Review of the KEF R300: An Owner's Journey
Hello, my audiophile friends. Up for your consideration is a review of my KEF R300 bookshelf speakers. My hope for this review is that I can do these R300s justice by conveying how I made the transition from floor-standing loudspeakers to bookshelf speakers without emoting any love lost or buyer’s remorse. I apologize in advance for the extensive background information. I merely want you to understand the meticulous level of research that went into this purchase. In the end, you will be the judge.
Specifications of the Speaker: R300 R
Tweeter (size in inches, type)
1, aluminum dome
Mid-range (size in inches, type)
5, aluminum cone
Woofer (size in inches, type)
6.5, aluminum cone
Nominal Impedance (ohms)
Recommended Amp Power (watts)
Rosewood, Walnut Veneer, Piano Black
Dimensions (W x H x D, inches)
8.3 x 15.2 x 13.6
First, I would like to say that before arriving at the KEF R300, I researched speakers from every well-known company and even boutique brands that are considered obscure by enthusiasts' standards. I looked into Aperion Audio, Anthony Gallo Acoustics, Gershman Acoustics, Ascend Acoustics, Living Sounds Audio, Salk Sound, Philharmonic Audio, Bamberg Audio, SVS, Tyler Acoustics, Tekton, ZU Audio, and literally dozens of other manufacturers.
I was not limited to the size of the speaker because my listening room is large enough to accommodate large floor-standing units. The room is 16 feet wide by 19 feet deep with a bay window and a sloped, wood-paneled cathedral ceiling.
I started this journey because I knew I wanted to step up the sound quality of my existing system. While it was impossible to complain about my Monitor Audio RX8 loud speakers, I knew I had done everything possible to make them sound the best they could. I had gone so far as to pull out the lame one-inch thick, grey Styrofoam baffling, lined them with aluminum-backed vibration absorbing material, and re-stuffed them with generous amounts of synthetic wool. While this focused the mid-range much better and gave me another notch of cleaner bass, I just couldn’t shake that nagging audiophile “I must upgrade” feeling. And, so goes the journey.
My dear reader, I may have this insatiable upgrade bug within me, but I am very frugal in all other areas, especially where periphery costs are involved. The biggest limitation of my or anyone else’s audio pursuit is shipping costs. There were several East Coast manufacturers that were just too cost-prohibitive to demo at my California residence. I talked to the very generous and kind owner of Philharmonic Audio about demoing, and I could not overcome the cost of “trying” a set of speakers. Non-refundable shipping was $400.
Tyler acoustics and many others ended up blockading my extensive list with their shipping tariff. And trying to figure out what I would like based on reviews is a challenge, as each of you reading this would only take my own word with a grain of salt (naturally). For those wondering, I did look into used speakers,. But once non-refundable shipping and 3-4% PayPal fees (or fuel) were added, the cost would be the same as purchasing a new set with warranty at the retail store (No thanks!).
My Budget and Being Picky With Aesthetics
The last and obvious consideration was my budget. My Monitor Audio RX8s retailed for $1,749 brand new, and taking into account diminishing returns, I knew I would need to spend nearly twice this amount to get the level of improvement I could live with. Luckily, audiophiles living in this age have more choices than ever thought imaginable. My search took me more than 6 months.
I suppose I should add that physical appearance was an important factor too. Not only did my new speakers have to meet my definition of visually appealing, but there was also the vaunted “wife approval factor” known as WAF. There were some awesome painted veneers or real wood schemes I thought she would go for, but these designs met a quick death. WAF killed the cobalt blue offered by Bamberg and the gorgeous natural maple from ZU audio. The natural bamboo of Ascend Acoustics? Not a friggin' chance. As you see, I was shopping for two.
