KEF M200 Earphone Review
Do great loudspeakers lead to great earphones?
What is the KEF M200?Experience in any product category is usually vital to achieving the best results possible. It is perfectly possible for a first attempt to deliver exceptional results - you only need to look at Oppo’s mighty PM-1 headphone to see that a manufacturer can go in ‘cold’ and deliver the goods - but truly exceptional products more usually stem from several generations of product - the last line of Panasonic Plasmas or Sennheiser’s mighty IE800 for example.
Does experience in one category port over to a different one that uses some of the same skills or disciplines though? The signs are mixed. On the one hand you had NAD taking some time out from electronics to release the excellent HP50 headphones (albeit with plenty of assistance from in house partner PSB) but equally, Panasonic have arguably never scaled the heights of LCD TVs that they have in plasma despite the requirements of either technology in picture terms being broadly similar. Sometimes it seems to work and sometimes it is less successful.
If you have a set of skills that partly match with a category that is currently having a bit of a boom, the temptation to have a crack at it is likely to be rather stronger. KEF have been strong players in loudspeakers for decades and their recent releases have shown a flair and general ingenuity in design and material terms that has put them right at the forefront of most price points. With this design mojo in full effect, the company has taken the perfectly logical decision to move into headphones and earphones. The M200 is the company’s earphone and from the outset, there are some interesting design decisions at work here reflecting the current boldness of the company. Does the speaker expertise result in an earphone of equal talent?
What's inside the KEF M200?The M200 is the only earphone in the KEF range and at £150 pitches straight into a particularly strongly contested area. KEF has taken the generally sound decision to use dynamic drivers (of which they have considerable experience) over armatures which would have been more of a shot in the dark.
Earphones it seems are like buses. No sooner had I expressed some surprise over the Furutech EH-008 which makes use of two dynamic drivers per side, then KEF pitches up with exactly the same arrangement (and the M200 predates the Furutech in design terms). In this case, the KEF uses a 10mm driver (a relative whopper in earphone world) and a 5.5mm one. This ‘DDD’ (Dual Dynamic Driver amazingly enough) arrangement places the two drivers on axis in a single chamber.
What they have then surrounded this chamber with is decidedly unusual. The M200 is a structured design that supports itself both in the ear canal and wrapped around the ear. This makes the M200 a fairly substantial design and one that is going to lead to a fairly clear demarcation between people that pick up the M200 and like the fact that it will stay put in the ear pretty much regardless of the activity you then choose to get up to and people that absolutely will not get on with it under any circumstances. I quite like it - the KEF is a faff to fit but is comfortable when you get it in place. I’m not big on exercise but I can see the advantages of this in the real world - one of which is that that the M200 stays put if you are only listening to a single earphone at one time.
What do you get with the KEF M200?KEF has recognised with both their earphones and headphones that minimalism is not the way forward for their targeted customer. To this end, the M200 is fitted with an inline remote and microphone for call use and also comes with a hard shell carry case. KEF has also seen fit to supply the M200 with a wide variety of bungs and these cover most sizes - although like a number of earphones I’ve tested recently, the largest bung is a true whopper and I’m not completely sure who it is intended for. A recent update to the model range is the supply of comply tips in addition to rubber domes. The comply tips drastically improve the quality of seal available and provided that you don’t mind the slightly clammy feeling that the material can produce, makes for a sound choice although if you are a ‘stuff into pockets’ kind of person, you will find that they degrade and attract fluff more readily than the rubber ones.
What's good about the KEF M200?KEF has clearly put some study into other earphones on the market - it would take bravery to the point of foolhardiness to do anything else - but they haven’t felt inclined to shamelessly copy them. The M200 is clearly the company identifying a target customer and building something that will possibly not be to everyone’s taste but a more specific fit for other customers. The build is solid and the M200 is a practical device to use day in and day out. Changing the bungs is easy and the wraparound part of the earphone is flexible but likely to stay in place.
The M200 is a structured design that supports itself both in the ear canal and wrapped around the ear
What’s not so good about the KEF M200?If we ignore that the design of the M200 will be a detractor for many people, there aren’t many things the KEF hasn’t put considerable thought into. The carry case feels very tight for the actual size of the housings and you tend to bend the ear surrounds when you stick them in there. I’m not completely convinced that the styling is entirely my taste - I’d rather it was all black but again, I’m sure there are people who enthusiastically disagree with this. As a final piece of nitpicking, the rubber domes that the M200 is supplied with are a straight sided example and this is not as comfortable as a true curved sided dome. Interestingly, the comply tips are which further aids the comfort advantage that they have.
How was the KEF M200 tested?The KEF was mainly used with the standard mobile test equipment of my Nexus 5 phone, iPad 3 and Lenovo T530 ThinkPad. The latter was used with and without a Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS and Chord Hugo as a more absolute test of performance. Material used included the standard selection of lossless and high res audio, compressed audio such as Spotify and Grooveshark and I also viewed some on-demand material such as Netflix and iPlayer.
