Oh, how beautiful are the new Reference! and this is not a fragment of the Canticum Canticorum… From the first time I saw them, I knew, that finally KEF succeeded in finalizing a design project. Glossy varnish, perfectly laid natural veneer, ingenious lute shaped enclosure, and a cast, black metallic varnished casket covering the newest version of the UNI-Q, directly borrowed from the flagship product Muon and the earlier project Austin. The latter had its premiere during the last year’s High End Show in Munich (reportage HERE), where it received the highly regarded distinction for the Sound of the Show. Those behemoths evaluated into the beautiful form of the Muon. And one of the most important changes, anticipating the appearance of new models was the re-design of the UNI-Q system. The most important changes were to the geometry of the diaphragm of the midrange driver, to integrate it better with the tweeter dome. Its suspension was exchanged for a flat one and the tweeter is completely new. And this helped to eliminate the supertweeter (called hypertweeter by the company) so characteristic for the first series. I talked about the changes with the main engineer from KEF, dr. Andrew Watson, and I learned many interesting things from him. Among other things, he claimed, that he tried to use aluminum and beryllium in place of the now used titanium, and came to the conclusion, that the diaphragms, although rigid, loose some of the energy of the recordings, and their resonances influences the frequency response in a negative way. This is a very interesting claim, because the direct rival of KEF in the field of coincidental drivers (that is the name KEF uses in its company material, because this is not only about a common axis, but also a common plane), the company TAD (now owned by Pioneer) that has Andrew Jonses as its head – the man, that was one of the engineers responsible for creating the UNI-Q system (he was earlier the chief designer at Infinity Systems and chief of the projects at KEF Electronics). And that man, in the majestic TAD loudspeakers Reference One uses a new version of UNI-Q, where the midrange driver and the tweeter diaphragms are from beryllium… That system does not carry the name UNI-Q, as it is a restricted brand name owned by KEF. Anyway, the new KEF dome tweeter reaches 60kHz (-3dB), by transferring the place the voice coil is mounted to the dome from the edge to 2/3 diameter of it. This gave a more rigid structure, that breaks up much higher than before (the peak should be visible above 25kHz). How was it done? As there is no way of connecting the voice coil in another place than the edge, the dome was split in two parts – the true dome and a cylinder with bent edges, that enters the dome from behind and brings the mounting points closer together.
But this is not all. I can now officially tell this, as the official premiere of those speakers already took place, but I heard the first units that came from the production in Maidstone, where the headquarters of the company are located, on a special, closed presentation about a year ago, during the IFA in Berlin (report from the show 2006 HERE, 2007 HERE). During the presentation I listened to the models 203/2 and 205/2. And I was enchanted. At last there was more flesh and energy in the sound, the whole was much more pleasing than before. Of course I asked dr. Watson why they sound completely different than the first version. With a disarming smile, he said, that they departed from absolute linearity, fidelity, etc, to changes elaborated during listening sessions. At first he was not very happy about that, because he is a scientist and an engineer, but after including the requested corrections he changed his mind. Anyway, the most important information is, that the first presentations were done about a year ago. During that time those were tested by the Japanese, prestigious magazine “Stereo Sound” (the test was accompanied by an important award of this magazine, Critic’s Applause 2006 in the next issue), so they had to be there about three or four months earlier. So why this delay and why had we to wait one and a half year for the Polish premiere, this test being it? The issue was quite prosaic but irresolvable. The new Reference have a brilliant enclosure, with natural veneer covered by the same varnish as piano’s are (it is not the known black piano varnish, however such a version is also available). And as the veneer was done perfectly, the varnish, and it has seven layers, was not. The company had to change the subcontractor three times, before ideal surface and repetition quality was achieved. And with hundreds or thousands of items this is hard to do, and thus it took about a year. Anyway, we are the first magazine in Poland, that received those loudspeakers for review.
When I unpacked the loudspeakers, I was not disappointed. I say even more – only now I could fully enjoy the attention to detail. The loudspeaker looks fabulous, and it brings with it something more, an extra thing above the pride of the audiophile – the joy of possessing. This is an audio product, that at the same time is a luxury product, something like a watch or a yacht. Undoubtedly, watching them we know, that this is something with taste, that one had to pay a premium for. Some additional elements testify for this, like the accessories placed in a big wooden box. And we have there: terrific looking feet, thick braid copper cramps (the speaker has three WBT terminal, so six cramps were provided), spirit level in a tasteful chromed enclosure, that we can put on the speaker to level it. Everything tells us: I am somebody!