I visited a dealer carrying the Golden Ear Triton Twos, but I ended up really disliking the appearance. In person, they looked like a pair of $3,000 black socks. The Maggie 1.7s looked like acoustic treatments and not speakers. Plus, I have two windows that both of the Maggies would have blocked…next! As for the Vandersteen’s 2CE Signature IIs, I admit I had a love/hate relationship with them because of the limitations of my own integrated amp driving their large well- damped cabinets. I had to find something that would match the power capabilities of my Marantz pm15s2 Limited Ed. Integrated.
Narrowing Down My Top Choices
I suppose I am irritating you or you may find me boorish because I have all these options, and yet, I discounted a perfectly good set of speakers over the most superficial or benign of issues. I really wanted a pair of LSA statements, but I also couldn’t stomach paying California resident taxes and shipping costs. I pay enough taxes from my paycheck and on living necessities, and I was unwilling to give the state this added luxury. If a local pair, free of duties, had been available, this review could have ended differently, but we will never know. I found myself going back to specific manufacturer web sites, pouring over any verbiage I could find regarding specs, sales, and ownership info. After further honing, LSA, KEF, ZU, Ascend Acoustic, Revel and, Polk Audio (the LSiM series) made my cutoff.
The Polks and Revels F206s were finally cut after further investigation. They had a similar driver array to my MA RX8s. Why would I try a more expensive version of the same thing? The LSA and Ascend made it to the top of the list due to the relatively modest price of their ribbon tweeter. I then ruled the Ascend out due to bass extension limitations and my superficial hang-up with their light weight cabinets. Again, I could not locate a pair of LSAs that would allow me to subvert taxes and or expensive shipping. Damn it! Being a cheap bastard also has psychological limitations. ZU and KEF (which actually brought Tannoy back into the fold) have ideological differences. ZU boasts its very own modified 10” drivers from Eminence of Kentucky. It also has a wide band, super high efficiency operation, and big boxes. KEF, on the other hand, was continuing to fine- tune its new mid-range/tweeter combination engineered for the awesome Blades. The Tannoy, has its own coherence driver array, but I couldn’t locate exactly what I was looking for in the US.
Making My Final Decision
For no particular reason, KEF was receiving little attention in the beginning of my search, but now it was the dark horse in this race. I found myself intrigued and compelled by, of all things, the bookshelf model. It was a three-way design, in a compact frame, with a brand new 6.5” aluminum pulp woofer acting as a more thorough piston. I couldn’t help but become smitten.
You see, my wife and I move often. In our 14 years of marriage, we have moved 14 times! The flexibility of a big-sounding bookshelf speaker versus huge and heavy floor standers appealed to my practical side, and the wife immensely approved.
Now, for my Libertarian friends and bean counters, I got these from KEF direct with no shipping charges and no taxes for only $50 more than I paid for my MA RX8s. I added decent sand-filled stands for an additional $100. The specifications of the R300 was so close to that of the R500 floor-standing version that I saw no point in paying an extra $700 when I could use that towards a subwoofer and really flesh out my material. Done!
Buying the Stands
I sprung for the Rosenut wood veneer and 26” Pangea metal stands. I put four rubber feet under the KEFs, with the back two rubber feet being slightly larger to give the KEFs a subtle down-firing position for my listening spot. I like a big soundstage that appears from the top instead of those that point up from the bottom. I do not understand why anyone would want speakers pointing up from the bottom, given the fact that at every concert I have ever attended, the stage is above the audience; but I digress.
Searching for a Subwoofer
I wanted to try out the Polk Audio Pro550wi. It has a class D amp, down-firing position as preferred, and a remote for blending convenience. The best part is Polk Audio ships directly, refurbished comes with a warranty, and there is free shipping. It was only $299 brand new versus the price of $539 on Amazon or Crutchfield. Can you hear me screaming like a school girl with excitement? Again, I pulled out the cheap stuffing from the Polk sub, and lined it with Fat Mat and synthetic wool. Interestingly enough, I give equal consideration to my cables. I haggled for a Wireworld Oasis 6 subwoofer IC that has a 4 meter cable with silver connectors. It was a very nice cable for just under a hundred dollars. I bought the ZU BOK eleven gauge power cable with Wattgate connectors (1.5 meter) for just $72 and free shipping. Now my setup is ready.
