KEF Blade Two loudspeaker Page 2

In the bass, Jerome's Taylor acoustic bass guitar on Rendezvous, and my Fender bass on Editor's Choice (CD, Stereophile STPH016-2), were each reproduced with a rich, weighty bottom octave and terrific impact. The low-frequency, 1/3-octave warble tones on Editor's Choice were reproduced with full weight down to the 32Hz band, which was boosted by the lowest-frequency mode in my room. The 25Hz warble tone was still readily audible at normal listening levels, though the 20Hz tone disappeared. The half-step–spaced tonebursts on Editor's Choice were reproduced cleanly from the midbass through the mid-treble, with impressive weight below 80Hz, though with a touch of emphasis in the presence region. Overall, however, the low-frequency tones sounded very clean—KEF does specify very low distortion for the Blade Two.

Serendipity Strikes Deep moment No.634: I was moving some boxes in my office and found a white-label CD from 2007 that had fallen down behind a stack of old press releases. It was Thelonious Monk's Live at the 1964 Monterey Jazz Festival (CD, Monterey Jazz Festival/Concord Jazz MFJR-30312). I love Monk, but it was a double-bass solo in the herky-jerky–themed "Evidence" that caught my attention. There were no credits on the disc; a quick bit of Googling revealed that the bassist was a 24-year-old Steve Swallow, playing for the first time with Monk.

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The first jazz record many audiophiles my age bought was Kind of Blue. But I was a latecomer to Miles Davis—In a Silent Way, a decade after KoB, was my introduction to the iconic trumpet player. The first jazz LP I purchased was the Gary Burton Quartet's Lofty Fake Anagram, which was also my first exposure to Steve Swallow's masterful bass playing. I have followed his career since this 1967 album, and especially after he switched to bass guitar. But Swallow was still playing double bass on Lofty Fake Anagram, and as I listened to the album (16/44.1 ALAC files ripped from CD, RCA), the Blade Twos caressed his every note, reproducing them with power and precision.

It was a bit too good to be true. In my relatively modest-sized room (greatest dimensions: 27' long by 16.5' wide), the Blade Twos' low frequencies were too generous in absolute terms, Swallow's bottom octave sounding a touch too powerful. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Leonard Cohen's deep-toned speaking voice in "The Jungle Line," from Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters (24/96 ALAC file, Verve/HDtracks), sounded magnificently magisterial, with no apparent coloration.

615kefb.in250.jpgAnd like its small sibling, the LS50—which I described in my review as "one of the finest speakers at reproducing female voices that I have heard"—the big Blade Two, too, loved the female voice. I recently treated myself to the live recording of Russian soprano Anna Netrebko singing Strauss's Four Last Songs, accompanied by the Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim (CD, Deutsche Grammophon 479 3964). I initially felt that Netrebko's opera-gestated vibrato was too deep for this music, but her voice has a molten-metal quality that draws the listener into her performance and that the Blade Twos faithfully reproduced. In the final song, "Im Abendrot" (At Sunset), Strauss's sensitive scoring paints a rich-toned soundstage above which Netrebko soared in contemplative calm, without the KEFs editorializing in any way. And again, the image of the solo violin in the third song, "Beim Schlafengehen" (Going to Sleep), was the correct size, and stable. Magic music. Magic speakers.

I reached for some Steely Dan: "My Rival," from Gaucho (24/96 ALAC file transcoded from FLAC, HDtracks/MCA B0000868-36), features bass guitar and kick drum in lockstep. Through the Blade Twos this track sounded rich but tight, and on the words "prickly pear," when the bass guitar drops an octave, to a low E-natural, the damped note was weighty, with excellent pitch definition. This was with the Bricasti M28 monoblocks, which Michael Fremer reviewed in May. With the Ayre Acoustics MX-R Twenty amplifiers (review underway), the lowest bass-guitar notes were not quite as weighty, but the upper-bass register seemed a bit more even. But with either amp, Nick Mason's kick drum in "Us and Them," from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (24/96, HDtracks/EMI), sounded a touch too ripe through the KEFs.

Looking at what I've written so far, it appears that I mainly played old-fart music while preparing this review. But I did play a lot of modern rock. I have been in love with Hildur Gudnadóttir's Leyfdu Ljósinu (CD, Touch TO:90) ever since Stephen Mejias gave it to me as a Christmas present a couple of years ago. For the title track, Gudnadóttir constructs soundscapes comprising a looped motif based on a major-second interval that at first is underpinned by long, bowed notes on her cello, then by sung notes that first echo, then clash with the harmonies established by the cello. As each looped clone of the singer enters, it occupied its own place on the stage thrown by the KEFs, unambiguously hanging there as the track developed.

