I recently reviewed Denon's flagship AVR-X7200WA network receiver. This Swiss Army knife of a receiver supports new immersive sound formats like Dolby Atmos, DTS: X, and Auro-3D. In order to evaluate the receiver's performance with Dolby Atmos specifically, KEF graciously agreed to send me a pair of its R50 Dolby Atmos speaker modules ($1,199.99/pair), the subject of this review.
Let's face it, not everyone is willing or able to cut holes in their ceiling to accommodate the two or four height speakers needed to enjoy content encoded in the Dolby Atmos format. You can count me in that group. Before going to the hassle and expense of an in-ceiling installation, I would want to know if it's going to be worth it to me (and my wife) to add Atmos capability to my system. Well, that's where KEF comes to the rescue. The company has designed its up-firing R50 speaker to be placed on top of floorstanding or bookshelf speakers, or even on top of wall-mounted satellite speakers.
The KEF R50 has an attractive high-gloss piano black finish and measures just 6.9 inches high by 7.1 wide by 10.2 deep, so I was surprised by the speaker's heft (9.9 pounds) when unboxing each one. The R50 is a closed-box design with KEF's highly regarded Uni-Q driver array consisting of a one-inch vented aluminum dome high-frequency driver and a 5.25-inch aluminum midbass driver. The speakers are also internally braced, which accounts for some of their substantial weight. The R50 has an impedance rating of eight ohms, a sensitivity rating of 85 dB, and a frequency response of 105 Hz to 18.5 kHz (+/-3dB).
Atmos-enabled modules intentionally limit low-frequency response to avoid sub-bass and lower-bass sounds leaking into the room, since those frequencies tend to be less directional. That's important because the success behind this alternative approach depends on being able to accurately beam the sound toward the ceiling so that it reflects off and reaches the listening position from above--just as it would from traditional in-ceiling speakers. Therefore, the lower frequencies are instead directed to your system's subwoofer by your Dolby Atmos-capable AV receiver or processor.
Dolby says that there are two main requirements for optimizing results with this approach. First, you need to be able to place the Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers on top of or near your existing main speakers if using two Atmos-enabled modules (if you want to add a second pair, they need to be similarly placed on top of or near your surround speakers). Second, the room's ceiling needs to be flat and between eight and 14 feet in height. If you are able to meet these requirements, you can put away that drywall saw. Just connect the KEF R50 speakers with your favorite speaker cables to your Dolby Atmos receiver and get ready to enjoy true 3D sound. Well, that's the idea anyway. But do the KEF R50 Atmos-enabled modules serve as a suitable substitute for the in-ceiling approach? That's what I intended to find out.
For my evaluation, I placed a pair of R50 speakers on top of the Monitor Audio Gold 300 floorstanders I still had on hand following their review. The Gold 300s are also finished in piano black and have a similar cabinet width as the KEF R50. Aesthetically, the KEFs looked as though they were made specifically to be paired with the Gold 300s. Both the R50 and Gold 300 share a similarly high-quality fit and finish. Associated electronics for this review were the aforementioned Denon AVR-X7200WA receiver, an Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray player, and a Pioneer Elite Kuro Pro 110FD display.
I would have added a second pair of R50 speakers for rear-height service except the setup in my family room doesn't allow for their proper placement. If your surround speakers are floorstanders or bookshelves on stands (or on the rear wall), a second pair of the R50s can be added on top to potentially enrich the height effect even further. However, my surrounds are bipole/dipole speakers mounted on the ceiling, so there was no suitable rear placement option for a second pair of R50 speakers. However, this limitation allowed me to evaluate whether or not the minimum recommended 5.1.2 speaker configuration for Dolby Atmos is sufficient to deliver an immersive 3D experience. So, I set up the speaker configuration on the Denon, ran the Audyssey calibration, and sat down to listen.
Over the course of watching and listening to several movie selections encoded in Dolby Atmos, I quickly came to appreciate the extra height dimension delivered by the KEF R50 speakers. Action movies really take advantage of this new object-based format. Overhead sound effects in the movies I watched just pulled me closer to the center of the action, creating a greater sense of realism. The R50s always added to my enjoyment by reproducing overhead effects effortlessly and with such realism. Sounds moved overhead from front to back or side to side with a greater smoothness than I'd experienced before. I was never able to pinpoint the source of overhead sounds as coming from the KEF speakers, and the timbre of the KEF R50 matched seamlessly with the Monitor Audio speakers.
I watched the first season of the HBO series Game of Thrones, recently released encoded in the Dolby Atmos format. Not having seen the series before, I quickly got immersed in the story due in no small part to the 3D soundscape I was now enjoying through the Monitor/KEF combo. I had only intended to watch one episode but ended up binge watching the whole first season in one weekend, just waiting to see (and hear) what would happen next.
Would another pair of Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers in back have added to my movie enjoyment even further? While I suspect that's true, I can say having just a single pair is enough to raise your enjoyment of movies encoded in Dolby Atmos significantly.
• The KEF R50 speakers capably provided that missing dimension of height to the soundstage, providing a more immersive, emotional experience of rich, full sound that moves more naturally around the listener.
• The fit and finish of the R50 is impeccable, and the design aesthetic will complement KEF loudspeakers and many other brands.
• The KEF R50 speakers provide a very viable alternative to installing in-ceiling speakers for Dolby Atmos.
• The KEF R50 does not come with a bracket for optional wall hanging, as a couple of other manufacturers now offer. The inclusion of a bracket would provide even more speaker-placement options.
Comparison & Competition
Although the KEF R50 may have been among the first Dolby Atmos-enabled add-on speakers to be introduced, more manufacturers are joining this market with speaker modules that cost less than the R50. The MartinLogan Motion AFX ($599.95/pair), the Klipsch Reference RP-140SA ($499/pair), the PSB Imagine XA ($499/pair), and the Atlantic Technology 44-DA ($499/pair) are all recently introduced Dolby Atmos-enabled speaker modules, although none have quite the mass or high-end fit and finish of the KEF R50. For a more extensive list of available Dolby Atmos-enabled add-on speaker modules, click here.
While several companies now offer Atmos-enabled speaker modules, most are designed to complement a specific speaker model in the company's lineup and would look out of place with most other brands. While the KEF R50 is offered as part of the company's R Series of loudspeakers, its more ubiquitous design will match well with many other brands of loudspeakers, both aesthetically and sonically.
If you're eager to experience the more immersive sound of Dolby Atmos but either can't or don't want to go through the hassle of cutting holes in the ceiling of your living space, the KEF R50 Atmos-enabled speakers provide a wonderful alternative. They look stunning and, when properly placed, will conveniently provide that missing height dimension of sound in your high-end home theater, truly immersing you in today's Dolby Atmos-encoded movie and television soundtracks.
• Check out our Bookshelf and Small Speakers category page to read similar reviews.
• What Your System Needs to Enjoy Dolby Atmos Today at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Visit KEF's website for more product information.