High End for the Rest of Us: An Affordable Audio Gem From KEF

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KEF XQ20
High End for the Rest of Us: An Affordable Audio Gem From KEF

Like many of you, I’ve enjoyed reading about my colleague Jonathan Valin’s experiences with the Magico Mini stand-mount monitors, versions 1 and 2. Something there is in me, and perhaps in many of us, that loves a giant killer—a product that, although small of stature, delivers lion-hearted performance. The only catch with the Magicos, however, is that their price is every bit as “lion-hearted” as their performance is; selling for north of $20k/pair, the Magico Minis obviously aren’t for everyone.

Yet the basic appeal of the Magico Mini concept remains: who wouldn’t love a very well made, 2-way, stand-mount monitor that offers most of the essentials of big speaker performance, but in a smaller (and presumably less expensive) package? It seems to me, then, that some of us must surely be searching for what I’ll term a “po’ boy’s Magico Mini”—that is, something conceptually similar to the Mini, but at a much, much, much lower price point.

Actually, out here in the real world, we’re not really talking about finding speakers for “po’ boys” at all; we’re simply talking about finding good loudspeaker options for people who would rather limit their speaker investments to about $2k/pair (which most folks would consider lavish), rather than to >$20k/pair (which most folks would consider an extravagance up in the Sultan of Brunei stratosphere).

This week, I’m pleased to report that, in the course of working on a product review for the upcoming Playback 20, I’ve happened upon a moderately priced stand-mount monitor speaker that, in my opinion, offers exceptional value for money. The speaker is KEF’s XQ20 stand-mount monitor ($2000/pair), which I also highlighted in the CES 2009 budget speaker report I wrote for The Absolute Sound (issue 192).

KEF’s XQ20 is a gorgeous and modestly sized 2-way, bass-reflex monitor based on an updated version of the firm’s signature Uni-Q driver (where a small dome tweeter is mounted coaxially within the throat of an associated mid-bass driver). Interestingly, the speaker at once does and doesn’t sound like the KEF’s that have preceded it. It preserves KEF’s hallmark natural sound and neutral tonal balance, yet loses the quality of polite, British reticence that sometimes has been associated with the KEF brand in the past. Instead, the XQ20 sounds remarkably open and, well, explicit in its approach to sound reproduction, which in my view is a good thing. The net result: a speaker that sounds natural and full-bodied yet that is transparent and intensely well focused. And did I mention that it’s a dynamite imager, too?

When I first installed the KEFs in my reference system, they took the place of some very good floorstanders priced around $8k/pair. Right off the bat, the little KEFs either equaled or outperformedtheir more costly counterparts in terms of clarity, focus, transparency, tautness of bass, and a bunch of other performance parameters (though the bigger speakers did offer deeper bass extension and a certain “cut-from-whole-cloth” sonic integrity that was very appealing). But my broader point is that the KEFs stood as compact 2-way monitors that, in very many respects, could go toe-to-toe with very good floorstanders roughly four times their price.

Impressed, but also seeking independent confirmation of my findings, I invited a colleague (who owns Usher Be-718s, among other speakers) to hear the KEFs, and after he listened to them for a while he said, “you know, these might be even higher-end speakers than the Ushers are.” In my book that’s saying a mouthful, because I feel the Usher Be-718s, which sell for about $800 more per pair than the KEFs do, are not only a class-leading product but also extraordinary overachievers in their own right. But the very fact that my colleague saw fit to compare the XQ20s with the Ushers in the first place speaks volumes, giving you some idea of just how good—and how musically expressive—the KEFs really are.

The bottom line is that the XQ20s offer tons of musical goodness/dollar and are real lookers into the bargain (see the inserted photo). What’s not to like about that? Stay tuned for the full review in Playback 20.

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