It's been a long time since I've listened to anything but virtual surround sound via a soundbar speaker at home...and even longer since I've owned a dedicated audio receiver and a set of speakers. For both budget and space consideration, I migrated to a compact and neighbor-friendly soundbar years back when my square footage went from large home down down to apartment life. But even though a soundbar does a solid job of improving upon built-in display speakers, I knew I was missing out on the benefits of a home theater setup: clearer dialogue, richer and more dynamic detail for both film and music, a wider sound field...
So when speciality audio manufacturer, KEF, contacted me about demoing their super slim T Series range of cinema speakers, I knew I had to jump back onto the home audio bandwagon out of curiosity to see if thin is truly in, with the possibility of returning to a receiver+speaker setup.
Was I going to jump back to a full 5.1 sound system again? No, KEF knows Apartment Therapy is all about promoting and offering smaller space living solutions, thus they suggested a super slim home 3.1 audio solution with apartment life in mind. The small space system consisted of a pair of T301 Satellite Speakers, one T301c Center Channel Speaker, and the T2 Subwoofer. I could easily bump up to a 5.1 setup by adding another set of T301 or their smaller sibling, the T101, if circumstance permitted. But all things considered, a 3.1 system was the perfect upgrade compromise, balancing space vs. performance.
But first things first: unlike my Austin colleague Chris Perez, I don't quite have the room (nor bankroll) for a full seven speaker setup, and I was missing a very important component right of the bat: a receiver. Fortunately, a friend had a spare receiver he's lent me indefinitely (this was a spare) and he dropped it off right around the same time my set of speaker cables from Amazon arrived (this was turning out to be an expensive and involved product review before I even opened the box).
Unpacking the T301s, one has to stop and admire how thin audio manufacturers have been able to reduce speaker cabinets. Nearly as slim as my Samsung 7000 series TV - we're talking about 35mm slim folks - the T301s were specifically designed to play Robin to your HDTV's Batman (although the all black cabinet and cloth finish didn't perfectly complement the silver Samsung finish). Inside the 2011 Red Dot Design award winning design is a pair of 4.5" woofers and 1" tweeter behind KEF's Tangerine Waveguide, a series of vanes designed to help control and direct the sound while also improving the overall even-dispersion of high frequencies. In layman's terms, it just means the KEF engineers tried to eliminate any artificial inconsistencies which would bring too much unintended attention to higher spectrum sounds.
The first test material I loaded up was Terence Malick's, The Tree of Life. Whether you find the movie high art or a bunch of art house bunkum, few would deny the movie offers an immersive spectrum of sound effects, dialogue which ranges from whispers to roars, and a dynamic soundtrack which serves up equal parts the majestics to the delicate. It became evident in the first few seconds of watching Malick's recreation of the earliest eons of Earth's existence I had been experiencing movies from home handicapped by virtual surround sound from a soundbar way too long.
The trio of T301s partnered with the T2 made every volcanic explosion squint-inducing, each whispered narrator line a shared secret, and the tranquil scenes' more nuanced sound engineering almost as discernible and pleasing as in the theater, totaling an invisible and immersive experience. Nothing the quartet of speakers+sub put out felt artificial nor forced (the only tweak I had to make was adjusting the sub output, since I didn't want my neighbor below to cut down my tree of life in protest), and it's very easy to find a sweetspot without jarring moments of overrepresented highs or lows with the T Series.
How fortunate! The T301c unit was a perfect horizontal fit for my vintage B&O rosewood cabinet. Now to find a smaller receiver...
The dialogue-heavy Bridesmaids was perfect for testing center speaker clarity and the KEF center unit delivered beautifully, underlining why this Goldilocks' solution inbetween a soundbar and a full blown surround system may be perfect for apartment dwellers like myself, never too loud to disturb neighbors, but so satisfyingly clear you're left to enjoy the movie and not mess around with the sound. Admittedly an unfair comparison, comparing the center performance of my Yamaha soundbar unit to a dedicated center speaker is akin to comparing a Skype call to a landline.
When called upon for music-only duties, whether streamed wireless via Airplay via Apple TV or DirectTV's "radio stations", the KEFs charms waned just a bit, producing a slightly subdued sound. But never an unpleasant or unnatural sound, mind you, just noticeably not optimized for music-only use. Even so, I find myself never unhappy when I fire up the receiver to listen to classical or ambient tunes, and it's all too easy to imagine these being your only speakers in the house considering they do everything well-to-excellent.
The combination of the slim profile cabinets, low distortion range, and natural in-the-same-room dialogue performance made it easy oh so easy to forget the KEF T Series was even hooked up...it's a wonderful thing when technology melts away into the background and humbly promotes what you're watching and listening to the forefront, and the KEF T Series is a perfect example of this ideal in practice. Overall, if you've been waiting for speakers that don't compromise in either the aesthetic or audio performance department, KEF's T Series are the poster child of home audio for small space dwellers without compromise.
Pros: T301s are slimmer than most HDTVs; the wall mountable design, desktop stands and floor stands open wide variety of room placement options; despite thin profile, T301/301c produce extremely natural and pleasant sound, most notably center channel performance.
Cons: Although price is reasonable from audiophile perspective of cost vs. performance, KEF components are a splurge and long term investment beyond HTIB; including compatible and optimized speaker cables would have made a welcome addition.
Apartment Therapy Media makes every effort to test and review products fairly and transparently. The views expressed in this review are the personal views of the reviewer and this particular product review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf. This specific product was provided by the manufacturer for testing and review purposes.
(Images: Gregory Han, KEF)