KLH Model Three loudspeaker

"Dear audio enthusiast." Those were the user manual's introductory words, not "Dear audiophile." I stared at them for a few seconds, letting the implication of that greeting sink in. I don't know if it was meant this way—perhaps not—but for me, this was a whistle call announcing that the KLH Model Three ($1799.98/pair) was not intended for those obsessed with having the best at all costs; it was meant for people who dig quality sound, period. It was also meant for people who dig that vintage-American-speaker look.

At first glance, the Model Three—I'll call it the M3 for short—may seem retro, but I'd argue that its look is more timeless than old-fashioned. I'm staring at the sample pair as I write these words, and they by no means look out of place in the contemporary decor of my listening room. Any idea in what year the M3 was launched? Can't think that far back? Try 2022. It's a brand-new model that's based on an old speaker, the company's Model Five, released in 1968, updated with modern technology, parts, and materials unavailable when the original design came out. Think of today's R2R DACs, but, to me at least, more sex appeal.

Aesthetically, the M3 exudes character. Its wide-baffled, rectilinear aspect isn't just timeless. It's iconic. I felt that on first sight, at the 2022 Montréal Audiofest. Despite being short—technically, it's a bookshelf speaker—it radiates stoic strength. Back-tilted on a black, powder-coated, 14-gauge riser base, its square-jawed chin juts out defiantly. It's like the face of an Eastwood Western character, except that, instead of a cigar, there's a flap at the bottom to pull off the magnetically attached fabric grille. As tempted as I was initially to yank those flaps—I have a great distaste for fabric grilles—that impulse changed quickly. I was enchanted by their silvery color (officially "Stonewash Linen"), and soon loath to remove them. (That never happens.)

Another class of objects I don't usually become enamored by, although I'm always happy to find in a shipping box, is a user manual. The M3's manual (manuals, in fact—one with each speaker) might be the snazziest I've seen, let alone on a $1800 product. Sheathed in an attractive, letter-size envelope, it looked like a huge wedding invitation. Held in the hand, it feels like a quality print publication. Its content is also substantial. It is well-written, with an amiable, conversational tone, and informative. But why am I making such a big deal about a user manual? Because it's your introduction to the company. It sets the tone for what will come next. A manual makes either a good or a bad impression. The M3's made a good impression. It made me feel like I mattered to the company.

Would the M3 be of quality commensurate with the manual? I was well primed to find out.


The KLH Model Three may be new, but its core technology—the acoustic suspension design—arrived on the market in 1954, when audio engineers Edgar Villchur and Henry Kloss, cofounders of Acoustic Research, incorporated it in their company's first loudspeaker, the AR-1. Three years later, Kloss and two AR employees struck out on their own to found KLH. Retaining the legal right to use the acoustic suspension design in their own speakers, they incorporated it in their first, the Model Five (M5). It was a hit.

The M3 shares many features with the new M5, which Ken Micallef reviewed in the September 2021 issue of Stereophile. The impedance of both is rated at 6 ohms. Both employ the same 1" aluminum-dome tweeter, and both use a pulp-paper woofer cone, a cabinet constructed of structurally reinforced ¾" MDF, five-way binding posts, and a three-position "Acoustic Balance Control" knob at the back of the cabinet to adjust the speaker's output level to suit room acoustics. Kerry Geist, KLH's chief designer, explained in a conversation with Ken Micallef that "the switch attenuates ... output above 400Hz ... to deal with difficult room acoustics. The amount of attenuation is relatively small (0, –1.5dB, –3dB) ... [and spans] a broad frequency range. The idea is to pull some excess energy out of an overly bright listening room."

My listening room isn't particularly bright, but I did notice a reduction in glare when I played recordings with some attenuation. Offsetting that, though, was a slight loss of detail and open-air expansiveness, so I kept the knob in the MID position, but in other rooms and situations, the Acoustic Balance Control could be helpful.

In contrast to the M5, the M3's in-room sensitivity is specified as 88dB/2.83V/m; the M5's is meaningfully higher, at 90.5dB/2.83V/m. The M3's woofer has an 8" cone, compared to the M5's 10", and its cabinet is considerably smaller. The main difference between the M5 and M3, though, is that the M5 has a midrange driver; the M3 doesn't. Despite being a two-way instead of a three-way, the M3's circuitry is no simpler, according to Geist, who told me that the parts count of the M3 is similar to that of the M5 because "there's an additional tuning circuit in the upper passband of the woofer to provide some added EQ. Plus, the circuitry that supports the attenuation switch has to be a little more complex because the attenuator controls the tweeter and also the band above 400Hz in the woofer. There's a simple filter added to provide that separation in the woofer passband." He added, "The Model 3 has a 2nd-order network topology similar to the Model 5. Of course, the midrange circuitry is removed, so the woofer to tweeter crossover occurs at around 1600Hz."

