KEF R107 loudspeaker John Atkinson 1991 part 3

Time for truth. I reached for that same Sibelius 5 recording (London 410 016-2).

Have you noticed that when something is working right in the system, it seems hard to concentrate on the hardware? Such was the case here. By the end of the symphony, I had forgotten what exactly it was I was supposed to be listening for.

Oh yes, that bass discord. I put the third movement on again, this time trying to shut out the music. Mmmmm. Just as I remembered it from the original 107, the E-flat and F close but far, melded but differentiated—but there's so much more going on, so much wider a window into the music...

Bass instruments in real life have so much more complexity to their sound than the mere fact that they pump out low frequencies. The sound of the double-bass has a woody formant structure surrounding the underlying tubbiness that is hard for full-range speakers to reproduce in the right proportion; 16' organ pipes should sound like their sound is produced by a vibrating air column, not by a sinewave oscillator; the sound of the bass drum should remind you that a beater or pedal striking a plastic or calfskin diaphragm is responsible for its sonic weight. Even the sound of the electric bass should reveal the intrinsic nature of the loudspeaker through which its sound is reproduced—even if it is an underdamped thunderbox with severe resonant modes in the presence region, like my Fender Bassman cabinet.

The R107/2 easily allowed you to hear all that richness. From the dry kickdrum and bass guitar on the B52's remix CD (footnote 4) ("Party Mix", Reprise 9 26401-2) to the magnificent thunder of Terry Bozzio's bass drum on Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop (Epic EK 44313), the woody weight of the double-bass on the superb new Oxnard Sessions, Vol. 1 album from pianist Mike Garson (Reference Recordings RR-37), and the deep barking nature of the big pipes on the Jean Guillou Pictures at an Exhibition transcription (Dorian DOR-90117), bass instruments reproduced via the KEFs with both their essential characters and the differences between those characters preserved intact. Weight, power, and definition. In fact, the only dynamic loudspeaker that I have heard to equal the 107/2 in this respect is the Thiel CS5, and that with the right amplifier, right cables, and most importantly, in the right room. The 107/2 seems much less fussy with respect to such demands.

One of the most adrenalin-raising rock concerts I ever went to was the Grateful Dead at London's Rainbow Theater back in the Spring of '81. Bassist Phil Lesh—one of the most intelligent bass players to emerge from the '60s with brain cells intact, to judge by his interesting choices of exactly what notes (footnote 5) to slot into the overlying harmonic structure—was producing a pretty neutral sound from his stack, with the exception of his low E-string register when the speakers, hit with pure power at their LF resonant frequencies, produced a throbbing pulse that rolled forward from the stage and crawled across the floor toward you. The San Francisco and New York concerts from that Dead tour were preserved on the Dead Set album (Arista ARTY 11); while minimonitors almost always fail to reproduce any of that uncontrolled flatulence, most full-range speakers obscure it with their own problems in the same region. The R107/2s get it just right: under Jerry Garcia's and Bob Weir's meandering guitar chopping in the center of "Friend of the Devil," Mr. Lesh's formidable formants can be heard to perfection.

But I mentioned earlier the window the 107s open into the music. If you're to believe the technologists, the reason planar speakers produce impressive soundstage depth is because of the presence of strong reflections from the wall behind the loudspeakers. Neatly put; sounds convincing; end of story.

But if that's truly the case, Mr. Engineer, then why should the R107/2s also throw a soundstage so deep that it extends way behind the rear wall of my listening room? Indeed, the second "Promenade" on the Dorian Pictures album starts with a vibrato reed stop carrying the melody set so far behind my listening room wall that it's actually in Colorado! I have rarely heard such excellent layering of depth from recordings that have the stereophonic sonic wherewithal. Again, Professor Johnson's miking on The Oxnard Sessions album must have been inspired. In its solo outings—"Lady Be Good," for example—the piano hangs between and behind the KEFs, not just palpable but "material," "substantial," "tangible," "tactile," to give my thesaurus a work-out. And the drums behind the piano, the bass to its side and in front, the alto sax to the other—there's enough "there" there for it to hurt.

But I gibber. Is this sense of presence exaggerated? I put on my own recording of Anna-Maria Stanczyk performing Chopin on the Stereophile Test CD. Again, the piano image was set well back; again the sense of palpability, of solidity. But as this sound was what I had hoped to capture when I made the recording, I conclude that the R107/2s are, in fact, merely accurate: merely reproducing what was there to be reproduced.

This precision of imaging I noted with music recordings was confirmed by the tests on the Chesky Test CD (JD-37). The vertical imaging signal test reproduced better than I have heard it from any other speaker in my system, the sampled and psychoacoustically processed cabasa sound riding smoothly above the loudspeaker positions almost to the ceiling, with only a slight lateral wavering noticeable, while the "Over" signal reproduced as a smooth arch between the speakers. Laterally, too, the Chesky signals precisely mapped out a beautifully defined stage, though not one that extended much beyond the speaker positions. I also noted this with the Q-Sound-processed Soul Cages album (A&M 75021 6405 2) from Sting (another thinking man's rock bassist, particularly to judge from this album). With one or two exceptions, such as the final, whispered "Good Night," which appeared to come from somewhere in the vicinity of my left ear, the much-vaunted ability of Q-Sound to produce steady images way beyond the speaker positions was not particularly apparent via the KEFs. Are the speakers right and Q-Sound wrong? I don't know. Do you?

Reviewers are supposed to split the tonal balance of components into neat digestible bands in their reviews; I guess I should do the same before you lose patience. The midband of the 107/2 was free from coloration—no "aww," an absence of "eee"; instruments and, more importantly, voices sounded correct. The treble, too, seemed clean and unexaggerated, without any spit or spitch. Although in absolute terms, there is a lack of air in the top octave, this is one neutral-sounding speaker.

Footnote 4: I reach for this album, particularly "Mesopotamia," whenever I feel that I am starting to take high-end hi-fi just a bit too seriously. His subject was Jethro Tull, but the late Lester Bangs may well have been talking about the yet-to-be-conceived High End in 1973 when he wrote, "You can reach a point...when the trappings and tinsel and construction become so important that it really doesn't matter what's inside."—John Atkinson

Footnote 5: Try fooling around on a handy keyboard or guitar, underlaying an F-major triad with a pedal C or G, then a C-major chord with a pedal B, E, or D, to get the effect Lesh produces from what are supposed to be orthodox changes. The "wrong-note" bass notes suggest suspensions and tensions, producing paradoxes that add depth to the mundane, interest to the ordinary. Indeed, in addition to providing the rock upon which the music sits, one of the rock bass player's essential tasks is to reveal unsuspected facets to the music in the manner in which he (or she, not forgetting Carol Kaye) gets from tonic here to dominant there, and back again.—John Atkinson