All the latest Reference Series technology packed into a neat bookshelf package. The same sophisticated elliptical titanium dome Hypertweeter. The same carefully damped cast aluminium enclosure for the 5th generation UNI-Q driver array, with its thermoplastic rubber surround moulded onto the cone to avoid the slightest acoustic discontinuity. The same ultra-low distortion LF motor system for bass power with un-compromised accuracy.
Bought these babies at a local dealer after an extended cross-check between various B&W's, HGP ("Mandola" - horrible!), Dynaudio (Contour 3.3), Sonus Faber, Martin Logan, and two different KEF's (201 and 203).
In the end, I bought the KEFs - all four of them. :)
The only other speakers that produced roughly the same "quality" of sound were the Dynaudios, but they are more the analytical, transparent type. That's what I had before (JM Lab Cobalt 826), so I was looking for something different. I knew I wanted a warmer, mellower sound, but powerful enough to project large orchestral canvasses ... and the occasional Meatloaf. The B&W's (up to the Nautilus 804) have an extended midrange, in fact it's so extended they sounded like the midrange was ALL there was. Which is great for voices, but terrible for everything else, and it quickly put them out of the picture.
"All the latest Reference Series technology packed into a neat bookshelf package." This is what KEF themselves write about their 201 model. Well, not exactly. Indeed it is a neat package, a spectacularly neat package, if you ask me (which you're doing if you're reading this review). But a bookshelf package? Not really.
The Ref 201 weigh in at about 15 kilos per piece, and they're substantially larger than every other "bookshelf speakers" I know. Which means: You MUST mount them on stands, preferably the ones designed by KEF to support this model. Which may be a problem: Each of those stands comes with a $250-300 price tag! But they're well worth the money, they're sturdy and attractively designed, and they place the 201 on a level equal in height to the 203 model - which is great if you intend to run all of them in a multichannel setup.
In comparison to the hefty 203 (26 kilos pp), the sound from the KEFs is less "airy", more compact. Which can be an advantage or a detriment, depending on your personal taste. Still, the music fills the room effortlessly, the voices sound like the performer was in your living room. For vocals in fact, the 201 is even slightly superior to the larger model, especially on pop - which, because of the more compact soundstage, sounds more "together" than through the floorstanders. Only for large orchestral canvasses, I could not help but notice a certain congestion - but only in comparison to its bigger sister (certainly not to the B&W's).
If you have a 25-30 sqaure meter room, and you're hesitant to buy bookshelf speakers, but unwilling to go for floorstanders, the Ref 201 may be the perfect speaker. With a powerful amp (THIS it needs!), you'll never need to worry: the 201 delivers full, warm sound and a 3D soundtage that easily surpasses all the other bookshelf speakers, and many floorstanders.
These speakers must be run in for a while, about 20-30 days. This can be done with special "running in" CDs at a price, or with your favorite music CDs for nothing. Just let them play continuously for a number of days during the day - the Ref's will reward that kind of care!
Also make sure that they are positioned correctly, not next to side walls, not too close to the back wall (though they have a front-side bass reflex which means they're not as critical in positioning as some others).
Another impressive aspect of this particular speaker is its built: Just like the more expensive 203 and 205, 207, it has a glitzy tri-wiring terminal on the base of the back, with massive alloy bridges and solid screws. There's also a plug for lowering or lifting the bass level. The cabinet is a pleasure to behold: the wood veneer (especially in cherry) is well done, the rounded cabinet is most pleasant to the eye (and may just persuade your wife that big speakers can make an attractive addition to your other "furniture"), the silver hypertweeter on top catches the eye of many a visitor. On the KEF stands, the Ref 201 has real authority.
Concerning the bass lift, I wouldn't worry about it much. Because of its compact cabinet, the 201 delivers MORE bass power than its bigger sister - the drivers are the same size as in the 203!
Of course, it's the sound that matters, and in that respect (see above), the Ref 201 outdistances every bookshelf speaker, and many floorstanders.