The M3 samples I received came in the English Walnut finish. Two other finishes are available: West African Mahogany and Nordic Noir.

The first word that came to mind when I pulled the M3 out of its box and viewed it up close was: Nice! With its beveled wood baffle and the pattern of its wood veneer, the M3 looked like fine furniture.

The user manual suggests breaking in the speakers for 8 hours, which seemed random, so I added another, oh, 151.8 just to be sure.


That manual I mentioned earlier claims that the M3 can "rival the largest loudspeakers." I recalled my astonishment, at the Montreal audio show, at how big the M3 sounded. I remembered sitting in one of the few remaining seats, aligned against the back wall (footnote 1), wondering whether the sound I was hearing was coming from the bigger or the smaller pair of speakers that flanked the electronics. I'm sure it wasn't just me because I also remember watching as the heads of the other visitors snapped left and right, from one speaker to the other. After a while, the host, grinning wickedly, revealed that we were indeed hearing the M3s. A collective ooh of admiration filled the room.

When the time came to position the M3s in my listening room, I hesitated. Tweeters and midranges had always been level with my ears; the M3 drivers were well below my ears, slanted upward. I wondered what the proper positioning technique was with low, inclined speakers. The user manual suggested I start with the speakers pointed directly at me, then gradually widen their radius of projection until I achieved balance between soundstage size and solid imaging focus and solidity. It worked like a charm. The speakers ended up about 8' apart, 8' from me, and toed in so they pointed about a foot outside my ears. I knew things were right when Richard Lehnert's spoken introduction on the channel identification track on Stereophile's Test CD 2 (CD, STPH004-2) snapped into focus, like he was there in front of me.


After that, things went downhill. Fast. I played the title track from Nils Petter Molvær's album Khmer (CD, ECM 1560 537 798-2), which begins with a languidly pulsing subterranean bass note from the left channel. Except this time, a trembling, fluttering sound mangled that note. The volume wasn't even that high, but when I lowered it, the fluttering stopped.

Was the bass too deep for the M3's paper cones to handle? Was the left speaker broken? I leaped from my couch, swapped the cables, L–>R and R–>L, then waited for the stygian bass beat to re-emerge, now from the right speaker. Same bloody thing! A warping fffrrrrr effect that rode the lowest bass notes, a parasitic overlay of static.

Did I, by freak chance, find the Achilles' heel of the M3 right at the start?

I played the next track on Khmer, which has deep bass as well but not as deep, and it was great. The bass sounded rich, expansive, and well defined, showing no sign of strain. Still, how could I review a speaker whose bass cone fluttered audibly when loud, low notes were played?


Seeking explanations and a solution, I darted off an email to Technical Editor John Atkinson. I rambled on about the M3's 46Hz bass extension and asked whether this could be a defect or maybe an impedance incompatibility with my amplifier. John, bless his soul, answered right back. He sent me a download of the 1/3-octave low-frequency warble tones he created for Stereophile's Test CD 2 to help me locate the frequency region where the problem occurs. "I doubt that there is an impedance mismatch with the amplifier," he said.

Footnote 1: Which means that I was experiencing some bass reinforcement, since the intensity of all standing waves peaks at hard room boundaries.
KLH Audio
984 Logan St.
Noblesville, IN 46060
(833) 554-8326

Jonti's picture

In the past 15 years I have bought and enjoyed pairs of KLH Models 5, 6, 17 and 32. In total they cost me about 500 euros. The Model 5 is great, but the Model 6 is special, with a perfect, springy "bounce" to the sound.

Dennis Murphy's picture

The reviewer is not very familiar with KLH model history. The Model 5 was not the first offering--it was in fact about the last from the original founders, and it was the least popular, not the most. The KLH model 1 was the first, followed more successfully by the Model 6 and 17, both of which far outsold the KLH Model 5. I've owned and worked with all of the KLH speakers except the electrostatic and Model 12. My favorite was the 5, which was far from perfect but at least committed sins of omission rather than commission.

rschryer's picture

You are, of course, right about the Model Five not being KLH's first loudspeaker. Apologies for the slip.

Doctor Fine's picture

At its price point the two new offerings from KLH have given today's buyer a chance to build a complete compact setup again without having to turn to sealed subwoofers to get tight bass. It's already THERE. Yay KLH. All us old timers know sealed cabs give a tighter truer presentation---they just might not be as impressive for the unwashed.
I just recommended my brother-in-law go buy the larger 5s. Unbeatable at their job in my opinion. Compact and complete sound in a small box. Brilliant!
A pair of these an Outlaw receiver, a streamer and a turntable and you would be set for a fine dorm room sized experience again. Just like we had in 1969. Before the "high end" guys made everything sound "tweaky." And best of all this gear is priced to be affordable to the poor downtrodden middle class buyer. Hooray!

rschryer's picture

...includes a pair nifty stands.