KEF R5 Reviewed at $3,000.00 (pair)
Design - 95%
Movies performance - 94%
Music performance - 93%
Inputs and Features - 94%
Price / Quality - 85%
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Every major speakers brand has their own special characteristics that makes them stand apart from the competition and makes them easily distinguishable. Klipsch has the cerametallic woofers that give their speakers a vintage look, Monitor Audio has their elegant and modern speaker cabinets while Paradigm has their proprietary PPA lenses technology.
And then you have KEF, a company that has spend well over two decades perfecting their own proprietary technology called Uni-Q array that is used in all their speakers and give them this distinct and unique look. In our KEF R5 review today we will be looking at one of their floorstanders that belong in their mid-range R series.
KEF has basically three series of speakers along with a few other, more specialized ones. The basic Q series, the middle tier R series and their top range the Reference series. But make no mistake as the R series is not the average mid-range offering that many other brands have on their portfolio. With a price close to $3,000 for each pair these are certainly a cut above competition for the smaller floorstander in the supposedly mid-range R series.
The KEF R5 tries to find a balance between the Q and Reference series by bringing along some of the technologies found in KEFs top range but at a more affordable price. Once more we find their Uni-Q array that they have spent well over two decades trying to perfect it, specially designed shadow flares on the front baffle along with meticulously designed cabinet bracing and flexible port technology.
KEF has put a lot of effort in the R series and by offering a complete set of speakers consisting of 3 floorstanders, the R5, R7 and R11, one bookshelf the R3, one center speaker the R2c and one Atmos surround speaker the R8a they have a complete set that is capable at delivering the best of its class in many different room configurations and audio setups. Are the KEF R5 the speakers you are looking for or is the price a bit too much for what you get? Let’s find out…
Design, Inputs and Features
The R5 may be the smallest floorstander in the R series but still remains a relatively big speaker compared to other units we have seen before in the same class. Measuring 42.2 x 10.7 x 13.5 in. (1071.4 x 271.6 x 343.5 mm), including the terminals and plinth, and with a weight of 60.2 lbs (27.3 kg) each, the R5s may be small in name but in reality they are relatively big making us say they are not very ideal if you have extremely limited space to go with. And if you add their bass-reflex design with its dual rear ports it means that certain breathing space is needed for them to perform accordingly.
The rear bass ports can greatly influence the sound output of the speaker depending on how close you place it to the wall as this can disrupt the air flow at the back. The closer the port is to a wall it can enhance the low end output but at the expense of sound resolution and clarity. So always make sure you have the necessary distance to place them from the wall in case you are considering buying them.
As for the actual cabinet construction the R5s are magnificent both in looks and quality. Its simple but modern lines make them more elegant and are pared with some serious engineering that is applied to all the R Series models.
The technique used is called damped bracing, and consists of strategically placed wooden braces that, instead of being rigidly coupled to the panels are joined via a lossy interface. The braces are placed where the panel movement would otherwise be greatest and the lossy layer, like normal damping pads, converts the energy into heat. Additional damped braces are situated at the back of each driver, which reduce the level of reactionary vibration transmitted from the driver to the cabinet.
The excellent cabinet design is complemented by carefully selected finishes. Conceived to be at home in either traditional or modern interiors, the R Series comes in a choice of two exceptionally sleek gloss finishes or a classic wood veneer. These finishes go deeper than just a base color. Each speaker benefits from KEF’s tone-on-tone approach to design where the tweeter dome, driver cones, feet, spikes and KEF logo are tone matched to the finish.
The R5 has been created to sound at its best without grilles. However, optional dedicated microfiber grilles are available for the entire R Series and it’s one of the few mainstream manufacturers that don’t include the grilles with the main package. Each grille is crafted from 13 layers of material and has a suede-like feel, and thanks to 1801 precision-cut holes for each driver the performance with the grilles in situ offers a considerable improvement on standard MDF acoustic cloth grilles, therefore minimizes the traditional compromise between great sound and driver protection. The magnetic fixings provide a secure, precise fit, in keeping with the clean styling of the R5.
The grilles don’t cover the entire front baffle but only the included drivers but it’s when you take them out that the R5s really shine. A 3-way design with a Uni-Q array in the middle and two 130mm (5.25in.) hybrid aluminium bass drivers give the speakers their amazing look. We will talk about the Uni-Q array shortly but here we need to mention another technology that the R series borrowed from the top tier Reference speakers and this is the Shadow Flare.
