KEF Q Series Q350 Speaker System
ONE OF THE HEADLINES I considered for this review was “What Becomes a Legend Most.” It’s a poignant song from Lou Reed’s New Sensations. Before that, it was an advertising slogan that sold mink coats in ads featuring Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall, and Marlene Dietrich, among others. Somehow, it fits KEF, the British speaker manufacturer responsible for numerous driver-related innovations, including the Uni-q coincident array. KEF’S Muon and Blade towers have the fragrance of luxury about them.
The LS50 mini-monitor is a crowdpleasing peacock, always strutting down the runway in new colors. However, less affluent surround audiophiles can have a slice of the KEF tradition in the new and affordable Q Series. And no innocent little minks had to give up their lives.
Unlike the luminaries above, the Q Series isn’t especially fancy looking. The matte black vinyl-clad appearance of my samples was decidedly plain, aside from a protruding KEF badge. The line includes three floorstanding speakers: the Q950 ($900/each), Q750 ($750/each), and Q550 ($550/ each). Then there are two monitors, the Q350 ($650/pair) and Q150 ($550/pair), as well as the Q650c center ($650) and the Q50a Atmos-enabled elevation module add-on ($500/pair). The latter can sit atop any of the floorstanders or monitors to bounce Dolby Atmos or DTS:X height channels off the ceiling.
KEF makes a pointed suggestion by shipping all Q Series models except the Q50a without grilles.
And KEF’S online manual for the Q50a confirms that grilles are included for that model (see “Inside the Box”). If you want grilles for the other speakers, you can buy them at extra cost. But if you do that, your guests won’t see the fairly subtle blue Uni-q Driver Array lettering on the edge of the basket, and shame on you for hiding a legend behind drab fabric. The system under review here comprises four of the Q350 monitors, topped with four of the Q50a, plus the Q650c center and the Kube12b subwoofer ($700), for a total price of $3,150.
The Uni-q array is the centerpiece of most KEF products. The tweeter is mounted in the center of the throat of the woofer or midrange driver, effectively using the cone as a waveguide, albeit one that is moving with the audio signal. The Q350 monitor mates the 1-inch tweeter with a 6.5-inch woofer, while on the baffle of the Q650c center the 6.5-inch Uni-q is flanked by one additional woofer to the right and one Auxiliary Bass Radiator (passive radiator) to the left. The Q50a places the tweeter at the apex of a 5.25-inch woofer. All diaphragms are aluminum.
Atmos-enabled speakers are the convenience-over-performance, and therefore not surprisingly the most popular, method of adding height channels to your system. The best effect is achieved by mounting actual height speakers overhead. However, that solution is often unpalatable, so bouncing the higher frequencies of the height signals off the ceiling provides a reasonable sense of elevation in a practical manner. Dolby Labs tells us that Atmos-enabled speakers work best in rooms with a flat, hard ceiling at a height of 8 to 9 feet, though up to 14 is acceptable. Light fixtures, moldings, and vents probably won’t interfere much with the ceiling bounce; vaulted or angled ceilings and acoustic treatments will.
The Kube12b sub places a
12-inch reinforced-paper cone driver in the front of a solid, sealed enclosure resulting in a total weight of 45 pounds. It’s powered by an internal 300-watt amplifier, conservatively specified in RMS (not peak) power. Intelligent Bass Extension, or IBX, uses DSP to analyze the input signal and reduce bass extension as volume increases to ensure there’ll be useable output even at high volume levels. Even the inputs are smart, auto-detecting mono LFE or stereo signals and adjusting gain to match. Three DSP EQ settings tailor the sub’s output to the situation with freestanding, in-wall or in-cabinet, or corner
The Uni-q array is the centerpiece of most KEF products.
placement. This may not be a substitute for well-done room correction, but it affords more flexibility.
Associated equipment included a Denon AVR
X7200W A/V receiver, Oppo BDP-83SE universal disc player, Micro Seiki BL-51 turntable, Shure M97XE cartridge, and Denon PRAS10 serving as phono preamp. All movies were on Blu-ray Disc.
