I have a funny feeling that the regular UPS driver in my neighbourhood isn’t too thrilled about making deliveries to my house. I’m pretty sure of this because I tend to have the largest, heaviest boxes on his delivery route. The last time, I opened the door to find him completely out of breath, holding a giant KEF subwoofer box. The shipment contained the latest KEF Q series (sixth generation) speaker set. There are several speaker models in the Q series so a custom multi-channel set can be assembled in a number of various configurations. The 5.1-channel set that arrived at my place contained the iQ9 towers, the iQ3 bookshelves, an iQ6c centre channel and a matching PSW 3500 subwoofer. All the speakers in this set, aside from the subwoofer, are the flagship models in this series. The combined price of this system is $4100.
Taking new speakers out of the boxes is always a lot of fun because I’m never quite sure exactly what to expect. Often the specifications and pictures on the company’s website paint a small portion of the picture. The KEF Q series may look attractive on the website but believe me, they look even better in real life. The gorgeous contemporary design of these speakers is far from the standard rectangular speaker enclosures. My review set came in a stunning finish called Apple but three other finishes are available including black, maple and walnut, to ensure a match with your décor. These are perhaps the best looking speakers to grace my home theatre room yet. Equally important as the looks, the Q series sports some sophisticated acoustic engineering that promises a high level of performance. Particularly interesting is the Uni-Q array, a proprietary KEF speaker that features a 3/4-inch aluminium dome tweeter mounted at the acoustic centre of the 6-1/2-inch bass/midrange cone. KEF claims that this array allows the sound from both drivers to reach the listener’s ear at precisely the same time, provides a better off-axis response and widens the sweet spot for imaging. I like to put claims to the test!
The full-size bass reflex iQ9 towers combine an elliptical enclosure with a slightly curved front baffle (from a top-view). A single KEF 6-1/2-inch Uni-Q speaker and two 6-1/2-inch woofers occupy the baffle. The Uni-Q extends slightly above the top of the baffle. Also present on the front baffle are two port holes that flare out gently and overlap the woofers. The iQ9 towers have a sensitivity rated at 91 dB and a frequency response from 38 Hz all the way up to 40 kHz.
The two-way bass reflex iQ3 bookshelf speakers follow a near identical design as the towers but employ a single 6-1/2-inch Uni-Q speaker with an overlapping port hole. They have a sensitivity of 89 dB and a frequency response from 45 Hz to 40 kHz. As an alternative to the two-way bookshelf speakers, KEF also offers a dipole-design speaker, the iQ8ds, which can be used as the surround speaker.
The three-way bass reflex centre channel iQ6c speaker has a distinctive curved front baffle that combines a single 5-1/4-inch Uni-Q speaker flanked by two 5-1/4-inch woofers. It has a sensitivity rating of 90 dB and a response of 65 Hz to 40 kHz.
The back of each speaker has two pairs of silver multi-way binding posts that allow for bi-wire or bi-amping. Provided wire loops connect each pair of terminals for single speaker cable connections.
The low frequencies of this system were supplied by a beautiful elliptically shaped PSW 3500 subwoofer. The 3500 uses a downward firing 12-inch woofer combined with a 300 watt amplifier. A supplied remote together with an LED display on the front of the subwoofer allow for the adjustment of volume, crossover frequency and phase from your listening position (sweet!). An IR extender is provided so that the remote will work even if the subwoofer is out of direct line of sight of the subwoofer. The 3500 offers both low and high level inputs and is rated down to 30 Hz.
I carried out my listening tests with the KEF speakers connected to a Pioneer Elite VSX-84TXSi A/V receiver. The sound and video were provided by a Pioneer Elite DV-46AV universal player and a PlayStation 3. My selection of test movies included a DVD version of Black Hawk Down and Blu-ray versions of Flyboys and Stargate.
