Within the past few months, the Music Center Hi-Fi House, Charlottesville, Virginia, has taken on the KEF line, so I have had the opportunity to hear the 104 and the 103. The first speaker they received was the 104, to which I had mixed reactions. On the positive side, the speaker was open, had good depth imaging and definition and handled transients well. But its mid and upper bass were quite bloated. I assume that this problem could be resolved by proper placement off of the floor and away from walls. (I heard them on their short stands at least three feet away from any wall. Though most people I have talked to here who have heard them feel that the bass is a problem, the KEF rep apparently insists that the supplied stands place them at a proper height above the floor.) I have heard them on a wall shelf at least four feet above the floor; the problem was reduced but still evident. The other flaw I have found with the speakers is that there is a slightly muted quality about the upper frequencies. It is as if there were a steep filter cutting off some place in the upper treble region. I do not see how this problem can be resolved without equalization. My overall impression, due to the 104's definition, dynamics and excellent handling of transients, is that it would make a good rock speaker, as a compromise between a dynamic but very colored speaker, such as a JBL, and a more natural though more sedate speak-er, such as a Magnepan or a Dahlquist.
In time, the model 103 appeared, and I had hopes that it might serve as a portable monitoring speaker for which I had been looking. Unfortunately, they were a good deal more colored than the 104's.They were boxy sounding, lacking the 104's openness and depth. They did not seem to have the 104's bloated bass, but they did not have the 104's definition and punch either. (I should add that I heard the 103's on a shelf, against a wall, at least four feet above the floor.) Their high end did not have the muted quality of the 104's, but worse, they were a bit hot, tending to the brittle side. Overall, the 103 was a disappointing speaker, especially considering the ridiculous price KEF is asking for them (recently raised to $275 a piece, I have been told).
By this time, I had concluded that though KEF made excellent drivers for other people's speakers (IMF/IM Fried and the BBC), they were not so successful at creating a complete speaker system for themselves. But one day I entered the store to discover that there was a KEF speaker smaller than the 103 -- the Corelli. After about a week of pestering the store, I was permitted to hook them up. I was quite overwhelmed by such a splendid sound from such a small speak-er. It was open, had good depth, imaging, apparently a good tonal balance and very good bass. By comparison, the 103's seemed brighter but not open, colored in the lower register, boxy and two-dimensional. The 104's were similar to the Corelli's in terms of openness and depth, and at their midranges were about identical, but the 104's bass was bloated and too warm. (The CorelIi's were sitting on top of the 104's at the time and thus were away from the floor and walls, giving the Corelli's an advantage here.) Surprisingly, the slightly muted quality of the 104's in the high end was nonexistent in the Corelli's, though they both use the same tweeter. For the first time I had found a speaker I liked whose price ($185 each) fell between those of two personal favorites for their prices, the large Advents and the Magnepans, so I decided to compare the Corelli's to them. The Advents, in comparison, sounded muffled and veiled, not open in the high end and otherwise inferior. The comparison with the Magnepans was more complex and less conclusive. The Corelli's seemed to have a more neutral tonal balance throughout the frequency range. The Magnepan's hot spot in the lower treble area really stood out by comparison (even though re-cent Maggies have less of this problem than earlier ones). The Magnepan's rolloff in the extreme highs was evident, giving the Maggies a mute, muffled sound compared to the Corelli's openness. I assume that tonal balance irregularities also account for the fact that female singers sounded almost nasal on the Maggies, while on the Corelli's they seemed more natural and defined. The Magnepans did seem more detailed and perhaps more open in the midrange. Surprisingly to me, there was a greater sense of depth with the Corelli's. Finally, the Corelli's bass response seemed more natural and better defined. My overall conclusion is that the Corelli's tonal balance is its main advantage over the Maggies, though the Maggies are probably capable of providing a more spacious sound and of handling high volumes with less strain. As you perhaps can guess, I was very impressed with the Corelli's, and, after trying them at home for a while, I purchased a pair to serve as a reserve and portable speaker.
I was perplexed that KEF seemed to be competing with itself. There was the "Reference Series" of speakers, the 103's, 104's, and, I assume, the 105's. Then there was the "C Series," of which the Corelli is the bottom of the line (the others being the Calinda and the Cantata). And to my ears the Corelli was certainly superior to the 103 and to a lesser degree to the 104. By implication the C Series must be a group of superior performance speakers which should "do in" the Reference Series in the marketplace. Why was KEF doing this? I contacted the KEF rep and was informed that the two series were designed for different markets. The Reference Series is for those who want high volume levels. The C Series is for those who need less volume and want (by implication in the conversation) superior definition and basic performance. The main apparent design difference between at least the 103 and 104 versus the Corelli and the Calinda is in the nature of the B200 midrange/woofer used. The 103 and 104 use the B200/SP1039, which has a large magnet and voice coil (the larger coil permitting higher power levels). The Corelli and Ca-linda use the B200/SP1022, which has the same large magnet but a smaller voice coil (this is the same driver used by I M Fried in the H's woofer). This seems to result in a more accurate driver with superior definition. (The B200 sold as a separate driver for speaker kit projects is theB200/SP1014, which has a small voice coil and a small magnet.) Whatever else is different, I certainly prefer the C Series.
All of the above statements are based on general impressions of all the speakers at the Music Center, Charlottesville, Virginia (a very cordial store whose staff was very obliging in letting me make lengthy comparisons between their products on my own). After I had lived with the Corelli's for a few weeks, I did discover certain limitations in their performance (as I am sure I would have if I had lived with the others). As the KEF representative suggested, the Corelli's are limited in the volumes they can generate; they sound strained if driven above about 90 to 95 dB, especially with complex orchestral passages. And they generate a more restricted sound field than speakers such as the Dayton Wrights. But they do have extraordinary bass response for their size, being one of the best mid and upper bass speakers with which I am familiar (this is the characteristic that most impresses people who listen to them).
As is to be expected, the speakers are sensitive to placement. All of my descriptions
have been of the speakers away from the floor and walls. If placed on the floor, the bass
becomes bloated, making the midrange seem restricted. If put on book shelves the sound becomes
less open and more two-dimensional.
All in all, I have found the Corelli to be an exceptional speaker (especially in view of its size and cost). Considering that it is at the bottom of the C Series line, the rest of the speakers hold great promise. I am looking forward to hearing the Calinda and the Cantata.
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