So-called “sound-bar” speakers have become a popular option for enthusiasts who want much better sound than the speakers in their TV sets can provide, yet who require a visually unobtrusive solution. As most readers will already known, many products in this category claim to provide a reasonable facsimile of 5-channel surround sound from their slim enclosures—some with more success than others. But other manufacturers, the British firm KEF among them, believe that it makes more sense to build sound-bars that reproduce just the front three channel’s worth of information. The mindset, of course, is that it is better to handle the left, center, and right channels well, rather than to do a potentially mediocre job of covering five channels. This is precisely the thinking that inspires the design of KEF’s new HTF8003 Front Speaker ($800).
The HTF8003 is a one-piece, L/C/R speaker that packages three discrete channels in a slim, gloss black enclosure that measures just under five inches tall and a little over three feet wide. The speaker leverages KEF’s signature Uni-Q driver array technology, where the basic concept is to provide a clever, two-way, driver-within-a-driver where a tiny .6-inch aluminum dome tweeter is positioned within the “throat” of a larger (in this case, 3-inch) mid-bass driver. Through this arrangement the two drive units share the same acoustic centers and are inherently time-aligned—factors said to promote superior coherency and imaging. Each of the HTF8003’s three channels gets its own driver set comprised of one 3-inch Uni-Q array, one 3-inch low frequency driver, and one 3-inch passive radiator. In short, there’s much more to this little speaker than first meets the eye.
Despite all this driver technology, the low bass output of the HTF8003 is limited, so that for full-range (or at least near full-range) applications, KEF recommends using its new HTB2SE-W Wireless Subwoofer ($1200)—a variation on KEF’s familiar, flying saucer-shaped HTB2 sub. The subwoofer features a 10-inch woofer teamed with a 10-inch passive radiator, with the combination driven by a 250-watt class D amplifier. But the design feature many homeowners will appreciate most is the HTB2SE-W’s built-in wireless connection system, which is compact, easy to use, and gives users tremendous freedom in woofer placement (not to mention getting rid of unsightly subwoofer signal cables running all over the room).
Consider this sound-bar/subwoofer system if:you want a well-made and visually unobtrusive home theatre speaker system that gives you surprisingly high-quality reproduction of the front three channels, but that makes no attempt to reproduce surround-channel information at all. While the system is offered only in gloss black, its fit and finish levels are very high, and guest listeners were unanimous in their praise for its stylish design and handsome good looks. Many listeners commented that they found the system to sound unexpectedly “big” and “robust” given its modest size.
Look further if: you have your heart set on owning a true sound rig. There are other manufacturers, such as Definitive and Polk, who build surround-oriented sound-bar type systems. But do listen carefully and choose wisely. You may find that, in the end, you actually prefer the clean, pure sound that the KEF system is able to achieve with its front channel-only approach. Be aware, too, that the manuals for both products are primarily pictorial, with only minimal written explanations for setup/installation procedures.
HTF 8003 Ratings (relative to comparably-priced sound-bar speakers).
- Transparency and Focus: 9
- Imaging and Soundstaging: 8
- Tonal Balance: 8.5
- Dynamics: 8.5
- Value: 8.5
HTB2SE-W Ratings (relative to comparably-priced subwoofers).
- Bass Extension: 8
- Bass Pitch Definition: 7
- Bass Dynamics: 7.5
- Value: 7.5
Further Observations: while the HTF8003/HTB2SE-W combo is a good one, our overall impression is that the HTF8003 sound-bar is the stronger performer and the better value of the two pieces. Though undeniable stylish and cleverly executed, the HTB2SE-W wireless sub is quite expensive for what it does, and—despite its wireless features—offers less flexible setup controls than many subs in its price class.
KEF HTF8003 Front Channel Sound-Bar highlights:
- Features distinctive, two-way KEF Uni-Q driver arrays that combine a .6-inch aluminum dome tweeter and a 3-inch mid-bass driver to form a single, compact, coaxial array.
- The HTF8003 is a single-enclosure, three-channel (L/C/R) speaker system. Each channel has its own set of drivers, including one 3-inch Uni-Q array (as above), one 3-inch low frequency driver, and one 3-inch passive radiator.
- The HTF8003 enclosure is magnetically shielded.
- Clever enclosure design allows the HTF8003 to be wall-mounted (via included brackets), or tabletop-mounted (via included tilt-back legs and a rubber mounting cup).
- Robust enclosure housing is made of extruded aluminum.
- Excellent fit and finish.
- Any color you want, as long as it’s gloss black.
KEF HTB2SE-W Wireless Subwoofer highlights:
- 10-inch woofer and 10-inch passive radiator.
- 250-watt Class D amplifier.
- Wireless transmitter module (included) uses AAFHSS transmission protocol to achieve approximately 25-meter range.
