KEF Reference 203/2 Loudspeaker (TAS 204)

Equipment report
Categories:
Floorstanding
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Products:
KEF Reference 203/2
KEF Reference 203/2 Loudspeaker (TAS 204)

The KEF 203/2 is a medium-proportioned floorstander that occupies the sweetspot in KEF’s prestigious Reference line—a range of seven models—the majestic, four-way, 145-pound Reference 207/2 holding court at the summit. Standing roughly 40” tall the 203/2 is a three-way, four-driver, bass-reflex design that features the latest generation Uni-Q driver (KEF’s proprietary coincident midrange/tweeter). A pair of 6.5” woofers are tasked to cover the frequency band below the 300Hz cutoff of the midrange. The curved-section cabinets are a beech-ply construction with heavy internal bracing. Both mechanical and acoustic damping have been engineered to match a specific volume for each independently loaded driver. KEF notes that independent loading of the bass drivers also reduces the height of each internal compartment and pushes the standing waves to higher frequencies where they are easier to control without sacrificing sensitivity and dynamics in the bass passband.

By any measure build-quality is impeccable. Surfaces are satin-smooth and seamless. The 203/2 actually looks larger in pictures than in person and is, in reality, a fairly small footprint floorstander¬—a perception heightened by the hemisphere of the Uni-Q containment dome that caps the enclosure. And KEF certainly knows how to coddle its Reference customers: The impeccably packaged speaker system arrives with a bespoke satin-finished wooden box roughly the size of a fine humidor. The Reference logo is regally inlaid on its lid. Posh, indeed. Known as a care-pack its contents include documents, spikes, wider footers for wooden floors, locking nuts (for fine adjustments), a wrench, and a heavy-duty circular level. Recognizing that not all owners will opt for the triwire/triamp option, KEF also includes spade/banana jumper wires for bridging the three (!!!) pairs of speaker terminals.

Crossover components are computer-modeled for precise phase and amplitude behavior, and the boards are decoupled to isolate them from cabinet-wall vibration and internal acoustic pressures. Hand-soldering is used throughout, as is KEF’s own graded OFC cable. Grille covers are pin-release. The circular cover that protects the Uni-Q uses gentle magnetic fasteners that seem to beg the listener to set them aside. Sensitivity is a level-headed 89dB.

Part of the Reference Series’ white-glove treatment is the Uni-Balance feature—rear-panel adjustments that tame boomy bass output due to wall/corner proximity and a four-position brightness control that compensates for the room’s treble absorption characteristics. Uni-Balance comprises three rear-panel terminals—the LF adjust terminal comes factory preset to the flat setting for “free space” positioning. When the screw cap is removed bass is rolled off about 2dB. The HF adjust has twin screw caps that permit up to four distinct settings ranging from +0.75dB to – 1.50dB at 2kHz and up. These changes might seem miniscule, but my experience with the Ref 203/2 validated that the range of different sounds it provides can be a real help when dealing with room anomalies and oddball recordings.

By any measure, KEF’s Uni-Q driver technology is the star power that connects each Reference model to the other. It originally debuted in 1988, and like the coaxial drivers that preceded it was developed in pursuit of a high-end holy grail—point source-type time alignment and uniform directivity. (In KEF’s words, “The directivity is often referred to in engineering terms as the ‘Q’, and the ‘Unifying’ of the ‘Q’ gives rise to the name ‘Uni-Q.”) Though visually similar to its forbears the latest iteration differs substantially. According to KEF, there’s wider dispersion due to a shallower polypropylene midrange cone. The titanium tweeter has a new vented three-magnet motor system with a two-piece, compound dome for higher rigidity—improvements that smooth response and widen dynamics. Controlled matching of the tweeter dome angle and midrange cone angle has improved high-frequency response. The net result is wider dispersion and more uniform power response.

For my own edification I asked KEF whether the 6.5” diameter was a particular sweetspot for coaxial drivers. TAD opts for a similar spec in its all-beryllium coincident transducer, for example. KEF seemed to agree and replied that the “6.5” Uni-Q could cross over a lot lower, or even run full-range with a full surround and longer coil. But there were also advantages to limiting it to midrange use, namely the reduced excursion of the cone and “the smaller/flatter midrange surround presents less of a diffracting edge to the tweeter's radiation.” And, of course, the voice coil is shorter and lighter. The precise crossover frequency will depend on the bass or mid/bass drivers and their directivity, size, and bandwidth relative to that of the Uni-Q. Anywhere from 150Hz to 600Hz is feasible for midrange-only use, depending on the target system.

As I listened to Ricki Lee Jones’ cover of “Second Time Around” [ORG Records] wash over me in my first few moments with the 203/2, what immediately came across was the 203/2’s animated and precise midrange—the forceful presence of the acoustic bass, the reedy chord play from the bellows-driven accordion, and the delicacy of the nylon string guitar. The feeling was like sinking into a midrange of considerable density. And this was merely a prelude to the way the KEF carefully tends the delicate timbral distinctions between instruments. There’s no hemming and hawing here—this accurate and dynamic responsiveness is born of the studio control room. The 203/2 reproduces music in all its complex grace and beauty, just as it exposes the follies of lazy engineering and sloppy production. It locks in a stable, spot-on midrange that has a Gibraltar-like stability with no frequency irregularities. In addition, from the first track to the last the KEF exudes a rock-steady and dimensional soundstage. It throws a stage that will flatter the finest orchestral recordings with depth cues and placement focus that you never would have imagined. And there’s a cohesiveness to the soundstage that is not easily disturbed even by routine head movements, which is often not the case with vertically arrayed midrange and treble drivers due to lobing effects.

