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Big for a reason: Behold the Klipsch Forte III speakers

The Audiophiliac checks out Klipsch’s brawny new horn-loaded speakers.

 Klipsch Forte III speakers
Sarah Tew/CNET

Klipsch speakers, as we audiophiles like to say, have a sound. That is, they don't sound like other speakers, and when you look at the Klipsch Forte III without its grille, you'll start to understand why: it's a horn speaker. While most box speakers have their drivers all mounted flush with the front baffle, the Forte III's tweeter and midrange are horn drivers, with the drivers recessed in the horns. What's the big deal about that, you ask? Horn speakers are significantly more efficient than box speakers, and they project sound straight ahead, with narrower dispersion than box speakers so there's less sound bouncing off the floor, side walls and ceiling. Horn speakers like this new Forte III are more dynamically alive sounding than more conventional box speakers. The Forte III sells for $1,800 each.

Klipsch, as some of you may know, was one of the very first American high-end audio companies, and has been making speakers since 1946. The Forte I debuted in 1985, and looked not all that different than the one I'm reviewing here today. The differences are in the details in the drivers, horns, crossover and cabinet construction and finish.

Forte III doesn't sound as smooth as a Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2, doesn't image as clearly as an Elac Uni-Fi UF5, and it's nowhere as open or spacious as a pair of Magnepan 1.7i flat panel speakers. But the Forte III still sounds more like live music in a club than any of those speakers. Point is, all of these speakers have different strengths, I've yet to hear a speaker that does everything well. As for the Forte III, it's a high-energy speaker; it sounds big and powerful in ways that smaller speakers never do. Played loud it never sounds strained, it's always coasting, ready for anything.

The Forte III was a bit fussier about placement than most other speakers I used in the CNET listening room. After some experimentation I discovered they sounded best placed fairly close to the wall behind them, about 8 inches away, and "toed-in" with the speakers aimed directly at the main listening position. I used a Rotel RA-1592 stereo integrated amp and Oppo BDP 105 Blu-ray player for all of my listening tests.

Forte III features a 1-inch titanium compression tweeter, 1.75-inch compression midrange, 12-inch fiber composite woofer, and a rear-mounted 15-inch passive radiator. Impedance is rated at 8 ohms. The speaker is 36 inches tall, 16.5 inches wide and 13 inches deep. The Forte III weighs a back-busting 72 pounds and is made in the US. It's available in Black Ash, American Walnut, Natural Cherry, and the Distressed Oak finish you see here.

Listening to the Forte III

First up, I cued up Miles Davis' classic "Kind of Blue," and Davis' trumpet sounded perfect. Very present and immediate, and Davis' horn, from barely audible sighs to all-out wails, riveted my attention. Most speakers miniaturize the sound of his trumpet; the Forte III a lot less so. Paul Chamber's sound on acoustic bass was also well played, the fingering of his strings had palpable presence. Best of all, the Forte III made this music that was recorded in 1959 sound like it was happening right now.

Klipsch Forte III speakers: From the rear (left), and the front (right)

Sarah Tew/CNET

Movies typically have bigger soft-to-loud dynamic swings than music recordings, so I popped on the "House of Flying Daggers" circle of drums scene, and the Forte IIIs unleashed the sound of the big drums with explosive power I've never heard from any other speaker in the CNET listening room. When Mei (Zhang Ziyi) kicks the drums I not only heard the impact, I felt it. When I played the scene louder and louder, the Forte III never faltered. Bass was deep, definition was good, but hardly stellar. 

That said, the sheer potency of the sound goes a long way towards making "Daggers" and other movies sound more real. Dialogue was natural and articulate. The Forte III is a great two-channel home theater speaker, or if you crave multichannel home theater, spring for a Klipsch center channel, surround speakers and a Klipsch subwoofer.

Back with music, the Forte III doesn't sound like a typical audiophile speaker; it's less polite and mellow. It sounds more like being in a club when I played the Rolling Stones classic "Exile on Main Street."  I kept nudging the volume higher and higher, and that's always a good sign -- I love my job!

The Forte III also shined with solo piano, another instrument that's next to impossible to reproduce over speakers.  I played a terrific piano recording, "Gershwin Plays Gershwin" at more or less realistically loud volume, and the Forte IIIs aced the subtleties of the piano tone and dynamic shading.

The Forte IIIs' freewheeling dynamics and high resolution aren't forgiving to harsh or otherwise poorly recorded or mixed music. These speakers are on the bright side of neutral, so they don't soften or smooth over any rough edges. They can be fatiguing to listen to with Arcade Fire, the National or LCD Soundsystem's latest albums. Classical music was also not in the Forte III's wheelhouse -- chamber and orchestral music sounded too boxey and bright with the Rotel RA 1592 stereo integrated amp. Perhaps a sweet-sounding tube amplifier would be a better match with these speakers.

Still, the Klipsch Forte III is raucous fun, a party-animal speaker if there ever was one. Listen to a pair if you dare.