KEF revives its “Reference” speakers, we go ears-on

We’re not sure anyone really has a spare $28,000, but if they happen to have a budget close to that for speakers, KEF’s revived “reference” speaker could just be the best thing you’ll hear. It was for us.

Something strange happened to this reviewer this week.

After braving the cold wet and rain of Sydney’s not-quite-tropical storm, emerging a little worse for wear with close to swimming pools in his shoes, this reviewer had none other than Miles Davis play for him in front of his very ears.

It was an unusual experience, almost cathartic, not least of all because Davis hasn’t been alive for a number of years, passing away in 1991 when this reviewer was but a wee child.

Nevertheless, Miles played the Hilton this week in Sydney, while this writer brought himself back from the cold and wet.

Or at least, that’s what it felt like to his ears, listening to a new speaker from English-sound pioneers KEF.

kef-reference-launch-2015-ears-on-01

If you know the name, you know how high-end the equipment is, and if you don’t know the name, you’re about to.

This week, KEF launched new speakers that are nothing if not high end, with “The Reference” speakers, sound boxes designed to recreate the sound not the way the artist intended, but rather as perfect recreations of the original music file.

We’ve seen a pair of excellent headphones before from KEF, and while those were fantastic — with this reviewer reaching for his wallet — KEF’s speakers are a different game altogether, because this bit of technology was originally what got KEF in the audio game to begin with.

In fact, back in the 70s KEF was one of the first loud speaker companies to use computers to help it design speakers to be more accurate, a process that has continued to this day, even developing its own software to assist.

kef-reference-launch-2015-ears-on-04

“We invested in a computer the size of the room that slowly did complicated calculations that allowed us for the first time to really design the loudspeaker,” said George Perkins, a Research and Development Engineer at KEF, shown in the above picture.

“Basically, at this point, we were able to make it very accurate and within very tight tolerances.”

The 2015 KEF Reference range.

The 2015 KEF Reference range.

The result was what later became known as “The Reference” range of speakers, with at least eight of these popping up over the years, with the last one popping up over ten years ago.

KEF’s latest take on the series has been in development for over three years, and has been hand built, designed to respond within a half decibel of the original model.

kef-reference-launch-2015-ears-on-03

Other factors have to be met by KEF’s engineers, too, such as the driver being the only thing that generates the noise, with no cabinet buzz to make the sound as clear as possible. To assist with this, a dampening material has been installed in the speaker, separating the braces and the cabinet to help eliminate vibrations.

At the back, the speaker port is also made of a new flexible material, but depending on the sort of sound you’re after and the size of the room you’re in, this can now be replaced, with a harder material also provided with around a 15db different in sound for larger spaces.

The port on the back can now be changed.

The port on the back can now be changed.

And then there’s the speaker itself, which in the Reference 5 — the tall one above — relies on four 165mm (6.5 inc) bass drivers flanking a tweeter 25mm aluminium stiffened dome tweeter inside of a midrange driver.

This makes the Reference 5 one of the more powerful in the lot, though with a Reference 4c occupying a similar design and smaller models Reference 1 (one bass drive, one mid/tweeter array) and the Reference 3 (two bass drivers, one mid/tweeter array), KEF is looking at providing similar quality of sound to varying room sizes and price points, with the Reference 1 chiming in for $15799 for a pair, the Reference 3 for $23999 per pair, and the Reference 5 clocking in at $28999 for a pair.

The smaller Reference 1 speaker.

The smaller Reference 1 speaker.

That’s a lot of change for a speaker, and you’d have to really love your sound to find the money to spend on a pair of speakers of this quality, as well as a decent amplifier to drive them.

In action, though, we can see why people are happy to spend this sort of coin on a speaker.

In speaker and headphone reviews, you’ll read and hear terms such as tight or warm or bassy or bright, but we struggled to find these words applicable for the Reference 5 speakers we were listening to.

They weren’t any of these. Rather, they were real. They were natural.

kef-reference-launch-2015-ears-on-02

You don’t get that very often, the feeling that a speaker is recreating the sound so well that it feels like the music is in front of you, with no special depth effects or an artificial sound space.

But here in the KEF Reference speakers was an audio quality that was delightfully natural and so remarkable, it’s hard not to be in awe of what KEF has accomplished.

And when we got to play a track from “Kind of Blue”, it really did feel like Miles was in front of us, playing the tunes we’ve memorised day in and day out. This was more than just another recreation, this was perfection.

kef-reference-launch-2015-ears-on-07

That sort of perfection doesn’t come cheap, obviously, and at a buck shy of $29,000, not including the amplifier needed to drive these things, KEF’s Reference speakers aren’y for everyone.

But if you love your sound and are after a pair of speakers that bring to life every track you’ve ever loved with a clarity that makes it real, that makes it transparently brilliant, you’ll want to see these at an audio specialist as fast as you can.