Design and features
The KEF HTF8003 looks like most of the other sound bars on the market, with a long tubelike design and glossy black finish. Viewed from the side, the HTF8003 has a skinny, oval-shaped profile, and it comes to only 3.2 inches deep. The speaker isn't particularly heavy, but its weight distribution made it feel somewhat unstable: whenever we moved HTF 8003, it had a tendency to tip over backward. The problem: the small rubbery support pads seem a little too small to provide a stable platform for the speaker. On the plus side, the HTF8003 weighs significantly less than the competing Atlantic Technology FS-7.0; we'd feel much more comfortable wall-mounting the HTF8003 ourselves.
Around back, the HTF8003 has three pairs of all-metal spring connectors that accept bare wire ends, or wires terminated with pins or spades; banana plugs won't fit. We appreciated that they weren't recessed into the speaker, like on the Canton CD 90 SB, but their low positioning made them slightly difficult to access with speaker wire.
Behind the speaker grille, the HTF8003 houses nine total drivers. Each channel includes a 3-inch Uni-Q driver (and each Uni-Q driver has its own high-frequency/midrange/bass driver), a 3-inch woofer and 3-inch auxiliary bass radiator.
Since the HTF8003 doesn't make much bass on its own we started our listening tests partnering the speaker with a KEF HTB2SE-W wireless sub. We've tested the wired version of the sub before, and know it's a great-sounding unit. But in this case we had to work for hours to get the HTB2SE-W to blend with the HTF8003.
The problem was that each time we adjusted the sub's volume, phase, bass boost (equalization control), and placement relative to the HTF8003 we either had too much or too little bass. During the initial setup period we had to keep adjusting the balances every time we changed discs. The root problem was that since the HTF8003 made so little bass, the sub had to do most of the work. We eventually got a sub/speaker balance that worked for most discs. If you're looking for a sound bar with a big, full sound on its own, you need a much bigger speaker, like the Zvox Z-Base 575.
We were happy to note the HTF8003's left, center, and right channels sounded almost exactly the same when we ran test tones through them. That's never a given with sound bar speakers, and we associate that sort of channel-to-channel tonal consistency with better than average dialogue sound quality. That was, in fact, the case, the HTF8003 reproduced dialog very accurately.
The HTF8003's overall sound is extremely clear and concise, certainly in the top ranks of sound bar speakers we've tested. The HTF8003 is strictly a three-channel sound bar, so it doesn't even try to produce faux surround effects. That said, the speaker generated a wide and deep soundstage for movies. If you wind up missing what surround speakers provide you can always add KEF's matching HTS 2005 satellite speakers ($200 each) and get bona-fide, room-filling surround sound. Few sound bar speakers offer that upgrade option.
"Amelia" isn't what you'd call an action film, but it fully exercised the HTF8003's home theater skills. We see Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank) on a succession of historic flights, including her first 1928 cross Atlantic flight. The older planes' engines had a high-pitched sputtery whine--the sleeker, more advanced 1930s aircraft had a deeper, rumbling drone--and the HTF8003 zeroed in on the subtleties of the sound of each plane. The conversations between Earhart and her crew in the cramped cockpits had a truly claustrophobic sound. When Earhart's little plane encounters severe turbulence and takes a nosedive, the HTF8003 and HTB2SE-W made our hearts jump.
We next fired up the "Black Hawk Down" Blu-ray; the film vividly re-creates the battle for the Somalian city of Mogadishu in October 1993. The HTF8003 didn't have any problems delivering the film's healthy dynamic jolts, and the jarring gunfire exchanges between the U.S. soldiers and the hostiles had terrific impact. The sounds of gunfire echoing through the city streets demonstrated the speaker's resolution of fine detail, but the big explosions and fiery crashes lacked the visceral punch we've heard from large speakers and subwoofers. While the film uses surround effectively, we didn't miss 5.1 surround while listening in stereo.
At this point we swapped out the KEF HTB2SE-W subwoofer for our reference Aperion Bravus 8D sub. We weren't sure what to expect, but it was actually a lot easier to blend the HTF8003 with the Aperion--the KEF-Aperion combination sounded excellent. Still, the HTB2SE-W was the better of the two subs in that its bass had slightly better definition teamed with the HTF8003.
CDs didn't fare as well as movies, probably because the HTF 8003's narrow soundstage and limited bass were more apparent with music. The sound was fine for background music listening; we were much happier with the HTF8003's sound on movies.