When I first heard about the change of sound character of the reference series from KEF to a more “human” one, I was not convinced to the idea. Yes, I listen to music, and not to the equipment, but the precision of the first series of the loudspeakers was its asset. “Humanization” of the sound means often, that it is warmed and the attack is slightly softened. This is the reason that tube amplifiers from the medium price level are so liked. The higher the prices, the characteristics that are associated with tubes disappear to make place for precision. That was the case with the British speakers. But even the first listening session shows, that in the new incarnation it was not about losing detail. And I am not talking about looking for the not existing details, or putting them before the music. It turns out, that the 203/2 are incredibly transparent, when it comes to everything that is in the sound path before them. Before the test, there was the 51. meeting of the Krakow Sonic Society, devoted to anti-vibration supports for the devices and the stands for loudspeakers, from the companies Finite Elemente, Vibrapod (reviewed HERE) and Nordost. Nice pastime, unexpected results, etc. With one word – this is audible, and good supports (the best turned out to be the Ceraball FE) change the sound significantly. In the system they were listened to, under the drive of the new Lektor Grand Ancient Audio they added a final cut to the sound, improved localization and deepened the drawing of the instruments. In general – the sound was nobler, and not by an itsy-bit, but in a way, that one should not think about that, but just buy it. So I did. Returning home I dismantled the cones mounted on my Lektor Prime AA (made by Monacor) and put the Finite feet in their place. Because this was the middle of the night, I did not listen what changed in the sound. The next day, new devices came for testing, and I forgot I changed something in the system. Yes, you can laugh – I changed only the feet under the player. Because I always start the test from listening to the discs in my system, just to calibrate my ears, I fired up the Harpia Acoustics loudspeakers I use (the Dobermann (new) test HERE). And I did not recognize my system. The sound was incredibly resolved, precise, but also the focus point went up the scale. And with those speakers this is very dangerous, because it can change into importunity. After checking all the connections, cables, speaker setup, etc, when everything was as it should be, I noticed this subtle change – the supports. I returned to the Monacors quickly and the former tonal balance returned. But then… The absolute clarity and precision of the bass and attack of the midrange got lost somewhere. And the Finite did not sharpen the sound in a much more expensive system! So what was it: the improvement of precision and clarity showed all elements I knew about, but were masked, like the too low power, for the Harpia, of the amplifier Leben CS-300 I use with them from time to time, and also the fact, that the beautiful, used by me on a daily basis power amplifier Luxman M-800A needs a good preamplifier, and I drive it from the variable output of the Lektor.
I made the same exercise, the change of the feet, with the KEF. And the result was the same. So what is the conclusion? Those are really transparent speakers, that need appropriate power. So the change of the tonal balance did not diminish the resolution of the 203/2, it was even improved. In general, if we may generalize, the sound has more body and filling, but is not nasal. Difficult to reproduce recordings from the beautiful disc of Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke Duality (4AD/Sonic Records, SON 139, CD) were clear and full. Voices are the “forte” of this construction. Already during the pre-premiere listening sessions I noticed the splendid presentation of the voices of the group Anonymous 4, but now I could appreciate also their depth and drawing. So it seems, that here and there something was added at the low frequencies to not distort the sound balance. Because if the recordings are somewhat light, I mean with no substance, like the pieces from the disc Wish The Cure (Fiction/Sound-Pol, SPB CD 015, CD) they will be reproduced like that. Maybe without pointing to their flaws, but also without boosting anything. In general the bass is shorter and better controlled than in the previous version, although fuller. So if in the recording the bass is strong, then regardless of the recording type, even with a very old registering like Mel Tormé Sings Fred Astair of Mel Tormé (Bethlehem/Victor Enterteinment, VICJ-61457, K2HD, CD), it will be reproduced really strong. Looking closer at this phenomenon, we will see, that this type of playing is due to the strong upper bass, responsible for the so called “kick-bass”. Those are no speakers that will howl romantically, proving that audiophilism means torturing ourselves with porno-jazz (Sara K. – sorry, I even like her, but this is that kind of music, just as the last discs from Madeleine Peyroux and Diana Krall), and if needed they will kick. Interestingly, the KEF do not go very far down, and maybe this is the reason the upper bas is conducted so well.
The midrange is splendid, but I already wrote that. It will change accordingly to the devices attached. With the standard feet under the Prime this sub-range was quite warm, and the upper bass and lower midrange did not hit directly, but with a kind of emphasis, something more than the razor of the attack. Similar kind of sound had the tested by me some time ago Nagra PMA amplifier (the comparison with the previous version of the AA Silver amplifiers HERE) and this is a very nice sound, one can get accustomed to it quickly. With the Cerapuc they sounded more direct, without any aura around every hit. The vocals were not so to the front, as one could expect from a beefed-up speaker. The mentioned Tormé, and later Sara K (this had to happen...) with the brilliantly issued disc Hell Or High Water (Stockfisch, SFR 357.5039.2, XRCD24; review HERE) were presented on the stage in very good perspective and one could even say, that the vocalist lost the “pungency” of her vocal, that made it appear unnaturally big and expansive on worse systems. Maybe the very natural sound is the effect of the brilliant coherence between the tweeter and midrange. I am not saying that the Uni-Q is the solution to all problems, or that this is the only way for the integration of the drivers. The Dobermann show, that this can also be done well in a traditional way. But the Harpia are exceptional… The KEF reach the same fluency, and even better saturation of the lower midrange, what is one of the few things I would have bettered in the Polish design.
