- Superbly refined and engaging sound
- Handsome appearance
- Excellent build
- Bass can be slightly overblown
- Fairly demanding of partnering equipment
- Tricky packaging
What is the KEF R500?
The KEF R500 is a three-way floorstanding speaker and the smallest floorstanding member of the R Series. In keeping with being a KEF product, it incorporates many key features of KEF speaker design including the Uni-Q driver and trickle down technology from some of the more sophisticated members of the KEF range, including the mighty Blade – a no holds barred take on the principles of a speaker that dispenses with many pieces of received wisdom. As you might expect, at a fifteenth the price of a Blade, the R500 is a more conventional looking device but the DNA is there.
The KEF also occupies an interesting price point. At £1,500, it sits between the tiny but staggeringly capable Neat IOTA Alpha and the physics defying PMC twenty5.21. Does the KEF do enough to stand out between these two outstanding speakers and be a worthwhile choice for someone looking for some serious stereo?
The KEF is the smallest floorstander in the R Series range which sits above the ‘entry level’ (all things being relative) Q Series and below the Reference models. The fact that the R500 is the smallest model is fairly noteworthy as by most standards, this is not a small speaker. With the plinth installed, it stands over a metre in height and what is more, it feels fairly large – more of which in a bit.
In terms of driver complement, the R500 is unrelated to most other members of the R Series. The Uni-Q driver is shared across the range and we’ll cover this shortly but the bass drivers are 5.25 inch types which are only used in the smaller of the two centre speakers in the company range. Both drivers are aluminium and take the form of a concave dish with no dust cap or phase plug. This choice means that the R500 has a smaller bass driver than the R300. While there are two of these drivers, the crossover that KEF specifies in this instance is a three-way rather than a two-and-a-half-way design which means that the for bass duties, the R300 is technically less well-endowed than the standmount directly below it in the range.
Of course, as the drivers in the R500 are acting into a significantly larger volume than the standmount, the bass response of the floorstander is comfortably better than the smaller speaker with KEF claiming an ultimate roll off of 46Hz at +/-3dB and a sub 40Hz figure at +/- 6dB- meaning that allowing for a little bit of room fill in, the R500 will achieve useful bass. The cabinet is rear ported to augment the bass response but some quick tests with the review samples suggest that the movement of air through these ports is fairly restrained which means that their placement in room is not as critical as some other designs.
Partnering the conventional drivers is a fully up-to-date version of the company’s Uni-Q unit. This integrates the tweeter and midrange into a single unit and has been a KEF calling card for a number of years now. This means that it features technology like the Z-Surround which better controls the pistonic movement of the driver and controls its breakup effectively and the ‘tangerine’ waveguide that disperses the high frequency information from the tweeter more effectively. The whole purpose of this driver is to provide as consistent a delivery of high and midrange information as possible and to avoid the standard issues of ‘beaming’ and phase errors when the drivers have a different vertical or horizontal axis.
In the R500 – and indeed its larger siblings – this Uni-Q driver sits between the two conventional drivers, This gives the KEF a decidedly unusual driver arrangement. Superficially, the R500 looks like a speaker that makes use of the d’appolito configuration – the classic woofer/tweeter/woofer arrangement so often seen in floorstanders. As the KEF combines two drivers into that central unit and has a three way rather than a two way configuration, this is not technically the case.
Increasingly unusually in 2017, the R500 supports bi-wiring/ bi-amping. KEF makes no wild claims for performance differences from doing so but it is useful to have the option. One part of this implementation that I think is very clever is the use of an internal link between the terminals which is connected and disconnected by means of a rotary cuff. This is a nice piece of design because it means you never have to store the terminal links should you alternate between single and bi-wiring.
Internally, these drivers make use of sub divided enclosures. Each driver has its own space and its own port. The upper driver and the Uni-Q unit have fairly equally sized enclosures while the lower driver – which acts as the bass unit has a larger space with a diagonal section squared off at the rear of the cabinet. The cabinet is then extensively braced using technology and modelling from the more complex models. The result is a fairly stout feeling piece of engineering that has a decent solidity to the touch.
As this cabinet is fairly tall and narrow, KEF supplies the R500 with a series of outrigger feet to which spikes are applied. This means that the stability of the speaker is much increased over the ‘stock’ fitment – although I think it would be possible to attach the spikes directly to the underside of the cabinet if you were feeling bold. With the feet in place, the R500 is fairly unlikely to go anywhere unless you deliberately seek to topple it.
The last KEF speakers I spent any time with were the Blade 2 and the LS50 – both members of the Concept end of the KEF design thinking. The R500 by contrast is a more conventional design but none the worse for this. Simply put, this is a beautifully proportioned design that uses the slim cabinet and driver layout to look elegant and symmetrical both as a pair and as a single unit. The review samples are in the walnut finish and this works absolutely brilliantly to complement the lines and leave the KEF feeling like a piece of furniture.
