Review: Kef 2 Reference Speaker
I had no intentions of changing my speakers as I was happy with them even after yet another change in abode. The upgrade bug had bitten my friend and it was due to his decision that I opted to get his speakers as a replacement for my already decent sounding Paradigm Reference Studio 40 v2. The speaker in question was the Kef Reference Model Two. It was me who had influenced him good few years ago to go for them and the choice as far as I was concerned was certainly not a bad one. They had sounded great even out of the box. However, he was not into listening to music as much as I do and hardly used them more than a couple of hours a month! In comparison my mileage in worst case scenario could be anywhere between 50 – 60 hours per month. The speakers were put in position by me when brand new in his living room and when I picked them up they were at exactly the same spot even the masking tape I had used during listening sessions while setting them up was still there. The speakers were never moved from the spot, hence, were scratch less and looking great. The only thing needed, was a bit of furniture wax to bring them back to original condition.
These speakers were introduced back in the mid 90’s and remained in production for about 5 years, however just before the current series was introduced these speakers were updated to .2 series. The speakers that I have are dating back to 1997-98 and are the original versions and not the .2 series.
There is something unique about these speakers the way they reproduce the bass. “Coupled Cavity” bass loading concept has been incorporated into these speakers, where, the two bass drivers, instead of being mounted on the front baffle have been mounted inside the cabinet facing in opposite direction with a massive force cancelling rod connecting the two to eliminate the vibrations. Secondly, the tweeter is placed in the centre of the midrange, and according to Kef , placing the high frequency driver at the exact acoustic centre of the mid-range unit is the key to superb clarity and definition. (I will address both these technologies later in the review as to how successful these design concepts really are when listening to music). There is yet another innovative design feature that has been incorporated in these speakers known as BSD (Boundary Compensation Device). What BSD does is to reduce the bass to enable the speakers to be placed closer to the wall (to accommodate the speakers in a smaller room). The tweak can be easily accomplished by removing the top screw on the LF terminal at the back of the speaker and getting access to a smaller nut inside. The nut when put back into the cavity in reverse position accomplishes the required tweak - simple yet a very effective way to tame the bass when required.
The construction of the unit is superb; you will be hard pressed to fault these extremely well built speakers. From the top which has smooth bevelled edges to the 24 K gold plated locking nut and spikes at the bottom, the craftsmen at Kef I reckon must have spent a considerable amount of time making sure none of the aspect of workmanship is compromised at any stage. The black ash veneer is matched for grains for both the speakers. The plinth of the speakers is mineral filled and formed from rigid polymer and they can be removed and filled with lead shot within the small cavity for additional stability. I deliberately placed a small green onyx sculpture on one speaker and a small Terracotta warriors horse on the other, I simply wanted to see if these would move when I cranked up the volume to almost maximum with music having heavy bass lines, it came as a pleasant surprise to me that after full session on a Sunday, both the pieces on the speakers had not moved even a fraction of an inch from the original position. What does it mean? You bet, the speakers do not vibrate at all and that would ultimately mean the cabinets are not colouring the sound in any way. For those who may not know, each Reference Loudspeaker is hand built by a single skilled craftsman.
My current room measures 24L x 15W x 10.5H and I had experimented with the placement so as the sound stage and depth is not compromised. I tried a few options and somehow the speakers sounded very good if placed 6 feet from the back wall and 4 feet from the side wall. Listening position is about 6 feet from the back wall, so effectively the speakers are 12 feet from the listening position. I tried 4 feet but they sounded a bit muddled, 8 feet and they became bass shy. 6 ft placement represents 1/4 of the total length of the room ( 24 ft), and that seems to line up with one of the 'theories' of placement. In reality, it's a matter of experimenting in each individual room, and that's one of the reasons that speaker manufacturers never give definite placement instruction about their speakers but only general guidelines, however, the general guidelines should be considered as starting point for the final placement based on your personal preference that you will arrive at after spending some time tweaking it.
