Review: Kef Picoforte 3 iPod minisystem
SUMMARY: This product consists of two small egg-shaped speakers, a very small class D amp, a small iPod dock, a credit-card sized remote, and all the necessary wiring. It offers aux in and sub out. The look is modern, compact and unusually elegant. The sound quality is unusually satisfying for an iPod dock mini-system, but falls short of even modest high-end systems. It successfully fulfills its apparent goal of being a very satisfying “lifestyle” system based on iPod as a source. This is a substantial achievement. Highly recommended, provided you understand the tradeoffs of such a system. I am keeping my black model for my bedroom, using upgraded speaker wire and REL T-1 subbass system.
- Unusually refined sound for an iPod mini-system.
- Clear, punchy, fast, authoritative sound, with extended clear treble
- Tight clean bass (not deep though)
- Highly functional remote provides most of the functionality of the iPod click wheel
- Compact and beautiful
- Aux-in and sub-out provide important flexibility
- Speakers are separate from the amp, so you can place them optimally in your room;
- Speakers come with stand for table mount or wall mount; option to purchase slim floor stands
- Provides a video-out for video iPods prior to the mid-2007 generation
- This reviewer has long despaired the poor sound quality of most iPod dock mini-systems. Exceptions to date include the Monitor Audio iDeck, Apple HiFi, and now the KEF Picoforte 3. Overall, the KEF is a high water mark. Have yet to hear the B&O, or others attempts at a more high end unit.
- Retains a little of the grittiness and lean-ness that solid state amplification often offers, particularly when mated with metal dome or metal diaphragm speakers
- Sounds large for its size but still destined for small rooms or near field listening
- Sound is tight; not relaxed
- Upgrade of speaker wire seems mandatory
- Subwoofer is nearly mandatory
- A good value, but, definitely some sonic trade-off for the size, beauty and convenience of the unit
- Long break-in period; sounds thin at first
- Non-standard speaker connectors (for this money we should get 5-way binding posts)
- Can it use the 2007 generation of video iPods as a video source in addition to music? That is, does this product accommodate the change in video-out protocol that Apple introduced in the iPod line in 2007? KEF Literature does not answer this question; this reviewer could not test it; most docks of even recent vintage do not accommodate this change, as the industry was caught off-guard by Apples action.
- There is no switch between aux-in and iPod as sources. When you plug anything into the aux-in switch, the unit assumes that is now the intended source. Thankfully, that aux-in is in the front, but still….
My assessment of most iPod dock mini-systems is pretty harsh: I find them unpleasant to listen to. Gritty, amusical, with bass either boomy or MIA. You might disagree. Fair enough. But to me, when I walk into the Apple store and listen, I wince. Not only are they unpleasant to listen to, they are being demonstrated playing recordings compressed to 128 bit rate. Some of them come with cheap, mushy, one-note, boom-boom subwoofers. Sigh. I would rather have silence. YMMV.
One exception was the Apple “HiFi” (no longer available), which seemed to me to have a slightly more natural, sweet sound, although I suspect they achieved that by rolling off the highs. I found it enjoyable. I have also found the Monitor Audio iDeck enjoyable. This is a discontinued product, listed at $350, now available at $149 widely, such as (www.audioadvisor.com) and sometimes as low as $90 plus shipping new on Audiogon. This will prove a sweet spot in terms of value and sonics for a LOT of people, and frankly if they offered it in black I might not have tried the KEF Picoforte 3. I’ve not had a chance to hear the acclaimed B&O iPod deck, nor other higher-end iPod mini-systems, including the tube “Fatman” combination amp/dock. (I don’t want to use tubes in a bedroom or office system.)
KEF PICOFORTE 3:
As I described above, this system includes of two of the KEF “egg” speakers, with the Picoforte model 3 appearing to have the same speakers as the acclaimed KEF 3005 home theatre. It’s packaged up with a little “class D” amp, and a little iPod dock. There is a special cable included to connect the dock to the amp, and a pair of matching thin speaker wire included as well. The dock has video out, but, I strongly suspect that it only works on video iPods prior to the “classic” and 3rd generation nano, as these newest iPods require some kind of special chip in the dock to do video. There is a sub-out mini-plug which will prove very handy for many implementations. I use REL subs which are designed to tap into the main speaker-outs for music, for improved integration with the mains, and that is how I use my REL T-1 with this unit. There is also an aux input mini-plug. Unfortunately, there is no input switch. When you place a cable in aux-in, the system defeats the input from the iPod. The aux-in is in the front, making this relatively easy, but still... WTF?
There is a handy remote, that controls the system volume and let’s you surf the iPods contents, essentially replacing the click wheel. Nice.
Please note that there also a smaller system available called the KEF Picoforte 1. This is a review of the model 3.
Ok, so, how does it sound? To my ear the KEF Picoforte 3 is remarkably articulate, clean sounding, fast and sweet, rather lightweight, and a hair lean. Within the world of iPod mini-systems, its sonics are a home run. As an audiophile system, compared to my main system with Cary tube amp, Cary tube cd player, and Silverline Sonatina II’s, the KEF Picoforte 3 sounds small, lightweight and a bit gritty. But it’s lively, quick, clear, and quite enjoyable, IMHO. Compared to other iPod mini-systems that I’ve heard, it is far more refined and satisfying. Just keep this in perspective, ok?
The speaker wire is, oddly, extremely thin, so I experimented with a generic copper 12 gauge speaker wire ($3/foot, bare wire). This does not look as cool, but it provides a much better balanced sound, no longer lean or tipped up, at the expense of some speed and some treble “air”. Fair enough. (I’m not sure that I would have decided to keep the Picoforte had I not discovered this “tweak”.)
To my surprise, I did not find use of a sub essential. Nonetheless, I’m using subs with everything these days, and sure enough, my REL T-1 turns this lightweight system into more of a medium weight.
This system looks magnificent. It is very compact, very contemporary, and very cool. I got it in black, and I use it without the speaker grilles, which improves the transparency.
Bear in mind that this system is designed for a small room or near-field listening. My bedroom is perhaps 12 x 14, and this system has found a home there. In my living room, which is 14 x 22, the system sounded a bit strained, even with the sub.
Why is a tube guy considering solid state? Well, when it comes to a bedroom system, I stay away from tube gear, as it’s liable to be left on overnight, frequently.
Please be advised that this system does sound small, and NOT AS RELAXED as a stereo whose speakers have larger volume and move more air. I repeat: it is not as relaxed sounding as a larger audio system. This is a well crafted mini-system.
If you want a simple system that plays music from your iPod, is enjoyable, easy to set up and use, has a small footprint and looks drop-dead gorgeous, here you go. At $600 it’s a fair value. In fact, the advertised retail list price in KEF’s UK home is 400 pounds, a 33% premium at today’s exchange rate. However, any audiophile could probably spend just a few more dollars and put together a substantially better sounding system around an iPod dock. It would take up a LOT more space, have a much lower “wife acceptance factor”, but well, let’s be honest: do you really do audiophile listening in your office or bedroom?
Monitor Audio iDeck