- The subwoofer’s flying saucer-like enclosure normally stands up on edge, but can—via optional (included) feet—be flipped on its side for an alternate “low boy” mounting position.
- The wireless transmitter module also provides a wireless latency selector switch with settings for 15ms or 20ms maximum latency.
- The subwoofer provides control switches for wireless or wired connections, phase (0 or 180 degrees), bass boost (0db, +6dB, or +12dB at 40Hz), and power on/off.
- Crossover: fixed low pass filter set at 150Hz, with a 4th-order slope.
- Unlike many subwoofers in this price class, the HTB-2SE does not provide a variable gain control, a variable crossover control, or a variable phase control. Overall, this would be a stronger product if it incorporated these potentially helpful controls.
- In lieu of a gain control, the woofer provides a SmartBass circuit designed to sense input signals automatically and to turn the woofer on as needed. But since there is no gain control (and no way to adjust the sensitivity of the SmartBass circuit) unexpected problems can arise. During our tests, for example, the woofer sometimes would not respond to autocalibration test signals sent from an Audyssey-equipped AVR, and even when it did respond its output levels were too low to allow the calibration circuit to take reliable measurements. We came up with a workaround, which involved triggering the woofer via a fairly loud bass signal (thus causing the woofer to turn on), and then setting the woofer’s bass boost switch for +6dB of boost (so that output levels would be high enough for our test AVR’s autocalibration circuits to work). But I think these problems could be eliminated if the KEF sub had a conventional gain control.
- The wireless system is convenient, but it appears to introduce some significant time delays (or latencies), so that you may need to use higher than normal distance settings for the sub to compensate.
HTF8003: The HTF8003 offers an unusually clear, coherent, and open sound—one that to my ears seems much more sophisticated than the sound achieved by many of the sound-bar type speakers I’ve heard in the past. Tonal balance is generally smooth and accurate, though it is perhaps skewed just slightly to the lighter, brighter side of strict neutrality. The smoothness of HTF8003’s response is, I think, partly attributable to the excellent dispersion achiever by KEF’s Uni-Q arrays. As a result, there is none of the compressed, congested, or “closed-in” sound that you might hear with some comparably priced sound-bar speakers.
Three particular qualities impressed many of the guest listeners who heard the KEF system in action. First, though the speaker is only 37.8 inches wide, the soundstages produced by the speaker seem much, much wider than that. While you might not achieve the ultra-wide soundstages you could potentially achieve with a full-on multi-piece surround system, the KEF system does better than it has any right to for its size. Second, the top-to-bottom cohesiveness I heard from the system was very impressive—better, in fact, than that achieved by some KEF speakers using larger Uni-Q arrays. One important collateral benefit of this cohesiveness is that the speaker sounds quite good even when you listen to it “off axis” (that is, from well to the left or right of its centerline). Finally, for listening to movie soundtracks, the KEF speaker often gives the illusion that the sounds of actors’ voices are emanating directly from the center of the screen— from some indistinct position above or below the screen. The result is a higher level of dialog intelligibility, and thus a greater sense of involvement in the film at hand.
KEF has gone to great lengths in order to give this compact speaker decent dynamics and bass extension, and I would say their efforts were at least partly successful. Although the HTF8003 offers only moderate sensitivity (87dB), it can speak with surprising dynamic authority and expressiveness provided you feed it adequate amounts of power. Just be sure to respect the fact that this is a very compact speaker whose maximum output level (rated at 106 dB) is lower than that of many full-size speaker systems you may have encountered. However, despite the fact that the HTF8003 uses triple bass drivers and passive radiators, it does not go extremely low (useful bass reach, I would say, extends only a bit below 100Hz).
To put these observations in context, it helps to bear in mind that this one-piece, three-channel speaker system is not much larger than, say, a large mailing tube of the type you might use for shipping a rolled-up poster. Given its diminutive size (which is, after all, a big part of the product’s appeal), the HTF8003’s performance is actually pretty amazing. Note, too, that The Perfect Vision listening room is probably a somewhat larger space than would be optimal for this speaker. Even so, the little KEF more than held its own in our room, and would likely sound even better when used in a smaller space.
