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Before you even hear them, one look at KEF's two new virtual-surround systems confirms that they're visually stunning. The FiveTwo Series Model 11 ($2,000) is a full-size tower, and the FiveTwo Series Model 7 ($1,200, reviewed here) is a smaller speaker intended for stand- or wall-mounting. The FiveTwo moniker describes the systems ability to produce five-channel surround sound from two speakers--the front left/center/right and left/right surround channels are reproduced by different drivers within the speakers (with the ".1" bass channel routed to a separate subwoofer). Unlike many self-powered virtual-surround systems that rely on proprietary digital surround processing, KEF's Model 7 was designed as a freestanding system, so it can be used with any A/V receiver. KEF's high-end approach pays dividends in audiophile-grade sound quality, but the Model 7 falls short of the best competing systems as purveyors of immersive surround sound.
Finished in exquisite piano black or matte silver (with black accents), the Model 7 strikes a decidedly upscale pose that wouldn't look out of place next to a pricey 1080p video display. The elegant speaker has a rounded top and bottom and stands on a curved metal base; it can either be stand- or wall-mounted. Fit and finish are executed to a very high standard, and the drivers are covered with black cloth grilles on the front baffle and the sides of the speaker. The 15.7-inch tall speaker is 4.1 inches wide and weighs 8.5 pounds.
The Model 7 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 were designed to plug into the speakers, and at the other end, five pairs of clearly labeled wires intended for hookup to a receiver's five channel speaker outputs. Unfortunately, the two speaker connectors aren't labeled Left and Right. We guessed, and noted during setup that 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 it fails to mention that you'll have to adjust your 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 7.
The Model 7 can be used with any brand of subwoofer. KEF subs start with PSW 1150 ($350), but KEF's $799 HTB2 sub stylistically (and probably sonically) will be the best match. We used the HTB2 for all of our listening tests.
The Model 7 doesn't make very much bass on its own, so we had to work extrahard at getting a reasonable bass blend between the Model 7s and the HTB2 sub. We were constantly adjusting the sub's volume level over the course of a few days before the Model 7/HTB2 combo sounded balanced on most of our CDs and DVDs.
The Model 7 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, the Uni-Q's "point source" sound produces more precise imaging for those listeners. Each Model 7 has two Uni-Qs: one for the left or right channel, and one for the center channel. Bass is generated by two 3-inch woofers on each speaker. The speaker's side is fitted with a flat-panel driver that bounces off the room's sidewalls to create enveloping surround sound.
We booted up the King Kong DVD to put the Model 7's faux-surround abilities to the test. The movie's jungle scenes sounded huge, with all sorts of birds and insects buzzing around the entire front wall of our home theater, extending a few feet forward of the speakers. Kong's growls were menacingly deep, and when he started tossing cars on the city streets, the crashing metal hulks didn't quite have the weighty impact we'd expect from larger speakers, but the sound was exceptionally vivid. Judged by the standards of virtual-surround speaker systems, the Model 7 was definitely an above-average performer.
Virtual-surround systems' stock in trade is home theater, and they rarely pass muster on music, but the Model 7 shined when we played Variations, an audiophile CD of solo Beethoven piano works. The KEF's richness of tone, clarity, expressive dynamics, and rock-solid imaging were--by any standard--excellent. Hard rock was almost as successful: Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion" wasn't overtly reined in by the Model 7's trim size. KEF's FiveTwo Series speakers are the best-sounding virtual-surround speakers for music we've tested so far.
Finishing up, we compared the Model 7 with KEF's larger FiveTwo Series offering, the Model 11. Not surprisingly, the two speakers sound 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, save $800 and get the Model 7.
How do the FiveTwo speakers compare to other virtual-surround speakers? There's the rub: while they're very good, the Model 7 and the Model 11 weren't quite as enveloping as the single-speaker Yamaha YSP-1100 ($1,500)--that model remains the champ at creating a believable surround effect from fewer than five speakers. Still, the KEF speakers sound better overall, and they have the best matching subwoofer of any system we've tested. If you prefer the "2.1" configuration and you don't mind investing some time and effort into optimizing the sound, the KEF FiveTwo Series speakers are worth an audition.