Brent has been a professional audio journalist since 1989, and has reviewed thousands of audio products over the years. He has served as editor-in-chief of Home Theater and Home Entertainment magazines, contributing technical editor for Sound & Vision magazine, senior editor of Video magazine, and reviews editor of Windows Sources magazine, and he also worked as marketing director for Dolby Laboratories. He's now on staff at Wirecutter.
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...
Here are the measurements for the Klipsch speakers (click on each chart to view it in a larger window).
Frequency response (main section)
On-axis: ±2.4 dB from 37 Hz to 20 kHz (±1.3 dB to 10 kHz)
Average ±30° horiz: ±2.3 dB from 37 Hz to 20 kHz
Average ±15° vert/horiz: ±2.7 dB from 37 Hz to 20 kHz
Main section: min. 3.1 ohms/137 Hz/-10, nominal 8 ohms
Atmos section: min. 4.6 ohms/147 Hz/-12, nominal 8 ohms
Sensitivity (2.83 volts/1 meter, anechoic)
Main section: 92.5 dB
Atmos section: 87.5 dB
The first chart shows the frequency response of the RP-280FA, the second shows the impedance. For frequency response, three measurements are shown: at 0° on-axis (blue trace); an average of responses at ±10°, ±10, ±20° and ±30° off-axis horizontal (green trace); and an average of responses at 0, ±15° horizontally and ±15° vertically (red trace). I consider the 0° on-axis and horizontal 0°-30° curves the most important. Ideally, the former should be more-or-less flat and the latter should look the same but should tilt down slightly (by perhaps -6 dB at 20 kHz) as the frequency increases.
In the first chart, you can see that the RP-280FA delivers an impressively flat response on- and off-axis, but it has a slightly rising treble response, with about +1 to +2 dB of added output from 5 to 10 kHz. As a result, the off-axis averaged response is almost perfectly flat. Whether you perceive this as slightly bright or airy and detailed will depend on your taste in sound, the music you listen to, and how sonically absorptive your room furnishings are. Although the specs claim 32-Hz bass response, the best I was able to achieve was 37 Hz at ±3 dB, using a ground-plane measurement.
The second chart shows the impedance magnitude and phase of the main section of the RP-280FA. No problems here, and considering the speaker's high sensitivity, you should be able to drive it to satisfying volume with practically any amplifier.
The third chart shows the responses of the center and surround speakers, both measured on-axis. (The surround was measured on-axis with the left-side drivers.) The center shows a dip of about -5 dB at 1.5 kHz, followed by a +2 dB peak at 2 kHz; this corresponds with the coloration I noted in my listening tests. The surround's response is elevated by +2 to +3 dB above 1.8 kHz, but that's as it should be, because this speaker's drivers will not face you directly; without that elevated treble, the surround might sound a little dull.
The fourth chart compares the on-axis and 30° off-axis responses of the RF-280FA's top-mounted Atmos section and the RP-140SA add-on Atmos speaker. Both show the slight boost at 7 kHz and the fairly large dip at 12 kHz that are built into the crossover of Atmos-enabled up-firing speakers. What's interesting is that their midranges are quite a bit different, with the RF-280FA's Atmos section showing a broad dip between 1 and 3 kHz (which I assume is a result of the speaker being recessed into the top of another speaker) and the RP-140SA showing a boost over the same area. I wonder if the RF-280FA's reduced midrange highlights the HRTF effects of its Atmos crossover and results in the enhanced effect I heard? Also, the RP-140SA proved to be about -3 dB less sensitive than the Atmos section in the RF-280FA.
Here's how I did the measurements. I measured frequency responses using an Audiomatica Clio FW 10 audio analyzer with the MIC-01 measurement microphone, and the speaker driven with an Outlaw Model 2200 amplifier. I used quasi-anechoic technique to remove the acoustical effects of surrounding objects. The RF-280SA was placed atop a 28-inch (67-cm) stand. The mic was placed at a distance of two meters at tweeter height, and a pile of denim insulation was placed on the ground between the speaker and the mic to help absorb ground reflections and improve accuracy of the measurement at low frequencies. (I also did a measurement at one meter, which I spliced in between 200 Hz and 1 kHz to improve the accuracy in this band.) Bass response was measured using ground-plane technique, with the microphone on the ground two meters in front of the speaker; I got better results with this method than I did when I closed-miked and summed the responses of the two woofers and the port. For the center and surround speakers, I placed the speakers atop a two-meter-high stand and did the measurements at two meters. For the Atmos speakers, I suspended the microphone on-axis with the Atmos speaker, then moved the speaker over to a position where the drivers would be 30 degrees off-axis from the microphone. (This produced a slightly longer measurement distance and thus the slightly lower level of the off-axis measurements for the Atmos speakers.) Quasi-anechoic results were smoothed to 1/12th octave, ground plane results to 1/6th octave. Post-processing was done using LinearX LMS analyzer software.
