The penultimate stop on Bob Reina's British Invasion Tour of Affordable Loudspeakers (footnote 1) brings us to the doors of KEF. Although KEF is a large and well-established British firm, I've noticed that their product lines have not been as visible in the US as those of, say, B&W, Wharfedale, or Mission. In fact, the last time I heard a KEF speaker, it was the company's then-flagship design, at a Consumer Electronics Show nearly 20 years ago! Before that, when I lived in London, KEFs were ubiquitous, down to the older, entry-level designs tacked to the walls of the ethnic restaurants I frequented. My strongest KEF memory is a cumulative one: Every KEF speaker I've ever heard, regardless of price, venue, or setup, has always produced good, convincing sound.
KEF and I go way back. As a very young man in the 1960s, I was obsessed with building speakers, and that was just about the time that KEF founder Raymond Cooke was revolutionizing driver design by using new synthetic materials for cones and surrounds, and experimenting with such innovations as transmission-lineloaded midrange drivers. I found it all very heady and, by direct import from the UK, obtained versions of the oval, flat-diaphragm B139 woofer, the Bextrene-coned B110 and B200 woofers, and the T-15 and T-22 dome tweeters. Fifty years ago, this was all cutting-edge speaker technology.
The Model R107 represents the flagship of KEF's Reference Series, and is second only to the Professional Series KM-1 in KEF's product line. Anatomically, the 107 resembles a person. Beneath a decorative "hat," there's a special head assembly akin to the head on the old Model R105. This head assembly contains the brains of the 107, namely a T33 ferrofluid-cooled tweeter and an improved version of the classic B110 midrange driver, featuring a better voice-coil and a new polypropylene cone. The nerve center is also here, in the form of two passive dividing networks and load-impedance equalizing network. Level equalization of the drivers is performed actively within the KUBE, the second brain of the 107—about which you'll hear more shortly.
The very last review I wrote for Hi-Fi News & Record Review (these days just plain Hi-Fi News)—before crossing the Atlantic to take up the reins at Stereophile in May 1986—was of KEF's then-new flagship speaker, the Reference 107. That rave review appeared in the English magazine's July 1986 issue, and was followed by equally positive reports from Stereophile's writers.
After reviewing a long series of minimonitors, I am now working on what may well be an equally varied selection of large floorstanding loudspeakers. This trend began with my review of the Sonus Faber Cremona Elipsa in the December 2007 issue, and continues this month with the Series 2 version of the KEF Reference 207, until recently the flagship model from this English manufacturer (footnote 1). I reviewed the original Reference 207 in February 2003, and was very impressed by what I heard.
The Model Four is the largest model in KEF's current Reference series of loudspeakers, discounting the R107/2 Raymond Cooke Special-Edition (reviewed in a follow-up in October '95). It's also the largest KEF model that uses their Uni-Q® loudspeaker configuration. When I visited the KEF factory last October with a group of audio journalists from the US, KEF emphasized the importance of Uni-Q technology to their future plans. They consider it proprietary, and intend to enforce the worldwide patents they hold on the design. One look at KEF's current line will be enough to tell you why they're so serious. Uni-Q drivers may be found not only in most of the Reference series, but in most of their other models as well. The most significant exceptions: the Raymond Cooke series, a few inexpensive models, and their THX-certified loudspeaker system.
Oh boy! This was one of my most eagerly anticipated auditions. At my first demonstration of an OLS loudspeaker system several years ago, I was bowled over not only by the demo, but also by the idea that OLS's Kharma line was topped by the $1,000,000 Grand Enigma system!
Not for nothing did I name the Kharma-Lamm room at Home Entertainment 2002 the "Best Sound in Show." Show attendees slotted it 17th best [see September 2002, p.59—Ed.], behind other rooms to which I also gave high marks—mostly larger rooms featuring far bigger loudspeakers—but to me, the sound emanating from the Kharma Ceramique 3.2 ($19,000/pair), driven by Lamm electronics, possessed a sublime balance of sonic qualities heard in few other rooms.
Editor's Note: Although this product has been available for several years, it is being reviewed in considerable detail because it is a strong contender for the title of "Best Available Loudspeaker System, Regardless of Cost," and because we plan to review some of the other contenders for the same title within the next few issues. We feel that since all of these systems represent a considerable outlay of money, prospective buyers should have a thorough understanding of the merits and demerits of each system, so they will know what to expect from them in the way of performyince capabilities and operational requirements.
It ain't the stuff you don't know that trips you up, it's the stuff you know that ain't so. When, at the 2007 CEDIA Expo, I encountered Klipsch's startlingly new Palladium P-39F loudspeaker ($20,000/pair), I was impressed by its looks. Tall (56"), as beautifully contoured as the prow of a canoe, and clad in striking zebra-stripe plywood, the P-39F is possibly the best-looking speaker Klipsch has ever made.
I'll never forget my first encounter with the Krell LAT-1 loudspeaker. Late one Friday night last fall, on City Island in the Bronx, it was time for the monthly meeting of the Westchester Audiophile Society and I was late. I rushed through the door past a group of audiophiles and headed straight for the two new black loudspeakers already set up and ready to play. Music writer and society member Sid Marks made a sound. I turned to him and he pointed across the room: "Go tap on that enclosure." I walked over to one of the black speakers and did so. There was no sound—no give, no nothing. It was as if I'd knocked on a granite boulder. "See what I mean?" said Sid. I nodded. There was nothing to add.
Sometimes you have to make peace with a loudspeaker. You have to accept it on its own terms rather than ask it to bend to your sonic wishes, or to be something it's not. This is especially true when you're auditioning a seemingly endless succession of them, as I have this year. Like beauty-pageant contestants parading across the stage, all different-looking yet all enticing in one way or another, each speaker I've listened to of late has sounded different from the rest, and each has had a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses—yet each has been sufficiently "in the pocket" to paint a credible musical picture. Nonetheless, some required more bending on my part than did others, in order for me to believe the musical portraits they were attempting to create.
The phenomenon of the "singing flame" has been known since the 19th century. Place electrodes either side of a flame and, if you apply a high enough audio-modulated voltage to those electrodes, the ionized particles in the flame will cause it to emit sound. (Search YouTube for "singing flame" and you'll find many examples.) This principle was developed into a practical loudspeaker in 1946 by a French inventor, Siegfried Klein, who confined an RF-modulated arc to a small quartz tube, coupled it to a horn, and called the resulting speaker the Ionophone. An intense radio-frequency electrical field ionizes the air between inner and outer electrodes to produce a distinctive, violet-tinged yellow flame in the quartz combustion chamber. When the RF field is modulated by the audio signal, this causes the almost massless ionized flame to expand and contract in what should be a perfectly pistonic manner.
I was introduced to Legacy Audio at the CEDIA Expo in September 2002, and I'll long remember it. A pair of Legacy's huge new Helix loudspeakers anchored the company's silent display, and I was irresistibly drawn to them. Sales manager Bob Howard introduced himself, and, after a few minutes of chatting, introduced me to Bill Dudleston, Legacy's founder and chief designer. Within two minutes, Dudleston had told me "I don't design speakers for hi-fi people. I design speakers for people who love music."
More than any other component, it is the loudspeaker that seems to invite the most audacious—some would say flat-out lunatic—efforts at design. There have been attempts at full-range plasma speakers, speakers one had to hook up to tanks of pressurized gas, speakers with drivers attached to what looked like copper salad bowls (the infamous Tri-Torr of the early 1990s).