A High(er) End Take On the Soundbar Concept
(Editor’s Note: the following is a blog—not a formal product review. As such, it will offer some initial impressions of the products under discussion, but will as a matter of course address them in less depth than the full-length review that will follow in The Perfect Vision next month.).
Though it grieves me to admit this, there are times where I can be an insensitive guy. A classic case in point would involve discussions of surround sound speaker systems. I am, you see, one of those guys who just plain likes full-scale speakers systems—the more full-range and dynamically capable, the better. So, I can be a little insensitive when I show folks a system I think is pretty great, only to hear comments like, “EEeeew, that speaker system is too Huge/Ugly/Complicated (fill in the epithet of your choice); I wouldn’t let it in my house…”
My natural instinct, however bullheaded it may be, is to argue, “but why wouldn’t you want to make room for a killer speaker system; you like hearing great music and movie soundtracks properly reproduced, don’t you?”
Over time, however, I’ve mellowed a lot and learned to embrace the fact that different folks have very different priorities from my own, so that while they may love music and movies just as much as I do, they place a much higher priority on preserving the décor of their rooms, prizing good sound to be sure, but only if it can make itself heard but (mostly) not seen—leaving the room a clean, clear, uncluttered space in which to spend quality time.
With just such priorities in mind, several of my fellow Nextscreen employees recently approached to see if The Perfect Vision might consider reviewing some small, simple, yet very high-quality soundbar-type systems. And wouldn’t you know it; a review opportunity presented itself almost immediately in the form of KEF’s new HTF 8003 soundbar ($800) and matching HTB2SE-W wireless subwoofer ($1200). I’ve been working with the KEF system for the past week or so, and thought I would offer some initial thoughts and comments.
First off, let’s note what KEF’s HTF 8003 soundbar is and is not. The HTF 8003 is a high-performance, three-channel, single-enclosure loudspeaker—or, as KEF would put it, a one-piece “front channel” speaker. Note, then, that unlike many competing offerings, the KEF soundbar does attempt to provide full-on surround sound from within its compact enclosure. Instead, it simply tries to reproduce front left, center, and right-channel information as well as possible, while offering an enclosure that is small, elegant, and visually unobtrusive.
With these objectives in mind, the tiny HTF 8003 is fitted with a surprisingly sophisticated array of drive units. Each channel is supported by:
- * A 3-inch KEF Uni-Q array, which combines a 3-inch midrange driver with a concentrically-positioned 0.6-inch aluminum dome tweeter,
- * A 3-inch low frequency driver, and
- * A 3-inch passive radiator or “ABR.”
In practical terms, this means that if you pulled the front grill off the HTF 8003, you would see a slender, 37.8-inch wide enclosure equipped with three sets of three drivers—one set for each of the three channels supported. It seems to me, then, that rather than trying to pull off single-enclosure surround effects, which is what most manufacturers try to do, KEF has instead thrown most of its efforts (and, apparently, most of the product’s build cost) behind trying to do an exceptionally good job with just the front three channels.
And in actual practice, the HTF 8003 does not disappoint. More so than most competing soundbars I’ve heard, this one offers very high levels of transparency, detail, and—especially—the elusive quality of coherency, which is an acknowledged strength of KEF’s Uni-Q driver system. By “coherency,” I mean that the midrange/tweeter array seems to speak pretty much with one voice; there is almost no sense of hearing separate drivers at work. While the tiny HTF 8003 has only so much dynamic “oomph” to offer, its overall sound is much more sophisticated and refined than you might expect. Picture this, then, as a soundbar that even high-enders might be able to appreciate (not that they would be willing to swap it for their full-sized speaker rigs, of course…).
Granted, left-to-center-to-right channel separation is not as great as it would be in a traditional surround sound system (remember, the HTF 8003 enclosure is only a bit more than a yard wide), but even so the HTF 8003 manages to throw a much wider soundstage than I expected it to do. Better still, because the compact HTF 8003 can be positioned directly below the screen of most flat panel TVs, and because it produces soundstages with excellent image height, you have the pleasing sensation that movie dialog is coming directly from the center of the screen—not from above or below the screen as can be the case with many systems.
Because the HTF 8003 driver array is as elaborate as it is, some might be tempted to ask, “can I use the KEF soundbar as a full-range standalone product?” The answer is that the soundbar, alone, will give you far better sound than most TV speaker systems could ever hope to produce, but that for best—and more nearly full-range—results you really should plan on using a sub. This is where KEF’s companion HTB2SE-W wireless subwoofer comes in.
The HTB2SE-W is a variation on KEF’s familiar HTB2 sub—the one that looks a fair amount like a flying saucer stood up on one edge. Frankly, I would have thought the industrial design of the HTB2SE-W would be too adventurous for most tastes, but I would have been wrong. There’s just something about the exquisite look and feel of KEF’s flying saucer sub that put a smile on the faces of a broad cross-section of prospective buyers, whether they be conservative, middle-of-the-roaders, or wild’n’crazy guys. Perhaps it’s the fact ithat the sub is so striking to look at that it registers more as an artful sculptural object (or even a conversation piece) than as a piece of audio equipment. As I hinted at the beginning of this blog, there are times when appearing to be audio gear can work in a component’s favor.
In simple terms, the HTB2SE-W is a compact subwoofer featuring a 10-inch bass driver, a 10-inch passive radiator, a 250-watt Class D amplifier, and that is set up for either wired or wireless use via KEF’s 2.4 GHz “intelligent,” interference-free wireless signal technology. Under this system, subwoofer outputs from your AVR or controller are fed to a paperback book-sized wireless module that broadcasts bass signals to the woofer. A receiver on the woofer end decodes the signals and feeds them the subwoofer’s amplifier. Voila, wireless bass. People to whom I’ve shown the system in the Nextscreen offices have reacted enthusiastically to the wireless system—many of them mentioning that they liked the idea of being able to place the sub wherever they wished without having to string signal cables all over the place.
One nit I would pick with the KEF sub, however, is that it provides no adjustable gain (or sensitivity) control at all, instead relying on a “SmartBass” signal-sensing mechanism to trigger the sub’s auto-on function. In The Perfect Vision listening room, however, I found my test AVR’s subwoofer outputs were (at least initially) having trouble in triggering the KEF’s auto-on circuit. I eventually found a workaround and was able to calibrate the sub and soundbar as a complete system, but both KEF and I found the problems with the auto-on circuit puzzling, if not disconcerting. For this reason, KEF is sending me a second sample of the sub to try.
For this reason, I’ll offer only limited comments on the first sample of the HTB2SE-W that I received. Once calibrated, the sub matched well with the HTF 8003 and added a quite noticeable and welcome measure of bass weight and depth. Guest listeners have commented that the sub blends so well with the soundbar that they had the illusion that the soundbar was somehow magically transformed into a more or less full-range speaker (whereas it was not obvious that the bass was coming from the subwoofer at all, which is exactly the kind of comment I like to hear). That said, though, my first impression was that the soundbar is the real star of the show, while the sub, though beautiful to look at and quite serviceable in its way, is the lesser of the two products, and one that can potentially be outperformed by much less costly (albeit less stylish) subs that I’ve heard. But let’s wait for the second sample of the sub to arrive before forming final judgments.
For now, I think KEF HTF 8003 rig offers front-channel performance that will really surprise both first-time home theater enthusiasts and veteran listeners alike. It doesn’t do surround sound, but its handling of front channel information is so good that I suspect many prospective buyers will happily forego surround channels (or perhaps buy a second HTF 8003 to handle rear-channel information). Stay tuned for the full review next month in The Perfect Vision.