The Shadow Flare is an innovative method of reducing harmful cabinet diffraction and one that allows the wonderful Uni-Q array to work at its highest level. The Shadow Flare is more than just a trim ring. It is a precision designed surface that extends the waveguide effect of the Uni-Q array. The tweeter no longer has line of sight of the cabinet edges, creating a ‘shadow region’ at the points where the potential for diffraction is highest, minimizing the acoustic impact to negligible levels. The result is improved clarity, particularly when it comes to the subtle nuances of plucked strings and other percussive sounds.
Turning the speaker around we find the wire terminals at the bottom, as usual, below the lower air port with the R5 having two of them and here is another technology element the series get from the Reference series. When it comes to generating deep, articulate bass, port design is a vital element.
The ports in the R Series are precisely positioned and feature innovative flexible walls. Using computational fluid dynamics, the flare and profile of each port is calculated to delay the onset of turbulence, while the flexible port walls prevent longitudinal resonances from coloring the midrange. The result is not only better bass, but cleaner sound further up the frequency range in the vital lower midrange area.
The R5 come with special feet that attach at the bottom of the cabinets with specially included screws and spikes that you can adjust in order to level the speakers in their resting position. Their design is nice and compliment the modern design of the cabinet while they come with in same color in order to match the cabinet finish.
The KEF R5 are extraordinary both in design and in terms of quality. The cabinet is beautifully crafted, its quality and colors are unique and all the technology that is borrowed from the Reference series creates a speaker that gives you this sense of premium and elegance that not many models are capable of.
As we mentioned above certain technologies have been passed down from the top Reference series. This allows the R series to perform to higher standards than what you would expect from this category. Improvements are not only centered around the cabinet structure that we analyzed above but on the actual drivers used also.
At their forefront of their technological advances stands no other than their Uni-Q array which they refine for more than 30 years now. The latest R series features the 12th generation of the Uni-Q design but its principal function remains the same. Placing a 25mm (1 in.) vented aluminium dome tweeter in the acoustic center of a 125mm (5 in.) midrange aluminium cone brings the acoustic ideal of a single point source closer to realization.
The Uni-Q’s midrange motor system has been completely redesigned using KEF’s in-house simulation and analysis tools as well as decades of experience. The motor is responsible for converting the audio signal from an electrical voltage to a mechanical force. Ideally it does this without any loss and without introducing any distortion. For a midrange driver, significant distortion can be generated due to modulation of the voice coil inductance. The motor in the new R Series has a shaped and undercut pole, and symmetrical aluminium demodulation rings, which combine to significantly reduce the inductance in the lower midrange so there is less variation as the voice coil moves.
But KEF faced more challenges with such a complex design. And that is no other than the minute gaps that separate the constituent parts. There is a narrow channel between the moving midrange voice coil and the static start of the tweeter waveguide. As air passes over this it creates resonances like blowing over the top of a bottle.
Obviously, this gap is necessary to allow the midrange cone and voice coil to move, so KEF has improved the performance by opening up a cavity behind the drive units and then introducing damping material into the space created. This absorbs resonances and helps deliver more precise, purer treble performance thanks to reduced coloration.
To maximize bass performance in the new R Series, the dual 130mm (5.25in.) hybrid aluminium low-frequency drivers are built using a two-part structure, where a shallow concave aluminium skin sits atop a paper cone. This stiffness combined with the cone’s unique geometry reduces additional resonances and delivers the pistonic movement that makes these drivers time so well. The new drivers also benefit from a completely redesigned magnet system that creates a more even magnetic field, and a design of suspension that reduces harmonic distortion for a cleaner, more precise sound.
The combination of the Uni-Q array along with the dual low frequency bass drivers give the R5 a frequency response of 58-28kHz (+/- 3dB) with 8 ohms of nominal impedance, 87 dB (2.83V@1m) of sensitivity while the crossover frequency has been set at 400Hz and 2.9kHz.
The attention to details is extended beyond the cabinet quality and internal components. The R5 comes with high quality dual input terminals in case you want to bi-wire or bi-amp them for a better HiFi experience. The difference here is that while most speakers that offer dual terminals use external bridge plates the R5 has build-in knob buttons to change this setting meaning that the bridging is taking place internally. The two knobs have two setting positions depending on the wiring you are planning to do.