I got my first taste of the KEF Q series while watching chapter 4 of Black Hawk Down, during which commanders yell out the codeword “Irene” and the soldiers start loading into the helicopters. The sound of rotor blades filled my entire room, as Jimi Hendrix kicked up my pulse with “Voodoo Chile”. If I closed my eyes, I could have been easily fooled to think that I was standing close to a real helicopter. The rotating blades literally sounded like they were slicing though the air. The Q series, with a little help from Jimi, created such a powerful experience in this scene, it actually sent chills through my body. Shortly after reaching the mission objective, the sounds of urban warfare came through with a frightening realism on the KEF speakers. The hissing of bullets and rockets, panned through all the channels in my room with fluidity. The PSW 3500 subwoofer produced potent explosions, followed by crashing debris in the front and surround channels. During all the loud fighting scenes, the dialogue was brought forward by the iQ6c centre channel with impressive clarity – it never left me guessing what was being said by the characters. I moved to the sides of my usual listening spot and replayed the same chapter. The off-axis delivery of the Q series was fantastic – the sound reaching my ears was almost exactly the same in these positions, a feat not easily accomplished.
Since I’m a bit of a war movie buff, my next selection was recently purchased Flyboys on Blu-ray. War movies lend themselves nicely to testing both audio and video equipment. Flyboys contains a DTS HD Master lossless audio soundtrack, although the PS3 decodes the core DTS signal only. Nevertheless, this 1.5 Mbps audio (double the bit rate of DTS found on regular DVDs) simply blew me away. The orchestra background music sounded so clean and detailed, I could have sworn that I was listening to a high resolution music disc. On top of this background music, the character’s voices and other effects sounded incredibly real on the KEF Q series. During a chapter when anti-aircraft ammunition is fired at the Lafayette Escadrille, the subwoofer pounded the air around me with powerful, tightly delivered explosions. You absolutely need high performance speakers like the Q series to fully take advantage of the high resolution audio supplied on Blu-ray and HD DVD movies. The KEF Q series produced a true movie theatre experience from the comfort of my couch. In the home theatre, I give the KEF Q series an A+, with a smiley face sticker!
For music listening, I changed the subwoofer from cinema to music mode with the switch on its back panel. The first CD I played was Best Audiophile Voices II from Premium Records, one in a series of incredibly well recorded albums that I’ve recently discovered. The iQ9 towers reproduced the female vocals and instruments from this album with an unbelievable realness and clarity. These towers played with a warmth and smoothness across all the frequencies. Every tiny detail and musical nuance was brought forward in a well spaced soundstage. The imaging of the Q series was just superb – I could easily point out various instruments on the soundstage.
Moving toward some choices from my multi-channel music collection I picked up the Nine Inch Nails With Teeth and The Beatles Love DVD-Audio albums. Instruments and electronic effects were very well integrated across the left, centre and right channels. Music panned super smoothly between all the channels in these surround recordings. The PSW 3500 subwoofer provided a clean, tight low-end response and its amplifier always delivered sufficient power. The Q series transformed my home theatre into a powerful, three-dimensional soundstage that stretched well beyond the physical boundaries of the room.
I can confidently say that the Q series will satisfy and probably exceed the expectations of many listeners, whether they are used for movie or music applications. The sound emanating from these speakers was so pleasant that my ears never fatigued, even during extended listening sessions. The iQ9 towers sounded much larger than their size and provided a clean, immersive sound across all frequencies. The iQ3s were one of the best overall sounding bookshelf speakers I have heard to date. My only concern with the bookshelves was the depth of their cabinets, which measures a rather lengthy 13 inches (or about 15 inches taking the binding posts and wires into account). This makes them more challenging to place than typical-sized bookshelves.
The KEF Q series was simply the best sounding speaker system to grace my home theatre yet. It is difficult to describe sound using words but believe me, these speakers are raising the bar for just how incredible a high-end home theatre can sound. Their sonic presentation combined with their sexy, eye-pleasing design makes the Q series a natural fit for a high performance home theatre/music system. The system’s combined price of $4100 is worth every penny and should be attainable to most home theatre enthusiasts, especially considering that each speaker (or pair) can be purchased separately and less expensive models are available in the Q series.
5.1 System as above: $4100 MSRP (Canadian)
iQ9 – $1500/pair
iQ3 – $500/pair
iQ6c – $600/each
PSW 3500 – $1500/each