TWO EDGES OF THE BLADE – We interview Johan Coorg, KEF's Brand Ambassador, & David Kroll, KEF's National Sales Manager US & CI Product Manager Global
Edgar Kramer: At Munich, KEF launched the Blade Two a smaller version of the original model. What differentiates the Blade Two from the larger original?
Johan Coorg: Blade Two is Blade in every way, but at 66 percent of the volume. This makes the speaker aesthetically and acoustically easier to place in smaller rooms. The Uni-Q array is exactly the same as Blade but the design sports 6.5-inch bass drivers instead of 9-inch. Blade Two will be available in Autumn at approximately 75 percent of the price of Blade. This is an achievement in itself because when you think about it the model has virtually the same component count and exactly the same uncompromised engineering approach.
David Kroll: Yes, they’re the same design principles with the Uni-Q allowing all sound to emanate from a single point in space which also gives you a rock-solid three-dimensional image. This is in conjunction with the shape of the cabinet which has been very carefully designed and calculated to match the driver and to provide no hard edges therefore no diffraction. In a good quality system the speaker totally vanishes. The Blade Two of course doesn’t have the same extension as Blade but it’s a scaled down version – same Uni-Q driver, same cabinet materials and construction, etc. It suits people who may not have as large a listening space or room but want the same level of performance.
EK: You also unveiled the new Reference Series at Munich. Can you tell me what technologies have trickled down from the lessons learnt on the Blade project?
JC: Over the last six or so years, KEF engineers fundamentally upgraded our driver technology with two main goals in mind – higher dynamic capability together with class leading low distortion figures, particularly in the critical midrange. The Q Series was the first range to get this treatment after the launch of Blade. Then came R Series and LS50. Now the Reference Series. Some other ideas, like flexible port technology (developed for the LS50), have also been included in the Reference Series. Even Muon has now been upgraded to give it the Blade Uni-Q and the benefit of more recent research into crossover design for example. There is now an unprecedented and quite unique linearity of latest technology throughout our speaker ranges. Applied of course depending on cost constraints.
DK: There are engineering consistencies now throughout the KEF ranges, derived from the Blade. Whether you’re looking at, for example, the R Series or the LS50, all of that flows directly downwards from the Muon and Blade and you can expect to see that continued in the future.
EK: Now that there are two high-end ranges – the Reference and Blade speakers – what can we expect from KEF in the lower ranges?
JC: KEF’s approach is to logically refresh ranges at appropriate stages of “shelf life”. R Series is fairly recent and still increasing worldwide. We are also careful to not just change for change’s sake – there are always palpable technological changes. Keep on KEF-watching!
EK: I reviewed the LS50 Anniversary and found it to be an exceptional speaker, which may even become a classic in years to come. Are there plans to expand that series (not as Anniversary models of course)?
JC: The LS50 has indeed become a worldwide classic even at this stage. It quickly became clear to us that we should not make the speaker a limited anniversary edition. We have been asked many times about expanding the range in different ways, but we will not rush into any rash decisions and nothing is officially planned. Part of LS50’s attraction is that it is totally unique in style and acoustic presentation.
EK: From your perspective, what do you think have been the biggest changes in the audio industry over the last few years?
JC: Number one; streaming and downloading. Then followed by high resolution audio, headphones and soundbars for TVs. Interestingly, a worldwide increase in 2-channel listening and the resurgence of vinyl.
DK: I think that with the emergence of MP3 and downloads more music is being played than ever before. What I also perceive happening is that as people mature they become interested in higher quality and better resolution. We’re seeing a resurgence in 2-channel hi-fi shops and shops selling new and used equipment. The shops that are doing the best are the ones that are making themselves a destination.
EK: How have these changes affected KEF?
JC: We produce products which sit at the end of any chain and therefore have to be deeply aware of changes and tailor our product offerings accordingly – which we have done. But always we have the priority in mind that “a KEF product should be recognisably KEF”. Our long work on our driver technology has been particularly beneficial when using high resolution audio.
EK: Where do you think it’s all heading?
JC: A logical purist might say that in theory everything should go active with utilisation of powerful DSP. But there will always be ‘hi-fi’… meaning that music lovers have different tastes and want the ability to mix and match their systems to apply subtle changes which please them most.
DK: I see more growing interest in high resolution, I see people continuing to grow their music collections via downloads and the ‘Cloud’ medium. I see music becoming a bigger part of our lives and becoming a natural extension of our daily activities like on the bus, or in the car, or at your desk working, etc. You see people with headphones everywhere.
EK: How long has KEF been under the Gold Peak Group umbrella and what benefits, both technical and otherwise, have derived from the association?
JC: Gold Peak acquired KEF in 1992. The group’s financial and production strengths have enabled us to realise hitherto impossible projects – like Blade.
EK: As we’ve seen from the IAG Group and more recently with Fine Sounds Group, there’s a trend towards an investments or a large conglomerate to acquire long-established brands. Could such a scenario develop for the GP Acoustics group?
JC: It is one way – but we do it another way – concentrating on focusing and strengthening our two brands; KEF for domestic and Celestion for guitar and pro audio.
DK: Yes, and Celestion builds OEM drivers for a vast number of pro audio companies and also builds products for those.
We continued the interview with David Kroll and steered the questions towards KEF’s Custom Installation products. David heads the CI Division of KEF and is responsible for development, marketing, sales and training.
EK: How is the CI space trending?
DK: We’re seeing growth in custom installation and that will continue. One trend that has been happening for the last couple of years; in custom installation many people were doing whole-house multi-zone systems and then they were doing an elaborate and expensive home theatre. We’re seeing a decline in that scenario and now people still have the whole-house system but also a dedicated 2-channel set-up. Sometimes more than one too; there may be a small pair of speakers in an office, like the LS50, and then a more serious system with large floorstanders… they desire one room with superior sound quality. This trend is elevating and it presents the audio industry with an opportunity to offer a larger choice of premium products.
