KEF KHT 3005 Speaker System and Linn Classik Movie DVD Player
Crime in New York gets more and more bizarre. The other day, someone broke into my apartment and redesigned my speakers. I'm not sure if our local burglars are capable of this. No, the KEF KHT 3005 is clearly the product of an extraterrestrial mind. Who else would reimagine a loudspeaker as a glossy-black egg? Indeed, who else would reimagine a subwoofer as a giant, staring eye?
Only slightly less unnerving was the alien redesign of my receiver and DVD player as the Linn Classik Movie. They ended up in a single chassis with modestly powered amps—evidently the folks from Out There feel we're using more than our share of the planet's energy. Little green men apparently like little "green" amps.
Recklessly going with the intergalactic flow, I spent some time with my redesigned gear and decided to make it this month's Spotlight System. The aliens thoughtfully left my reference components in the room, so I knew I could always go back to them, but I often delight in using smaller satellites (the nonorbiting kind). And, if the modest amps could cut a few bucks off this month's electric bill, so much the better.
Take a hard-boiled, dinosaur-sized egg and vertically slice off a quarter of it. Add a glossy-black or silver finish, multiply by four, and there you have the HTS3001 satellite. Pull off the magnetically attached oval grille, and what you see looks so much like an eye that you half expect it to wink. KEF is a past master at what they call the Uni-Q design, generically known as a coaxial driver array, which puts the tweeter in the center of the woofer. In this case, a 0.75-inch aluminum tweeter sits inside a shiny aluminum waveguide that nestles amid a 4.5-inch injection-molded polypropylene woofer.
KEF has arrived at their approach to coaxial driver design following six generations of development. In this case, I'd rather quote than summarize. As Len Safhay at KEF explained it, "The Uni-Q is not merely coaxial, but coincident, as the midrange and tweeter voice coils occupy the same gap, and the tweeter diaphragm is located at the exact apex of the midrange cone. This results in precise phase alignment on both the x and y axes. An additional benefit is that dispersion is quite broad and does not narrow or lobe at the crossover frequency, as all noncoincident driver arrays do."
Like dinosaur eggs, these little cast-aluminum sats have some heft to them—a good 4.5 pounds—despite their modest dimensions— less than 10 inches tall, even accounting for the pedestal. Optional stands are $150 per pair.
The HTC3001 center-channel speaker adds a pair of 3-inch reinforced paper midrange drivers on either side of the Uni-Q drivers but still measures less than 12 inches wide. It can rest on a pedestal or on a rubber foot with a ridge that fits into a recess on the bottom of the speaker. Both the center and the satellites have custom-designed binding posts that resemble little gray torpedoes. Unfortunately, their design and positioning make bare wire or angled pin plugs the only feasible connections.
As outlandishly attractive as these speakers are, the HTB2 subwoofer manages to outshine them. It resembles a wheel with a driver in place of the hubcap and the top lopped off, standing on two dainty little feet. Ten-inch drivers adorn both sides of the wheel. The front driver is active and made of a paper base with an expanded foam body that an additional paper skin covers. The back driver is a passive radiator made of paper with a thin rubber finish. On the underside, between the feet, are a single LFE-input jack, a power connection, a power switch, and three buttons: a three-position bass-boost switch, a manual/auto power switch, and a phase switch. This is not a sub you'll hide behind a potted plant—you'll be proud to show it off to friends. It's the prettiest little Cyclops I've ever seen.
Different Strokes for Different Species
The aliens gave the Linn Classik Movie a front-panel smile. The upper lip is a disc drawer. Look into the open mouth, and you'll see a blue display that trades across-the-room readability in exchange for don't-compete-with-the-movie discretion. Flanking the disc drawer are two arrays of five buttons, with volume and source select at the left and transport keys at the right. The rigor of the alien-design sensibility does not permit a volume knob.
On the back is a connectivity suite limited to three A/V inputs—component video, S-video, and composite video—with matching video outputs for the display and a few audio ins and outs. No doubt the aliens consider HDMI one of the foibles of a fallible human race and are waiting for a version of it as advanced as they are. Surround pre-outs let the Classik Movie feed a multichannel amp further down the upgrade path. The proprietary speaker terminals use a sort of collared banana plug. Linn includes a bag of connectors with the product. You might either use them to terminate your cables or have a Linn dealer do the job. The connector is a pleasure to plug in, as easy as a conventional banana plug and much more secure.
Extraterrestrials think differently than we do. Judging from the remote, lip-sync delays must be more painful for them. Perhaps they have larger lips. In any case, the remote has a button dedicated to solving the problem. I'd also guess their attention spans are longer, because they haven't seen fit to endow the disc drive with the resume function so common in earthling DVD and CD players. Instead, if you interrupt a 20-minute chapter and resume it the next day, you'll have to interact extensively with the remote. To find your place, either hold down the 4X fast-scan button or hit GOTO on the remote and key in the desired timing as a six-digit number.
