Thus, the ‘lifestyle’ speaker was born to assuage domestic bliss and although some very small and cute designs have resulted, they tend to sound exactly just that – small. The problem is big sound requires big drivers and for the most part, the only way to shrink the depth of a driver, also shrinks its effective diameter. This restricts it’s loudness capability and bottom end performance, placing greater emphasis on the partnering subwoofer to cover frequencies it’s not ideally disposed to do. It’s a tricky compromise.
However, steps are now being taken, not so much to re-write the rule book as to redefine what is possible within it’s constraints. We have for review the KEF T305 5.1 surround sound speaker package, the latest in a long line of ‘lifestyle’ solutions from one of the writers of that original rule book. Should be good then!
There are three basic components to the new KEF T Series. The smaller of the two satellites is the T101/101c, the 'c' standing for centre. Both are sealed enclosures, containing a 25mm tweeter and 115mm mid/bass driver, the sole difference being the orientation of the KEF badge on the horizontal centre speaker. The T301/301c adds an additional 115mm bass driver to deliver a two-and-a-half way speaker and at a stroke, near double the height of the T101 (33cm) to 60cm. KEFs approach to system building allows using combinations of the satellites partnered with the new T-2 subwoofer (£599 RRP) to arrive at three 5.1 systems - The T 105 at £1200 (5x T101), the T 205 at £1500 (3x T301 plus 2x T101) and finally, the T 305 at £1700 (5x T301). Additional speakers can be purchased to augment, or replace the systems, although I've only seen them advertized as pairs. There are optional floor stands available at £225/pair.
The good news, is that this is the first public outing (well, in a review at least) of the full 'phat' T 305 system although, perhaps I should choose my words more carefully. The dimensions, when seen from the dead ahead, are nothing remarkable in the world of satellite speakers. In fact, they're actually quite large in terms of height, compared to even a sizable book shelf speaker. It's when you turn any of the T Series satellites sideways you realize that something out of the ordinary is going on.
They're a scant 35mm deep. That's less than 1.5" in old money. This is even more staggering when you consider that the drivers are actually traditional moving coil drivers with a magnet, voice coil and cone like most normal speakers. Okay, that's an injustice - The neodymium magnet, 25mm aluminium dome tweeter, with its 'tangerine' waveguide will be a familiar looking, if not identical, driver to those used elsewhere in KEFs range, but the mid/bass driver is quite unlike anything else - anywhere.
Finally, even the Z-Flex Surround of the driver has been designed to provide a smooth acoustic transition between the driver and the baffle it fits through, as well as being ribbed to prevent resonance in the surround itself. This, flat, flush mounted face, also means less physical discontinuity to diffract output from the tweeter, thereby smoothing the over all response of the speaker. It's an incredible piece of industrial design and it will be interesting to see, with all of the R&D poured into it, what products it spawns further down the line.
The final piece of the system is the new T-2 subwoofer. Following the lead of the satellites, the T2 is a less than micro 37cm on a side, but is only 18cm deep. Further more, all cable connections, which means a two pin reversible mains lead and a single RCA phono connection, are housed in a recess on the base of the cabinet. 18cm deep in this case, means 18cm - Not 18cm plus cables. In that recess are a power ON/OFF switch, an AUTO ON/ON selector, a 0/180deg phase selector and a three position 'Boost' switch. That offers a +3dB, or a +6dB boost centred on 40Hz, or a flat/defeat position. There is no gain control. That will be down to your AV processor which, because of the single input option, is all you can use the T-2 with.
My screen is wall mounted at a height sufficient to get a centre speaker up to a realistic elevation and the dedicated stands did a spot on job of placing the T301s in a screen flanking position. With the T301c mounted just below the screen, this did an excellent job of pulling dialogue up into the centre of the screen. Secondly, it makes acoustic sense to go too tall, rather than too short. Listening below a speakers axis, tends to introduce less phase cancellation anomalies between the tweeter and mid/bass driver, than listening from above. Thus a slightly too tall speaker will deliver a more consistent delivery at a range of seating heights than slightly too short one.