Which is why I think the price is right for this one. The sound certainly is. :)
Like other reviewers have noted, these quite handsome, heavy and well built "bookshelfs" require an extended period of play before they open up. After 30+ hours of music through them, they have just started living up to their reputation. I bought these for my den which is smallish with a 8' ceiling, and the 201s filled the room with an impressive soundstage and remarkably full bass and highrange, but I felt the mids were muted, even pale. I decided to swap them with my Thiel 2.3s which are in the exact opposite type of room, a cavernous living room with a tall trey ceiling which almost eliminates any reverb in the room. Well, the Kefs are doing a fine job in this room. In fact, they would be sufficient on their own in this room (that is, if I could ever part with the Thiels). They've only been warmed up for 30 days, so I'll try to post again in a month or two to give another opinion.
N.B. I should note that the price I paid included a demo pair of stands, so I think this represents an above average deal. Your mileage may vary.
My quest for a very high quality standmount speaker for music and home theatre use led me to audition the following:
Revel Performa M20
These are simply wonderful speakers with a mid-range that is IMHO unmatched at any price level. The clarity is scintillating. They are also a bargain at £2000/pair, which puts them head-to-head against the Kef 201s. The Kef’s upwards and downwards extension and control (due to the four-way design) means the Revels are bested in both the treble and bass departments. Nevertheless, that midrange…if above all else you value being able to hear the human voice as realistically as possible, the Revels are undoubtedly for you.
B&W Signature 805
I could go into great detail about how I think the £2500 asking price is largely being spent on the lavish finish, the ‘Signature’ tag…or indeed the B&W name itself. It certainly doesn’t manifest itself in the sound, which to my ears is very hard, particularly in the midrange. Paradoxically the 805 – like the WB Arc is only really listenable at loud levels, sounding even more compressed and cluttered at low levels. Certainly between the Revel M20s and the Arcs, there really is no place in the market for these right now. Sorry B&W…
Wilson Benesch Arc
I hate to be dismissive of these highly revered speakers but…I preferred the Revel M20s to these in just about every respect. The Arcs only really opened up at high volume levels, which isn’t ideal. They lose even more points for home theater use as the matching centre is rather over priced (but not as much as the Tannoy!). Good speakers – certainly, but the huge cost incurred by (presumably) Wilson Benesch’s ‘tactic’ carbon fiber drivers doesn’t appear to be worth it.
Kef Reference 201
Now we’re talking. First off – I’m still at a loss to explain how Kef even makes any money off them whatsoever, as they manage to cram so much in for £2000 – curved real-wood cabinets, HUGE crossover network that occupies the entire base of the speaker, FOUR ultra high-quality drive units with associated voice coils, magnets etc…all of which would mean zip if they didn’t sound superb…
…and they do. Despite the four-way layout and awesomely complex crossover, they somehow manage to sound time-coherant – a feat not achieved even by many three-way speakers. These have the most detailed and yet effortless treble I have ever heard in a loudspeaker. I can only assume this is due to the super tweeter, and it’s seamless takeover from the main tweeter. That’s not all – the bass extension and control easily matches the old Reference 2-2 speakers, which is slightly impressive considering those were large floorstanders and these are (admittedly bulky) standmounts. The mid-range (like the treble) is entirely free from grain. Don’t believe me? Your electronics aren’t good enough then. Or more likely – your source.
One slight caveat of their ludicrously low asking price is that people who shouldn’t be able to afford them can. I don’t mean this in a bad way. I simply mean more often than not, I see them partnered with source components and electronics which simply do not do them justice. Particularly for home theater application – and BTW this is the perfect point to mention the 202c, which by all accounts is one of the greatest centre speakers ever created; the fact that it costs a mere £1000 is yet further reason to buy one right NOW! – I consider there’s probably about five AV processors in the world that can match them. And yes I am talking Levinson, Theta, Classe, and Meridian here.
As for matching amplification, they are a much easier load than Kef’s previous reference range, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that anything other than a transparent amplifier is going to be masking the detail these marvels are capable of retrieving.
Kef are to be praised here, for as the Q1’s are an absolute milestone in the £200 bracket, the Ref’s are serious contenders in the cost-no-object speaker market…and they’re yours for as little as £2000!!!