As for the actual terminals you can either use bare wires or various plugs including spades or banana plugs if that is your preference. In general the terminals are a cut above what we usually see in this category of speakers and shows how much KEF has worked on even the tinniest of details.
Unpacking went smoothly although you have to be careful not to damage the woofers as you take them out of the cardboard as there are no grilles attached here. In the manual KEF has included a lot of details concerning the assembly of the legs, bi-amp and bi-wire diagrams along with specific distances that the speakers should be placed in the room. Obviously these are general guidelines and give you an idea of normal positioning but as always you need to experiment to find how they sound best to you.
In all our speaker tests we let about 2 feet of breathing space at the back of each speaker and we placed them with about 9 feet of distance between them. Keep in mind that the closer to a wall the more pronounced the low end will be. KEF also includes special bungs for closing the air ports in case you feel that the bass is more pronounced than what you would like.
We always like to toe-in them towards out listening positioning but this also has to do with testing and see if you can get better results this way. The pair we tried for this test had a few hours of play but they hadn’t reached their break-in time yet so we are sure they can do even better than what we observed here today. Most manufacturers suggest around 50-70 hours of play but we would suggest to get to 100 hours in order to be completely sure of their performing limits.
Now as far as our testing is concerned, for our movies we like to use a simple 4.0 channels surround system with only two front channels and a couple of surrounds and the reason for this is because we can easier determine how the front speakers can cover the omissions of a center speaker and a subwoofer. Weaknesses become more pronounced and although this would not apply to any real home theater system as almost all of them would have both a center speaker and a subwoofer we are here to determine specifically the characteristics of the two front channels and at least for us this is the best way to do so.
On the other hand when it comes to our music testing we like to go for a pure 2.0 channels system with only the two front channels as this is the way that most music purists tend to go with. Now after all necessary connections and calibrations with our Onkyo AV receiver we were ready to begin.
First film test for this review we decided to start with a bang and for this reason we tried out the 4K UHD version of Mad Max: Fury Road with its reference quality Dolby Atmos mix. Mad Max has one of the best Atmos implementations we have heard and rightfully it takes its place as one of our preferred testing materials when it comes to audio equipment.
The R5 may have a slim footprint but when the action starts and things start to blow up left and right they don’t have a problem to follow and keep pushing the envelope which may take a few by surprise. Their transparency was remarkable and the front sound wall stretched nicely beyond the actual limitations of the cabinets without making the sound feel artificial or loosing its cohesion. We particularly liked that the speakers not only managed to push the limits in all axis but also keep all the details intact making the end result feel very refined and with high resolution.
But when you test a movie like Mad Max you expect mayhem, destruction and the body count to keep rising so the R5 will show you how all this chaos can be rendered with such a control and mastery that you don’t see in many speakers. Explosions, engines roaring, metal parts flying all over the place and people screaming left and right all sounded as they should with the R5s giving a very natural tone to the end result that just felt accurate.
Dialogue was handled with care and even through all the screams, explosions and general mayhem that was happening it was kept very isolated at the middle with no overlapping with the rest of the effects making it very distinguishable and easy to the ears. Mad Max is not a film that handles dialogue with care and the R5 do show that by rendering its true raw nature with extreme accuracy.
Dynamics were very good and the R5s didn’t felt like they lacked in punch and vigor. The low end was satisfying enough but obviously such a film deserves a subwoofer for the best experience. But nevertheless the speakers did their best to hit the lows with enough strength without making the bass feel muffled.
Also we liked that the low end didn’t overshadow the rest of the frequency spectrum and gave a very nice sense of balance in the entire range. Transitions from the mid-range to the low end were very seamless and the Uni-Q array worked in perfect harmony with the bass woofers without sensing any transition gaps during play.
The R5s were paired with a different brand of surround speakers but all of them worked nicely together and the panning effects were very nicely handled with spot on transitions and excellent timings. And if you add the ability to expand the front in such a way the surround experience is certainly one of a kind.
The R5 may have more finesse than raw power but this doesn’t mean they cannot go loud. In fact they could go high enough to unpleasant levels and even then we didn’t sense any major distortion either from the cabinet or the air port.
For our second test we decided to go with a movie that is a bit more technical although still has its fare share of mayhem and destruction to entertain the masses. And this is no other than the recently released 2012 in 4K UHD with its very satisfying Dolby Atmos track. More or less the behavior of the speakers was similar to what we previously experienced showing a very focus performance across the board.