Acoustically, it is a better compromise. As far positioning goes, the front and rear speakers sounded best toed in to point at the listening position, placed about 15cm out from the wall. Given that the T301s only add another 3.5cm of depth to that, the overall projection into the room is very little indeed. As the T 305 system followed some man sized (literally) floorstanders, the nett visual impression was of an empty room by comparison. If they were white, they would have been all but invisible. The centre stood on the top shelf of my rack with the prop stand set to tilt the T301c back. The centre was also about 15cm from the wall, but of course was getting it's boundary reinforcement from the rack, to balance that provided by the stands of the flanking left and right speakers. The subwoofer sat to the right of my stand, alongside the right speaker and pointing sideways. There was no acoustic reason for this, other than it simply looked even more discrete. Finally, distances were set in my processor and the crossovers set to the suggested 110Hz. The boost settings of the subwoofer were tried and then ignored, mainly because my room delivers it's own boost at about 32Hz and this worked well enough to deliver a punchy bottom end. Measurements also showed the in room bass response to be respectably flat, without intervention of an EQ device, so for once, I just set the channel levels and got down to some listening.
Another contributing factor to this ability, is the lack of cabinet colouration. The composite enclosure is very inert, because of the materials used, but also because of the lack of cabinet panel area to actually resonate. Even playing at high volumes, I was surprised by how dead the enclosure was to the touch, especially given it's lack of mass and the tact that it is on top of a tall, skinny stand - there's not exactly much mass or rigidity in the structure to damp or 'sink' energy into the floor in the tradition of a normal hi-fi loudspeaker. Either way, the nett result is that you really only hear the drivers, which delivers precision, out-of-the-box imaging.
And having mentioned high volumes, it's worth noting the the T301s can play comfortably at high volumes. It's easy to forget, when presented with such a slender speaker, that the enclosure is still packing a pair of 115mm drive units. Further more, because they're not required to do bass of any real sort, all of that radiating area can get on with playing loud and delivering surprisingly savage mid range dynamics. And I mean 'surprising', not just with reference to the 'lifestyle' speaker genre, but the larger world of speakers in general. Having watched 'Terminator - Salvation' a few nights previous on a much, much larger speaker package it was extremely satisfying to hear the gun shots delivered with a real crack and metallic impacts with a crisp, dynamic edge. They passed the falling bullet casing test with flying colours too. The brassy ring projecting cleanly and clearly, but not in an excessively emphasized manner - the lack of over-engineered frequency response makes the T305s a comfortable movie listen over long periods as a result. But don't confuse that with sounding dull - if the effect calls for a edgy sound, you get it and if it calls for a dry rustle in the leaves of trees, you get that too. The T305s just won't have a hyper-realistic projection at the expense of neutrality with other sounds.
However, you can't listen to the T305s without a subwoofer - their response is designed to have a sub present and so the sound has to be considered as a package whole. The higher than average suggested crossover of 120Hz, does place demands on the quality of upper bass from the subwoofer, if it's not to start sounding obvious. Fortunately, it appears to be very clean in this area and even when I experimented with it 90cm to the outside of the right hand speaker, it's location wasn't obvious. Still, I would recommend trying to keep it near and preferably, in between the front speakers, but that would hold for most subs. I can see people being tempted, due to the T-2's slender dimensions, in sliding it behind a sofa. I feel that would tend to absorb some of the upper bass, that the package as whole requires if it's not to sound slightly hollow. So, it's best to take advantage of it's shape to make sure it's squeezed in up front and there's no reason why you can't position it sideways. That also saves you having to look at another bloody blue LED. It's red when in standby and blue when awake (or set to permanently on) but I guess I'm getting used to being a lone voice on the AV beelzebub that is blue LEDs. That said, it's quite discrete and at least it is right at the bottom of the cabinet.
Output in general from the T-2 subwoofer is actually pretty impressive, considering it's internal volume. The 10" driver and the claimed 200W of output (which by seat of the pants, I see no reason to doubt) deliver a nice tight bass with good impact, if obviously lacking in any real output below 30Hz - This isn't a subwoofer to trouble the foundations of your house, but what it does do, it does without waffle or any nasty noises when played loud. In the Terminator movie, there is a scene where an over-large 'Transfomeresque' Terminator starts ripping a house apart. Whilst the really large impacts were a bit light, a lot of the bass is quite high energy mid bass, with what I can only describe as an electric quality that really energizes the air in your room. The T-2 pulled this off rather well and with the T305s effotlessly steering sound around the room, the overall impression, even for this bass head, was beyond what I had expected.
