astonishing Reference Recordings label, has some deliciously round timpani action, and while I wasn’t able to extract the same measure of fullness that I can from a full-range speaker like the DeVore Fidelity Gibbon X, the gap between the KEF R300 and the ELAC B6 was insurmountable — I didn’t really hear a significant approach to parity from the ELAC line until I moved to the floor standing F5 loudspeakers.
That said, I will offer that the Carrera from Fritz uses some of the most evolved drivers you can currently buy — and the overall finesse of these drivers shows through with a greater sense of depth and texture to the sonic tapestry, especially evident with “soaring strings” like Smetana’s The Moldau, as from the London Symphony Orchestra performance of Má Vlast, or the Pacific Symphony Orchestra’s Church Windows, by Respighi from Reference Recordings.
On the other end of the frequency spectrum, the R300 proved to be less aggressive than the other speakers I have on hand and rather sweet, which gives a somewhat “dark” impression overall. However, I will offer that I didn’t notice much (as in, “not at all”) in the way of a “sweet spot restriction” in my listening — I found that I could move around quite a bit and still capture true stereo imaging. I had the feeling that this might be a truly excellent home-theater, multi-seat kind of speaker, but with only a pair on hand, I didn’t get a chance to go that direction (but Sound and Vision certainly did).
The fit and finish on the R300 is, in a word, excellent. My demo pair has the optional walnut veneer, and it’s quite striking — smooth to the touch but not annoyingly glossy or the “under glass” pour of acrylic that some lacquerers seem to bury their wood under. Here, the finish is almost matte, is elegant, and speaks to a level of refinement that I think most of us would aspire to. The aluminum trim around each driver is “brushed”, and lends heavily to the upscale “classy” look. Keep in mind that the big rear-firing port means “give me space” (don’t forget the stands). There are two sets of binding posts on the back, with a helpful toggle knob that allows you to switch from single to bi-wired (single-wired goes into the bottom posts).
I’ll conclude on a couple of points. One, the KEF R300 is an excellent stand-mount speaker and I have absolutely no hesitation recommending it. I think it’s a clear step up from the fan-favorite LS50, full of power and drama, and I’d encourage you to give it a listen before you jump on the chance that the sonic palette it offers aligns better to your own personal sense of grunting, sweating, heaving satisfaction. Two, this R-Series sits mid-to-high on the KEF lineup — for those with pricing sensitivities, don’t worry, KEF has you covered. More, if your wallet allows, the Reference Line is still up ahead — and there’s a lot of nifty niftiness in that line that I hope to explore in the future. The point — this is only one waypoint in the voyage that is currently KEF.
Last thing — don’t take my word for it. I have it on excellent authority that KEF can be found at many of the regional audio shows (at least here, State-side), so get thee hence and get your own goobers on them at the next opportunity. KEF is a classic brand for a reason, and given everything I’m hearing from their speakers, there’s a damn good reason for their longevity.
- Pass Laboratories INT-60 integrated amplifier
- BorderPatrol Control Unit preamplifier
- BorderPatrol P20 stereo amplifier
- Sonore microRendu computer transport, with Roon Labs
- LampizatOr Atlantic DAC
- All cabling from Tel-Wire
|Design||Three-way bass reflex|
|Drive units||Uni-Q driver array:
HF: 25mm (1in.) vented aluminium dome
MF: 125mm (5in.) aluminium
Bass units: LF: 165mm (6.5in.) aluminium
|Frequency range (-6dB)||42Hz – 45kHz|
|Frequency response (±3dB)||50Hz – 28kHz|
|Crossover frequency||500Hz, 2.8kHz|
|Amplifier requirements||25 – 120 W|
2nd & 3rd harmonics (90dB, 1m)
|Nominal impedance||8Ω (min. 3.2Ω)|
|Dimension (H x W x D)
(with grille and terminal)
|385 x 210 x 345 mm
(15.2 x 8.3 x 13.6 in.)