The Uni-Q is just a damn good driver. A colorful yet uncolored transducer that permits timing, dynamics, and harmonics to come to full boil during a performance. It possesses poise and stability across the octaves where it plays. Timbre and voicings all ring with authority and authenticity. This is not a loudspeaker that goes to tonal extremes, either hotly aggressive or laid-back. Its voice has an even almost mellow neutrality, with finely wrought extension at both ends of the bandwidth.

From the opening flourishes of Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” [Reference Recordings], the KEF was a near effortless purveyor of bass drum impact and percussion dynamics from the Minnesota Symphony. With a hint of bloom it veers to the warmer side of the spectrum, and though it may not extend fully to the nethermost regions of the bottom octave it’s unrelentingly dynamic as far down as it does go. Which is to say, judging by the detailed reproduction of ripples and waves of sound that flow into Orchestra Hall, usefully into the upper 30Hz range. During Lyle Lovett’s “She’s Already Made Up Her Mind” [Curb], a track anchored by deep pulsing bass notes, the 203/2 exhibited a commanding forward bloom that I can only liken to waves of energy pressing the walls outward. But this track also exposed the limits of the KEF’s bass response—the low-frequency descent that follows in the wake of the initial transient impulse is slightly muted. The 203/2 can’t quite reach the lowest depths or preserve the pitch tension that this track actually conveys in the hands of a speaker that digs a bit deeper.

Transients are excellent—quick, sharp when appropriate, and rarely peaky. In fact I wouldn’t have guessed this was a titanium tweeter at all. On occasion upper brass is a bit more brash through the KEF than say the much-more-expensive TAD CR1, but it’s full-bodied and has the requisite zing. And then there’s also a reassuring bloom to lower brass and winds and especially to trombones, with no thinness or edginess. For the most part the Uni-Q is remarkably transparent and in most instances entirely disappears from the soundstage. However, on female vocalists with deeper chest resonances—Renée Fleming comes to mind—there’s a thickness to the vocal, a darker tone that I don’t normally hear. Not unpleasant but somehow additive.

Most of the time, the Reference 203/2 had me so caught up in the pleasure of listening to music that it was rare moment to find myself distracted by anything I could pin on the KEF. But there are a couple smaller issues, more akin to subtle inflections. Rather than simply let the music rise and bloom into the acoustic of a venue, the 203/2 can sometimes sound as if an invisible hand is guiding the sound. Similarly the Uni-Q can isolate or cluster images in a closer proximity to the driver, more so than I would consider ideal. It’s not a constant effect and bears no relation to the shouty “cupped hands” artifacts of early coaxial efforts, but nonetheless there were moments when I felt an acute awareness of the Uni-Q. During Tom Waits’ “Take It With Me When You Go” [Epitaph] I felt the transitions between mid and woofer were not always as seamless as they could be. There’s a hint of detachment in this region, of a transitional character between the Uni-Q and the bass drivers. It’s not exactly a change of pacing, but a color shift, an inconsistency in strength, bloom, and body, where the more gregarious and immediate personality of the Uni-Q gives way to the more relaxed somber signature of the mid/bass. For perspective’s sake, I hasten to add that in the great scheme of things these are minor dings none of which seriously detract from the 203/2’s high marks.

However much you’re considering spending on an audio component, you should not just be able to see the money but also to hear the money. In the case of the Reference 203/2 there wasn’t a moment during my evaluation when I ever considered asking for change. KEF has produced a loudspeaker that exhibits a special brand of naturalism that goes right to the heart of the high end. It’s a wonderful loudspeaker that within its range is everything you’d expect of a reference-caliber component.

SPECS & PRICING

Type: Three-way, floorstanding, bass-reflex dynamic loudspeaker
Driver complement: Two 6.5” woofers, one Uni-Q concentric with 25mm tweeter
Frequency response: 50Hz–60kHz
Sensitivity: 89dB
Nominal impedance: 8 ohms
Recommended amplifier power: 50–200 watts
Dimensions: 40.2” x 9.8”x 15.9”
Weight: 58 lbs. (net each)
Price: $9000/pr.

KEF America, Inc.
10 Timber Lane
Marlboro, NJ 07746
(732) 683-2356
kef.com

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT

Sota Cosmos Series III turntable; SME V tonearm; Sumiko Palo Santos, Ortofon, 2M Black; JR Transrotor Phono II; ARC CD5, Simaudio CD3.3; Simaudio i3.3, ARC DSi200, Magnum Dynalab MD-309; Synergistic Tesla Apex, Wireworld Platinum; Audioquest WBY interconnects; Synergistic Tesla, Wireworld Silver Electra, and Kimber Palladian power cords

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