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Speakers

Maximum fidelity: The KEF Reference 1 speaker

This made-in-the-UK speaker dazzles the Audiophiliac.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The KEF Reference 1 is a music lover's speaker. So even if you don't give a hoot about the technical wizardry that went into its design, that's fine -- the sound of music will be more than enough to win you over.

If you're a hardcore audiophile, the Reference 1's backstory goes like this. Unlike conventional speakers that have midrange and treble drive units mounted one above the other, the Reference 1 has a single Uni-Q driver with an integrated 5-inch (125mm) midrange and 1-inch (25mm) treble unit. The Uni-Q driver produces a more coherent sound than separate tweeter and midrange drivers. The Reference 1 also has a 6.5-inch (165mm) woofer.

KEF Reference 1 speakers

KEF

Another unique feature of the Reference 1 is its bass port, or should I say its bass port "tubes." The speaker comes with two that can be easily changed by the owner to fine-tune the speakers' bass balance in their room. The Reference 1 measures 17.3 by 8.1 by 16.9 inches (440 by 205 by 430 mm), and weighs a rather substantial 40.1 pounds (18.2 kg). The speaker has biwire connectors, and the Reference 1's impedance is rated at 8 ohms.

The speaker's front baffle was designed to minimize frequency response anomalies caused by diffraction; the baffle is made from a specially laminated aluminum/resin composite and secured to the Reference 1's cabinet with high tensile bolts to enhance rigidity.

You can get yours for $8,000 (£4,500, AU$15,799) per pair in immaculately finished piano black, or pair-matched real satin American walnut or gloss rosewood veneers. The Reference 1 is made in the UK.

Before I forget to mention it, KEF's Reference line also features two towers, Reference 3 and Reference 5; two center channel speakers, Reference 2c and Reference 4c; and the Reference 8b subwoofer.

Listening to the Reference 1

Great music should make you feel something, and when you hear it with a great pair of speakers, the emotional pull will be that much stronger. Your pulse might race -- or at least mine did when I watched Santana's "Soul Sacrifice" from the "Woodstock" Blu-ray. The band's fierce Latin rhythms paired with Carlos Santana's screaming guitar leads still sound fresh. They never get old.

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The Reference 1's Uni-Q driver

KEF

There was something about the sound that led me to listen to a lot more vinyl than I usually do when reviewing speakers. The Reference 1 worked its magic with singers, starting with Aretha Franklin's "Soul 69" LP, which is really more of a jazzy blues album than a soul one. She's fronting a big band, with the brass and rhythm sections urging her on. The LP's recording quality isn't that good, but no matter -- Franklin's power and passion shine through, big time.

I next played "The Mancini Touch," with a swinging 35 piece jazz orchestra recording from 1959, and the sound was to die for. I felt like I was transported through time and space; the music was happening in the moment.

Even as I pushed the volume up, I never felt the Reference 1s holding back; the sound remained clear, and there was no sense of increasing distortion at higher volume. James Brown's "Soul Pride: Instrumentals 1960-1969" CDs have rip-roaring dynamic range, far beyond what you'll find in most contemporary music, and the Reference 1s weren't the least bit shy about letting me hear the power of Brown's rhythm section. The band's horns might sound ragged on lesser speakers, but here on the Reference 1s, the music soared. Brown plays organ on most tracks, but my favorites have him on drums; he was a real powerhouse.

KEF Reference 1 (left), and Bowers & Wilkins 805 D3 (right)

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

I spent some quality time comparing the Reference 1 with Bower & Wilkins' flagship monitor, the 805 D3. The Reference 1 is a three-way speaker, the 805 D3 is a two-way, so it didn't reach as deep into the bass on my Lee "Scratch" Perry dub reggae CDs. The Reference 1's low end outpaces the 805 D3's, but the 805 D3 is a higher-resolution, more transparent design, so I could more clearly pick out individual voices in choral recordings. The Reference 1s projected a bigger, yet precisely focused stereo soundstage. As I continued to listen, I came to feel both speakers were highly accomplished performers with all music genres.

Listening to the KEF Reference 1, you'll get more "flavor" out of your music -- that's what a great speaker does. The notes, rhythms and melodies are all exactly the same as you'd get with any decent speaker, but the Reference ! reveals more about how the music was played, so it's a deeper experience.