These KEFS were trailblazers, how well do they fare today?
Trailblazing speakers that birthed a new design – yes, but how do they sound today?
When we think of classic KEF Reference speakers of the ’90s, the legendary 105/3s come to mind. These floorstanders set the hi-fi world alight with their innovative engineering and class-leading sound quality. Hidden in their shadow was the Model 101, the first Reference standmounter to use the company’s clever Uni-q driver technology. In our books that makes them rather significant in their own right.
The quest for unity
Let’s talk about what makes the Uni-q unusual. In an ideal world, a single-drive unit would be able to cover the full audible band of frequencies, or at least enough of it to convince. Such a driver wasn’t available back in the 1980s, and still isn’t now – not in any form that would be domestically acceptable anyway. The Uni-q is an attempt to get close to that ideal while still using multiple drive units.
While the Uni-q design may look like a single driver, it’s actually two drive units in one chassis, with the tweeter positioned in the throat of the mid/bass cone. The idea is to make all frequencies sound as if they’re being generated from the same point, just as they would in that elusive perfect single driver.
However, such a two-in-one design is difficult to get right. There are hurdles, specifically in getting the tweeter dispersion to the level where the moving larger cone around it doesn’t spoil the sound. Cup your hands in front of your mouth and move them back and forth quickly as you speak and you’ll notice that the movement changes your voice. The position of the tweeter puts limits on its design and the type of motor system employed. Indeed, Uni-q was made possible only by the then newly available Neodymium magnets, which are nothing less than chunks of powerful, concentrated magnetism.
KEF has spent decades optimising all aspects of the Uni-q array, trying a variety of waveguides, cone profiles, surrounds and other refinements to improve performance. If the current Reference 1 standmounters are anything to go by, the company’s engineers have done a great job.
Differences and similarities
Having just finished our review of the superb Reference 1s we connect the 101/3 and are surprised at the difference in ability between the two. Even so, it’s clear both products display a healthy dose of Kefness – that balance of insight and liveability that the company does so well.
It takes mere seconds to realise that the new speakers are better in every respect, from clarity and detail resolution right through to dynamics and low-end reach. But let’s not get too hung up on the comparison. Despite sharing plenty of engineering DNA, the two products are light years apart in market position – the 101/3s cost £550 in 1993, while the current Reference 1s carry a price tag of £5000. Nevertheless, we would have expected something closer to triple the price. That’s a clear indication that over the years the Reference series has moved itself significantly upmarket.
The test of time
Let’s get this comparison into perspective. Even by current standards, the Model 101/3s remain admirable speakers. The Uni-q’s excellent dispersion characteristics are obvious in the way they deliver a stable and consistent stereo image, and in the precision with which sounds are located. We find we have considerable flexibility with our listening position, the 101/3s effortlessly delivering a stable, focused and tonally balanced sound across a wide range of seating options.
The speakers’ tonal balance is full-bodied and refined. Play an aggressive recording such as Eminem’s
Bad Guy and the 101s remain smooth and listenable. They have a decent amount of low-end authority too, giving a solid foundation for the rest of the sound.
Unsurprisingly, detail levels, dynamics and precision fall short of current £500 standards, and the KEFS aren’t exactly rhythmic champions either. The company’s recent products have notably improved in this respect. The 101s sound more at home with classical music, where their sonic solidity, fine integration and refinement come to the fore. We play Stravinsky’s
The Song Of The Nightingale and they deliver a strong performance that brims with control. There’s a pleasing degree of organisation and an uncanny ability to track a multitude of instrumental strands without losing composure or allowing the subtler themes to become overshadowed.
These aren’t the purest tonally, and they have some cupped colorations through the midband in particular. It’s something that’s quite obvious with vocal-based material from the likes of The Unthanks or First Aid Kit. KEF has worked hard over the years to make the Uni-q design sound more transparent and it’s clear from current products that the brand has been successful in this respect.
Comfort and composure
Overall, the Model 101/3s are a comfortable listen. They’re not particularly energetic and they round off the excitement on upbeat material. Yet, we can’t help but admire their composure, stereo imaging and terrific integration between the tweeter and mid/bass. Build quality is excellent too. If you’re a classical music fan, or just someone who prefers a more relaxed approach to music replay, then these KEFS still have appeal.
“While the Uni-q design may look like a single driver, it’s actually two drive units in one chassis”