KEF XQ5 Loudspeakers

Equipment report
KEF XQ5 Loudspeakers

KEF has been around for over fifty years and some audiophiles may need to be reminded just how good many of its speakers are. In the 1960s and 70s, KEF was among a small group of companies at the forefront of loudspeaker and driver innovation. Their drivers found their ways into millions (yes, millions) of high-performance speakers of the day, besides KEF’s own, as well as countless DIY speaker projects. It’s also easy to forget that KEF collaborated with the BBC on the classic and very popular LS3/5a which sold more than 2 million units, a staggering number for highend audio. KEF helped pioneer concepts, exemplified in its breakthrough Reference 105 loudspeaker in 1977, such as time aligning each dynamic driver to ensure phase coherence and using individual enclosures for each to reduce resonance. After what seemed like a lull, KEF launched products, starting in 1988, with a radical Uni-Q driver, where a small, lightweight tweeter was fitted within the midrange woofer driver’s pole piece at the acoustic center of the larger cone. Where it took some work to make KEF’s earlier designs image well, the Q-series drivers were said to improve imaging dramatically, making superb soundstaging easy to achieve. When I received KEF’s XQ5 floorstanders, I wondered whether KEF’s most recent generation of Q-driver technology, where the drivers use a Faraday ring to increase output and reduce midrange distortion, would pay sonic dividends in a speaker priced just under $3K.

To get right to the point, the KEF XQ5s have the broadest and deepest soundstaging of any full-range, dynamic speaker I have heard under $3K, approaching the performance of far more expensive speaker systems. While most loudspeakers around this price can produce credible if somewhat shallow soundstages, with lateral imaging that extends between—but not beyond—the speakers, the KEF XQ5s and a few others can produce huge soundstages with excellent depth and width. You can close your eyes and picture the performers arrayed across an almost rectangular stage. Images float nicely in space, which is a lot of fun on all kinds of music. If soundstaging is at the top of your priority list, and you don’t have the scratch for expensive omnidirectionals, these speakers may be just the ticket. Driver coherence is another of the XQ5’s many strengths, an area where they came close to the performance of my reference electrostatics, except for an occasional touch of midbass ripeness. The XQ5s also scored well on several other important sonic criteria such as image focus, transient quickness throughout the entire range, and soaring highs.

KEF’s attention to detail, save for the manual, reminds me of what one gets when purchasing more costly speakers. Packaging is first rate and protects the XQ5s’ lovely enclosures, as well as the delicate super-tweeters that are mounted on top of the curved cabinets. If you can’t get approval to put these speakers in the living room, you’ve got a real problem. My pair came finished in beautiful graphite lacquer, but the cabinets represent more than pretty pieces of furniture as their curved shape and internal bracing help reduce resonances. KEF also supplies high-quality hardware to place the speaker on either a rug or on hardwood floors—a nice touch. After reviewing a string of European speakers with CE-approved terminals, which are a pain in the neck, I welcomed the “spade-friendly” dual five-way binding posts on the KEFs. With all these conveniences, I was surprised that KEF didn’t provide more information in the XQ5’s manual. Describing it as terse would be an understatement, but the pictures serve as decent guides.

Upon removing the grille cloth, you’ll notice three 6.5" drivers which all appear to be the same, helping to account for the speakers’ coherence and transient speed. However, the top one, the Q-driver, also contains a tweeter mounted at its center, which enables the speaker to generate a lot of output from a single point source. Moreover, it also helps facilitate horizontal and vertical dispersion, meaning you don’t have to be locked into a single seat with your head in a vice to get a broad soundstage. Surprisingly, you can even move about the room and still enjoy a reasonable semblance of the 3D soundstage you’d hear from the center seat. The KEFs seem to be ideal for multi-listener and home theater situations.

Broad soundstaging can slightly impact image focus, making instruments such as the guitar on John Kay’s (the lead singer of Steppenwolf) engaging solo effort Heretics and Privateers [Crosscut Records] or Yehudi Menuhin’s violin on the Brahms Violin Concerto [EMI/Fenn Music/Hi Q Records] sound somewhat larger than life. However, on well-recorded piano recordings such as Kabi Laretei’s performance of music from Bergman films [Proprius], imaging was rock solid and in proportion to the rest of the stage. I would rate the XQ5’s image focus as very good.

Sitting atop the cabinet is a KEF super-tweeter, said to extend the high frequency response out to 80 kHz. I feared that this ultra-high frequency response might exaggerate surface noise on analog recordings or sibilance in voices, but it did not. Admittedly, I was more aware of tube and tape hiss through the XQ5 and found myself muting the system more often when the music stopped playing. However, the sonic pay-offs are worth the costs. The overtones of brushed cymbals on jazz recordings such as The Hawk Relaxes [Prestige/ Moodsville] or of Menuhin’s violin on the Brahms are reproduced marvelously by the KEFs and enhance musical timbre.

Like most speakers at this price, the KEFs do have a few limitations. Mounting the tweeter inside the midrange driver has some significant advantages, but there is also one drawback. Whereas the KEFs excel at reproducing solo instruments, voices, and jazz quartets at all dynamic levels, they can sometimes sound a bit thin when tracking the dynamic peaks of massed instruments on complex recordings. For example, whereas the XQ5s typically reproduced massed strings neutrally and naturally at moderate dynamic levels, they became a bit ragged when the score called for double-fortissimos (VERY LOUD). This effect is more prevalent with digital than analog sources and caused some aural fatigue during my long sessions. However, a slight reduction of the volume control typically put things back in order.

The KEF XQ5s are less expensive than two of my favorite speakers in this class, the Canton Vento 807 DCs and the Hyperion HPS-938s, but are competitive with both in most respects. All offer great transient quickness so if you enjoy percussive instruments and are a PRAT fan you’ll be satisfied with any of them. The KEFs produce the broadest and deepest soundstage among the three and are the most forgiving of seating position. The Cantons deliver slightly more precise imaging and fine detail than the KEFs, and their highs approach some of the finest ribbons, but the KEFs are close behind and better the highs of the Hyperion HPS-938s. The Hyperions have the most thrilling, distortion-free midrange and midbass, particularly on dynamic peaks, that I’ve heard in a multiple driver speaker system priced under $10K, but they give way to both the Cantons and KEFs on coherence between the tweeter and midrange units. The Hyperions would be my choice on power music unless you added a sub to the Cantons. In any case, you really should audition all three, but make sure they’ve been thoroughly run-in as both the Cantons and the KEFs improve markedly after the first week.

Relative to other speakers priced around $3K, the KEF XQ5s offer some significant performance breakthroughs, most notably in terms of broad, three-dimensional soundstaging. Additionally, few multi-driver speakers in this class can rival the XQ5’s coherence. Indeed, the KEF’s performance may cause several loudspeaker producers charging significantly more to reevaluate their pricing strategies. With the XQ5s, KEF has successfully migrated many of the outstanding performance characteristics of its Reference series speakers to a price point within reach of many more audiophiles and music lovers.