Precise, Not Fussy
The Q monitor and center create a soundstage with precisely delineated images, and I’d expect no less of a coincident design wielded with the benefit of long experience. But they weren’t bright or unduly fussy. The all-aluminumdiaphragm drivers sounded smooth and well behaved at high volumes. They had good bass response, too, even before factoring in the sub. And that sub had plenty of output, no doubt assisted by its robust amp. Starting with my usual default sub and processor settings, I knocked its level down more than once. Something unusual was going on here and I wished my reviewer’s creed hadn’t forbidden the use of the receiver’s room correction as one variable too many—though I did get interesting results later on when I fooled around with the sub EQ modes.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (DTS-HD Master Audio) had a thick tonal balance that almost tipped over into congestion—though my room’s uncorrected standing wave undoubtedly contributed to it. However, every sub I review is affected by that, and yet it was more problematic this time. A voiceover by Javier Bardem localized heavily in the sub, prompting me to push the sub volume down yet again, which proved to be a good move by the time I got to the battle-heavy Dolby Atmos demos.
They began with The Mummy, a Tom Cruise swashbuckler that uses its Atmos height channels sparingly and not always in the most obvious places. My favorite instance was the low exhalation of air moving quietly around the underground tomb, a subtle effect that benefited enormously from timbre-matched speakers all around. In a scene where the tomb raiders are under attack, the hiss of airborne explosives precedes a satisfying all-channels boom, with force from the 6.5-inch woofers as well as the sub. The soundfield was generously big, notably un-speaker-bound, and not as cut and dried as I might have expected. The overall effect was full and rich, confident in its presentation but not unduly finicky, with a high comfort level.
Comfort level continued to be an asset in the next Atmos demo, as my binge on season 7 of Game of Thrones continued with the last four episodes. Episodes 5 and 6 are bookended by battles featuring Queen Daenerys mounted on a fire-breathing dragon, repelling first a human army, then an army of the dead (though at a terrible price). With the sound mixer opting for aggressive use of the height
The Q monitor and center create a soundstage with precisely delineated images.
speakers, often filling all nine of the Denon receiver’s amp channels, the KEF system stood up well to these massive and extended dynamic challenges, maintaining its smoothness as well as its poise at high volumes.
Job, Mick, and the Lizards
Vaughan Williams’ Job orchestral suite and Symphony No. 9 arrived on hybrid SACD from Chandos with surround and stereo mixes. The surround track omits the LFE channel, but that didn’t prevent the receiver’s bass management from directing a pipe-organ blast into the sub, which rose to the thundering occasion. Complementing this high-volume virtuosity was the delicacy displayed in extended solo passages for violin and flugelhorn. At either end of the dynamic scale, the speakers had a superb spatial sense—and while a good multichannel recording makes that easier, there was no mistaking the speakers’ contribution to the seamless integration of instruments and their reflections from the original venue’s walls.
The golden age of the Rolling Stones, the Mick Taylor era, ended with It’s Only Rock ’n Roll (LP). It was delightful to hear the coincident array tracking his fluid guitar parts, with their ever-changing timbres, as they weaved around the monumental rhythm parts and occasional leads of an under-theweather Keith Richards. Charlie Watts was more prominent than usual in the mix, which could only help; the monitors and sub made his bass drum kick like a mule. It seemed muddy, though. I switched the EQ Macero’s clean, ungimmicky production, reproducing a bracing freshness. I liked the way the monitors and sub brought out the subtle tunefulness of Steve Piccolo’s bass playing.
The one thing I haven’t said yet about KEF’S Q Series is what a great value it is, nestled between the step-up Reference line and the compact-satellite-based home theater packages. You can have a 5.1.4-channel Atmos treatment with refinement and a whole lot of woofing and subwoofing for just north of three thousand bucks. At $650 a pair, the Q350 would also serve with distinction in a twochannel starter system—at half the price of the popular LS50 minimonitor. And I’m impressed by how much performance KEF got out of the $700 price of the Kube12b sub. A legend has to be earned. KEF continues to earn it.
Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems, now available in both print and Kindle editions.
An additional woofer and a passive radiator flank the coincident array in the Q650C centerchannel speaker.
Mounting the tweeter in the center of the woofer allows the woofer cone to act as a waveguide.
KEF’S Q50a Atmos module is designed to fit atop both floorstanding and monitor speakers.
placement mode from in-room to corner. The sub wasn’t actually in a corner, but now I was getting optimum Charlie; I wished I’d done it sooner.
The self-titled debut of the Lounge Lizards (LP) combines saxophonist John
Lurie’s hook-laden quasi-jazz compositions with Thelonious Monk covers and the distinctive atonal guitar playing of Arto Lindsay. The monitors abetted Teo