What is the KEF M200 like with mobile devices?The dual dynamic design results in an earphone that is not as impressively sensitive as a single driver unit but the M200 is still capable of working well with a lower powered headphone output. The hopelessly anaemic Nexus 5 still needed to be run at or very near maximum level but you can at least use it and achieve a reasonable listening volume. The burlier output of the iPad 3 can drive the KEF to much higher levels and this starts to show that the M200 is a rather capable partner for use on the move. Even with the rubber tips, isolation is excellent and the KEF can produce a powerful and immersive performance.
Much of this power stems from a bass performance that is somewhere between deep and seismic. The low end has the ability to be felt rather than heard and while this is impressive with bassy music, the performance is most impressive when it underpins material with more organic bass. Films as well are also deeply impressive and a quick blat of Welcome to the Punch on Netflix is powerful and impressively dynamic.
The rest of the frequency spectrum is smooth, refined and manages to integrate convincingly with the powerful bass. The twin drivers combine well and there is no sense of crossover between them. There is plenty of detail, whilst voices and instruments are generally convincing but do lack some of the etched detail that armature rivals can achieve (albeit at the expense of the bass that the M200 finds so easy to generate). The result is that the M200 is easy to listen to for long periods and an ideal commuting partner.
What is the KEF M200 like with a laptop and higher quality files?The underlying aspects of the performance that the M200 displays are not radically different to what it demonstrates with mobile devices. The immense low end shove is still present and the M200 usually manages to keep it under control and integrated with the rest of the frequency response. The greater bitrate of the lossless files allows the M200 to find a little fine detail in these bass notes and analogue bass in particular is nuanced in a way that can get close to armatures with considerably more low end shove.
In keeping with the performance with portable devices, the M200 is more of a ‘big picture’ earphone with less micro detail than the Final Heaven IV or Musical Fidelity EB-50 can muster but a sense of soundstage and cohesion that is usually convincing and pleasant to listen to. The even higher bitrates of high res material don’t always translate to higher quality though. The KEF has been voiced to present music in an ultimately forgiving fashion and this means that really high quality material won’t give the last few tenths that a more revealing design might but the KEF will handle the everyday requirements of podcasts and internet radio without breaking a sweat while the more revealing design might tear the same material to shreds.
Much of this power stems from a bass performance that is somewhere between deep and seismic
How easy is the KEF M200 to live with?This generally forgiving presentation, mahoosive bass response, excellent isolation and the fact they stay put under all but the most extreme provocation (and I’m really referring to having your ear damaged in which case, what happens to your earphones is the least of your worries), the M200 is an excellent commuter earphone. If you don’t simply sit on a piece of public transport for the duration and do in fact move around on your feet, only RMA’s 750i is likely to match the KEF for sheer ability to stay where they should.
As a professional salad dodger, I’m not going to say I’ve personal experience of the M200 for exercise but it stands to reason, they’ll be rather good for that too. The business of fitting them is unavoidably more involved than a standard earphone but you get better at it with practise. Actually putting them in their case with any degree of finesse doesn’t seem to get easier though. Most importantly, the M200 is able to sound big, refined and enjoyable for long periods of time. If you find them comfortable, you will find the sound extremely easy to listen to.
Any drawbacks to the KEF M200?In truth, provided you find them comfortable, the KEF is a fairly straightforward and well sorted piece of equipment. Compared to the superlative Final Heaven IV at an extra £20, the M200 sounds a little smoothed over and lacking the detail and timing that the Final possesses but the KEF has comfortably better bass and is easier to live with thanks to the remote. There are models that are perhaps more absolutely ‘HiFi’ than the KEF at this price point but most of them demand compromises in areas that the M200 is very strong in. As I spend less and less time commuting these days, there are elements of the KEF - mainly the fitting and the bass response that are overkill for a quiet domestic environment but I am unusual in that I sit in a quiet space listening to earphones.
- Powerful sound with excellent bass
- Excellent for exercise
- Fitting won't be to everyone's taste
- Case is a little small
- Massive amounts of competition
KEF M200 Earphone Review
Should I buy them?
The choice of earphones between £140-170 is now utterly bewildering and has to number in the region of thirty to forty models. What KEF has done with the M200 is clever insomuch as they have designed it with some features that either vastly improve its desirability in a crowded field or leave you crossing it straight off a shortlist rather than try and be all things to all customers. The M200 is the commuter earphone par excellence and if you need something to cope with the worst that the outside world can throw at you while blocking it out, staying put and sounding powerful and refined at the same time, this is a very capable piece of kit indeed - just make sure you try them on first!
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £150.00
Ease of Use8
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