In "Limit to Your Love," from James Blake's eponymous album (CD, A&M) the bottom-octave synth-bass notes a minor second apart that had given the LS50s stomach trouble were reproduced cleanly and with excellent pitch definition.

Nothing for it—time to reach for a speaker killer: "Nightwalker," from Anders Trentemoller's The Last Resort (ALAC file ripped from CD, Pokerflat PFRCD18). This German DJ–created track has a combination of high-level ultrabass, plus a soundscape created by massive phase manipulation, to produce images that extend well beyond the speaker positions. All of which the Blade Twos handled with English aplomb: "Can you give me a bit more, old chap?" I turned up the Ayre preamp's volume control until the books started walking along their shelves and one of my children shouted at me from the kitchen, one floor and the length of the house away. "That'll do, old chaps," I instructed these English thoroughbreds. "Let's back it off a jot."

As I finish writing this review, I'm streaming from Tidal a fast and furious performance of J.S. Bach's Double Violin Concerto, BWV 1043, with soloists Giuliano Carmignola and Mayumi Hirasaki, accompanied by Concerto Köln (from CD, Deutsche Grammophon Archiv 0289 479 2695 5). The big KEFs get everything about this recording right: the upfront miking of the two violinists that gives the soundstage a wide-angle perspective; the solid stability of that soundstage; the ambient bloom of the recording venue; the natural tonalities of the instruments, both solo and ripieno; the gruff richness of the basso-continuo cellos and double bass; and the harpsichord's accompanying arpeggios. All is as it should be; all is to the benefit of this sublime music.

Summing Up
In the 1970s and early '80s I was never a fan of KEF speakers, feeling they sacrificed musical involvement in favor of tonal neutrality, resolution in favor of not wanting to offend. A colleague at Hi-Fi News & Record Review, the late Geoff Jeanes, had bought a pair of the original KEF Reference 105s when that speaker was launched in 1977, and too much of the time I listened to the R105 in his system, I found it just too polite. It wasn't until 1986 and the appearance of the Reference 107, the very last product I reviewed for Hi-Fi News before joining Stereophile, that I felt KEF was managing to marry resolution to an absence of coloration.

The Blade Two carries that evolution to the limit. It preserves all the positive qualities that made KEF's little LS50 Stereophile's "Product of 2013," while adding greater dynamic range and two more octaves of bass extension—though at $25,000/pair, this is for a price more than 16 times greater! The low frequencies are balanced to be neutral in a room larger than mine, though too large a room and the top octaves might start to sound mellow—which could be a concern, considering how sweet they already were in my room. But that imaging magic and its midrange clarity make the Blade Two a winner all the way.

COMPANY INFO
GP Acoustics (UK) Ltd.
US distributor: GP Acoustics (US) Inc.
10 Timber Lane
Marlboro, NJ 07746
(732) 683-2356
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
audiodoctornj's picture

As a Blade dealer who has both the LS 50 and the Blades and the Ref 1 and 3 and the R series, I feel I know the line really, really well.

I agree with many of the comments that were made, however, I was really taken back by the comparison to the LS 50 saying that other than increased bass, and dynamics, you seem to be implying that there is some similarity between the LS 50 and the Blade II.

We love the LS 50 and even with the matching KEF R400 sub woofer the sound is really great, and in fact will challenge a lot of $5k plus speakers, but the resulting sound doesn't come close to amazing resolution, and incredible holographic sound stage, which comes out of the Blades, so it is not just about the increased bass and dynamics, there is a wholeness and organic quality to the sound that you just don't get out of the LS 50 or many other speakers.

We had a setup at the New York High End Show in 2013 with the original Blades setup with state of the art electronics, a Merrill Williams Turntable, and an EMM Labs Digital setup and the system was amazing! Yes this system was over a $100k: $30k speakers, and 50k electronics, and $15k front end plus $20k plus on cables, so the system was up there in price but I did listen to the $107k Yg the $54k Wilson's plus some other very expensive speakers and I would say that a well setup pair of Blades offers the performance of speakers in the $50k-100k price range and that is an amazing value proposition that the Kef Blades and Blade II represent.

w1000i's picture

How do you compare Ref 3 to blades ?

dfwatt's picture

Agree with you completely AudioDoctorNJ, about the Blades (both original and their baby brother).

