Recommended Reference Component: KEF Reference 1 Loudspeakers

KEF Reference 1Recommended Reference ComponentWhen KEF introduced its new Reference loudspeaker models at High End 2014, in Munich, the sight of their conventional-looking rectangular enclosures took most showgoers by surprise. KEF had seemed to be pushing the envelope of cabinet design with the release, in 2011, of its decidedly unconventional Blade loudspeaker. Yet it was because of the Blade’s avant-garde shape that KEF chose to style the new Reference series conservatively -- as Doug Schneider said in his review of the Reference 1 ($7499.99 USD per pair), published on this site on December 15, 2014, KEF wanted to offer models “more typically styled to appeal to those who want to have something that looks more like a classic loudspeaker in their living room, not a sculpture or an industrial-design statement.”

But in the case of the Reference 1, “conventional” doesn’t mean “pedestrian”; in fact, quite the opposite, given the technology it contains. Whereas most stand-mounted speakers are two-ways, the Reference 1 is a true three-way employing the newest version of KEF’s advanced Uni-Q driver technology -- a 1” tweeter sunk into the throat of a specially shaped 5” midrange cone -- and a newly developed woofer with a very shallow 6.5” cone. The woofer is crossed over to the midrange at 350Hz, and the midrange to the tweeter at 2.8kHz. Each speaker’s rolloff characteristics, and thus its bass depth and character, can be adjusted with the user’s choice of port tube: a long and a short tube are provided. (Doug tried the speakers with both tubes, but settled on the longer ones because of the way they worked in his room.)

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Recommended Reference Component: Luxman C-900u Preamplifier

Luxman C-900uRecommended Reference ComponentLuxman’s C-900u preamplifier ($19,900 USD) is something of a paradox. Although its Bass, Treble, and Loudness controls and its beveled-glass display make it look like a throwback to the 1960s and ’70s, according to Doug Schneider’s review of the C-900u in November, its build quality competes handily with that of the very best preamplifiers made today -- as does its sound, which Doug described as “beyond reproach, even when compared with a topflight preamplifier with minimal controls.”

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Recommended Reference Component: Revel Performa3 F206 Loudspeakers

Revel Performa3 F206Recommended Reference ComponentIf you heard that you could, for a very affordable price, buy a loudspeaker with reference-class neutrality, cutting-edge clarity, and breathtaking transparency, while sacrificing only a couple areas of performance that might not be important to you anyway, would you jump at the chance to own it -- or at least try your best to hear it? That kind of sound quality is precisely what can be heard from the Performa3 F206 loudspeaker -- a compact, incredibly accomplished floorstander that sells for just $3500 USD per pair and can easily compare with topflight speakers costing much more. The F206 comes from Revel, a well-known US speaker brand established in the 1990s, and whose Salon2 loudspeaker was the very first product to be included in our list of Recommended Reference Components.

Doug Schneider reviewed the Performa3 F206 for this site last month, and wrote this about its sound: “As much as I enjoyed how the F206es looked in my room, I was taken aback by how they sounded, regardless of which electronics I used with them. In fact, I was floored. Right off the bat, the F206’s midrange grabbed me -- it didn’t only sound very natural and neutral, in a typical Revel kind of way (the midband in all Revel speakers is exceedingly linear), but also so startlingly clear that I had a hard time believing that these speakers could cost only $3500/pair -- it was the kind of sound I expect from speakers costing much, much more. The voices of Leonard Cohen, Sade Adu, Van Morrison, and Greg Keelor -- all of which I know well because I play them through every speaker I review -- sprang from the F206es completely unfettered. They sounded so natural, detailed, and realistic that I was immediately reminded of PSB’s Synchrony One, which I raved about five years ago, and Definitive Technology’s Mythos ST-L, which Roger Kanno has just praised on SoundStage! Access (I have a pair of ST-Ls here). Both of those speakers present the midrange unbelievably well and, like the F206, can be compared in that regard to speakers costing far more. Both do cost more than the F206 -- the One now goes for $5500/pair, the ST-L $5000/pair -- so you can understand why I was astonished by what I heard from the Revels.

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Recommended Reference Component: Focal Aria 906 Loudspeakers

Focal Aria 206esRecommended Reference ComponentUsually, the speakers listed in our Recommended Reference Components cost thousands -- if not tens of thousands -- of dollars per pair. But every now and then, a more easily affordable speaker comes along whose neutrality and musicality make it a suitable candidate for this honor. Examples have included PSB’s Imagine Mini and KEF’s LS50, two-way designs that respectively sell for $760 and $1500 USD per pair. These small speakers are limited in terms of low-bass output, but above those lowest frequencies they give up little ground to much larger, more expensive speakers. Now you can add to that brief list another two-way model: the Focal Aria 906, which Vince Hanada reviewed for this site in September of this year, and which sells for $1500/pair.

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Recommended Reference Component: Axiom Audio M100 v4 Loudspeakers

Axiom Audio M100 v4sRecommended Reference ComponentIn Oliver Amnuayphol’s review of the Axiom Audio M100 v4 loudspeaker, which we published in June, he stated: “The M100’s uncanny blend of low-compression, superb bass quality and quantity, and lively yet uncolored tonal balance, makes it one of the most well-rounded, non-hair-shirt, will-please-just-about-anyone speakers you can buy at any price.”

Obviously, that’s high praise. But the fact that the M100 v4 starts at only $2790/pair in the standard Black Oak finish (the premium vinyl and wood veneers, and the painted finishes, cost extra) gives his words that much more weight -- these days, speakers can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The M100 v4 measures 47.5"H x 9.25"W x 17"D and weighs about 70 pounds. It’s a three-way design with three woofers and, uniquely, two midranges and two tweeters. The midranges and tweeters are doubled up to produce higher output with lower distortion in the midband and high frequencies. The three woofers and accompanying ports combine to produce prodigious bass.

Oliver spent a little bit of time setting up the M100 v4s and, once he had, it didn’t take him long to recognize the speaker’s strengths: “Satisfied with the M100 v4s’ positions, I spun up Grizzly Bear’s awesome disc of modern rock, Veckatimest (CD, Warp 0182). The album’s mix of deep bass, wide dynamic range, and varied usage of acoustic and electronic instruments sounds best through speakers capable of handling such demanding extremes, and it took only the first track, ‘Southern Point,’ for me to hear that the Axiom M100s were handily up to the task. The sound they poured into the room was loud, deep, and clean, with a generally even-handed tonal balance and an effortlessly dynamic sound.

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