KEF’s Reference series is a stalwart and a fixture in our audio business. There has been a Reference model in the range since the Model 104 of 1973. Despite decades of leading-edge development, the Reference Series stays true to the original goals of that first model 42 years ago: using sophisticated analysis to define and control the loudspeaker environment, and building speakers with state-of-the-art production and quality control techniques. The means whereby these elements come together have changed radically over the decades, but the forces that created that Model 104 are the same that drive today’s new Reference 1.
Let’s unpack that first paragraph a little, because it’s more than just a throwaway opening gambit. Using computer design today is not such a big thing when practically everyone in the developed world over about 2 and younger than about 92 has at least one computer to their name. But just 42 years ago, using computers in the development of loudspeakers was NASA-grade engineering – four years later when I was one of the first teenagers at my school to study ‘computer science’, we were submitting our programs on Teletype and even Hollerith cards to the only computer in the borough. This was the horse and buggy era of computing, and yet KEF was already modelling its loudspeakers on computers, and this dedication to the application of science to technology has run like a red thread through the company and its products, but most pointedly through the Reference models.
This dedication to science-based audio was what sparked the company’s ‘total system design’ philosophy at the start of the 1980s, which saw the Model 103.2 incorporating drivers, cabinet, and crossover network as a complete project to be developed together, years ahead of its rivals. It was the impetus behind the Eureka/Archimedes project, which attempted to liberate the loudspeaker from the tyranny of the room it sits in (and which resulted in the Uni-Q drive unit, used in the Reference range in 1989’s Model 105/3). It was this uncompromising objectivity that developed technologies such as conjugate load matching for designs like the Model 103/4 of 1992, and ultrasonic improvements to the Uni-Q in the Reference Model 201 et al of 2001. Two things come out of this potted history; the Reference models all hark back to the laboratory-maintained scientific and manufacturing reference points, and that in more than 40 years of continuous reference points, KEF doesn’t feel the need to change that often.
But Blade forced a root-and-branch change in KEF. The technologies developed in the making of Blade are filtering through the KEF line, and that has now touched Reference. The obvious part of this is the latest iteration of the Uni-Q mid-tweeter, which formed such a key element in Blade’s single apparent source loudspeaker design and made the sophisticated LS50 loudspeaker an unalloyed international success. In the Reference 1, this 11th-generation Uni-Q model sports the distinctive tangerine wave-guide around the 25mm vented aluminium dome tweeter, which sits in the acoustic centre of the veined 125mm aluminium midrange cone. This Uni-Q design is joined by a single 165mm aluminium bass driver, set in the conventional position below the mid-tweeter unit. Bigger Reference floorstanding models add more bass units above and below the Uni-Q in a D’Appolito array, but all are essentially three-way loudspeaker designs. In a way, however, by eschewing the additional drivers, the Reference 1 represents the pure essence – the Platonic Form – of the current three-way Reference.
Describing the Reference loudspeaker simply in terms of drive units is like describing an aircraft by the number of engines; there’s a lot more going on than just that basic rubric. The ported cabinet has been analysed in every way imaginable to create the right waveguide, the right surround, the right cabinet thickness, the right bracing, how the crossover interacts with the magnetic flux from the bass driver, how the tweeter itself vents from the Uni-Q system, how components influence crossover distortion, even how the ‘Z-Flex’ ribbed speaker surround behaves under virtually every condition you can think of. The resulting loudspeaker comes with two kinds of bungs for the rear port, with the less husky one pre-fitted, and the more chunky fella designed for taming really wayward bass in a room (and yes, KEF looked even deeper into room integration). Even the bi-wire terminals have been re-appraised, and now possess clever soft-feel platinum-plated wing-nuts to engage or disengage internal bi-wire links.
In the past, some of KEF’s output has been the kind of equipment you like and respect rather than love. For a brief period around the turn of the century, it was one of those technically brilliant companies that forgot it was making a product to which people would end up spending years listening. Then something changed for the better a few years ago, and KEF started talking about ‘voicing’ loudspeakers, and conducting ‘listening tests’ alongside the technical expertise. A lot of this comes down to two of the sharpest tools in the loudspeaker box – Mark Dodd (Head of Group Research for KEF’s parent company GP Acoustics) and Jack Oclee-Brown (Head of Acoustics at KEF).
In truth, I have to be on my toes when discussing the technology behind the Reference, because KEF is not a company that leaves anything hidden. In fact, wannabe loudspeaker designers are recommended to download KEF’s white paper on the Reference series from its website. This also means I can hand over some of the gnarly concepts of the Reference design to KEF itself, should you wish to go deeper. Truth is, I only put “should you wish to go deeper” in there for good measure – go deeper. Normally a white paper is a marketing exercise with a few techy words thrown in for good measure, but KEF has basically condensed the sum total of loudspeaker engineering (albeit with a distinct KEF‑fy flavour) into 50 pages of graphs, charts, FEA diagrams, and thermography-esque flow diagrams of how air cavitates in a port. I have a paper version of that white paper that I found a non-audiophile friend flicking through, who summed this white paper up perfectly: “Total. Freakin’. Nerdgasm!”