I did experiment with the 40Hz boost settings. As my room naturally delivers a fair old modal boost down in the low 30Hz region, I found the effect made the bass a bit thick and ponderous, preferring the more neutral sound of the flat setting. As ever, suck it and see - it may work for you. On a final note, I did find that the 'Auto On' did seem to be a bit hard to wake up. Normal day-to-day TV viewing seemed to be insufficient to keep the T-2 awake. The opening and closing credits of Eastenders woke it up, but sleep was it's preferred state in between. Some may not blame it on that score, but it's a point worthy of note. There was no such trouble with the slightly higher average levels of movies and music, even when more sedate fayre, without guns, bombs, death, etc, was the order of the day.
Talking of music and as no review of mine is ever complete without it, I'm pleased to report that the T 305 system is a qualified success. The pin point placement of movie effects, transfers to the more more subtle landscape of stereo with aplomb. The height of the stand mounted fronts, underpinned by the smooth integration of the T 2 subwoofer, gives a remarkable sense of scale to the presentation. The soundscape is high and wide, giveing a convincing illusion of extending beyond the speakers, if not a huge distance behind them, but placement within those bounds is pin point.
Tonally, the T 305s are neutral, which delivers clear differentiation in instrumental timbre and rather than projecting vocalists into your lap, keeps them nicely proportioned between the speakers. Treble is very clear and clean, giving cymbals a nice sheen, but resisting the urge to make them sound splashy and indeed, sibilance is natural, without over emphasis. This all makes for a refined listen, which at first acquaintance, can make the T 305s sound a touch restrained, but is really just a lack of boom and tizz, engineered in to impress on a quick demo.
If there is a weakness, it's that natural levels of mid range detail are slightly restrained, which can suck a little of the passion out of vocal expression. However, I found that the T 305s, yet again, enjoy the chance to stretch their legs with a bit of added volume and they open up quite nicely if you have the chance to listen at reasonable, if not excessive levels. There are plenty of speakers this is true of of all sizes and shapes, so it's more a point of note, than criticism.
The T-2 subwoofer offers a taught and tuneful foundation and is less exposed in the very deep bass (by real music at least) than it is with action movie effects. Subwoofer demo disks will find it out, but up to and including the point where the T 305s reach their comfortable limits, it's well able to keep up. As mentioned, it seamlessly blends with the satellites, due to it's clean upper bass. That's far more important in the context of this system, than a few extra Hertz of extension.
- Serious SPL capability from a compact package
- Sound good, regardless of form factor
- Mounting flexibility
- Black only
- The full 'phat' T 305 system could benefit from a bigger subwoofer
- The stands aren't cheap, even if they do work very well
KEF T 305 5.1 Surround Sound Loudspeaker Package
As a package, the KEF T 305 system is remarkable. All too often, clever engineering can deliver as many compromises, as solutions, to the problems it claims to counter. I've lost count of the times I've heard an 'invisible' speaker, where you ultimately excuse it's distinctly average reproduction with a qualifying "But it is very flat/small/pretty/etc".
I find no need to make such excuses here. Sure, the T301s, like any £250 speaker, have their own set of compromises, but as an even handed reproducer of all programme types, there's very little to complain about and much to like. They aren't a spotlight on mid range expression, but they are very consistent in their even handed presentation and have a remarkable dynamic capability. That makes them an easy listen, with movies or music, at all volume levels. I found them equally adept at low level, late night TV, or high level (the family is out) music listening and whilst doing either, I didn't feel short changed. When listening in 2.1 stereo mode, I had a genuine giggle whilst torturing them with Metallica's 'Black Album' at silly volumes. And I do mean silly volumes. They do quiet and clear, they do loud and refined and that's not an easy trick to pull off.
In ultimate terms, the only area that I felt was only adequate was the T 2 subwoofer. It's nimble, it's clean, a fine match for the system in general, but it could dig deeper with movies. It is fair to note, that it's performance limitations, are a result of it's compact form factor that is entirely consistent with the rest of the T 305 system. It is a discrete and visually appropriate accompaniment to the package as a whole. The issue is not so much that that T-2 is lacking, but that the T301s are capable of performing out of their skin. The T101s would present less of a challenge, perhaps a better match, but the T301s have a significant extra SPL/dynamic capability that means a single T 2 is a bare minimum.
This is nit picking, but that's my job. So, if I have one, really serious, complaint it's this and it's entirely unrelated to performance - Why isn't there a white option? Black sticks out like a scar against a wall and this is a lifestyle package. Beyond that, the T 305 is a fantastic package worthy of demo whether you're pressed for space, or indeed, not. Don't rule it out just because it's skinny!
Value For Money
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