This year I had the chance to compare over 20 pairs of bookshelf speakers to each other. Some were good, some were bad, and some stood out. The SVS Ultra Bookshelf offered the best bass of any speaker, bar none. But the speakers that won me over were the KEF models with their Uni-Q driver. The coherence and clarity they offered over the other speakers was huge. The LS50, acclaimed by everyone in the press, offered the most relaxed yet detailed sound of any speaker in my testing.
I wanted to combine that tweeter and midrange clarity with the bass response of the SVS Ultra. I ordered a surround system made up of four of the KEF R300 bookshelves and the matching R600C center channel. Compared to my previous system of Mythos STS speaker, the KEFs are superior. The STS had the lead in bass, but the KEFs blow them away in soundstage, detail, timing and clarity. From the $300 Q100’s to the $1,800 R300s all the way up to the $32,000 Blades, the KEF speakers offered a superior sound that I’m glad I invested in.
The KEF R300 is a true 3-way design with a tweeter and midrange in the Uni-Q driver and a 6.5” woofer to handle bass duties. It is a sizable bookshelf, weighing in at over 26 lbs. and is hefty to move around. Most companies don’t make a true 3-way bookshelf speaker, only towers that offer three discrete drivers. Moving down in the KEF R-series gives you the 2-way R100 while moving up gets you the tower models with dual bass drivers.
For a home theater and music system, using a bookshelf with a subwoofer provides benefits over towers. The optimal position for the main speakers are usually not the optimal position for bass. Using a tower speaker if you want to take advantage of the bass extension you have to choose between those two. Using a bookshelf you can position them for optimal stereo imaging and place the subwoofer in the best location for bass. Additionally the height of the tweeter in the R-Series towers isn’t ideal for my home theater seating. At 6’3″ my ears are relatively high up, and using a bookshelf lets me pick speaker stands that place the tweeter at the ideal height.
The R300 comes in a variety of finishes, which look much nicer than the usual veneer finishes. The rear has port with an included plug if you are too close to a wall for it to work well. There are two sets of binding posts for biwiring the speakers. Integrated jumpers, controlled with a dial, mean you’ll never misplace the included jumpers again. The speaker grill is magnetic so when it is off the front is clean.
The Uni-Q Driver
KEF is one of the few manufacturers that uses a tweeter placed inside of the midrange driver. What this allows is for all these sounds to originate from the same point at the same time. This removes the slight, but audible, timing differences you can encounter from separate drivers. When the drivers are separate you have to design them to have their time alignment be in a certain position. The issue with this assumption is that if they are setup at a different location, or you move around, the timing between the two drivers is off.
Since the Uni-Q places both drivers at the same point, and sound originate at the same location, they are always going to be time aligned. This gives the Uni-Q superb off-axis response making them ideal for larger listening spaces but still suited to a single person. Listening to the KEF models compared to other speakers in the same price range made this clear.
On everything I listened to, solo or with a group, the KEF reigned supreme. Diana Krall on Live in Paris reveals more in her voice and instruments through the Uni-Q. Everything is more detailed and natural, removing a thin layer of haziness that the other speakers impart on the music. Simon and Garfunkel sound completely smooth with a sound you can listen to for hours on end. There is no annoying background hiss, no artifacts, just the music you want to hear.
Compared to my prior speakers, the Definitive Technology Mythos STS, it isn’t even close. Sure, on the bass line of a song like Massive Attack’s “Angel” the STS offers something more, but it loses everywhere else despite costing more. The soundstage on the KEF is much larger, but everything is more detailed. Vocals and instruments are clean and easy to pinpoint in space. Integrated into a system with a subwoofer and good bass management, through the subwoofer or a preamp like the Emotiva XSP-1 or Parasound Halo Integrated, the KEF will beat the Mythos STS in all regards.