We just picked up a pair of the Blades I, after owning (and loving each in their own way) the 104/2, the Reference 107s, the 201/2s, R300s, and several others. But the Blades are just in a different league, exactly in the way you describe in terms of the holographic sound stage they create, with a seamlessness and coherence that is just so addicting. Each generation of the KEF Uni-Q driver system has been better, and in the 201/2 generation you could begin to see this approach and technology really hitting its stride. Those 201/2 were the best small speaker anyone had created up to that point in time, while the R series might be the best value in a speaker for those with reasonable budgets, and offering an amazing amount of the technology of the previous gen Reference series for a whole lot less money.

If any $32k speaker can be considered a bargain, in the rarefied air of speakers attempting to be 'ultimate' loudspeakers, the Blades are a steal. They are worth every penny. And they frankly embarrass some of the esoteric house brands pushed by the audiophile fringe, which can easily go for three times their cost.

JA's measurements show why they sound so good. KEF technology and understanding of psycho-acoustics is a step ahead of the field, and they focus on what research shows you can actually hear, and not stuff that the audiophile community finds fashionable, trendy, etc. Science really does work, and their commitment to empirically based design shows that right now, they are making the best speakers in the world for the money.

brian_pdx's picture

Would love to hear these speakers although esthetics will take time to get used to. Similar to TT dust covers are speaker grills going away? Dust covers serve a need, make total sense and a well designed speaker grill keeping your 5 year old from putting a PBJ through a woofer makes even more sense.

brian_pdx's picture

Went to an event last Saturday at Echo Audio in Portland where the big Blades were featured by KEF. I was completely taken by the sound, one I had never heard from a home speaker before. For that price you expect it but KEF also demo'd the Reference 1 and the LS50s both of them simply outstanding but the Ref 1 was also driven by the 400W Chord monoblocks. The KEF people said the Ref. 1 could be well driven by 200 W. They also said, to answer my above question, the drivers are very "tough" and hard to damage even without grills. I agree with the reviewer that these speakers are very neutral, source material is important but I cannot get over the way the sound of all three speakers embraced me. At 1/4 the price, the Reference series is actually attainable. But the Blades make me want to buy a lottery ticket. Highly recommended.

Venere 2's picture

Although this review is about the KEF Blade, I have to mention another KEF speaker that is highly recommended.
I had the chance to audition the KEF LS50 speakers. The hype and fanfare surrounding the LS50s is out of this world. The performance is anything but… They are very good, but they don't come anywhere close to what all the hype would have one believe. They are a good buy for their price, nothing more. They absolutely do not belong in Class A!

If the 1500$ KEF LS50 belongs in class A, then what Class for the 25 000$ blades? The first Class A++++ ever for Stereophile?

makarisma's picture

I think they are great as desktop speakers.

scott.w's picture

Hi John,
Chatted with a KEF dealer recently about the Blade Two's. He emphasized they absolutely require top flight amps to make them sing properly. Didn't see that mentioned in this review.

Perhaps the unspoken assumption that pricey speakers = pricey amps? Did you try the Blades with other amp combos out of curiosity?

spudnik's picture

Having read your review I have been left with the frustrating belief that it was incomplete. The problem, as you have no doubt been informed, is that there is no comparison between Blades I and II. The ommission is also obvious: Sterephile did not reveiw the Blade I. I do not know the rationale for that choice but as I have complained before, it was a bad one. You are Stereophile. You ought to have found a way.

WM's picture

I'm guessing the slopes are steep with the side firing woofers, but just wondering if there is any issue with that crossover point and 2pi etc.

Axiom05's picture

Although this review is somewhat old, the speakers are still current, so I thought I would comment. First, the in-room response must be one of the smoothest that I have ever seen. I would imagine that this contributes to the superb imaging. I am surprised that KEF did not provide alternative port tubes like they do for the Reference series, these might have allowed you to tweak the low end a bit more, although the lowest frequency room mode is always difficult to modify with ported speakers. Second, KEF's dealer network is really awful in the US. I would love to give these speakers a serious audition but there is not a single Blade-carrying dealer in the state of Florida. The same was true when I lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Basically, I have been trying to hear these speakers since their release.

davidrmoran's picture

What is up w/ that 500Hz peak? Looks nasty-sounding. Not real?

Allison effect unpleasant lower-midrange dip ~160-260Hz can be partly addressed w/ placement experimentation closer to front wall. Probably not possible to get rid of it altogether cuz the woofers are up too high.
Nice that they are sidemounted.

remlab's picture

By looking at the lateral response family on the Uni-Q, the crossover point appears to be around 3.5 kHz rather than the specified 2.3 kHz.

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