Unboxing the Speakers
Long ago, I invested heavily for my speaker cables, knowing I wanted one purchase to last me a long time. I have kept my 12’ run of Audioquest Rocket 88s with the silver spades in full-range configuration. The KEF’s R series has an ingenious bi-wire connection internally designed and executed with the twist of two knobs. Fantastic!
Unboxing my KEFs was special to me. Having moved around my MAs countless of times, the size and weight of these R300s was surprising in person. At just over 26 pounds per monitor (the Focal 1008 BE is heavier and the price of admission several thousand dollars higher), I couldn’t believe how solid they were. They also had very inert cabinets, so there was no need for me to tamper. To take damping a step further, KEF actually uses fluid dynamics and attaches specific thicknesses of absorption material in the cabinet to tame unwanted "box talk." The aluminum ring around the drivers is absolutely beautiful, and they look much more expensive in person. I had to get used to the Rosenut finish. It doesn't quite have the warm character found in the LSA rosewood, but this was the most minor of quibbles. My wife wouldn’t go for the luxurious piano black finish, and she actually gasped at me when I mentioned the gloss white (I guess she isn’t a Google fan).
Regarding room placement, they really settled in at roughly 8 feet apart tweeter to tweeter. The left speaker is roughly 4 feet from the left wall and the right just less than 4 feet away. Both are 20 inches off the back wall, leaving plenty of room for the rear port to breathe deep.
How It Sounds
Ah, yes! Finally, the auditions. I am a big believer in long burn-in times. I need to have new woofers, the mid-range drivers and tweeters need to break in, cone surrounds have to loosen up, and speakers need to be placed in their optimum spot. Integrating the subwoofer also takes some time. Luckily, with both bought at the same time, they would break-in together. I like music as much as anybody. Above all, I care about what songs or musical groups I prefer, not the genres they may be relegated to. From A Fine Frenzy to Mid-Atlantic to ZZ Top, I have a hard time deciding which songs I should demonstrate for you.
Playing right now is Jefferson Airplane’s “Wooden Ships." This version is the largest and fullest presentation I have heard to date. The electric lead is playing outside of the right speaker and the cymbals emanate directly from the left channel. Voices spread across the front with Grace Slick singing to me from just left of center. Balin and Kantner sing center to right. Percussion sounds move around the front center depending on the placement of strike. My MA RX8s always played instruments within the center, only reaching so far as to sound directly from the speaker itself, but never beyond its outer edges. On the other hand, the R300s are remarkable for playing beyond borders.
When playing the “Devils Backbone” by the Civil Wars, I am sorely reminded how I will not get the chance to hear Joy Williams and John Paul White sing together live. Turned up, she absolutely soars, and you can feel the tremulous relationship seeping through each lyric. The thunderous bassline shakes my room, whereas the more subtle guitar strumming floats out. These KEFs transfer harmonic power with their ability to play to 110 db. I need nothing more than this. Williams and White are fused together reluctantly in life, but are beautiful together in music. Neither is rendered dry, nor overly plump. All I can say is they sound just right.
Some individuals like to play with a buffer booster, which is usually a secondary tube buffer that alters the signal strength before the amp. It can attenuate or increase the sound stage to some degree. I must say, with these R300s, I merely needed to increase the volume liberally and the sound wall was awesome — not cartoonish or beyond reality, but big, bold, and beautifully full.
