If the amazing Elac Uni-Fi UB5 is the flashy lead actor in "Affordable Audiophile Speakers: The Movie," think of the KEF Q350 as the reliable character actor who can turn its hand to anything.
The Q350's performance may not be as arresting as the UB5, but if you buy this speaker you won't have to be as careful about picking a powerful receiver or the "right" music. A forward-sounding system like the Elacs sound best with a beefy amp and steady diet of well-produced recordings. But with a pair of the KEF Q350s in your system you can also enjoy Sebadoh, Katy Perry or Metallica without being reminded of their less-than-stellar production quality. There's no pomp, no artifice, just the music the speakers are given.
With simultaneously understated-yet-striking looks, rock-solid sound quality and an affordable price, the KEF's are an attractive package. If you want to just enjoy your time with your favorite movie or song and not have to think too hard about it, the KEF Q350 is your ideal partner.
The KEF Q350 is available now for $650 or £529 for a pair. Australian pricing and availability are TBA, but we expect them to cost upwards of AU$1,200.
Even before you hear it, you'll know the KEF Q350 isn't just another bookshelf speaker. That cool looking single 6.5-inch Uni-Q driver is the tip-off, with its concentric 1-inch aluminum tweeter and sci-fi-styled protective grill.
Audiophile readers might note the Q350's resemblance to KEF's highly regarded LS50 monitor speaker ($1,500 a pair). Though the speakers look similar they are a little different: The Q350s go a little lower than the LS50, are a touch more sensitive and have both a larger cabinet and a larger driver (6.5- versus 5.5-inch).
The Q350 offers a choice of colors -- black with a black driver, or white with a silver driver. The models we received came in black with an ash wrap. We prefer this finish to the cheaper-looking vinyl wrap on the Elac Uni-Fis.
With a bass port on its rear panel, don't plan on shoving these speakers up against the wall or into a corner. A foot or more clearance would be a good starting point. We had the speakers on tall metal floor stands, well out from the front wall of the CNET listening room.
Once you get the speakers out of the box you may find yourself shaking the packaging looking for the grills. Well, there aren't any. That formidable tweeter cage should ward off most incidents, but if you want, KEF can sell you a pair of magnetic grills for an extra $20.
The Q350 sounds more expensive than it really is. In our listening tests, paired with either the Sony STR-DN-1080 receiver or a NAD C 338 integrated amplifier, the KEF neither over-hyped the treble nor pumped up the bass. Instead, it let the music speak for itself.
That was certainly the case with the just-released "Bach Trios" set with Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Chris Thile on mandolin and Edgar Meyer on stand-up bass. The three musicians play as one with a palpable presence to their sound, and the Q350 preserved the natural tonality of the three instruments. Stereo imaging was big, deep and broad.
To put the Q350's sound in perspective we brought out our ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 speakers, which use a combined midrange/tweeter driver that's not so different in principle to the Q350's Uni-Q driver. While the Uni-fi UB5 is a three-way design with a separate woofer, the Q350 is a two-way.
When we played Frank Sinatra doing "Fly Me To The Moon" with the Uni-Fi UB5s, Sinatra's vocal sounded fuller-bodied and more natural than the Q350, but his big band was restrained compared with what we heard from the more nimble Q350. We attribute some of the difference to the fact that the Uni-Fi UB5s crave power, and while the STR-DN1080 receiver and C 338 amp were both excellent, neither was powerful enough to let the Uni-Fi UB5s fully strut their stuff. The Q350 was a better match with both the receiver and amp.
With David Bowie's final album "Blackstar," we compared the Q350 with a set of Klipsch RP-160M bookshelf speakers ($549 a pair). The Q350's low-end bass definition and more neutral midrange were way ahead of the RP-160M's, but that speaker was more viscerally alive and exciting than the Q350. The RP-160M is a great rock speaker, so Bowie's rhythm section kicked harder than what we heard from either the Q350 or the Uni-Fi UB5 speakers.
We finished up our testing with Roger Waters' 2015 movie "The Wall" on Blu-ray. The sound mix is more dynamic than most CDs or files, and the stereo Q350s easily belted out the music, and bass was plentiful enough that we doubt too many buyers will need to add a subwoofer for movies.
The KEF Q350 may be tuned for the audiophile ear, but that doesn't mean it won't also please anyone searching for good-sounding speakers. Like most things in audio, clear winners that would please every ear are rare. The best speakers all sound different, so it's up to you to find one that fits your taste, size and price requirements. That said, it's likely that like us you'll find the KEF Q350 a likable and versatile speaker.
If you're trying to choose between this and its closest competitor, the B&W 685 S2, sadly we weren't able to listen to them against each other. But with our knowledge of the B&W, we can say that the KEF offers a stronger bass performance, which is better suited to fans of rock and dance.