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Klipsch Reference R-51M review: Exciting rock and roll sound dressed up retro

The Klipsch Reference R-51M combines throwback looks and thoroughly modern sound in an affordable package.

Ty Pendlebury Editor
Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.
Expertise Ty has worked for radio, print, and online publications, and has been writing about home entertainment since 2004. He majored in Cinema Studies when studying at RMIT. He is an avid record collector and streaming music enthusiast. Credentials
  • Ty was nominated for Best New Journalist at the Australian IT Journalism awards, but he has only ever won one thing. As a youth, he was awarded a free session for the photography studio at a local supermarket.
Ty Pendlebury
4 min read

Klipsch is in the middle of a reinvention. It's attempting to hearken back to the past by focusing on its own "classic" designs. In the past few years the company has delved into its substantial archives to bring back speakers such as the Forte and Cornwall.


Klipsch Reference R-51M

The Good

The Klipsch Reference R-51M offers excellent build quality with attractive "retro" flair for an affordable price. Sound quality is dynamic and punchy, especially with rock and pop. The speakers are very efficient and can play loudly without strain.

The Bad

Some buyers may prefer the more stately looks of the Q Acoustics or Elac competition, which also offer warmer sound and better bass.

The Bottom Line

The Klipsch Reference R-51M combines throwback looks and thoroughly exciting sound in an affordable package.

Those are high-end speakers but the company is also going retro in its affordable models, including the new Reference line. The R-51M is the "baby" of the series and packs a 5.25-inch spun-copper driver and Klipsch's signature horn tweeter into a small stand mount speaker.

As you'd expect with a retro-futuristic Klipsch speaker, the company hasn't meddled with its established sound. It's still on the brighter, more exciting side, and yet offers enough bass for modern music. Of course, it sounds even better partnered with the subwoofer of your choice. If you like your rock or pop music loud, the Klipsch can inject a dose of fun into your system for an affordable price. The Klipsch Reference R-51M is available for $249, £249 or AU$549 a pair.

Back to the future

Klipsh R-51
Sarah Tew/CNET

The R-51M is the second Klipsch product we've seen this year, but it couldn't be any more different from the Reference Theater Pack. While the Theater Pack's satellites were tiny and made from plastic, the R-51M offers up a moderately-large cabinet handsomely constructed from MDF. The R-51M is a "real speaker". This design also signals a return to wooden vinyl wraps after the dreadful "brushed" finish of previous speakers. Completing the Klipsch's homespun look are copper-colored fasteners and a cheesecloth-like magnetic grill.

Klipsh R-51
Sarah Tew/CNET

The specifications of the R-51M include:

  • Single 5.25-inch spun-copper IMG woofer
  • 1-inch aluminum LTS tweeter with a 90 by 90 square Tractrix Horn
  • 62Hz - 21kHz +/- 3dB frequency response
  • High 93 dB sensitivity
  • 13.3-inches (337 mm) high by 7-inches (178 mm) high by 8.5-inches (215 mm) deep
  • Bass-reflex design with rear-firing port
  • Gold-plated binding posts

How does it sound?

Considering the Klipsch Reference R-51M's diminutive size, it made a big impression on us. While this little guy may not produce enough deep bass to shake your room, its low distortion and freewheeling dynamics belie its compact dimensions. All of that and its budget price should make it attractive to speaker shoppers.

The feisty R-51M proved its mettle first by pounding out the big bass drums and percussion instruments on the Isle of Dogs movie soundtrack. The R-51M handled those drum transients with assurance when we played these little speakers loud, and as we raised the volume the sound remained clear. The CNET listening room isn't all that big at 11 by 20 feet, and we weren't trying to play the drums at realistic volume. But still, the R-51M's lively sound, even when compared with the much larger Elac Debut B6.2 speakers, better communicated the drums' impact.

Klipsh R-51
Sarah Tew/CNET

Some of the difference in punch can be attributed to the R-51M's higher 93 dB @ 1 watt sensitivity versus the B6.2's lower 87 dB @ 1 watt. In layman terms, the B6.2 needs four times the power to play as loud as the R-51M.

Even still, the B6.2 makes a lot more bass, clearly a more full range design that can get by without a subwoofer. The R-51M might just eke out enough bass in a smaller room, and placing it close to a wall might bring enough bass fullness to satisfy some buyers. We split our R-51M listening time 50/50 with and without a Pioneer Elite SW-E10 sub (around $300 online). With a 80 Hz crossover point the SW-E10 and R-51M made for a smooth pairing. We also used a Sony STR-DN1080 AV receiver for all of our listening tests.

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With jazz singer Diana Krall's luscious sounding The Girl in the Other Room album, her expressive vocals and her touch on the piano keys were well played by the R-51Ms. Her drummer's cymbals had just the right amount of shimmer and sparkle.

A quick changeover to Q Acoustics 3020i bookshelf speakers, which are close to the size of the R-51Ms, and the sound differences were stark. Krall's vocal and piano had a richer and more natural tonal balance, but the sound was less vivid over the Q Acoustics. The R-51Ms can sound recessed and lean compared with the 3020is. Both speakers were overachievers, and the 3020i was less reliant on the assistance of the sub.

Adding the SW-E10 sub filled out the R-51M's sound nicely, while maintaining the speaker's lively character. Together the speakers and sub are a potent combination and they really lit up with the newly-released R.E.M. Live at the BBC box set. The R-51Ms made it clear the band's energy on these performances exceeds their studio albums by a large margin. Michael Stipe's vocals all but leaped out of the speakers. The speakers may be small, but they like to party!

Should you buy it?

The Klipsch Reference R-51M is a little powerhouse. It might get by sans sub if you boosted the bass with your receiver's tone controls, or if the R-51Ms were positioned up close to a wall. It is a small speaker, one that by design forfeited its deep bass response to increase its sensitivity, which in turn resulted in its dynamic sound. That's what makes the R-51M so much fun to listen to. While the Q Acoustics are warmer and fuller and the big Elacs are better overall, especially for bass, the Klipschs are more fun. If you want speakers ready to party, the R15-Ms are it.


Klipsch Reference R-51M

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Sound 8Value 9