My fellow RHT writers have been quite jealous of me over the last few weeks. The reason is that I had the opportunity to review a set of speakers from the KEF Reference series: the Reference 1 bookshelves and Reference 2C center channel. Editor’s Note: Yes, I’m jealous. My system is currently boxed up to move.
Quite simply, the Reference 1’s and 2C are the best speakers I’ve had the pleasure of having in my home. And while, at nearly $15,000 for the set-up that I currently have, they are also the costliest, but offer noticeable improvements over speakers I’ve had experience with at lower price brackets. These are truly refined speakers from every way in which you can approach them – be it build quality, aesthetics or sound. If you are looking for a truly high-end bookshelf speaker then the KEF’s absolutely deserve a look.
Whenever a speaker in the Reference line is reviewed, KEF wants to make sure that the experience that the reviewer has is the best possible experience for his or her room. They assure that by hand delivering the speakers and setting them up personally. I had the pleasure of having KEFs Dipin Sehdev, Head of Brand Relations for KEF, set up the 2C and Reference 1’s in my home in mid April.
As Dipin unpacked and set-up the Reference speakers he pointed out just a few of the very specific design decisions that KEF made in building this line. It is beyond the scope of this review to run down all of the technology and engineering that went into the KEF Reference line – if you want to geek out, I’ll point you to this white paper which does a full run through of the ground up re-design of the Reference line that KEF launched in May 2014.
Once Dipin was finished, I had the chance to fully take in the Reference 1 and 2C’s. The first thing that stands out is that these are beautiful speakers. My samples are a striking piano black finish that matches my BDI Mirage Stand and JL Audio F113 subwoofers.
It’s worth noting that both the Reference 1’s are large for bookshelf speakers (17.3 x 8.1 x 16.9 in) – they are a fair bit larger than my B&W 805D’s. While they don’t dominate the room by any stretch, they are an imposing bookshelf speaker.
From the front, both speakers have an aluminum face that showcases the KEF signature UniQ driver, and a woofer. Interestingly KEF has elected to not include speaker covers with the Reference series – a decision that I’m not entirely aligned with. Life is messy – and if you’re not isolating your speakers from life, speaker covers can provide an extra level of security against mishaps. For my B&W 805D’s, the covers are held on via magnets and are easily removable for critical listening (something I don’t personally find necessary). KEF let us know that covers are available for order that cover the drivers, but not the entire speaker. I’d like to see these included standard with the Reference Series.
Dipin also brought KEF’s matching stands for the Reference 1’s. As you can probably imagine, these are also really nice – though expensive at $1500. A neat feature I have to point out – each stand contains a built in leveling bubble – a really useful tool – especially when you live in a pre-war apartment in NYC with less than even floors.
Other quick notes: KEF includes exchangeable “port tubes” – one long and one short. Exchanging these changes the bass characteristics of the Reference 1’s (the 2C doesn’t have the same flexibility). Dipin and I elected to keep in the large tubes in my room after some listening. The Reference 2C also has the ability to engage a +3db LF bump or -2db HF bump via nobs on the back. We left these unengaged. On music, I listened to the Reference 1’s without the assistance of my JL Audio 113’s. On movies, I crossed over the Reference 1’s and 2C to the JL113’s (crossed over at 80hz).
A Refined Sound
If I had to sum up the sound of the Reference 1’s in one word it would be refined. These speakers are clearly the result of a lot of learning at KEF. The result is a confident, pleasing and approachable sound that is surprisingly versatile across varied content.
Listening to Phish’s most recent studio album, Feugo, I am struck by how balanced the Reference 1’s are. On the title track, “Feugo”, we move through a variety of Phish’s styles, from laid back vocals, to driving high tempo drums. The Reference 1’s handle each transition with ease. During the second half of the song, where Fishman’s drums move to a frenetic, driving pace, I am impressed by the resolution and detail of the Reference 1’s, which is among the best I’ve ever heard through the mid-range.
