The Klipsch RP-280FA proves that the company's core design concepts haven't changed much since Paul Klipsch founded it almost 70 years ago. The RP-280FA incorporates the very latest home theater sound technology, in the form of up-firing Dolby Atmos-enabled drivers intended to create a ceiling-speaker effect; yet it still relies on the horn tweeter and high-efficiency woofers that Paul Klipsch preferred way back in 1946. These drivers let the RP-280FA play +3dB to +8dB louder than most competitors from the same wattage.
The $1,200-each RP-280FA is the top-of-the-line tower speaker in Klipsch's Reference Premiere line. There's also a non-Atmos version, the RP-280F, as well as two smaller towers, two bookshelf speakers, a center speaker, a surround speaker, and a subwoofer. Although I love the look of the speakers' ceramic/metal spun-copper woofers, the overall aesthetic of the new line triggered flashbacks to my days as editor of Home Theater magazine in the 1990s...and remembrances of the plain-black-box look that dominated the biz back then. (The speakers are also available in a walnut finish.)
This review is centered around the RP-280FA. In order to hear the tower in a complete home theater system, Klipsch also sent me the $650-each RP-450C center speaker, two $450-each RP-250SS bipolar surround speakers, two $499-per-pair RP-140SA add-on Atmos speakers, and the $899 R-115SW subwoofer. I've already covered the R-115SW in a separate review.
The main (front-firing) array of the RP-280FA incorporates two eight-inch woofers and a one-inch titanium-dome horn-loaded tweeter. It's a two-way design; both woofers get the same signal. The crossover point and slopes are not specified, and the internal wiring was too short for me to easily remove the crossover so that I could trace the circuit; however, based on my measurements (see page two), the crossover point looks to be about two kilohertz, probably low enough to avoid "beaming" of midrange frequencies from the woofers. A rear-firing port tunes the response of the woofers.
The top-firing Atmos array has what appears to be the same tweeter (although with a smaller, shallower horn) and a 6.5-inch woofer. The drivers are recessed into the top of the speaker to fire at an angle, so their sound will hit the ceiling somewhere between you and the speaker. The recess is lined with foam to minimize reflection of sound. Klipsch told me that, because of the foam, the Atmos array in the RP-280FA is more directional (and thus should deliver a better simulation of ceiling speakers) than the RP-140SA add-on Atmos speaker.
The front drivers are protected with a magnetically attached grille, while the top-firing drivers get their own, friction-fit grille. The speakers aren't beautiful, but they are nicely made, with trim rings around the woofers to cover all the screws.
I used the RP-280FA towers and the other Klipsch Reference Premiere speakers with a wider variety of gear than I normally would, mainly because I needed to check out their performance with Atmos soundtracks. So I used a Pioneer Elite SC-89 Atmos-capable AV receiver in addition to my usual rig, which includes a Classé Audio CA-2300 amp and CP-800 preamp/DAC, plus a Denon AVR-2809Ci AV receiver. Even though the Denon receiver listed for just $1,200 or so when I bought it, the high efficiency of the Klipsch system allowed the modestly powered receiver to get the whole system cranking at high volume with no sign of strain. For comparisons with other speakers, I used my Audio by Van Alstine AVA ABX switcher.
The RP-280FA has dual binding posts for biwiring/biamping, plus an extra pair of binding posts for the Atmos array. This means, for Atmos, you have to connect two speaker cables to each speaker instead of the usual one cable.
It was obvious on a quick listen that the tower speakers had broad, consistent dispersion, so the aim wasn't critical, but I went ahead and toed them in to point right at my listening chair just because that's what I usually do. I got rid of the grilles because I think that's how most people will listen to them; they look great without the grilles, and with the tweeter domes recessed deep into the horns, there's little chance they'll be damaged unless your child attacks them with an ice pick.
When I added the whole home theater rig, the center speaker sat atop two 28-inch stands below my projector screen, and the surrounds sat atop 28-inch stands at the sides of the room, slightly behind my listening chair.