The KEF HTB2SE-W subwoofer is long on convenience and style with many visitors commenting on its distinctive industrial design, its superb fit and finish, and on the sheer coolness of its wireless features. On one hand, the woofer is a solid performer that can play pretty loudly, goes reasonably low (claimed bass extension reaches down to 30Hz), and offers a good measure of bass pitch definition. On the other hand, there are a lot of excellent value-priced subs on today’s market, so that I cannot help but think that the HTB2SE-W is quite expensive for what it is and does. I suspect that listeners willing to sacrifice some of the KEF’s undeniable stylishness and “coolness factors,” would find there are other subwoofers (from firms such as Definitive, Paradigm, PSB, and others) that offer as good or even better performance (in terms of deeper bass extension, better pitch definition, and greater dynamic clout) for less money. But in fairness, I should point out that many guest listeners were both satisfied and favorably impressed with the HTB2SE-W’s performance, and almost all of them said they especially appreciated the fact that the futuristic KEF “didn’t look like a subwoofer.” While the latter point has nothing to do with sound, per se, it does speak to the subjective appeal of the KEF woofer, which in a sense creates the illusion that there really isn’t a sub in the room.
To give the KEF system a good workout I put on one of my perennial favorite film soundtrack test sequences: the “Warrior’s Death” scene from Apocalypto.
In “Warrior’s Death”, the film’s protagonist, Jaguar Paw, makes a final stand against the fierce Mayan captain who has captured him, killed many of his comrades, and relentlessly pursued him through the jungle. Part of what makes the scene so powerful is that it tells its story partly through its expertly crafted soundtrack music, and partly through selective emphasis of natural sounds from the chase and the jungle itself, but with almost no dialog at all. As Jaguar Paw sprints away from his pursuer, the frantic (and quite complex) rhythmic pulse of the soundtrack quickens and becomes more and more urgent, while deep, ominous synth-bass “washes” represent the increasing danger as the enraged captain draws ever closer. In the background, we hear the surprisingly realistic sound of a jungle downpour, which at once reminds us that Jaguar Paw is literally drenched with fatigue, and of the fact that his pregnant wife and young son are trapped in the bottom of a stone well that is slowly filling with water.
As the captain finally apprehends Jaguar Paw, small sonic details seem to snap into sharp focus. We hear the terrible raggedness of Jaguar Paw’s breathing, the deadly sizzle of the captain’s arrow flying through the air to strike Jaguar Paw in the collarbone, the clatter of the captain tossing aside his bow, and the whisper of the captain’s knife being drawn from its sheath. Though badly wounded, Jaguar Paw rises to face the captain, who—with a murderous look on his face—charges forward, intent on killing Jaguar Paw. But just then, time and the soundtrack both seem to slow down. We hear with awful clarity the sound of the captain’s foot triggering the trip-wire of an old trap that Jaguar Paw had set days ago, followed by the terrible thud and squelching sound of the punji-stick-like contraption striking the captain full in the chest, causing his death. To emphasize the sheer finality of the scene, the sound designer forces us to focus on the sound of the captain’s last gasps for breath as his knife slips from his grasp and falls on the dense undergrowth on the jungle floor, even as the downpour drones on in the background.
Several aspects of the KEF system’s performance stood out for me in this sequence. First, while the system could not create quite as enveloping a sound field as a full surround system would have, its three-channel presentation produced a surprisingly rich and wide front “hemisphere” of sound that was quite satisfying in its own right. Second, the KEF sub handled the substantial bass demands of this sequence with good-natured power and grace. Third, the system’s excellent clarity and—especially—its wonderful cohesiveness gave each of the small yet significant sonic details in the sequence a quality of heightened impact and focus. These last elements—clarity, cohesiveness, impact, and focus—are what really set the KEF system apart from many of its competitors. True, you give up surround channels with the KEF rig, but in their place you enjoy other refined sonic qualities that, in the end, may prove even more important to you.
I asked several guest listeners for their reactions on this point (pure sound quality vs. missing surround-channel information). Most said that, while having the normal surround channels would certainly have been appreciated, they felt the width, focus and overall quality of the KEF system’s front-channel presentation was impressive and compelling—representing a huge step forward from listening to traditional TV speakers.
If anything, I felt that the KEF system worked even better for music reproduction than for movie soundtracks, if only because the delicacy and subtlety of well-recorded music plays into the KEF system’s natural strengths. To explore the full range of the system’s capabilities, I tried listening to various types of vocal material, and to some examples of “power music” as well.
First up was Swiss vocalist Beat Kaestli’s cover of the Cole Porter classic “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, from Invitations [Chesky, SACD]. In sharp contrast to Sinatra’s upbeat, big-band take on this song, Kaestli instead takes it at a much slower, more introspective pace, backed only by a small, uncluttered jazz ensemble. Interestingly, Kaestli’s treatment gives the song a much darker and more mysterious feel than Sinatra’s reading, and in the process exposes every small nuance and inflection in Kaestli’s voice. I was struck by the smoothness and unforced clarity of the KEF system as it negotiated the subtle points of emotional emphasis and shades of meaning that Kaestli applied to various lines or phrases in the song’s lyrics—especially to the quality of quietly desperate longing that he brought to the song’s familiar chorus. I was also taken by the revealing manner in which the KEF system captured the deeply soulful, melancholic arc of Joel Frahm’s sax solo later in the song, and by the system’s ability to reproduce delicate reverberant sounds that help the listener understand that this recording was made in a church and not in the comparatively sterile confines of a studio. More than most sound-bar speakers, KEF HTF8003 delivers subtlety and refinement of the sort you might normally expect from a set of good, small monitoring speakers.