Home Theater Use
The KEF R-Series works for both movies and music. Using them in a home theater is why I picked the R300 bookshelf over the larger R500 or R900 towers. Those offer better bass response, but when paired with a subwoofer this advantage won’t exist. As someone that has to move speakers around all the time, I didn’t want to be moving a 50-60 lb. tower all the time. I’m still young, but I like to take it easy on my back when I can. So I needed a speaker that worked well for music, and just as well for movies. The KEF R-Series delivers here.
There are two center channels to go with the R-Series speakers, the R200C and the R600C. The R600C has larger bass drivers to match my R300 bookshelves while the R200C better matches the R100 and R500 models. The Uni-Q drivers provides another big advantage here with its wide, even dispersion and time alignment with the midrange. The crossovers of the R600C also almost match those of the R300 bookshelves, so the sound will be consistent across the front soundstage.
KEF also offers an R50 Atmos module that you can place on top of their bookshelves or towers. It has a Uni-Q driver to provide a similar sound to the rest of the R-Series line. It’s only available in Gloss Black, likely the most common color for home theaters, so be aware of this if you want all your speakers to match. They also make a line of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers that match up well with the R-Series. You can have a system that only has a pair of front speakers visible, with surrounds, a center, and Atmos channels hidden away in the ceiling and walls.
Watching Mad Max and San Andreas in Atmos, the KEF models never disappoint. I paired the R50 modules with my R300s and R600C and used the Yamaha CX-A5100 as a processor to great effect. The opening scene of Mad Max, one that was played continuously at CEDIA this year, went all around me and with all the small details coming out. Playing at reference levels is no issue for the R-Series, and that glorious Uni-Q driver keeps it from being harsh or brittle. Tracking objects as they move around the Atmos soundstage is easy to do and effects don’t blend together at all.
Surround sound music sounds fantastic as well. The 5.1 channel SACD of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here sounds better than I’ve ever heard it in my home. The sound of the guitars is far more detailed than from my older Mythos STS speakers and the subtle background noises all come out. Beck’s Sea Change Blu-ray Pure Audio disc is ideal to show off a 5.1 channel system as one of the best recordings of the past two decades. Compared to the MoFi CD this version offers a more spacious soundstage and makes it even easier than before to pinpoint items in the recording.
More Affordable Options
The R-Series is fantastic. I felt so certain about this after listening to them that I bought them for myself to replace my long term speakers. They offer everything I want in a speaker and as passive models they are ideal to show off what an amplifier or receiver can do. But they are expensive for most people. If they cost too much you can step down in the KEF line without losing too much.
The KEF Q100 was the best bookshelf speaker I heard in my testing for The Wirecutter this year. At $550 a pair it outclassed all the $400 models and is one I would save up for. Recently it’s been available for $300 and at that price is a steal. The bass isn’t as good as the R-Series, the finishes not as nice, and it isn’t a true 3-way design. But compared to other $300-500 speakers it sounds far better than the rest of them. With matching center channel and tower speakers, you can build a great two channel or 5.1 channel system for much less than the R-Series.
If you only want a stereo setup, then the KEF LS50 is in a class of its own. I also heard these for months during my Wirecutter article, and hated that I had to return them. They are a 2.5 way design, and the bass doesn’t reach as low as the R300, but they are an impressive speaker. For a two channel system they would be my first choice in the $1,500 price range. The effortless, clear, smooth sound from them makes listening to music a joy. Paired with anything from a Sonos Connect to a Devialet Expert and they will sound incredible.
My New Reference
At the start of the year, I tell myself I’m only going to buy one component per year. I see and hear the best of what is available, and it’s too easy to want to buy everything. Knowing I can only buy one thing a year makes me have to be as picky as possible about what I pick. This year I bought the KEF R-Series to replace my speakers and have been incredibly happy with my purchase. They sound much better than my previous system, making everything else in my system sound great. With the ability to upgrade to the R900 towers down the road and install in-ceiling speakers for Atmos and DTS:X, they will be a long term solution for me. If you want speakers that are fantastic, and work well with music or movies, I highly suggest listening to what KEF offers. From the Q-series to the R-Series, or the Reference and Blade, they are fantastic speakers that you’ll get years of enjoyment from.