If there’s one thing KEF understands, it’s audio, with the company producing some of the best speakers we’ve ever heard. Unfortunately, we can’t carry big speakers everywhere we go, so KEF has had to compromise and produce something far, far smaller.
The M200 earphones are that smaller concept, resulting in a pair of earphones that takes the research and understanding KEF has become known for and applying it to a pair on in-ears that doesn’t break the bank too much, and goes out of its way to offer a strength in audio.
Does it succeed? Let’s find out.
Features and performance
Easily one of the smallest devices we’ve seen from KEF — and will probably ever see — the M200 takes the expertise from KEF’s loudspeakers and applies it to the field of in-earphones, one of only two pairs of portable sound products KEF makes.
This pair sits alongside the on-ear KEF M500 headphones, with the M200 being infinitely more portable due to it having the in-ear form-factor.
Inside these earphones, you’ll find two sets of drivers per ear, with a 10mm low frequency driver and a 5.5mm mid- and high-frequency driver occupying the small space for the ears made of aluminium and coated with plastic.
The plastic continues at the ear piece, with wide tips for the earphones and a rubber hook extruding from the top of the earphones which allows the earpieces to hang off your lobes, with the cable hanging down, too.
A small remote can be found on the cable offering volume and playback control, though this is an MFi — “Made for iPhone” — remote and will only properly function with an iOS device, though other devices will pause and play using the centre button.
Pick up the KEF M200 and the combination of metal, rubber, and plastic on the earpieces will make you think of quality, which is fair because they certainly feel that way.
The cables could do with a bit of work, though, because while they work and do the job, they also happen to feel very flimsy, with the sort of thickness you’d expect on a pair of $50 earphones, and not something carrying a $300 price tag, which these just about do.
We hope they last longer than what they feel, but we’re not really sure, so be gentle and make sure to use the earphone case, because we suspect you’re going to want to protect these earphones in the cable department more than the rest of the package.
Next part of this is how you use the earphones, and like many an in-ear pair, you’re going to be inserting these into your aural cavity, otherwise known as your ear hole. The size of the earphones is a little larger than what you might be used to, and this can make forming a seal in your ears a little interesting, but once you get it seated, and over time you get used to the feeling, it can be ok.
We’ll get more into this later, but one of the design elements helping the fit is the rubber hook, which allows the M200 earphones to hang nicely from the side of the fleshy bit of your ear, refusing to move when they’re in place, which is handy.
From here, you’re good to start listening, and that’s where we get into our test, with GadgetGuy’s 2015 sound test employed again, beginning with electronic.
Getting it kicked in with the bass hitters, we begin this test with Mooro’s “M66R6” and The Glitch Mob’s “Skullclub”, and while the highs and lows are both equally important on these tracks, the M200 are pushing the bass hard in each one, with the highs and mids present with much the same emphasis as the lows. In “Skullclub”, the bass punches at the bottom of the song are forceful, bringing some movement to your ear drums without deafening them, while the glitchy sound effect in the upper end of the sound are clear, bright, and easy to get into, reminiscent of that feeling you had when you plonked on a pair of big cans.
Rock is up next, and with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — the classic headphone and speaker test track that it is — the bass has a solid rounding out sound, while the oomph of both the bass and the bass drum can be felt through the top of your jaw, as Kurt Cobain’s vocals tear into your skull in the mids and highs alongside the guitar.
It’s enough to make you think the music was coming from inside your head, and is recreated with a similar feeling in The Arctic Monkeys’ “Do I Wanna Know?” and some classics, too, with Clapton’s “Layla” and The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” fairly balanced across the spectrums.
Hip hop and urban keeps the pressure on the low sounds, a solid push from the bass and bass drum in Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc”, while the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotise” gets in your face with more obvious sound in the bottom end, keeping you focused on a smooth mid from Biggie’s voice and the highs of the hook.
R&B classic “Billie Jean” (Michael Jackson) demonstrates the accuracy of the M200 earphones, with clear percussion and finger clicks, the volume of the earphones keeping these little elements in view while the bass and drums handle the bottom end and the vocals control the middle part of the sound. You wouldn’t be disappointed with what you heard here, and we certainly weren’t.
That lack of disappointment is shared in modern soul and R&B, such as in Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around”, which is clear and balanced as all parts of the song play: the slick soft vocals of Timberlake, the instruments that are at least some part semi-synth, and the syncopated rhythm making up the mids and lows of the track.