While tuning the REL sub bass system when the Kef’s were put in service, I was compelled to lower the crossover by one notch. In Kef’s case the frequency that worked well was 23 Hz whereas earlier I had set the crossover at 25 Hz for the Paradigm. The crossover on the Rel needs to be adjusted so as it is just under the low frequency cut off point of the main speaker, REL crossover is very gradual at 12 dB per Octave unlike many other subwoofers which employ either 18 dB or even 24 dB per octave. The key to correct setting is to listen for muddiness in the bass, if so you need to back off by lowering the crossover to achieve effective and seamless integration. The aspect of proper setup does take time but in the end the listener is well rewarded with lack of boominess resulting in very clean bass. The REL was connected via the high level input directly to the speaker terminals at the back of the amplifier. This setting is a standardised in my system and never felt the need to connect the sub bass system via RCA interconnects (low level input) for either audio or DVD playback.
THE ALBUMS CHOSEN
Sonny Rollins – Cool Struttin’
Dire Straits – Communique
John Lennon Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy
Peter Gabriel – So
Elenor McEvoy – Yola
Sting – Send your love
Roxy Music – Avalon
Isaac Hayes – Shaft
Santana – Abaraxes
Patricia Barber – Cafe Blue
Joe Cocker – The Ultimate Collection
Cassandra Wilson-New Moon Daughter
Dominic Miller – Shapes
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong – Porgy and Bess
Pink Floyd-Dark Side of the Moon
Pablo de Sarasate-Zigeunerweisen op 20 (from Carmen Fantasy) Anne Sophie Mutter with Weiner Philharmoniker
John Williams-Rodrigo: Concerto De Aranjuaz
Strunz and Farah – Primal Magic
Eric Clapton - Crossroads Guitar Festival
Diana Krall – Live in Paris
Eagles – Hell Freezes Over
James Taylor – Live at the Beacon Theatre
Since I still had the Paradigm Reference Studio 40 speakers, I had to judge the Kef’s through direct comparison with the Paradigm. The first thing that I noticed was that the Kef’s were laid back rather than giving and upfront presentation. The high frequency was very smooth and well extended in comparison. The mids had the authority which the Paradigms were slightly lacking in. Kef’s were able to create a much wider soundstage and at the same time were able to generate much more volume despite the fact that the Paradigms are rated for 91 dB sensitivity and the Kef’s a db less at 90. Sometimes the specs can be so misleading, and means nothing when you are auditioning speakers. Two speakers having identical specs can actually sound totally different. The comparison of the Paradigm and Kef’s really was enlightening as far as low end was concerned. Both the speakers have almost same low frequency extension but somehow the Kef’s give you an impression that they go much lower than the Paradigms. This I believe could be the result of the ingenious way Kef have designed the speakers which I mentioned earlier concerning “coupled cavity”. It not only does its job well but gives you that sense of scale which you would expect from a much larger cabinet and driver size. The narrow sweet spot that you have to settle down with most speakers was also surprisingly not an issue with the Kef Reference Two, one can select any position on a three sweater sofa in front of the speakers and have great imaging and soundstage. This is attributed to the wide dispersion characteristics of the very fine tweeter housed in the dead centre of the solitary midrange driver on the front baffle. For the tweeter test I chose the CD of Al Dimeola, John McLaughlin and Paco DeLucia-Saturday Night in San Francisco, the sound of the three guitars can be heard from left, dead centre in between the speakers and on the right, the tweeter gave a fantastic account of itself and must say the speakers passed with flying colours.