I began this review with the RP-280F (non-Atmos) tower, which I thought sounded great and which also won the grudging approval of my Audiomatica Clio audio analyzer. But just as I was ready to start writing up the RP-280F system, Klipsch introduced the RP-280FA Atmos version and the RP-140SA add-on Atmos speaker. I knew it'd be lame not to review the Atmos stuff, and fortunately Klipsch was able to get it to me fast. Not surprisingly, the RP-280FA sounds very much like the RP-280F--since the only major difference between the two is the RP-280FA's up-firing Atmos array.
Whether I was listening to stereo music or surround sound movies, the RP-280FA delivered a big, spacious sound, with a broad and deep soundstage. When I played the version of "Gloria's Step" from disc two of the Bill Evans Trio's The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, the RP-280FA seemed almost like it was bringing up everything in the mix without subtracting anything, the way a skilled recording engineer can. I could hear the articulation of Evans' playing more clearly than I'm used to, and I'd say the same of drummer Paul Motian's snare and cymbal work. Bassist Scott LaFaro's solo sounded especially open and detailed; I felt like I could hear the big wooden box of his bass breathing into the room.
"This is way, way, way above average. Wow is that clear," I wrote when I played "Shower the People" from James Taylor's Live at the Beacon Theatre DVD, which I first listened to in stereo through the RP-280FA, then later in 5.1 through the full Reference Premiere system. Taylor's guitar, in particular, sounded exceptionally clear and detailed without sounding bright. The bass line--one of my favorite tests for evenness of response and the attack and decay of bass notes--sounded melodic and weighty at the same time, so I got a great sense of bassist Jimmy Johnson's fingering and timing. The imaging was unusually convincing with the cymbals, and the background vocals sounded even lusher than they normally would.
Knowing I was hearing a little bit of treble boost somewhere in the RP-280FA's response, I put on "Broke Down and Busted" from Todd Rundgren's Runt album. Rundgren is beloved for his songwriting, performing, and producing, but the sound quality of many of his works, especially the earliest ones, leaves much to be desired. I thought the RP-280FA might make his vocals sound harsh, but it didn't. In fact, the slight elevation in the treble made the sound bigger and more open, and his vocals and guitar lead sound clearer.
Old Folks, an album spotlighting various jazz artists in various settings, features upright bassist David Friesen on five tracks. On the title cut, I noticed that the RP-280FA brought out the harmonics and slaps he frequently employs in his playing, and the soft humming and singing he does behind his lines. The sound was definitely on the trebly side; no upright I've ever heard in person sounds this bright. Yet the groove was preserved.
I had either the RP-280F or the RP-280FA plus the other Reference Premiere speakers for a few months, so I listened to lots of movies and TV shows through them. The problem I had reviewing them is that I didn't encounter any problems, so it was all too easy to get sucked into a movie and forget I was supposed to be listening critically.
Besides the general excellence of the system, I noted three important characteristics. First is that voices sound slightly bright but very clear. In the scene from the U-571 Blu-ray disc where the titular submarine floats near a German destroyer, the voices are usually hard to understand; however, through this system, they were extremely easy to understand.
Second is that the RP-280FA doesn't require a subwoofer unless you really want that super-deep, floor-shaking bass. The deep engine noises that occur after the submarine attacks the destroyer sounded loud, low, and undistorted, even when I drove the speakers with the rather small Denon receiver.
Third is that the surrounds sounded a little better than average. Even though I had carefully matched the channel levels, they seemed to give me an enhanced surround effect with 5.1 material, with a little more sonic action going on all around me and a little more enveloping of a surround effect than I'm used to. Perhaps that's because they're bipolar, with identical driver arrays firing at angles to one another; however, I've heard countless bipolar and dipolar surrounds, so their sound isn't new to me.
I also spent some time comparing the Atmos effect of the RP-280FA's top-mounted Atmos section with the RP-140SA add-on Atmos modules. Both delivered a nice sense of envelopment on Atmos soundtracks from American Sniper and Insurgent, but they didn't sound notably different. I had to go to a Dolby Atmos Blu-ray demo disc to hear a difference in performance; in this instance, the RP-280FA's overhead effects did seem to be coming a little more from directly overhead rather than from the junctions of the room's side walls and ceiling.
Click over to Page Two for Measurements, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...