In comparison to my regular speakers speakers, the B&W 805D2 and HTM2, the UniQ driver produces a different high-end than the B&W’s Nautilus tweeter. It is difficult to say which I prefer as my set-up doesn’t allow for A/B comparisons. On content with superb production values, I may give the edge to the Nautilus – but in my use the UniQ is more versatile configuration. Where the B&W can trend harsh on some material, I’ve never once heard the KEF’s sound the least bit challenging.
Given that the Reference 1’s are true three way bookshelves, they are capable of diving quite deep and produce ample and very tight bass. Compared to my reference B&W 805D2’s, the Reference 1’s produce a much fuller and complete sound. If I employ a 80Hz cross-over in my Marantz AV8801, and utilize my dual JL Audio 113’s, the difference is less pronounced.
Soundstage and imaging are excellent – again, different in tenor than the B&W 805D2’s. During “Sing Monica” you can specifically locate each member of the group. In my room the soundstage was a bit forward of the B&W leading to a more active engagement through the tracks. It’s worth noting that the KEF Reference 1’s can also play loud. I mean real loud – without ever sacrificing any resolution. If you like listening to your music loud, the Reference 1’s definitely deliver.
Over the course of the week I threw a lot of different music content at the Reference 1’s, and I was never disappointed. Whether it was old content live content from the Grateful Dead’s recently released Complete Recordings 1978, or more rock focused tracks like “Pedestrian at Best” from Courntey Barnett (a surprising discovery from season finale of SNL’s 41st season), or show tunes/hiphop (the Hamilton Original cast recording has been in heavy rotation since seeing the show in March).
In a home theater setting, the KEF Reference 1 and 2C are equally impressive. The 2C is a substantial center and contains one UniQ driver and two matching woofers. Given the midrange capabilities of the Reference 1, it is not surprising how well the 2C handles dialog. This is particularly evident on this years best picture nominee Carol – full of subtle and delicate dialog. On the more aggressive front, I was really happy with how the KEF Reference set-up tackles The Revenant. I found the Blu-Ray of The Revenant to have reference quality sound, and just a little bit of everything to test a speaker set-up. Dynamics and resolution are fantastic, particularly evident during the initial scene where the trapping camp is being attacked by the Ree hunting party. I can clearly hear arrows flying through the air as the Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto score is handled beautifully.
My observation from music with the KEF reference also held here – on day-to-day viewing of mediocre cable content (think Wheel of Fortune), I never found the KEF Reference trending harsh the same way my B&W’s can.
Value is a category with which we rate products here at RHT, so it worth visiting cost for a moment. The KEF Reference 1’s, at $8K/pair, and nearing $10K with matching stands, are the most expensive speakers we’ve reviewed here at RHT. On top of that, they are among the most expensive bookshelf speakers we know of made by a mainstream manufacturer. So what kind of value do the Reference 1’s and 2C’s bring to the table? It is a difficult question. You can spend far less on speakers – and you can spend far more. What I can say is that if you are in the market for a true high end speaker, and are in a position with which to consider the Reference series, you owe it to yourself to audition these. KEF has addressed every detail they could here, and the results are not just sonically pleasing, but also aesthetically so. In the end you know where your money is going with the KEF Reference series. That said, anyone considering this speaker should consider what the KEF Reference can do in comparison to peers in the same price range, and those perhaps at price points both above and below. A good dealer will allow you to do this – possibly even in your own home.
As I said at the opening of my review, the Reference 1’s and 2C are unquestionably the best speakers I’ve had the pleasure of having in my home. These are really exceptional speakers from every aspect. Sound wise, I find the Reference line to be among the most confident speakers I’ve ever heard. I am continually impressed at their ability to perform consistently on a variety of material, while at the same time never becoming harsh or challenging. The build quality and aesthetics absolutely match what you’d expect from a speaker of this nature – every aspect of the speaker shows quality and clear intent – KEF spared no expense here. If you are looking for a high end bookshelf speakers speaker, and are in the position to be considering speakers in this price range, I’d say the KEF is worth an audition.