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KEF R3 Bookshelf Loudspeakers Do Small Big

02-17-2020 | By Michael Corsentino | Issue 107

"Let's get small, real small!" - Steve Martin, 1977. KEF's new R3 stand mount speakers, the smallest of their recently introduced, redesigned mid-priced R series are a case study in good things coming in small packages. The new R series is comprised of the R11, 7, and 5 floor standers, R3 bookshelf, R2c center, and R8a Dolby Atmos modules, which can also be used for side or rear surrounds.

KEF has cracked the code when it comes to creating incredibly big sounding speakers with equally incredibly small footprints and reasonable price points. Their award winning LS50 and LS50 Wireless speakers are perfect examples. The only thing the 6 speakers that make up the new R series have in common with their predecessors is their R series name, everything else has been re-engineered and redesigned from top to bottom across the entire range.

KEF R3 Bookshelf Loudspeakers

The original R series was launched in 2011 along with the LS50 as KEF celebrated their 50th anniversary. Subsequent years saw the introduction of the Blade 2, the Reference Series, and the LS50 Wireless, each with their own advances in technology, design, and sonics. The new R series is a distillation of everything that came before them. From the LS50 comes flexible rear ports designed to eliminate standing waves, and upgraded gloss finishes. New R series speakers are available in three beautiful finishes: gloss white, piano black, and satin walnut. KEF brought cabinet making and finishing in house with the introduction of the LS50, investing heavily in the custom robotic spraying machines required for furniture grade finishes. These high quality finishes are now standard with R series. Striking an additional blow for aesthetics, KEF uses unique color matched drivers for each of their available finishes that look fantastic!

Trickle down from the Reference line brings the R series a new "Shadow Flare" surround for the Uni-Q driver, which enhances dispersion occurring with flat front baffles, and a redesigned bass driver magnet assembly allows considerably higher gain without distortion. Add to that advanced internal bracing, new material and cabinet technology, rock solid build quality—R3 are 35lbs each, a new 12th generation Uni-Q driver design that eliminates air leakage previously occurring between the midrange and tweeter, allowing increased gain with less distortion, purer sound, and more accurate imaging, and a gorgeous magnetically applied laser etched leatherette grill, and you have a really special range of mid-priced speakers on your hands.

While the entire R series is exceptional, the KEF R3 are a must hear if you're tight on space, budget, or the larger floor standers from the range don't mesh well with your decor. The R3 deliver a surprisingly healthy dose of the robust bass, mid range, and top end found in their larger, more costly, full blown multi-driver speaker cabinets, only without the space commitment or additional expense required. In other words the R3 are not only an outstanding value, but a great way to experience some of the best KEF has to offer without breaking the bank.

Summing up my impressions of the KEF house sound, words like, crisp, uncolored, clean, articulate, accurate, resonant, revealing, punchy, fleshy, tight, controlled, and neutral come to mind. These are all hallmarks of the "British" sound, and KEF R3 has it all dialed in perfectly. I've had KEF's R700 floor standers in my system in the past, and I can tell you the new R series takes everything to an entirely new level. If you like KEF I'm confident you'll love these speakers, and if you're new to KEF there's no better time to become acquainted.

KEF R3 Bookshelf Loudspeakers

The R3 are 3-way bass reflex speakers with the following compliment of drivers: 1 - 6.5'" aluminum composite woofer, and a 12th generation version of KEF's venerable Uni-Q driver array. The Uni-Q is KEF's combination midrange and tweeter driver, consisting of a 5.25" midrange driver, paired with a 1" aluminum "Tangerine Wave Guide" dome tweeter residing in its center. The Uni-Q driver design is unique in that it allows the midrange and high frequency bands to speak together with one unified voice, giving music a more natural, lifelike presentation. 15-180 watts of amplification is recommended. The R3 is 87dB efficient with a 38Hz - 50kHz frequency range on paper, although my ears tell me it reaches as low as 40Hz. Relatively easy to power with a 4 ohm impedance rating, minimum 3.2 ohm, I had no trouble driving the R3 to ear splitting levels with a 100 watt per channel NAD M10 currently in for review. As mentioned above, the R3 are rear ported and include a set of foam "bungs" used to help tune the bass as desired, based on room conditions and taste. The R3 also come with high quality bi-wireable binding posts. In fact, everything about these speakers is high quality, from the look, feel, build quality, and finish to the packaging. Naturally none of this would matter unless they also sounded as good as they look and happily they do.

It would be easy for those uninitiated with KEF, and sensitive to aggressive top ends, to be gun shy when seeing aluminum drivers listed in specs. Rest assured, while these speakers are not what I would call laid-back or forgiving in their presentation, they are also not overly analytical, bright, harsh, or brittle in their high frequency range. They won't make your ears bleed. Rather, they have an accurate, lively, up front sparkly top end that I never found fatiguing, regardless of the sources or material used.

Considering the majority of my R3 listening was done using NAD's M10 digital streamer, amp combo in a room that could definitely benefit from correction, according to Dirac Live, I wouldn't say the R3 are harsh, boomy, or fussy when it comes to placement in a less than prefect environment. Digital isn't exactly known for its retiring sonic qualities, and things were even smoother and more enjoyable with a VPI Cliffwood turntable, and Moon by Simaudio 310LP phono stage providing an analog source. With the R3 placed 16" inches from the rear wall, 2' feet from each side wall, 7' feet apart and an equal distance from my listening position these stand mounts delivered a fully fleshed out soundstage, and could easily fill larger spaces. In my experience, the R3 require only the slightest toe in for optimal results. The less angled they were in my room, the better the imaging and soundstage was. KEF recommends 150 hours of use for R series drivers to loosen up, and the speakers to fully blossom, I concur. For the record I left Dirac Live room correction off because A) I felt the R3 sounded significantly more dynamic without it, and B) to better obtain an unadulterated assessment of what the R3 were capable of.

