I have been a fan of KEF speakers for some time now, and I have had extensive experience with a significant portion of the KEF line, including the KEF Reference system, which I had in my home. It was with pleasure and anticipation that I received a set of KEF Reference 203 speakers for review as a two-channel set. The KEF Reference line has been a critically acclaimed success, and the 203s are the starting point for the floor-standing models. With an MSRP of $5,000, they fall into a sector of the market where many excellent speakers are available.
The 203s have an interesting driver array, with the top-mounted hypertweeter and the Uni-Q tweeter/midrange driver array. The hypertweeter is designed to give extended response up to 50 kHz, tailing off at about 70 kHz. Although this is beyond the threshold of human hearing, they are supposed to increase headroom and create an airier top end. This is especially important for high-resolution audio reproduction, as the SACD and DVD-Audio tracks (and presumably whatever high-resolution audio format is used on the new high-definition DVDs) have a much wider frequency bandwidth than regular CDs. The combined 1-inch tweeter and 6.5-inch midrange driver array are referred to as Uni-Q, and are designed to provide as tight a point source as possible. Rounding out the driver array are two 6.5-inch woofers, which are ported in back. The speakers come with adjustable feet, although spikes can be fitted. These speakers are tri-wirable, and come with jumpers to allow for single- or bi-wiring. It is also possible with rear-mounted knobs to make some fine adjustments to the high frequencies and to the bass.
Installation/Setup/Ease of Use
The particular set that I reviewed was black, and the finish is top-notch. The tapered sides are designed to reduce standing waves within the cabinet, and the wood veneer is lovely. Testing was performed with the excellent Marantz Reference PM11-S1 integrated amplifier, the Krell DVD Standard as a two-channel audio source, and the Marantz 8260 SACD/CD player as a high-resolution audio source. The cables used were Audioquest DBS speaker cables and Jaguar DBS interconnects.
Here We Go
When I received the speakers, they had about 50 hours of running in. I ran them for about another 30 hours before I felt that they started to open up properly, and before the bass started to become rhythmic and smooth.
Read more about the performance of the KEF Reference 203 speakers.
Count on at least 80 to 100 hours before these speakers properly open up. The 203s are just very, very smooth speakers. They image beautifully, and create a nice, deep soundstage. There is absolutely nothing harsh about this speaker, as the midrange is very smooth, the highs are sweet and airy, and the bass is gentle and not in your face at all. The midrange is especially interesting, as there are very few hard transients, and vocals will come across as gentle without hard edges.
Detail is copious, and little is lacking in the top end or in the midrange. Although they will happily rock with you, they play The Killers' excellent CD, Hot Fuss, with verve and enthusiasm. While playing "Somebody Told Me," the vocals are clear and, if anything, too smooth. Rock music is better with just a bit of edge to the vocals, and the KEFs can be just a bit too polite, but this is personal taste. If there is anything lacking here, it is the amount and depth of bass. Those 6.5-inch woofers do a wonderful job with detail, but you have to move up the line or get a sub to really get the room shaking.
Diana Krall's SACD, The Look of Love, really gives these speakers the opportunity to shine. This speaker just reproduces Diana Krall's voice with a non-fatiguing gentleness. This is one of its real strengths--the lack of any fatiguing harshness or hard transients. It is possible to listen to this speaker for hours without exhausting yourself. There is rarely sibilance present in the top end. There is almost never a hint of chestiness to the midrange, and the bass is always rapid and tight.
Imaging is excellent with the Uni-Q driver array. Vocals hang perfectly in midair, and the soundstage created has good depth as well as width. The depth is not as great as with the Reference 207s I had, but still it is quite deep. This creates that three-dimensional sound that audiophiles so love, that feeling of having that performance right in front of you. I think the 203s work best in a moderately sized listening room, and the 205s or 207s would be a better choice for large rooms.
Although I have heard this speaker in home theater systems, I did some television watching using just the two channels. These speakers do make watching movies very non-fatiguing, as vocals are clear and clean, and the speakers will produce enough bass to give the floor a bit of shake when the movie demands.
As with many speakers, the 203s sound best with very good electronics, and if you're using solid-state electronics, the more power and current the better. They are very revealing, so shortcomings in your cables or electronics will become obvious. The 203s are forgiving, but will give you more and more with better surrounding equipment.
Disadvantages are not many, but to some, the 203s might be too smooth and polite. Some listeners like the hard transients and an edge to the sound, but I find those fatiguing. This is a speaker for the long run-beautiful and gentle, refreshing rather than tiring. Stronger, deeper bass would also be appreciated, but that can be obtained further up the line (for more money of course!). Otherwise, there is little fault with this speaker, and I strongly recommend that the discerning audiophile listen to the KEF Reference 203s.
Design: 4-way reflex
Drive units: 2 x 6.5" woofers, 1 x 6.5" midrange, 1 x 1" tweeter, 1 x 0.75" hypertweeter
Frequency Response at 15 degree horizontally off axis 3 dB: 55 Hz-55 kHz
LF Corner: -6 dB: 40 Hz
Amplifier Requirements: 50-200 W
Sensitivity: 89 dB
Impedance: 8 ohms (3.2 ohms min.)
Weight: 58.3 lbs.
Dimensions: 42" x 9.8" x 15.9"