I don't have much to complain about with the RP-280FA, other than that the subtle brightness can be a bit much with certain snippets of certain recordings.
Going back to the jazz album Old Folks, on "True Blue," upright bassist David Friesen slaps his strings against the fingerboard to get a percussive effect. This should produce a fairly subtle "click" with each note. With the RP-280FA, it sounds like each note is accompanied by a drumstick being whacked against the side of his bass.
Here's another example: In "Sentenza del Cuore: Allegro" from The Coryells, a Chesky Records recording of jazz guitarist Larry Coryell and his sons all playing acoustic, the castanets in the background sounded like they were made of plastic instead of wood; the speaker's elevated treble buried the subtleties in the instrument's tone.
These are obviously isolated instances. Jarring as this effect could be, it was also rare.
The only issue I really had with this system was with the RP-450C center speaker, which exhibited what sounded to me like a dip/peak in the two-kHz region (an effect I know well because the Genelec HT205 recording monitors I use have a similar dip/peak at 1.5 kHz). As noted above, it had the effect of enhancing voice clarity, but it also made voices sound unnatural at times. For example, when James Taylor introduces the backup singers after "Shower the People" from the Live at the Beacon Theatre DVD, I could tell there was a big peak in the lower treble; it had the effect of making his voice sound thinner and harsher.
Comparison and Competition
Just to get an idea of the RP-280FA's accuracy, I compared it with my Revel Performa3 F206 tower speakers, using the Van Alstine ABX box to match the levels and provide quick, remote-controlled switching. There's no doubt that the F206 sounded more neutral, especially with voices; dialogue and singing always sounded smooth and natural. However, the F206's treble sounded a little soft, especially after hearing the Klipsch system. I expect that, if I (and most other listeners) did a blind test with no idea what speakers I was hearing, I would prefer the Klipsch's bigger, more lively sound. Which one you would like I can't say for sure, but I can say they're both in the same ballpark when it comes to performance. And of course, the RP-280FA's dual eight-inch woofers easily outpunch the F206's dual 6.5-inch woofers.
The RP-280FA has little real competition because there aren't many Atmos tower speakers out there yet. One major competitor is the Andrew Jones-designed Pioneer Elite SP-EFS73, which costs $699 each, or $500 less per speaker than the RP-280FA. Both are well-designed, good-sounding speakers. However, the SP-EFS73 has three 5.25-inch woofers against the RP-280FA's dual eight-inch woofers. That gives the RP-280FA a 55-percent advantage in woofer surface area, and its drivers have a larger box to work in, plus probably more excursion. So the RP-280FA will have much greater bass capability and more dynamic capability; it could easily form the core of a large, high-powered home theater system, whereas the SP-EFS73 might be overtaxed in such a situation.
Of course, you can also put an Atmos add-on module atop a tower speaker; for example, Definitive Technology offers the $499-per-pair A60 Atmos module that fits atop the $999-each BP-8060ST tower speaker. That makes the combo $1,250 per side, about the same price as the RP-280FA. Yet the Definitive Technology towers each incorporate a powered subwoofer with a 300-watt Class D amp, a 10-inch driver and two 10-inch passive radiators--probably a match (and maybe then some) for the RP-280FA's dual eight-inch woofers.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Klipsch Reference Premiere system, and the RP-280FA towers specifically. I think a lot of audiophiles will dig the way the RP-280FA's subtly, slightly elevated treble brings out the details in movie soundtracks and music without messing up the experience, and I know home theater fanatics will appreciate the way these speakers can crank really loud off practically any amp...and sound great doing it. The Atmos modules built into the tops of the towers are just icing on the cake.
• Check out our Floorstanding Speakers category page to read similar reviews.
• Klipsch Debuts Reference Premiere Dolby Atmos-Enabled HT Speakers at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Dolby Atmos at Home: The Known Knowns and the Known Unknowns at HomeTheaterReview.com.