Next, I put on “Speak” from Nickelcreek’s This Side [Sugar Hill, SACD]. I know from long experience with this disc that singer (and violinist) Sara Watkins’ voice as captured on this track is not easy to reproduce, since it has a breathy quality that is easily overdone, and somewhat clipped consonants that can—through many speaker systems—sound a bit harsh and edgy. I was pleased to find, though, that the KEF system caught the sweeter aspects of Watkins’ voice, revealing the breathiness and sometimes overly closely mic’d consonants, but not punishing the listener with them. But what really stole the show in “Speak” was Chris Thile’s soaring mandolin accompaniment, which managed to sound delicate and yet highly energetic, all at once. Again, the KEF rig demonstrated a revealing and evocative quality that you might not normally associate with a “mere” sound-bar.
Finally, I put on master bass guitarist Dean Peer’s latest album, Airborne [ILS Records]. Peer is not only a gifted bassist, but also an imaginative composer who uses heavily modified, audiophile-grade effects boxes to expand the dramatic and timbral range of his instrument. The upshot of this is that, while there are only two musicians at play on Airborne (Peer on bass and Bret Mann on drums and percussion) one often has the illusion that there are sometime more players at work. On the track “Twin Peaks,” for example, the ever-dexterous Peer plays adventurous lead line way up in the high harmonic range of his bass—using effects boxes to give the instrument a sound much like an electric guitar (or perhaps a cleverly voiced synthesizer), while simultaneously accompanying himself by playing deep, powerful bass lines on the lower strings of his instrument. In the meantime, Bret Mann’s clean, crisp, and incredibly tasteful percussion work helps keep the song’s loping rhythm on track, treating the listener to some of the best-recorded drum and cymbal sounds I’ve ever heard captured on any fusion/jazz disc.
Let me tell you up front that I’ve been spoiled rotten by having first heard Airborne through a hyper-expensive high-end audio system based on Wilson Audio’s superb (but extremely costly) Maxx 3 loudspeakers. Given that introduction, I didn’t really expect the sound from the KEF system to compare favorably, yet I found that—to the KEF rig’s great credit—it got most of the musical essentials right at a level that frankly surprised me. The tiny tweeters in the KEF Uni-Q arrays, for example, did an absolutely lovely job with the silvery and exquisitely extended sound of Mann’s crystalline cymbal work, while also nailing the chest-thumping impact of his kick drum. Airborne is really an album that’s all about presenting rich textures and timbres in places where you least expect them, and the KEF system did a really nice job of exposing the intricate voicings of Peer’s high harmonics and upper-register playing on the bass, while also conveying the deep, swift, powerful undercurrents of his low-register lines. I won’t tell you that the KEF rig is a substitute for six-figure high-end audio systems, since that would simply be untrue, but I will tell you that it can serve as a fine, better-than-entry-level music system.
Together, KEF’s HTF8003 front-channel speaker and HTB2SE-W wireless subwooofer represent a stylish and compact solution for music and movie lovers who want much better than average sound, but who absolutely, positively do want to turn their living spaces into speaker-cluttered “audio dens.” While this system cannot and does not reproduce surround-channel information, it more than compensates through its far better-than-entry-level clarity, cohesiveness, impact, and focus.
Of the two KEF pieces, our impression is that the HTF8003 is both the stronger performer and better value, though the HTB2SE-W sub certainly has its charms. But good though the sub may be, we think it would be greatly improved if fitted with a more conventional set of input and adjustment controls.
SPECS & PRICING
KEF HTF8003 Three-Way, Three-Channel Front Speaker
Driver complement: Three driver sets (one per channel) each comprised of: one Uni-Q array with .6-inch aluminum dome tweeter and 3-inch mid-bass driver, one 3-inch low frequency driver, and one 3-inch passive radiator.
Frequency response: 70Hz – 23 kHz
Impedance: 8 ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 4.7” x 37.8” x 3.1”
Weight: 13.2 lbs.
Warranty: Five years
KEF HTB2SE-W Wireless Subwoofer
Driver complement: One 10-inch woofer and one 10-inch passive radiator
Integrated amplifier power: 250W class D
Dimensions (HxWxD): 15.3” x 17.3” x 7.6”
Weight: 26.2 lbs.
Warranty: Five years passive elements, One year active elements
System Price: $2000 as tested
KEF America/GP Acoustics US Inc.