The space is interesting. One of the assets of the Uni-Q should be the broad sound image in many places in front of the baseline, not only restricted to the sweet spot. At first, it is not audible, that the British loudspeakers stand out from the crowd, and for example the loudspeakers from Audio Physic or Sonics will just enchant with the size of the stage and its momentum at first sight. The only thing is that KEF can do something extra: it presents a big, stable drawing, served with incredibly realistic volume of the instruments and voices. Just like I wrote during the pre-premiere of the mighty speakers Wing Ancient Audio, I am a converted man, and although I still like stand mount speakers, I think that a fleshy, having a natural height (and not only depth and width) stage cannot be created from small speakers. That is why the recordings are reproduced so splendidly from planar speakers, like the Magnepan MG 1.6/QR – because they have natural size. The KEF, while not especially big, makes similar impression. This can be heard nicely with mono recordings. The first step for correct reproduction of that kind of recording is good resolution. This allows for precise drawing of the depth without chaos and instruments overlapping. This can be achieved by many speakers, already above 5000zl (this is only an approximate level and not a dogma), if they are made well. Almost all constructions show the music of that type as one small dot on the stage. On one hand this is good, because it shows that the phase relations are good, there is no washing out, etc, but for full realism it is necessary to go further: the recordings must have appropriate volume. Still precise, but with substance. The Wing plays like that, the Magnepan, until some extent the Harpia, but the KEF, although smallest from them all, are just a small step behind the first two constructions. And such a sound picture can be heard not only from the middle, but also from the sides. The sound does not immediately jump into the nearest speaker but just moves in this direction slightly. This is really something!
Taking everything into account, then we have to admit, that the new series is an advance in comparison to the older one. This is not yet the top of the resolution, because loudspeakers in the kind of Wilson Audio or Von Schweikert do it better. But to achieve this with the American loudspeakers, you will have to spend three or four times more. And all those speakers are much uglier than the KEF. Some problem can be the fact, that the loudspeakers are not an easy load. Although nominally 8 ohm they have a minimum at 3.2 ohm (the company states that in their materials), what could be heard with the 12-watt Leben CS-300, because the sound became quite bright, what pointed to especially high current drawing. I think, that the 60 W of my (yes, it’s mine…) Luxman M-800A is an absolute minimum. So you have to rethink the usage of tube amplifiers, if they have less than 60-80 W.
The Reference 203/2 from the company KEF are the improved version of the model Reference 203. The improvements are so significant, that those could be named differently, and it wasn’t probably done to not confuse the consumers. Those are still the same slim enclosures, with a three-way four speaker system, vented with two bass-reflex ports. On the bass work two, parallel working bass drivers with a 165mm diameter, with a diaphragm made from cellulose pulp covered with long fibers. In the middle a transparent dust cover is visible. The speaker has a big cast spider and a very large motor, with Faraday rings (a long voice coil – short slit setup).According to manufacturer those are drivers with exceptionally low distortion, sometimes an order of magnitude lower than the competition. The speakers are connected with plastic grilles with profiled bass-reflex ports. On the top there is the Uni-Q system. Strengthened from the top by a droplet shaped massive block, it is a completely new design, first introduced in the mighty prototype loudspeakers Austin, that evolved into the Muon. The midrange driver, with 165mm diameter has a flat suspension, without the fold, that should help in keeping the speed and aid better propagation of the treble – the diaphragm of the midrange speaker (made from polypropylene) is an acoustic load for the tweeter located in its center. The 25mm tweeter dome is made from titanium, and is unconventionally driven: the voice coil is wound not on the direct extension of it, but on an additional ring. This ring is folded to the middle, so that the pressure point is 1/3 closer to the center. This resulted in a significant shift of the resonance frequency and the extension of the frequency response, up to 60kHz. This allowed to resign from the hypertweeter known from the previous series. To extend the frequency response of the tweeter in the lower registers, it is loaded by a big can from the aft side, and not damped like in the previous version. Both speakers – the midrange and the tweeter – have neodymium magnets. It is worth to mention, that eliminating one cross-over frequency, the other were pushed a bit down: from 400Hz to 300Hz and from 2.7kHz to 2.3kHz.
The cross-over is mounted on two big PCBs. Differently than in the loudspeakers from Bowers&Wilkins, those are high order filters, hence the number of elements. In the mid-high range we have air coils and polypropylene capacitors from the French company SRCm and in the low frequency section we have electrolyte capacitors and core coils. The bass section of the cross-over is screwed to the thick removable bottom of the enclosure, and the midrange-tweeter section is mounted to the front baffle, also from beneath. The whole speaker is cabled by a thick OFC braid, branded with the KEF logo. The cables are attached to modeled module fitting with its shape to the narrow back plate of the speaker. This is a very worked out setup – as we have three pairs of terminals (very nice WBT), allowing even tri-wiring or tri-amping and the capability to adjust the sound to the listening room, by means of solid, gold plated screws provided by WBT, that act like cramps. We have two sub-ranges – treble, with two cramps, and bass. Such versatility is an absolute rarity, and the regulations, seemingly subtle, transcribe into significant changes in the sound. Equally rare are the solid cramps like here: instead of the common metal plates we have solid, copper wires with nice, although not very expensive, plugs.
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