Normally, when it comes to loudspeakers, the process involves a relatively high degree of obsessive-compulsive behaviour. The speakers are roughed in, listened to, adjusted forward-back, left-right, listened again, fine-tuned, toed in, more listening, until either you give up in frustration of you have positioned the speakers to the nearest Ångström. Sometimes, you have to follow a pre-arranged pattern, sometimes a spoken word test, sometimes it’s a question of anchoring one speaker and tuning the other, and sometimes its all about the mirrors and lasers and tape measures. The KEF Reference 1 were more or less ‘plonked down’ roughly in place, and the job was done. They got a tiny wee bit better sounding through some real care and attention (as in, stopping one of them from wobbling a bit, and making sure they were level), but in audiophile installation terms this is criminal neglect. And they sang beautifully. I moved them around, and they sang beautifully. I swapped out cables, flipping between generic speaker wire from a hardware store that cost less than a couple of pints of beer to a full run of Nordost’s new Odin 2 that cost more than my mortgage, and they sang beautifully. Of course, they sang ever sweeter the better the upstream equipment, and the more care put into installation, but they didn’t put a foot wrong regardless. I tried practically everything in my power to not make them sing beautifully, but short of throwing the speakers in a lake or connecting them up to an aging clock radio, I’d struggle to find a way of making these loudspeakers sound in any way mediocre.
That’s what all the science bit is about with KEF. Uni-Q came out of a project to understand how a loudspeaker interacts with a normal room that isn’t acoustically perfect. Not an anechoic chamber, or a studio control room. The Reference 1 is the distillation of decades of trying to dial out the listening space, without having to call upon DSP or bass traps… and it works.
It works by creating a remarkable midrange, the kind of midrange you will struggle to find in a loudspeaker at any price. It manages to achieve the goals of sounding exceptionally honest, projecting well into the room, and just letting you listen deeper than usual into the recording. As an example of this, I played ‘Everyday’ from James Taylor’s 1985 disc That’s Why I’m Here [Columbia]. This was one of the staples of MP3 development cycle, and with its syrupy Yamaha DX7 synth-string sounds and OTT production values, it’s easy to turn hard or harsh in the midrange, despite Taylor’s soft, clear tones. Although the KEF speaker never once hides the overproduced 1980s recording techniques, it also clearly differentiates instruments within the mix, neither exaggerating nor underplaying any part of the mids. You really could replace the Reference 1 with practically any loudspeaker made and you’ll hear no better. The highest praise I could confer on these loudspeakers is that they could easily be used in the studio for mastering. They are that accurate.
The KEFs could also be used at a studio because they can take a real hammering, volume-wise. This is something often overlooked in audiophile magazines, but let’s be honest – when most of us get a new toy, we want to discover what it can do, and that means showing it off. Even to ourselves. In my case, that usually means a blast of ZZ Top’s ‘La Grange’ from Tres Hombres [London]. The Reference 1 played loud; a lot louder than I could take, in fact. If you want LOUDspeakers that are also capable of great subtlety, these join a select list, which typically comprises Focal, PMC, and Wilson models.
KEF has long been a master of good imaging, especially if you give the loudspeakers minimal toe-in. This is what happens when an engineering-led company makes a speaker with outstanding dispersion and off-axis properties. The soundstage is good-to-excellent even under less than perfect conditions, and exceptional when the system and room are working well with the Reference 1. Even the front-to-back complexity and dynamic range of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony [Solti, Decca] is portrayed superbly here.
And bass is well covered through the Reference 1. OK, a bigger room or demands for more bass are better met by bigger References, but in terms of delivering a good deep bottom end, these KEFs are the first standmounts that gave my resident Wilson Duette II a run for the money. Ultimately, the Wilsons have the edge when it comes to bass energy and effortless dynamic range, and it takes moments to hear why the bigger, more expensive loudspeaker justifies its place in the audio firmament. But let’s not make that undermine precisely what the KEF offers for a fraction of the price.
There will be people who choose another tonal palette, who demand a bigger, smaller, cheaper, more expensive, or simply more fiddly loudspeaker to justify their place in the audiophile diaspora. There will be people who don’t like the piano black or wood cabinet with contrasting brushed front baffle, or the solid boxy shape. These (and more) are reasons you’d buy or prefer another loudspeaker: understandable, justifiable reasons. But that shouldn’t preclude understanding what the KEF Reference 1 is trying (and mostly succeeding) to do. Although I get why people might like another speaker, I simply can’t see how someone could dislike this one. It’s astonishingly good. If these were any more highly recommended, they’d be locking me up in a rubber room!
Design: Three-way Bass Reflex standmount loudspeaker
Drive Units: Uni-Q driver array (HF: 25mm vented aluminium dome, MF: 125mm aluminium cone), 1× 165mm aluminium bass unit
Crossover frequency: 350Hz, 2.8kHz
Amplifier requirements: 50–200W
Impedance: 8 Ohm (min. 3.2 Ohm)
Finishes: Piano Black, Satin American Walnut, Gloss Rosewood
Dimensions (H×W× D): 44 × 20.5 × 43cm (with grille and terminal)
Price: £4,500/pr (stands £1,000/pr)
Manufactured by: KEF
Tel: +44(0)1622 672261
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