Klipsch Reference Theater Pack Speaker System
Blow, little horns, blow. by Mark Fleischmann
SOME PEOPLE ARE JUST GOOD at things. People like Rembrandt van Rijn, who could make a painted image gaze into your soul; or Meryl Streep, who can be Anna Wintour one moment and Julia Child the next; or Warren Buffett, who’s been known to make his shareholders a dollar or two; or Billie Holiday, who could sing like Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and fit a lifetime of hard loving into a single phrase. Companies can be good at things, too. Klipsch, for instance, became famous for their horn-loaded drivers under founder Paul W. Klipsch. In the last couple of decades, the brand has parlayed its expertise in horns into a commanding position in the compact speaker category, marketing one bestselling satellite/ subwoofer set after another.
The Sixth Generation
The Klipsch Reference Theater Pack is the company’s sixth-generation sat/sub system, succeeding the Quintet, which we tested back in 2013. It sells for $999 with an 8-inch subwoofer, compared with $1,050 (not factoring in a halfdecade of inflation) for the previous configuration we reviewed with a 10-inch sub.
The Reference Theater
Pack consists of four RTP Satellites—or Pack Sats, as I like to call them—plus an almost equally compact, horizontal RTP Center and an R-8SWi subwoofer (not sold separately). The 0.75-inch tweeter in the sats and center is still recessed into a 90 x 90-degree Tractrix horn. But there are notable differences from the previous system.
The 3.5-inch woofer has been upgraded from injection-molded graphite (IMG) to spun-coppercolored IMG. Largely a cosmetic touch, it makes each little speaker look gorgeous when used with the grille off. The 0.75-inch Linear Travel Suspension tweeter is another feature that the Reference Theater Pack borrows, as its name implies, from Klipsch’s higher-end Reference line of loudspeakers.
The new satellite’s curved enclosure is made of “black brushed polymer,” a.k.a. plastic, a step down from the highly inert “forged stone polymer” (a composite molding compound called AcoustaComp) that was formerly used. As a result of this and other changes, though a quarter-inch taller, the Pack Sat weighs less than half as much as the old Quintet sat. My fear going in was that this could influence the sound, adding cabinet-induced colorations for starters. More on that below.
Cloth-covered grilles are magnetically attached. On the back are a port, a threaded insert on each sat (two on the center), and spring-loaded cylindrical binding posts. The new enclosure makes it harder to access the binding posts
because it dispenses with the formerly cone-shaped recesses that cleverly guided wire tips into the posts and replaces them with holes that make the job more like threading a needle. Thin, soldered tips would work best.
When we reviewed the Quintet, it was available with a 12- or 10-inch subwoofer, sold separately from the satellites. The Reference Theater Pack comes with an 8-inch sub included, and it adds a new attraction: a 2.4-gigahertz wireless kit. The sub’s internal amp is rated at 50 watts RMS and 150 watts peak, which is considerably less than the 200 and 450 watts spec of the 10inch sub we previously reviewed.
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 PRA-S10 serving as phono preamp.
The Sound of Rap
These Klipsch horns really communicated. Dialogue and other elements in the soundfield were well imaged, with strong outlines, but not without a modicum of shading.
Tonal balance, while slightly forward, was certainly not too aggressive or sizzly; things that were supposed to sound warm sounded warm. With matched horns and drivers in every corner of the room, as well as in the
center, it was easy to follow panning trajectories. Bass reflected the inherent limits of the Pack Sat’s 3.5-inch woofer, and took some dialing in, but eventually I got the sats and sub on speaking terms.
On the downside, there was a hollow-plasticky coloration coming from the cabinets. Knowing that these had been switched from the harder, stone-like material to the lighter plastic, I asked myself if this was confirmation bias—the tendency to allow a pre-existing theory to overwhelm facts. But no. Although the Quintet review was years ago, I’ve never forgotten knuckle-rapping the Quintet cabinet; it sounded and felt like stone. Rapping the RTP enclosure reveals a hollow-sounding coloration, and it isn’t subtle. The other confirming factor was plain old listening. Yes, I could hear the resonance from time to time, though it wasn’t a deal breaker and didn’t prevent the system from performing well enough in other respects—imaging, resolution, and overall clarity.
Gold (Blu-ray Disc with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack), starring Matthew McConaughey as a modern gold prospector, features some pleasing natural effects from the jungles of Borneo (actually filmed in Thailand). The hornloaded tweeters made them almost too colorful; when perspective shifted within a scene, the transition was dramatic. The subwoofer needed less than half of its volume control’s range (with the usual default level in my receiver’s surround processor) to produce an adequate level of low bass effects. Despite the modest sub amp, it got the job done in my New York apartment. Dialing out a slight localization of male voices pushed the sub level and crossover point down, though I would later rethink the crossover.