Classic soul keeps it going with Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish”, both of which normally feel a little restrained in the mids and highs, but which sound on par with each other in these cans. The percussion is tight, the guitar and bass is all working together, and the tracks are clear with only the focus on what you should be listening to: the song.
You can’t get lost in the balance of these earphones, but you can totally get lost in the sound.
Pop fares much the same, Maroon 5’s “Sugar” and Katy Perry’s “Roar” providing most of its strength in the highly engineered extra bass they tend to have, ever so slightly overpowering the mids and highs, which all take a backseat, but are hardly lost here.
Fortunately the more acoustic styles of music save the day, returning the M200 earphones to glory, with the blues jam of Jonny Lang’s “Bump In The Road” keeping the young but harsh vocal stylings of Lang and his combinations of guitar, bass, drums, organ, and choir working together with a soulful tonality, while the layering of bluegrass and folk in “Babel” from Mumford and Sons is clear enough and balanced to make you think you were in the recording studio with with the English rock and folk band.
Jazz proves this again, with Dave Brubeck’s “Maria” soft and smooth like a pleasant whiskey rolling off your tongue — not too much burn from the bass, which is more subtle in this track — and much the same result in Nat King Cole’s “It’s Only A Paper Moon” and Louis Armstrong’s “Cheek to Cheek”.
The instrumental tracks win out here for a clarity that is reminiscent of the big speakers KEF produces, with “All Blues” from the Miles Davis record “Kind of Blue” a little lower on volume, but when pushed up, the sound is warm, simple, detailed, and easy to follow.
Overall, the sound is definitely up there, and while the size of these earphones is certainly small, the sound is big, detailed, balanced, and impressive, producing a quality you’d expect with bag cans, though not necessarily earphones as small as these.
We need to address comfort, though, because that is something KEF hasn’t quite mastered yet.
It’s strange, because the M500 headphones we checked out were very nice to our ears, but the M200 are just a little too aggressive.
Interestingly, this isn’t an issue with the combined metal and plastic build, which makes sense and feels good to our ears. It’s not even an issue with the rubbery cabling, which is a little too thin for us, but survives all the same.
No, this is a problem with the large in-ear pieces KEF is using with these earphones, and they’re so large the typical foam tips we use can’t even attach. They’re just that large, that unusual, and like a 2.5mm jack being used in a 3.5mm cable to attach to headphones — again, something KEF has done in a pair of headphones — this is a little unorthodox.
That means you’re probably going to have a hard time getting extra ear tips for these later down the track, which could pose a problem for some.
It also means this uniquely large in-earphone means KEF has managed to fit in a 10mm low-frequency driver as well as a 5.5mm mid- and high-frequency driver in each ear, which together with a wide chamber results in spectacular sound, as demonstrated in our above review.
Unfortunately, it also hurts your ears.
The earpiece is just so big, and much wider than we’re used to throwing in our aural cavities, feeling like you’re forcing something in the spot that shouldn’t be as big as it is.
Over time, we found our ears were warming to the large shape, though you may find your inner ear becomes a little itchy due to it trying to adjust. Not all will, either, and while we like the sound, we found the discomfort didn’t exactly fade after half an hour, as our ears just weren’t big enough and tried to push the huge pieces out.
And when we freed them, our ears almost let out a sigh of relief, with the pressure they were bringing to our ears released, almost like a weight had been lifted off our shoulders, except with our ears.
Those of you reliant on the big earphone tips already will likely have a field day. “Finally!” you’ll say. “A pair of earphones made for my ears! These are awesome!”
The rest of us with average or small ear holes, however, will struggle, because while the KEF M200 sound amazing, they are just insanely uncomfortable for a great majority of us.
We said it to start the review, but we’re going to say it again: if there’s one thing KEF understands, it’s audio, and the M200 in-earphones certainly prove this, providing some of the most detailed and balanced audio we’ve ever come across, though it does come with a catch, because KEF may get audio, but it doesn’t know comfort.
Indeed, the M200 are some of the most uncomfortable earphones we’ve ever plunged into our ears, or tried to, with the large earpiece and driver size causing instant discomfort until your ears adapt, which takes time.
It’s a shame, too, because the M200 earphones are amazingly good, with a great design and build on top of that superb audio quality, but the comfort is just bizarrely hard to get used to. Once you do, you’ll be right, but a few weeks in, we’re only now just getting our ears into it, and they still breathe a sigh of relief when we take them out.
If you see yourself able to deal with this unusual comfort and large earpiece size — ideal if you’re used to using the big ear tips on earphones anyway — the KEF M200 are definitely worth looking at, but they do take some time to get used to, so you have been cautioned.