The details are no less pleasing. The trim rings around the drivers are handsome and add a little bit of lightness to what could otherwise be a fairly heavy piece of design. The Uni-Q is finished in a neutral silver/metal which leaves its basic design to do the talking rather than spraying it a lively colour and drawing the eye to it. I think that it represents one of the nicest bits of ‘pretty engineering’ you can buy for sensible money and even if you don’t like it, you get a well thought out magnetic grill to attach to cover it all up if you want. Other areas like the speaker terminals and badging are all bespoke and help to lift the overall perception of the speaker. It would be foolish to call the R500 ‘cheap’ but this does feel like a lot of speaker for the asking price.
The only note of annoyance with the KEF comes not from the speaker itself but the packaging. The R500 has an end opening design and this means that the speaker is tricky to extract in any room with vaguely normal height ceilings. I appreciate that this makes for a stronger carton but it’s a pain to extract the speaker from and risks damage if you rush it.
It would be foolish to call the R500 ‘cheap’ but this does feel like a lot of speaker for the asking price
How was the R500 tested?
The KEF has seen some varied use as befits a fairly busy test period. It has been used with a Naim Supernait 2 integrated amplifier and ND5XS network streamer and XP5XS external PSU. This has been supplanted by the Leema Acoustics all-in-one streaming system. Additionally a Cyrus Phono Signature phono stage connected to VPI Prime Scout, Avid Ingenium Twin and Linn LP12 record players has acted as a source. Material used has included lossless and high resolution FLAC and AIFF files, DSD and vinyl.
Such is the visual difference between the R500 and more dramatic speakers like the LS50, it can be hard to accept that there is going to be any similarity in the way that the two models perform. Give the R500 a slight toe-in relative to your listening position and ensure that they are 30 centimetres out from the wall though, and there are some clear and immediate points in common between the two.
The KEF’s party piece is the creation of a stereo image. Any matched pair of speakers should generate a sense of a complete space of sound in front of you with the performers arranged within it – or in the case of many modern recordings, how the engineer feels you should perceive the musicians. Most speakers do a solid job in this regard but the R500 is absolutely exceptional. Listening to the stunning recording of Spaces by Nils Frahm, the KEF is so utterly self-explanatory in the way it positions the piano, the stage and the audience, that your mind simply stops questioning what it hears and focusses on the music instead.
Here, the news is also very good. KEF’s considerable experience with metal drivers shows here and the R500 manages to be tonally accurate and almost liquid smooth across the mid and upper registers. Listening to the 24/96 download of the Neil Cowley Trio’s Touch and Flee sees the KEF in its element. The piano is weighty and rich and, aided by the KEF’s effortless sense of three dimensionality, it becomes a believable instrument. The supporting double bass, tucked off to one side has weight and texture that allows it to sound consistently real. Switching over to vinyl and playing the same album again is arguably even better as it seems to let the KEFs flow in a way that is enormously enjoyable.
Listening to well recorded and largely acoustic material like this sees the KEFs excel but there are some issues when you pick up the pace. Listening to the mighty Highway Queen by Nikki Lane, the R500 has plenty of low-end extension but compared to the superb low-end response present with the PMC twenty5.21, it can seem a little slow and occasionally overblown, even when pulled a fair distance out from the wall. This means that when you need them to be ballistic, they can seem fractionally slow. It would be wrong to say that they lack a sense of fun though – provided that the amount of bass being reproduced doesn’t overpower the rest of the frequency response, the KEF is joyously fast and engaging.
Switching to the Leema Quasar as a source has some interesting effects on this. The Leema has a biblical power output and the sheer control it exerts over the KEF tightens up that low-end response and gives it some of the speed and energy back. This suggests that although the KEF is usefully sensitive, it does benefit from a powerful and hefty amplifier to get the best from it. These are not speakers that will always make a quick fix improvement to every system. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction however and in the case of the R500 you have a £1,500 speaker that can show up the differences and performance traits of equipment that costs many thousands of pounds. They have effortlessly shown many of the traits of other equipment on test and responded in a way that is unusual for what is still a relatively sanely priced speaker.
The KEF’s party piece is the creation of a stereo image
The KEF R500 has been in place for long enough to see use in a variety of situations and with a fair amount of other equipment. In that time that have stood in my listening room attracting nothing but positive comment for their design and aesthetics. This is a handsome and capable speaker and one that is going to work well in a variety of spaces.
It is important to note that the KEF is not a one-size-fits-all solution to making any audio system better. They are sensitive but do their best work with plenty of power behind them. They also benefit from high quality partnering equipment to show their true worth – you would be best considering them as something that will do their best work with similarly priced equipment or better – if you want a speaker that delivers brilliance with pretty much any equipment, look at the Neat IOTA Alpha. If you can work with them though, the KEF is an exceptional speaker capable of performance attributes that are unusual and welcome in a speaker at this price point.