The Fate of the Furious (Blu-ray, DTS-HD Master Audio) loads up on action heroes (Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham) and other stars (Charlize Theron and an uncredited Helen Mirren) and lays on the motorized noise with a trowel. I became grateful for both the Klipsch’s well-behaved top end and the apparent decision to mix the film with a limited dynamic range. Although my aim for a one-size-fitsall volume setting was lower than a motorhead might prefer, the center speaker wouldn’t let me miss a word of dialogue.
Grantchester (DVD, Dolby Digital), with James Norton as the village vicar who solves murder mysteries, can be filed under unintentional demo material (my favorite kind). The first season of this TV series was shot in 2014 with a stereo soundtrack. That left the center speaker unused and required the left and right Pack Sats to image dialogue on their own. In terms of clarity, they never failed, though the plasticky coloration was made even more obvious...
“White Album” Revisited
...until it wasn’t. Why did the coloration all but vanish from “The White Album” in the vinyl box set of The Beatles in Mono? The box’s reserved presentation may have called less attention to it; of the half-dozen versions of this album sitting on my shelves, this one is the least bright, and it’s a relief to be able to play it loud. Whatever the reason, the Pack Sat zeroed in on those familiar voices, making them warm and fleshy. Chalk up a win for the little speaker. This would be the last album in which the band and their team miraculously fit numerous layers into a single channel, and the Pack Sats peeled the onion beautifully.
The one thing missing was Paul McCartney’s bass. Dialing in bass takes extra effort with sat/sub systems in general (not just this one). My usual 80 hertz and even 100 Hz would leave a huge hole; nowadays, I start at 120 and go from there. In our Klipsch Quintet review, a different 3.5-inch woofer rolled off steeply below 200 Hz, so I knew I would have to use a higher sub crossover than I typically prefer. However, I refused to go to 200 Hz, which made the subwoofer unbearably obvious. And at 120 Hz, the hole between 120 and 200 Hz isolated the sub and omitted a big slice of upper bass. Switching to 150 Hz turned on Paul’s bass guitar like a light switch.
I continued hopping among sub crossover points while listening to Simon Nicol’s Before Your Time (CD), the Fairport Convention frontman’s first solo album, replaying the opening track obsessively as I flipped between 120 and 150 Hz. With the Beatles, the difference was night and day—but it made far less difference to the rhythm section on this album, beautifully self-produced and self-engineered for the age of high fidelity, with crisp mids and a beefy bottom end that flattered ace players Dave Mattacks (drums) and Dave Pegg (bass). The system mined colorful textures from Nicol’s finely aged baritone and the layered filigrees of his delicate but rhythmically surefooted acoustic guitar.
Next, I turned to a live recording of outgoing music director Alan Gilbert leading the New York Philharmonic in Verdi’s Requiem at David Geffen Hall (CD). The recording seemed to
soften the venue’s hard string sound, which actually suited the Pack Sats well, enabling them to bring out the natural warmth of the chorus and soloists. One thing the venue and the satellites had in common was excellent low-level resolution, which meant that soft-voiced passages didn’t vanish into the ether. (My CD was a Philharmonic subscriber freebie, but you can download the album in Amazon MP3 form or watch it free on the orchestra’s website at nyphil.org/watch-listen/audio/- broadcasts/1415/verdi-requiem.)
In assessing my Performance and Value ratings for the Reference Theater Pack satellites and center, I had to balance the downgrading of the enclosure from filled polymer to mere plastic against the continued effectiveness of the horn-loaded tweeters and IMG-coned woofers. There was something special about those AcoustaComp enclosures, though, and I hope they make a comeback someday.
On the other hand, Klipsch’s use of horns is not only an evergreen company tradition but also an inspired piece of ingenuity that, literally, has been passed down from generation to generation. And it survives because it does what it does really well, allowing small satellite speakers to assert a big sound. Another positive factor is the addition of wireless transmission to the now more compact sub.
That the sub was also downgraded to one with a smaller driver and less powerful amp to hit a price point did not go unnoticed. However, my respect for its nimbleness at frequencies just below the sat-friendly sub crossover slowly but surely increased over time.
So yes, the Pack is a step down from the Quintet—and if you’re lucky enough to find anything left of the latter in the retail pipeline, go for it. But the Pack Sats are still excellent performers, and the Value rating for the system as a whole benefited from the $50 price cut.
The Klipsch Reference Pack successfully continues the brand’s string of excellent-sounding budget sat/sub systems. There are some folks who love horns not only for their inherently higher efficiency— a good thing to have in a speaker system when it’s running with a $500 receiver—but also for their distinctive clarity. Klipsch continues to profit from the wisdom of the company’s elders.
Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems, now available in both print and
The wireless R-8SWi sub comes with a compact, pre-paired transmitter.
Klipsch’s compact 8-inch sub measures 11.75 x 13.25 x 11.75 inches.