KEF KIT100: surround sound from two speakers
The high-end market is continuously morphing into new forms. Just when we were adjusting to the idea that Porsche makes an SUV, KEF--the legendary British speaker manufacturer--has unveiled its first home theater in a box (HTIB). But KEF's KIT100 Instant Theatre ($1,500 list) is a radical departure from everyday all-style, no-substance plastic systems. Its die-cast metal speakers and diminutive receiver/DVD player have a luxurious look and feel. Instead of the usual array of five speakers and a subwoofer, the system creates a holographic sound field with just a pair of exotic-looking speakers and a solid subwoofer. No, it can't deliver the rear-channel effects of a full surround system, but its two speakers sounded surprisingly spacious. In fact, the KIT100's home-theater sound bettered any of the other virtual-surround HTIBs we've tested, including our former favorites from Niro, though its musical talents were less consistently spectacular. Pick up any component of KEF's Instant Theatre, and you'll instantly know it's the real deal. The die-cast solid metal speakers and receiver/DVD unit are relatively small but satisfyingly weighty. KEF's build-quality standards are extremely high--certainly far beyond those of any HTIB we've seen so far. KEF offers optional metal floor stands (at $199 per pair) and wall-mount brackets ($49) for the two speakers.
Setting up the Instant Theatre is simplicity itself: just make the video connection to your TV and plug in the specially terminated speaker and subwoofer cables and you're done. The setup menus are likewise basic, and we were playing discs in less than 10 minutes. The receiver's tiny buttons are hard to see and use, so we relied on the remote.
The silver plastic remote breaks the high-end spell, but its minimalist button count keeps things simple and easy to use. For this kind of money, we would expect the remote to be backlit, but it's not.The system includes a pair of unique 9.5-inch tall, cast aluminum speakers. Their unusual shape was designed to reduce the resonances and vibrations that color the sound of more-conventional box speakers. Advanced technology features include KEF's Uni-Q drivers with their special 4-inch woofers fitted with integral 0.6-inch dome tweeters. KEF's engineers also fitted each of the speakers with separate flat drivers that serve two purposes. First, they direct sound out to the sides to conjure a phantom center image for dialogue, and second, they bounce sound off of your side walls to create an enveloping surround effect. As a result, KEF's virtual surround approach is a more organic system than many of its competitors--it doesn't rely on processing to synthesize 5-channel surround.
The 10-inch subwoofer contains amplifiers for the woofer and the speakers, but KEF would not supply the amps' power ratings. Just 7 inches wide, the sub won't dominate your room, but its 20.75-inch depth might be a concern for some spaces. It weighs 40 pounds.
The receiver/DVD player features Dolby Digital, Pro Logic II, and DTS surround processing. Its connectivity quotient is modest: three A/V inputs, one optical digital input and output, and the usual set of composite, S-Video, and progressive-scan component-video outputs. The receiver doesn't have a headphone jack. The Instant Theatre is a closed system; you can't use the receiver with other brands of speakers, and you can't use the speakers or subwoofer with any other receiver.The Instant Theatre instantly impressed us with its ability to create a wide and very deep surround field when we played the Goldmember DVD. Synthesizing surround from fewer than five speakers has been tried with varying degrees of success before, most notably from the Niro 1.1Pro single-speaker HTIB, but the Instant Theatre's wraparound surround sound was more enveloping. We heard sound coming from way out to the sides, projected far ahead of the speakers themselves. Goldmember's thumping bass fully exercised the KEF subwoofer, which is powerful enough to fill even large rooms with bass.
We next tried the Big Fish DVD and noted the believability of Instant Theatre's phantom center "speaker"--dialogue was firmly planted between the two speakers--as long as we sat near the center of our couch. Once we moved to either side, the sound veered over to the side. This fantastical film's sensual sound wowed us overall, but it wasn't as dynamic or powerful as it would be on a more conventional 5.1 speaker package mated with a decent A/V receiver. Technology has its limits after all.
We were even more aware of the Instant Theatre's limits when we played a CD from Detroit's hard-hitting duo, the White Stripes. They sounded limp and a bit boring, and the bass was lumpy and thick. We took the hint and tried Holly Cole's jazzy Tom Waits tribute CD Temptation; it sounded gorgeous, with a detailed and holographic soundstage. So the lesson learned was that acoustic and quieter music can sound wonderful, but more aggressive music won't cut it. We've noted the same weakness on the Niro 1.1Pro and with HTIBs in general; they're at their best playing DVDs. If you're more interested in music than movies, we'd recommend an audition before you buy this or any HTIB.