Full expert review and laboratory test of the KEF Reference 3 Loudspeakers by Australian Hi-Fi Magazine.

The following review consists of a full subjective evaluation of the KEF Reference 3 Loudspeakers written by Edgar Kramer, as published in Australian Hi-Fi Magazine, September/October 2015. At the end of the review is a link to a complete set of independent laboratory tests conducted on the KEF Reference3 by Newport Test Labs and a report about those tests written by Steve Holding.

Both sides of the Atlantic Ocean can make genuine claims to producing icons in loudspeaker design. Our American friends’ JBL and Klipsch come to mind straight off, while across the pond Tannoy would be first name off many-an-enthusiasts’ lips. Of course, another emblem of British speaker aristocracy would have to be the company whose full name is Kent Engineering & Foundry… but is more commonly known as KEF.

KEF was started in 1961 by engineer Raymond Cooke who, after spending influential years working alongside Wharfedale founder Gilbert Briggs, decided to go it alone. In the years since KEF’s inception, and on to the present day, several things have remained constants. Primarily, the substantial R&D and thoroughly-engineered designs—some industry firsts among these—followed by in-house driver development and consistent product quality backed by intelligent marketing. Over the years, all those aspects have secured a global base of loyal KEF customers. And lastly, since the 1970s, the enduring Reference series—until the recent advent of Muon, the Blade concepts and the odd commemorative model such as the Maidstone—has represented the company’s flagship offering.

Now, in 2015, KEF announces the new Reference products recipients of the latest Uni-Q coincident driver technology, in continuous refinement since the 1980s and shared across the range. The new Reference products include a large standmount, two floorstanders, two centre-channels and a subwoofer. Here we review the KEF Reference 3 which may be the smaller of the two floorstanders but is by no means a small speaker. It stands 1.202 metres high, is 470mm deep and 349mm wide. It weighs in at 51kg… so substantial by any standard.

The Equipment

The Reference 3s are delivered well-packed in high-grade cardboard boxes with the speakers themselves wrapped in a protective white cotton sleeve. The shapely solid metal plinths, which require assembly to the speakers’ bottom panel via short hex-head bolts, feature welded cones which serve as receptacles for nicely-machined stainless steel spikes. Two very convenient touches: the plinths feature an integral spirit level and a system for conveniently adjusting the spikes’ penetration and levelling from above, via machined and anodised aluminium turning discs. Metal floor protectors are also provided. The accessories are attractively presented in a box with individual foam cut-out receptacles for the various pieces of hardware. KEF provides two sets of port inserts allowing basic matching to room bass characteristics (more on this later). No grilles are included; why would you want to tarnish the gorgeous aesthetic with a black cloth?

The KEF Reference 3s’ baffles are gloriously finished in brushed aluminium and should be displayed for all to see. In fact, the entire presentation is first class with the review sample clad in the extra cost—and absolutely stunning—pair-matched gloss rosewood finish, which retails for $26,599. (Special Kent Engineering and Foundry Editions are also available in gloss white with ‘Blue Ice’ Uni-Q driver colour and gloss black with ‘Copper’-coloured Uni-Q drivers). The standard finishes, on display at the recent official Australian launch, were equally spectacular. So, whether you fork out for the optional finishes or decide on one of the standard finishes, you’ll own a beautifully-designed and finished pair of loudspeakers.

The Reference 3 (Ref 3 from now on) is a three-way twin-rear-ported design featuring the latest Uni-Q ‘point source’ driver array, versions of which have been the trademark KEF mid/high-frequency solution for many generations. The Uni-Q driver features a 25mm vented aluminium dome—with the ‘Tangerine’ wave guide mechanism—used coincidentally within the acoustic centre of a 125mm aluminium midrange driver. Bass duties are provided via twin 165mm aluminium-coned woofers featuring massive vented magnet systems and high-temperature aluminium wire voice-coils for high power-handling. As per tradition, all the drivers are built in-house by KEF and are representative of the best available technology on a par with the highest-level products from the leading specialist transducer manufacturers. The crossover points are specified as 350Hz and 2.8kHz, while the crossover itself features high-quality components. The drivers are flawlessly mounted—no ugly screws or bolts showing—in a thick aluminium and resin sandwich baffle that is decoupled from the enclosure via high-loss pads.

KEF specifies a frequency response from 43Hz to 35kHz ±3dB but says the speaker can deliver frequencies as low as 28Hz in a ‘typical in-room’ situation. Sensitivity is quoted as being 87.5dBSPL while the nominal impedance is quoted as being 8Ω with a 3.3Ω minimum. The basic instruction manual includes a separate production certificate which guarantees Reference series speakers are quality inspected individually and pair-tested to ensure the frequency responses of the two speakers match within a tolerance of 0.5dB. The certificate also features a frequency response graph and the assurance that the speakers have been hand-built and tested by a master technician—in the case of the review pair it was a Graham Humphries of Maidstone, Kent.

The Ref 3 enclosures feel substantial. Care has been taken to produce a constrained-layer-damped cabinet that is stiff, well-braced and which should provide a platform for the high-tech drivers to perform at their best.