The film is based a lot on atmospheric effects in order to give a great size and scale to the destruction on screen and the R5s felt right at home with such material. At the front there is so much detail when it comes to the destruction scenes that every small detail is rendered with uncanny precision and accuracy.
There is a lot of surround activity in this Atmos mix and the front speakers did their best at filling every corner of our testing room with directional sounds while their coordination with our surrounds provided us with a unique immersion bubble with sound emitting left, right and above us. For these tests we usually don’t use any Atmos speakers but the R5 had a nice extension on the top layer showing their good extension capabilities not only at the front of us but also above. Obviously it’s not Atmos effects we were getting but it showed how good imaging it was provided just from the two front channels.
When the huge waves destroyed everything on their path and with buildings crumbling under the huge forces the R5s gave the necessary weight and scale to make the chaos as much believable as possible and unfold all the action around us.
The film switches a lot between dialogue driven moments, slow moments and all out chaos but the R5s didn’t seem to bother by the drastic changes in tempo and style and followed the action accordingly. Mid-range was tight and nicely controlled, the high end was alive and kicking and the lower frequencies were hitting good levels even though such a film requires more punch and all out power which only a subwoofer can give.
If we had to summarize our experience with the R5s we would say that they have no problem following the action on screen either it asks for more careful handling or just all out chaos. They can sound delicate but they are not afraid to reveal all the details of the soundtrack making the stage more alive than ever, which makes them ideal if you are looking for a good pair of HiFi speakers for your home theater.
As always there is one more test to do and this is music so we switched to a pure 2.0 channels audio setup with only the two front R5s connected and we streamed a selection of FLAC music tracks through the front USB port of our Onkyo receiver.
The R5s seem to combine a lot of virtues as the front stage became alive and every musical instrument was meticulously rendered in space. Stereo imaging sounded wonderful as we could close out eyes and locate each source with pinpoint accuracy. And its amazing when a speaker can do that without loosing its focus and resolution. Stereo panning effects were impressive with nice transitions between the channels and excellent tempo.
Vocals had a mesmerizing tone to them, revealing all the emotions of the performer and bringing forth all the excitement and enjoyment of the moment. It was not the most jaw dropping performance but it doesn’t need to be. Its rich and fulfilling blast of high end notes kept us asking for more without the need to be nitpicky.
The speakers also provided a nice low end as the dual bass drivers had the ability to keep the pace even with hectic performances without making the speakers feel like their cannot follow even with very demanding bass songs and fast tempos. We would like to have a bit more punch on the low end and more excitement but the speakers certainly don’t lack in clarity in this regard.
The KEF R5 are the kind of HiFi speakers that will give you exactly what you ask for. Excellent resolution, plenty of details, and amazing stereo imaging in order to create a sound stage that will feel real, alive and full of emotions. They are not perfect but if you see them as a whole the experience is certainly one of a kind.
KEF has spend more than two decades refining their signature Uni-Q array and the 12th generation included in the R5s is the culmination of all that work and years of experience. And with all the other technologies that are brought from their Reference lineup the R series certainly has a lot to offer.
The R5 are not only magnificent on how they look as the cabinet quality is very high but KEF has put a lot of engineering inside of it in order to give it the necessary performance that would characterize such a premium series. But the nice looking high quality cabinet is not doing all the work by itself as the Uni-Q array at the center complimented by the dual bass drivers give a very KEF performance that will certainly make you enjoy every moment of it. The R5s didn’t disappoint either in our movies or music testing and they are ideal for all kinds of material either you are a movie fan or music lover.
We cannot really say anything bad about such magnificent speakers. The low end could have a bit more punch and vigor and their musicality may slightly lack compared to other similarly priced models but these are minor nuances and in no way affect the enjoyment we had in every part of our review. Also the speakers do look so good that the grilles leave something to be desired. They are not bad in any way but the look of the cabinet far exceeds the design of the grilles themselves.
In their ever ending race for perfection KEF has reached new heights in terms of sonic quality and the KEF R5 is the perfect speaker to bring this kind of quality into their mid-range lineup that is destined for all those that look for a pair of floorstanders that offer a unique acoustic experience at a price that may not be the most affordable but is reasonable for what you get.
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