Could the R11 (and R series) represent a sonic sea change for KEF? This kind of crystalline clarity came as a surprise. One could argue that the R11’s visual aesthetic now “matches” its sound: clean, precise, seamless. Clearly visual style matters here—and for the KEF marque generally. Its LS50 Wireless, for instance, comes in a wide array of color finishes from vivid to basic, in addition to the Marcel Wanders Nocturne special edition with front-panel design elements that glow in the dark.
I found setup for the R11s to be quite easy in my room. This hasn’t necessarily been the case with a number of speakers I’ve recently reviewed and enjoyed. The “one-size-fits-all” user manual for the R series reminded me a bit of Ikea instructions with more line drawings and less text—though the text that’s there is multilingual, of course. Best of all, the manual contains helpful setup diagrams for various-use cases, including home-theater/multichannel. After some maneuvering I settled on placing the R11s about eight feet apart, about four-and-a-half to five feet from the rear wall, and toeing them in about three inches or so. My listening seats were about nine feet from the speakers. Interestingly (and unexpectedly) I didn’t actually prefer the sound with the plinths and spikes that came with the speakers attached…so I removed them and just placed the cabinets on the hardwood floor a few inches in front of a heavy wool area rug. The R11s may be bi-wired, but instead of jumpers between the binding posts there’s a pair of knobs, which are turned in one direction or the other for bi-wiring or single wiring. Bi-wiring seemed to give the R11s a boost—to goose things up a bit—but even when they were connected with single wires, the speakers never seemed “thin” in presentation.
The R11s offer quite a lively ease, even without a lot of power in front of them. As I’ll describe, my petite PS Audio Sprout100 integrated amp’s 100Wpc drove them nicely, as did a loaner Hegel H90 integrated that delivers just 60Wpc (but they’re good watts). Interestingly the R11 shares the same basic specs for sensitivity and impedance (as well as pricing) as the latest Monitor Audio Gold 300 speaker (which I’ll be reviewing in an upcoming issue), but the latter has a bigger appetite for power, or at least seems to perform better with more wattage and dynamic headroom.
For simplicity’s and space’s sake, my listening notes below focus more on streaming via Tidal and Qobuz (depending upon which Mac laptop I was using) through the PS Audio Sprout100 and (later) the Hegel H90, in addition to some CD playback on MBL’s Noble line N31 CD player/DAC. I also listened with Clearaudio’s DC Performance Wood turntable, Tracer tonearm, and Stradivari cartridge with a Boulder 508 phonostage, occasionally mixing in MoFi Electronics’ UltraDeck+ ’table, ’arm, and cartridge. (The rest of my system for this review also included cables from Morrow Audio and Ansuz Acoustics, an AudioQuest Niagara 1000 power conditioner, Stein Music H2 Harmonizer boxes, Zanden room treatments, and Critical Mass Systems equipment racks.)
The PS Audio100 has a bass boost option and with the R11s, for the first time, I preferred it “on” on more tracks than I had before—quite a surprise. Especially without it, there was a sort of “shiny” quality to the degree of detail in the sound that most often was pleasing but almost too pristine at times, though it never veered toward too metallic. I’m no card-carrying, died-in-the-hemp Deadhead, but I really dig a couple of the group’s albums, American Beauty for one. The intro and later guitar riffs on “Candyman” on the MoFi CD reissue seemed to skew a touch bright, but then again my ears have some slight treble oversensitivity. Happily, activating the Sprout100’s bass boost helped here (and elsewhere on the album); it seemed to give many instruments a little more body and “dirtied up” the proceedings a bit (in a good way), balancing out some of the moments of crystalline clarity without too much exaggeration of the lower octaves (or elsewhere). The R11’s—and Uni-Q’s—stellar dispersion also may have circumvented any perceptions of upper-end beaminess or brightness. The mandolin parts/images on “Ripple” came through so realistically in detail and beautifully in true-to-life timbre that I played the track twice, just to delight in it again. The presentation was forward-ish yet pretty true to scale. I detected a few instances of vocal sibilance, but nothing offensive. Before it was paired with the KEF R11s, I’d seldom heard quite that much detail with that little $599 integrated in place. Impressive.
The Hegel H90, which retails for $2000, brought greater immediacy and drive to transient attacks, particularly on percussion. Resolution also increased, though once in a while some tracks could feel almost too even-handed and “cleaned up.” (Then again, some digital recordings miss the mark.) A listen to “Orange Blossom” (and other tracks) from Gardens & Villa’s self-titled CD [Secretly Canadian] was reproduced with its catchy old-school synth vibes and layers of cymbal strikes and taps intact. The floaty flute part popped out of the background more clearly via the Hegel, and its breathy, well-placed accents commanded more attention. Chris Lynch’s tenor vocals soared higher and higher without getting too shrill or screechy (though they almost tend to). Generally, this setup also seemed to lower the noise floor further and throw a more open and three-dimensional soundstage. The placement of the individual musicians on Andrew Bird’s latest release My Finest Work Yet was conveyed just about as well as I’d heard from some far higher-priced systems at recent shows.
In some cases, different amplifier pairings can be like trying different base spirits in a cocktail. With Beefeater gin in your gin and tonic, the drink might taste more straightforwardly of juniper; if you choose Hendricks it might take on a more herbal tinge. Different prices aside, these different flavors register as distinct rather than divergent in any strongly pronounced/exaggerated way. Such were the R11 pairing comparisons between the Sprout100 and the Hegel H90. The Hegel H90’s own clarity seemed to heighten the R11’s smooth-handling coherence and neutral accuracy, while the Sprout100 added a bit more “spice” to the mix on certain tracks—sometimes it enhanced musicality, other times, well, it didn’t. But seldom did its “additives” detract, and the amp’s bass boost function provides some extra fun possibilities. I didn’t prefer one integrated over the other outright; the outcomes depended on the source material and, of course, many other variables. By design, the KEF R11 loudspeakers deliver a kind of purity or neutrality to the sound that can often reveal finer details that result in greater accuracy and realism—attributes that aren’t found every day in more approachably priced speakers like these. They seemingly play well with various amps and within home-theater setups, as well. But I believe it was their top-to-bottom coherence and even dispersion that kept me listening; it helped the speakers sound less like speakers—less like boxes with drivers firing soundwaves at you—and more like music itself. Compelling as it was, this naturalness meant fatigue was never an issue. Setup is simpler compared to many other speakers, and the R series flagship R11s don’t require a palatial room to work their magic. Pleasing presence—sonically and aesthetically—remarkable realism and inter-driver coherence, high value in the cost-to-performance arena…there’s a lot to love about the R11s. With good reason, they’re popular and selling like the proverbial hotcakes. Get ’em while they’re hot!
Specs & Pricing
Type: Three-way bass-reflex
Driver complement: Uni-Q array with 1" vented aluminum dome (HF) and 5" aluminum cone (MF), four 5" aluminum cones (LF)
Frequency range: 30Hz–50kHz (-6dB)
Nominal impedance: 8 ohms
Recommended amplifier power: 15W–300W (recommended)
Harmonic distortion: <0.3% 120Hz–20kHz (90dB, 1m)
Dimensions: 7.9" x 49.2" x 14.2"
Weight: 81 lbs.
Price: $4998 per pair
GP ACOUSTICS (U.S.), INC.
10 Timber Lane
Marlboro, New Jersey 07746