In the custom installation (CI) realm, some operators are offering a whole lot of in-ceiling and in-wall speakers but never present the option. Those who are presenting the option for one or two rooms of elevated music quality are finding a high percentage of clients are taking them up on it. You’re not getting the ‘man cave’ home theatre room but it’s now the 2-channel room, whether it’s a retreat or a family room.
EK: What are the new product lines in the CI range?
DK: We’re just in the process of releasing R Series in-wall products which will be exceptional for music and home theatre. They will be at a higher price point and with elevated levels of detail and resolution than one is used to finding in a custom installation product.
We’re now offering several options and combinations of, for example, in-wall subwoofer matched to in-wall satellite speaker. These products offer the performance of floorstanding speakers but in the wall. So now there’s a choice of CI products for somebody who wants audiophile performance but has the life style or décor where conventional speakers will not suit. I like the term in-wall hi-fi; they’re CI speakers with a level of resolution, dimensionality and depth of bass that you can have your cake and eat it too.
EK: How much consultation takes place between the KEF engineering team and architects and builders, etc to establish what’s possible and to provide solutions where applicable?
DK: We’re out in the marketplace constantly talking to builders, architects and the custom installation community and we’re picking up on the feedback that we’re getting to create products that make their life easier or their installation faster and better both for the installer and the customer. We’re always considering improvements for future products; it’s a renewal, development and refinement process.
And we have done a number of unique things too. We have one product, the Ci160TR, that needs less than 36mm of mounting depth and is an exceptional sounding speaker. That is a problem solver in many circumstances, especially in a modern multi-story building where there’s very little space in the ceiling because they maximise ceiling height. So we have a product where virtually no other will fit. We had a number of yacht builders take on this product for the very same reason where the living spaces are made to be as large as possible so the ceiling space is minimal. We’re able to do a speaker like that because we have the engineering skills to create a driver that is 25mm deep. It was created for our T Series and adapted for CI use. So we have a unique solution to solve installation problems and to have music virtually anywhere you wish in your home.
EK: Is the signature Uni-Q driver used throughout the ranges?
DK: The Uni-Q is used through most of the products and all of the R Series. It’s ideal for an in-wall speaker because it’s a point source with all frequencies radiating in all directions from virtually the same source. With a conventional speaker, as you move off axis the tonal character changes because of the interaction between the drivers. With the Uni-Q driver you can move severely off axis without any tonal shift.
One of the unfortunate sides of a CI speaker is that we don’t always get to install them where they sound best. They’re sometimes installed where they blend in a bit more or where they look good, or where the layout permits and not necessarily where they sound at their best. With a Uni-Q in-wall speaker because the off axis response is so wide, even when you have them in a less than ideal position, you still get room-filling sound and correct imaging and soundstage.
EK: So the more mutual consultation, between KEF and the CI industry, the more each learns from the other in terms of product wish lists and correct placement for accurate sound and so on…
DK: Yes, and we have a service on our website, it’s a free tool, where you can download our software that allows you to select a KEF speaker, select the room size and ceiling height and decide on the amount of speakers and it will work out the sound pressure levels in different parts of the room so you can see the variability and the coverage pattern. It will also recommend the number of speakers for best coverage and you can also compare the sound pressure levels between the softest and loudest areas. You can then decide whether you can live with a, say 9dB difference, or whatever. Then you could add more speakers, recalculate and do a comparison to see how four, or six, or eight speakers work in a given room. Use this software with non Uni-Q and with Uni-Q speakers and you find out that you can get the same coverage with two Uni-Q speakers as you get with four conventional speakers.
EK: Does KEF offer in-wall subwoofers?
DK: Yes, we do. We’re in the process of releasing R Series in-wall subwoofers that have THX Ultra2 certification. The interesting thing with subwoofers is that most often a single box subwoofer is difficult to place in terms of room interactions and so on. Multiple subwoofers can be the answer but who wants two or ideally four subwoofers in their room, especially if it’s a multi-purpose room? The KEF in-wall subwoofers are almost invisible and can be placed asymmetrically to resolve room issues without taking up any floor space. That’s a remarkable solution. And of course with wall cavities you get a sub with, effectively, a large enclosure for deeper more powerful bass without taking up floor space.
Also, with Dolby Digital, all channels are full frequency and there are a number of very good movies where if you’re running subs in all channels you really get the sense of realistic sound passing over and by you. It enhances the whole experience.
EK: Do the subs offer DSP and microphone room tuning?
DK: No they don’t but the sub amplifiers feature DSP front-ends with a number of settings, so depending on the construction… you know, if you’re trying to take 20Hz out of it and you have loose light fixtures in your room, there are different settings to tail-off the sub’s bass response to suit the environment.
EK: Are there plans for a ‘Reference Series’ CI product?
DK: The R Series CI products are very expensive line of speakers in the ‘in-wall’ realm and we’re not planning a more upmarket range at this stage. They’ve reached an extraordinary level of sophistication and have THX Ultra2 certification. In terms of performance, they are well beyond what most people expect from this type of product.
KEF is a 50 year old loudspeaker brand. We’re a ‘Tier 1’ company which means we build virtually all of our products ourselves. We have a very robust Research and Developments and Engineering operation and we don’t rely on outside engineering. Those sorts of resources allow us to do things like Blade and LS50 and so on. And the same engineering teams, in the transducer, mechanical and acoustic systems, are the very same engineers that develop our CI products. All based in the UK and in the original location.