Aesthetics-conscious speaker buyers and manufacturers have been trying to find the right recipe for getting authentic surround sound from fewer than five speakers and a subwoofer (see “Simplifying Surround Sound” in Issue 74.) Why bother? Separate speaker systems can sound great but they add clutter, and require cables that can be eyesores and obstacles—hence the increasing popularity of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers. But those options are viable only if you own your home, and aren’t available to apartment dwellers who often are the ones most pressed for space. For many, simplified surround systems can be an attractive alternative. Veteran UK speaker maker KEF understands the appeal of compact surround systems, and welcomed the challenge of condensing multiple channels into fewer enclosures. To meet those challenges, the company designed the FiveTwo series speaker family, which consists of the stand/wall-mount Model 7 and floorstanding Model 11. The goal was to keep cabling requirements to a minimum and to reproduce discrete front, center, and surround-channel information from just two speakers. Both models are meant to be used with a KEF powered subwoofer, typically the HTB2 (reviewed as part of the KEF KHT3000 system, Issue 72). We chose to review the Model 7 and the HTB2, both visually striking designs with a silver metallic finish (and black cloth grille covers in the case of the Model 7). TPV Audio Editor Chris Martens covers the technology behind these speakers in “A Peek Under the Hood,” so I’ll get right to the performance.
The key question, of course, is whether this innovative pair of speakers can sound as good as comparably priced systems that have six speakers.
Aerial Combat and Bouncing Beans
There are two chapters in the DVD Flyboys that really challenge surround sound systems: the “Dogfight,” in which the WWI pilots get their first taste of aerial combat, and the “Zeppelin Attack” where war-tested pilots attack a German zeppelin on its way to bomb Paris. The Model 7s did a great job tracking the fluctuating engine noises of the biplanes as they moved around the screen every which way, achieving the realism that makes surround sound so compelling.
In the “Echo Game” chapter from House of Flying Daggers, another one of our favorite surround sound “torture tests,” the Model 7s again performed well. When the garrison officer scatters the bowl of beans, the reverberation and decay sounds of the beans hitting the numerous drum heads were impressively realistic. The speakers even captured the delicate sound of the beans as they bounced around the stone floor.
The only weakness I noted was that the reflected surround sound only occasionally seemed to come from the rear of the listening position. More often surround effects seemed to extend out from the speakers and to the side and were sometimes hard to place. But the effect was nevertheless rich and varied enough to be compelling.