The acid test of any speakers which ends up in my room is to compete with my favourite speakers – Chartwell LS3/5a in the midrange. Since majority of you know well that almost 80 percent of the music that we listen to resides in the midrange portion of the audio spectrum, the balance in the highs and lows. I may be somewhat generalising here but the fact remains that the mid frequencies are the most critical, besides the fact, that our hearing is most sensitive in this region. This makes it very easy making a judgement about a speaker as far as its performance for vocals is concerned. Before, I did the switch to the LS3/5a I had a good listen to some of the typical vocal recordings that I usually listen to on the LS3/5a. After spending half an hour and switching between a few tracks on various CD’s I finally disconnected the Kef’s and the Ls3/5a’s were put in the proper position and hooked up to the same cables, equipment, and sources. I put the cd in the player and left the room for the LS3/5a’s to come on their own in about half and hour. On my return I put the same recording in the player and started listening. The Kef’s had sounded very good, in fact better than I expected, but, here the LS3/5a’s were presenting a different picture, the voice of Ella was a bit more relaxed coming through the LS3/5a’s it had the aura so to say around it which the Kef’s were not giving the indication to. Despite the fact that many think of LS3/5a as not being very accurate they certainly know how to sound musical. LS3/5a’s sound more like the planar speakers rather than a box, albeit without the larger than life presentation which the planers are usually criticised for. The LS3/5a was sheer magic and still sounds better than the Kef, even though the Kef's do have a great sound of their own and do most of the things in the correct manner. However good the LS3/5a sounds in the real world, one needs a 'full range' speaker to get the full scale effect /impact of the music and that too at realistic listening levels, this is where the Kef Reference Two come in and do the job admirably.
DRIVABILITY – AMPLIFIER CHOICE
The Kef Reference Two is a bear to drive. They are not an easy load for most budget amplifiers or receivers as they demand high current and low impedance drivability. Driving them hard with anything less than a hundred watts (Solid State) will eventually render the amp to run out of steam. This of course depends on your listening habits as well as the size of your room. 100 watt amp, large room and higher than average volume levels will certainly not be a workable solution. Since I have not driven them with a tube amp I cannot say what the requirements would be, however, it would be very interesting experience if one could drive them with a decent 50 watt tube amp which has a 4 Ohm tap. I guess the ideal combination would be a good 200 watts/channel amplifier which can handle impedances as low as about 3 Ohms and has good current delivery. My Quad 606 II sounds very musical and does have good current capability but on one occasion while I was listening to the track on Eric Clapton’s Guitar Festival DVD and volume almost set pretty high, the amp tripped. The Quad amp is built like a tank and has a reset switch on the back panel. After it was reset and within a couple of minutes in between, the amp was ready to take on the load again without any problem.
I have been indulging in this hobby for good three decades and now I am sort of tired of speakers which give an upfront in the face sound. I needed to relax, I have had in the past some very nasty speakers but I was younger and I did not realise it then, now I know what I want. I had to give up the Magneplanars when I changed my abode last time about 3 years back when I got the Paradigms due to room constraints. The Maggies were the most civilised pair of speakers I had owned. Polite sound is what I was looking for and that means a civilised speaker in real sense of the word. The Kef' Reference Two are laid back for sure, but, capable of extracting the finer details in most of the recordings. One can hear the character of the bass lines from different type of recordings as well, not just feel it. Despite the fact that the Kef’s were sounding better in almost every department compared to the Paradigm’s, yet I would say that the Paradigm’s still are a real value for money speakers. For me the change was for the better, the Kef Reference Two have the capability to give the listener a tiny account of, dare I say, what high end audio is all about.
Thank you for dropping by and reading what I write.
Sources: Rega Planar 3 with Ortofon, and A&R cartridges, Philips DVD 963SA SACD/DVD Player, Quad 67 CD
Amplification: Quad 66/606II (140 w/ch) and for short comparison hooked up Perreaux 3150B 300 w/ch amplifier.
Cables: Canare Star Quad (effective 11AWG) bi-wire speaker cable, MIT, Monster and Cable Talk Interconnect cables.
Kef Reference 3, Paradigm Reference Studio 40 v2, Magneplanar MG1c, Magneplanar 2.7R