But Blade forced a root-and-branch change in KEF. The technologies developed in the making of Blade are filtering through the KEF line, and that has now touched Reference. The obvious part of this is the latest iteration of the Uni-Q mid-tweeter, which formed such a key element in Blade’s single apparent source loudspeaker design and made the sophisticated LS50 loudspeaker an unalloyed international success. In the Reference 1, this 11th-generation Uni-Q model sports the distinctive tangerine wave-guide around the 25mm vented aluminium dome tweeter, which sits in the acoustic centre of the veined 125mm aluminium midrange cone. This Uni-Q design is joined by a single 165mm aluminium bass driver, set in the conventional position below the mid-tweeter unit. Bigger Reference floorstanding models add more bass units above and below the Uni-Q in a D’Appolito array, but all are essentially three-way loudspeaker designs. In a way, however, by eschewing the additional drivers, the Reference 1 represents the pure essence – the Platonic Form – of the current three-way Reference.
Describing the Reference loudspeaker simply in terms of drive units is like describing an aircraft by the number of engines; there’s a lot more going on than just that basic rubric. The ported cabinet has been analysed in every way imaginable to create the right waveguide, the right surround, the right cabinet thickness, the right bracing, how the crossover interacts with the magnetic flux from the bass driver, how the tweeter itself vents from the Uni-Q system, how components influence crossover distortion, even how the ‘Z-Flex’ ribbed speaker surround behaves under virtually every condition you can think of. The resulting loudspeaker comes with two kinds of bungs for the rear port, with the less husky one pre-fitted, and the more chunky fella designed for taming really wayward bass in a room (and yes, KEF looked even deeper into room integration). Even the bi-wire terminals have been re-appraised, and now possess clever soft-feel platinum-plated wing-nuts to engage or disengage internal bi-wire links.
In the past, some of KEF’s output has been the kind of equipment you like and respect rather than love. For a brief period around the turn of the century, it was one of those technically brilliant companies that forgot it was making a product to which people would end up spending years listening. Then something changed for the better a few years ago, and KEF started talking about ‘voicing’ loudspeakers, and conducting ‘listening tests’ alongside the technical expertise. A lot of this comes down to two of the sharpest tools in the loudspeaker box – Mark Dodd (Head of Group Research for KEF’s parent company GP Acoustics) and Jack Oclee-Brown (Head of Acoustics at KEF).
In truth, I have to be on my toes when discussing the technology behind the Reference, because KEF is not a company that leaves anything hidden. In fact, wannabe loudspeaker designers are recommended to download KEF’s white paper on the Reference series from its website. This also means I can hand over some of the gnarly concepts of the Reference design to KEF itself, should you wish to go deeper. Truth is, I only put “should you wish to go deeper” in there for good measure – go deeper. Normally a white paper is a marketing exercise with a few techy words thrown in for good measure, but KEF has basically condensed the sum total of loudspeaker engineering (albeit with a distinct KEF‑fy flavour) into 50 pages of graphs, charts, FEA diagrams, and thermography-esque flow diagrams of how air cavitates in a port. I have a paper version of that white paper that I found a non-audiophile friend flicking through, who summed this white paper up perfectly: “Total. Freakin’. Nerdgasm!”
Normally, when it comes to loudspeakers, the process involves a relatively high degree of obsessive-compulsive behaviour. The speakers are roughed in, listened to, adjusted forward-back, left-right, listened again, fine-tuned, toed in, more listening, until either you give up in frustration of you have positioned the speakers to the nearest Ångström. Sometimes, you have to follow a pre-arranged pattern, sometimes a spoken word test, sometimes it’s a question of anchoring one speaker and tuning the other, and sometimes its all about the mirrors and lasers and tape measures. The KEF Reference 1 were more or less ‘plonked down’ roughly in place, and the job was done. They got a tiny wee bit better sounding through some real care and attention (as in, stopping one of them from wobbling a bit, and making sure they were level), but in audiophile installation terms this is criminal neglect. And they sang beautifully. I moved them around, and they sang beautifully. I swapped out cables, flipping between generic speaker wire from a hardware store that cost less than a couple of pints of beer to a full run of Nordost’s new Odin 2 that cost more than my mortgage, and they sang beautifully. Of course, they sang ever sweeter the better the upstream equipment, and the more care put into installation, but they didn’t put a foot wrong regardless. I tried practically everything in my power to not make them sing beautifully, but short of throwing the speakers in a lake or connecting them up to an aging clock radio, I’d struggle to find a way of making these loudspeakers sound in any way mediocre.