KEF's Model 11 speakers ($2,000 per pair) are one of two models in the company's FiveTwo virtual surround product series, so named for their ability to produce five-channel surround sound from two speakers. Unlike most self-powered virtual surround systems that rely on proprietary digital surround processing, KEF's Model 11 was designed as a freestanding system, so it can be used with any A/V receiver. The 40-inch tall towers' height gave the company's engineers the room to fit the svelte speaker with 11 specially designed woofers and tweeters, and the exquisitely finished speakers have an upscale look that would be right at home next to a pricey 1080p video display. KEF's high-end approach pays dividends in audiophile sound quality, but the Model 11 falls short of the best competing systems as purveyors of immersive surround sound. That said, if you value audiophile-level clarity and detail over faux-surround sonic gymnastics, the KEF FiveTwo Model 11 speakers more than justify their admittedly high price tag. The elegant KEF FiveTwo Series Model 11 speaker stands on a curved, metal base. Fit and finish are executed to a very high standard--as we'd expect from a set of $2,000 speakers--and the drivers are covered with black cloth grilles on the front baffle as well as the sides of the speaker. The 40.2-inch tall speaker is 4.1 inches wide and weighs just 24.9 pounds--so it might be easily toppled over by small children or pets. Alternatively, the Model 11 can be wall mounted. Alternately, KEF also offers a smaller FiveTwo Series speaker, the Model 7 ($1,200).
The Model 11 comes with a special speaker cable that will probably be long enough for most buyers; we hope it is, because the 16-foot wire is your only hookup option. The cable's proprietary connectors are designed to plug into the speakers, and at the other end, five pairs of clearly labeled wires are intended for hookup to an A/V receiver's five channel speaker outputs. Unfortunately, the two speaker connectors aren't labeled left and right. We guessed, and noted during setup the left channel test tones were coming out of the right speaker, so we immediately turned off the amplifier, and reversed the connectors at the speaker ends. That did the trick, but KEF should have caught the labeling omission.
More gripes: the owner's manual is short on text and setup details and fails to mention that you'll have to adjust the receiver's five-speaker channel volume levels to achieve the most enveloping sound--and balance the subwoofer's volume to best blend with the Model 11. The KEF FiveTwo Series Model 11 features a new, all-metal, 3-inch version of KEF's Uni-Q combination woofer/tweeter driver. KEF claims that conventional speakers' separate tweeters and woofers produce a different sound "blend" for listeners in different parts of the room, while the Uni-Q's "point source" sound produces more precise imaging for those listeners. Each Model 11 has two Uni-Qs: one for the left or right channel and one for the center channel. The center channel's bass is generated by one 3-inch woofer, while the left/right channels' bass comes from four 3-inch woofers. The speaker's side is fitted with two flat-panel speakers that bounce off the room's side walls to create enveloping surround sound.
The Model 11 can be used with any brand of subwoofer. KEF subs start with PSW 1150 ($350), but KEF's excellent $799 HTB2 sub stylistically--and probably sonically--will be the best match. We used a HTB2 for all of our listening tests.
As large as it is, the Model 11 doesn't make very much bass on its own, so we had to work extrahard at getting a reasonable bass blend between the Model 11s and the HTB2 sub. We were constantly adjusting the sub's volume level over the course of a few days, before the Model 11/HTB2 combo sounded balanced on most of our CDs and DVDs. We started the KEF Model 11's stress tests with some music. Acoustic songs from Crosby, Stills, and Nash had plenty of snap and clarity. Vocals and guitars were vividly presented, and the soundstage was wider than the actual positions of the speakers in our home theater. Listening in stereo, we were happy to note that the system didn't produce even a hint of the processed sound we get from most virtual surround systems. The Model 11 impressed us in the way it presented the tactile details and textures running through Radiohead's Kid A CD, and the KEF HTB2 subwoofer's low bass support brought out the same level of detail in the bass. Yes, the sub is expensive, but it's also the best sub we've ever used with a virtual surround system. It makes a difference you can feel.