One of my favorite CDs to keep in regular rotation is Joe Bonamessa Live at Vienna Hall. One must give credit to the terrific editing and sound engineering because the space of the instruments and the interaction with the audience makes the album sound very close to listening to Joe play live. As Joe strums and taps his foot on the stage, the entire acoustic ambience is captured. On “Palm Trees, Helicopters, and Gasoline," every imaginable intricacy is laid bare. Playing the “Dust Bowl,” he adds Lenny Castro on percussion just behind and to the right, Gerry O’Connor playing the mandolin off to the left of center, and Mats Wester playing a very strange fiddle called a Nyckelharpa. It is too easy to close one's eyes, crank this entire album up and visualize the stage. On this album, the Polk Audio sub helps add that additional layer of depth and kick drum mass. After having played this extensively between my MA RX8s and the KEF R300s, it is clear that the MAs can still show this album well, giving it energy and conveying the fun atmosphere. But that extra 10-15% resolution really shines with the R300s. I had my older audiophile buddy come over. He happens to have a massive display of Phaselinears with dual 12” subs in his set-up, run by a 500 watt SAE monster amp. He could tell without any doubt that the extra resolution was available: notes hung in the air longer and the strings sounded so much more transparent. And as for speed, the drivers of the R300s seamed to react with alacrity. It is hard to call a speaker slow, yet, where definition is my must have in an audio system, the KEFs delivered in spades over my RX8s, and I really liked those RX8s.
For something a little more off the wall or lesser known, I played “Call for Clouds” by The Knoa. The small recording studio ambience really shines through on the disc Odyssey in Atrophy. As an instrumental only album, you can hear that cymbals are ever so slightly tapped and the drumstick striking on the rim of the snare. You can also hear how the hickory body of the stick contributes. The usual acoustic guitar comes in brilliantly. Finger plucks, string movement, and abrupt neck placement all transmit with appropriate sound strengths; nothing is overblown or subdued. There is brief use of electric guitar, which also muddies my ability to say what characterizes The Knoa. They have no other album, just this one modern take on classic progressive rock (be it of a more Yes quality versus a Rush power jam). Then they add some Pink Floyd-esque periphery noise to the track "Preastoria." This song is lovely, with the electric guitar and lead acoustic interchanging different time signatures. The drum kit is directly behind the acoustic lead, the electric lead is just to the right, and the bass is integrated across the entire front. If you like a subdued rock band that doesn’t do the twin screaming leads, but you also like a good pace and weight, you should give The Knoa a listen. I only warn you that MP3 downloads do not do the band justice. Their CD is a must.
At no point do these R300s bite or sting, nor do they slack or hide tone. Paired with my Marantz PM15S2 ltd. integrated and Musical Fidelity M1 SDAC, this is as good as it gets for the price paid for admission. My audio friend, who is saving and waiting for his LSA statements, had to tip his proverbial hat to the KEF R300s. Even with the sub turned off, they hit, they smack, and they can rumble, cutting off near the 40hz mark. Reflecting on all the choices I could have made and the price points involved, I cannot imagine anything within a thousand dollars of these R300s being better cohesively across the board. Trickle-down technology is alive and well. The uni-Q driver borrowed from the Blades really makes this speaker special. My own particular needs, wants, and expectations boiled down to finding the right balance. For all intents and purposes, this combination hit more check marks on my list than alternate options.
In conclusion, I’ve heard many speakers from the competition, some just for the heck of listening to them. I have come across some amazing combinations, but their purchase price was several notches above my comfort zone. The most disappointing combination in my hunt was a pair of Martin Logan ESLs paired with a NAD integrated. They sounded hard, lacked bass, and were not as airy as I would come to expect. On the flip side, I had listened to a pair of Martin Logan Theos with a Peachtree Grand Integrated X-1, and they were so beautiful that I was reluctant to leave the show room. Definitive Technology BP-8080 was nice-sounding, but aesthetically displeasing. Bowers and Wilkins CM-9s were also disappointing to me due to their price point. I wanted to like them and gave them two auditions. Logically, there are great options out there I didn’t get to listen to that I probably would have been just as excited about. I had to remember that my purchase does not necessarily initiate a lifetime of stubborn loyalty, and that it is about the music and having fun listening to it. For the time being, I am extremely happy with these KEF R300s, and I imagine they will be with me for some time to come.