Given the surprising amount of bass heft, weight, grunt, and authority these 16.5" inch stand mount speakers serve up with ease, one would be forgiven for wandering behind the R3 in search of the sub or floor standers responsible for moving so much air. What manner of black magic has KEF used to elicit this degree of deep bass response from such a diminutive cabinet with only one 6.5" inch bass driver? Inquiring minds want to know! According to my sources at KEF HQ it's all about the cabinet construction, best in class materials, advanced internal bracing, and the R3's flexible rear port design, a carry over from KEF's LS50 which eliminates standing waves.

Lots of bottom end is great, but sheer bass alone doesn't tell whole story. It's the quality and character of the low frequencies, as well as the rest of the frequency band that differentiates an average speaker from a great speaker. With the R3, bass is fast, articulate, tight, and snappy with zero bloat or bloom. Exactly what you want from a speaker.

That said, there's a lot more to the R3 than their killer bass. These speakers excel across the entire frequency band. They do an exceptional job reproducing fleshy mid-band vocals, a sparkly top end with strings and horns, and a thunderous gut punch low-end with bass and drums, resulting in an extremely coherent and listenable presentation overall. These speakers image beautifully, with a sense of space and scale surprising for their size. The KEF R3 put you smack dab in the music, with a big ballsy presence that's able to keep up with the most dynamic music you can throw at them, but also eminently capable of reproducing quiet, delicate works with aplomb. The mark of any great pair of speakers are those that are able to sound as good played loudly as they do played at lower volumes. Loud is easy, anyone can do loud. Give me speakers that remain full and dynamic at any volume without loosing steam and I'll give you a winner. It's a tough act to pull off but the KEF R3 make it all seem easy.

KEF also included a pair of their Performance Speaker Stands for this review. At 24.6" inches tall they pair perfectly with the R3 for an overall height of 41.25 inches, ideal for most seated listening positions. Build quality is rock solid, clean, well executed, and stands are available in three high quality black, white, or gray powder coat finishes. Weighing in at just over 10lbs each, these stands are robust and well balanced, even on carpet, especially with their hidden, sealable cavity filled with sand, shot, or KEF's optional inert filler. Absent filler, stand cavities will resonate degrading sound quality, so it's always recommended stands be filled regardless of brand. As these were originally designed for use with KEF's LS50, the screw holes on the mounting plates located the top of each stand don't line up with the taps on the bottom of each R3 speaker cabinet. According to KEF a compatible mounting plate add on is in the works. Not a deal breaker, but you will want to exercise caution navigating your way around these beauties when the lights are low and drinks are flowing, or suffer the horror of knocking one of them from their perch. That said, they're plenty stable without fasteners. Performance Speaker Stands also include a cable management channel on the rear of each stand, allowing cables to be hidden, assuring neat and clean installations.

I listened to a ton of music with the R3, not just because I was reviewing them, but because these speakers are so damn fun to listen to. Whether it was glossy pop from Billie Eillish, pared down acoustic signer songwriter fare from Jack Johnson or Leonard Cohen, soulful jazz from Lou Donaldson, Beethoven's 9 symphonies via Leonard Bernstein, or blues drenched rock from Marcus King, it all sounded terrific piped through the R3. Here are a few of the notes from my listening sessions:

Piano and vocals were deftly handled streaming Emily Weisband's "Healthy" from her digital only album Identity Crisis via Tidal, flac 48kHz, 24-bit, MQA 48kHz. Piano notes were rendered clearly, crisply, and percussively, with a deep, dynamic, resonant tone which sounded fulsome, transparent, open and airy. Weisband's vocals were lush as they swelled and hung in the air centered between the R3's ample soundstage. This track does a great job demonstrating the R3's ability to not only create a sense of presence and scale well beyond their physical dimensions, but also expertly handle a wide range of material.

Streaming the track "Texas Sun" from the new Khruangbin and Leon Bridges EP of the same name via Qobuz, flac 96kHz 24-bit proved equally enjoyable. Mark Speer's guitar work strummed and twanged with open, airy clarity while Leon Bridges channeled Sam Cook with mid band vocals that sounded equally open, natural, transparent, full and centered via the R3. Laura Leeds's bass and Donald Johnson drums shuffled along with an easy, natural, musical sound, plenty of detail retrieval from the cymbals, and deep strutting rhythms which were clear and well defined. Vocals and instruments were each clearly delineated and placed within an appropriately wide soundstage for this groovy quartet. The entire track sounded open, airy and transparent on the R3.

When it comes to bass driven pop fun you'd be hard pressed to find a better example of the R3's low end muscularity than Lizzo's "Worship" from her 2016 debut album Coconut Oil. Streaming via Tidal, flac 44.1kHz, 16-bit, snare hits cut like a knife, bass was fast, tight and accurate, synth horns clearly defined but never toppy, and Lizzo's vocals up front, big and bold.

For a taste of bass heavy jazz fusion I looked no further than Herb Albert's "Rise" from the album of the same name, also via Tidal, for another endorsement of R3's fabulous low end bonafides. They never disappointed!

R3 Bookshelf Loudspeakers

Retail: $1999.99