Once unpacked, all that is required is the attachment of the metal base, then the speakers can be positioned and levelled. I also liked the superb easy-to-tighten custom binding posts and the simple twist arrangement for switching between single- and bi-wired configurations.

Ports of Call

As mentioned above, KEF includes a choice of soft foam slide-in/slide-out port inserts (first seen in the much-lauded LS50 monitor) which provide different low-frequency roll-off characteristics for basic bass tuning. A simple twist-to-lock/unlock ring provides access to either a short foam ivory-coloured port insert (for use when the speakers are positioned away from walls) or a longer black-coloured port (for near-solid-wall placement). My own listening room is remarkably neutral and features an acoustically near-invisible rear wall so I chose the short port inserts. Kudos to KEF for providing some form of tuning system, rudimentary though it may be.

Ergo the Ref 3’s lower frequencies, both in terms of power and depth, were quite spectacular considering the modestly-sized twin bass drivers. There was power, punch and speed akin to sealed box/infinite baffle designs. You know, that bounce… that defined leading edge that, once heard, you become addicted to. And the quoted in-room response of 28Hz is not at all far-fetched; the Ref 3s dip low and with… um, ample amplitude. My usual suspects in the bass-testing department provided a thrilling ride into realistic bass and power from a relatively compact floorstanding speaker. Acoustic bass, in particular, sounded tonally correct and with an accurate balance of bloom and solidity while electric bass had the kind of speed (or bop) that propelled the music along, maintaining its rhythmic integrity. These woofers may be relatively small but they’re powerful, high-output, low-distortion drivers.

At the other end of the scale, the Uni-Q drivers’ high frequencies are a model of refinement and subtlety. Some audiophiles may prefer a more overt, more forward treble, but this reviewer (in the context of the reference system) found the high frequencies were spectacularly delicate, natural and rich in timbral textures. The KEF tweeter implementation, with all its design and physical placement complexities, is nevertheless a rather beautiful driver that integrates seamlessly with its midrange partner, itself a stunning performer with all-manner of vocals, be they male or female.

To some music-lovers, soundstaging is of the utmost importance while others value dynamic expression and tonal accuracy above all else. All, of course, are important. Having said that, the Ref 3s threw one of the widest and deepest soundstages I have experienced in my room and did not require a ‘head-in-a-vice’ sweet spot position. Classical and jazz recordings—the ones captured ‘live’ either in the studio or at a hall/club such as Harry Belafonte’s Live at Carnegie Hall, or Ani DiFranco’s Living in Clip—were reproduced with extraordinary largesse, in all dimensions, in a panoramic soundfield. Images were precisely placed in a sonic environment of exceptional width and revelatory depth—way, way beyond the front wall. Combine that with another of the Ref 3s’ strengths, that of significant dynamic prowess, and you have a speaker that gets you closer to the music… real music.

Yes, the KEF Ref 3s scale the dynamic paradigm to an enormous extent. Once again, I’d accredit that to the superb drivers, solid enclosure and transparent crossover working in unison allowing the transmission of maximum information from the given input signal. Those same aspects I would pass on for the reasons behind the merciless separation and detail retrieval. I use the word ‘merciless’ in a most positive way too; these speakers are true to the source—they will not taint with syrup-and-molasses nor will they detract from the absolute and potentially revelatory truth. If the recording is romantically warm, or conversely, frightfully compressed, given neutral electronics, the Ref 3s will be the faithful relater of the undistorted message. And that is as it should be.

Conclusion

KEF’s Reference 3s were amongst the most satisfying speakers I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing for quite some time. Within the context of my reference system, they shone as truly outstanding transducers, excelling in some of the most important aspects of music reproduction such as dynamic extension, bass power, soundfield reproduction and tonal accuracy.

The Ref 3 speakers are a succinct example of the modern speaker designers’ art. Here is a statement reflecting the power of thorough engineering encompassing all facets of its design; from the in-house built drivers, to the solidly constructed enclosure and transparent crossover and on to the acceptability, and indeed pride, of the product in the home via its attractive form and flawless finish. Ever still, KEF the company is a foundry for exceptional engineering. # Edgar Kramer

Readers interested in the full technical appraisal of the performance of the KEF Reference 3 Loudspeakers should click on the button to the right to download the full original magazine pages from the Sept/October 2015 issue of Australian Hi-Fi, which includes LABORATORY TEST RESULTS including frequency response graphs and sensitivity measurements.

 

KEF Reference 3 Loudspeakers
Brand: KEF
Model: Reference 3
Australian Price: $23,999 (RRP, See Copy)
Warranty: Five Years
Distributor: Advance Audio Australia

 

PLUS

►Huge sound belies the physical size

►Thoroughly engineered

►Beautifully styled and finished

MINUS

►The temptations of the Reference 5?

POSTCRIPT: If you intend to use a subwoofer in conjunction with the KEF Reference 3 Loudspeakers, you will need to ensure correct integration of the subwoofer's output with that of the Reference 3s by setting the subwoofer's volume, phase and crossover frequency controls correctly. You can read an article on a simple, effective method of how to do that HERE