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KEF FiveTwo Series Model 11 review: KEF FiveTwo Series Model 11

KEF FiveTwo Series Model 11

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
5 min read

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).


KEF FiveTwo Series Model 11

The Good

Beautifully styled and engineered 2.0-channel virtual surround speaker system; each speaker has 11 drivers; KEF's advanced Uni-Q drivers deliver razor-sharp imaging while the side-mounted NXT flat-panel speakers produce surround sound; designed to work with any A/V receiver.

The Bad

The matching KEF HTB2 subwoofer adds $799 to the already expensive system price; proprietary 16-foot speaker cables could limit placement options in larger rooms and custom install settings; sparse instruction manual belies the time and effort that needs to be invested for optimal sound.

The Bottom Line

While their surround effects fall a bit short of the best we've heard, KEF's beautifully crafted FiveTwo Series Model 11 speakers produce five channels of sound with exceptional audiophile-grade clarity.

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.

Lacking a center speaker, the Model 11 creates a "phantom" center from the left and right speakers. As long as we sat centered between the two speakers, dialogue was clearly focused in the center--moving toward one speaker would result in the center-channel sound moving in the same direction. On DVDs such as The Thin Red Line, we noted a tendency for the dialog to lack natural warmth, and voices were occasionally sibilant. Still, dialog intelligibility remained articulate, even in the midst of the major battle sequences.

Surround effects are created by the Model 11's side-mounted NXT drivers that bounce sound off the room's walls--the effectiveness of the surround will depend on the size and shape of your room, and the speakers' position relative to the side walls. Even when we positioned the speakers exactly between the side walls, the surround was projected far forward of the speakers, but never from behind us. The surround effects were audible from different listener positions in the room. We did note the sound quality of the surround effects was more "canned" and hollow than the sound we heard from the left, center, and right channels over the Model 11.

Further DVD testing confirmed the Model 11 speakers' sonic chops. The James Brown: Live At Montreux 1981 DVD came on strong as the funky big band laid down massive grooves and the Mode 11 speakers kept their cool, never sounding harsh or grating. The scene in the Superman Returns DVD where the space shuttle is piggybacked onto a passenger jetliner sounded spectacular. The sound of the shuttle's rocket engines and the extreme dynamics of the scene didn't result in distortion, and the sound quality was certainly superior to every other virtual surround speaker system we've tested.

We also compared the Model 11 with KEF's smaller FiveTwo Series offering, the Model 7. Not surprisingly, the two speakers sounded very similar, but the larger speakers' surround sound was a little more enveloping and could play louder without distress. Otherwise we were hard-pressed to hear any major differences, so unless your room is huge or you like to listen really loud, you should consider getting the Model 7--and saving $800.

In the end, there was only one real point of concern with the KEFs. The Model 11's surround effects, while very good, weren't quite as enveloping as that of the Yamaha YSP-1100 ($1,500)--the Yamaha remains the champ at creating a believable surround effect from fewer than five speakers. Still, the KEF Model 11s just plain sound better overall, and they have the best matching subwoofer of any system we've tested.


KEF FiveTwo Series Model 11

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8