These aliens are tweakers, too. They like trimming the center and sub levels from the remote without going into a menu. They like both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS but, when adapting two-channel sources to surround, are willing to dispense with DTS Neo:6 in favor of Dolby Pro Logic II. And they like having the option of running the subwoofer in stereo mode. Their values are comfortingly like mine.
You really do feel like you've touched down on a different planet when you turn up the volume. The Classik Movie reaches the Dolby/
THX reference level of 75 decibels somewhere between 60 percent and 80 percent of the maximum volume level, depending on the source material. Most receivers and HTIBs start clipping uncomfortably above the 60-percent mark, but this one keeps its temper all the way up to 100 percent. As long as you don't have a source recorded at an unusually low level, you probably won't miss this lack of available gain. Knowing that the top limit won't make you or your speakers go ow, ow, ow can be comforting once you get used to the idea.
Proving that the federal government does something right occasionally, an archivist at the Library of Congress recently unearthed tapes of Thelonious Monk's greatest quartet—the scantly recorded one with John Coltrane. At Carnegie Hall is too closely miked to fully exploit the plummy acoustics of America's finest concert space, but it does shed light on one of the greatest partnerships in jazz. Here's a short list of what the KEF/Linn combination doesn't do: turn the sax into an unlistenable blare; distort the piano's tonal and harmonic balance; overemphasize the cymbals or the bass. The recording emerges with no added frills. It's just history in the making, fresh and alive.
Still in a jazz mood but looking for a stronger recording, I turned to Dave Frishberg, composer of "My Attorney Bernie," the funniest song ever written about lawyers. (He is careful to point out that it's not about his lawyer.) Like the rest of Frishberg's solo work, it's recorded with voice, piano, bass, and drums. Here, the KEFs got to toss out a more spacious Dolby Pro Logic II soundfield, and, while that doesn't mean the studio was larger than Carnegie Hall, it did sound deliciously open and transparent. The sub brought out both the subtle underpinnings of the string bass and the authority of Frishberg's left hand on the piano. And the coaxial drivers brought to Frishberg's nasal voice a precise focus and a warm presence that somehow made the songs just a tad funnier, if that's possible.
I recently sat in a tiny church in Venice, Italy, listening to a string quartet play J.S. Bach and Philip Glass. It left such a deep impression that I bought Kronos Quartet Performs Philip Glass as soon as I got home. The recording imparts a melting softness to the astringent instruments, just as the church did, and the rigorously neutral KEF/Linn system doesn't add any spurious brightness to an already perfect mix. For me, the Glass string quartets have become a personal trifecta of concertgoing, music-library building, and audiophilia. I can't listen to them without visualizing the hypnotically repetitive bowing of the four musicians in the church. My brain has been rewired for pleasure and wonder.
Glass' second and third symphonies make up a Naxos release with conductor Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. For some reason, the Bournemouth Symphony recordings have a dark, distant sound. This equipment didn't alter the feeling I normally have of sitting in a row three-quarters of the way from the stage. However, it did bring the strings into slightly better focus than the bigger-box, non-coaxial speakers I normally use.
Glass' Music in Twelve Parts (the Virgin version) is much more up-front, conjuring the cozy feeling of a New York loft concert back in the days when artists could afford to live and work in Soho. There's reverb, but it's subtle. The KEFs handled the piping, chiming instruments and voices with poise and sensitivity. Perhaps the most vivid recording in my billowing Glass library is the "Heroes" Symphony, based on themes from the Bowie/Eno album Heroes and recorded by Dennis Russell Davies and the American Composers Orchestra. It has more of a front-row sound as the music uncoils into the air and sways like a golden python.
Having just listened to the "Heroes" Symphony, I had to hear Bowie sing the song on the DVD-Audio release of the live album Stage. The Classik Movie doesn't do DVD-Audio or SACD, so I listened to the alternate DTS 5.1 soundtrack. Producer Tony Visconti close-miked everything, and his mix places the listener amid the band, which can be disconcerting if you don't want to hear that chugging keyboard part dominating the left surround channel. Bowie's voice knifes through the center channel but is allowed to spread through all channels. It maintains focus as long as you're sitting in the sweet spot. If you move off the center speaker's main axis, the voice takes on a stadium-like sound that's less localizable, more hollow, and probably more like what the audience heard. While that may seem interesting, it's not what Visconti intended—these speakers are not for antsy listeners who wander the listening room.
The KEF people point out that most horizontal centers are subject to this effect due to their dual woofers or (in this case) midranges. Often, I cheat by placing them vertically, but that wasn't possible with this curvaceous center. People who really care about surround use identical speakers all around, or at least across the front. This is one of those lonely battles I've been waging for years.
The DTS soundtrack of Charlie's Angels starts, of course, with the synthesized thunder that accompanies the DTS logo. But the score's low-frequency content alternates between brute-force electronic tones and some tasty bass guitar—a distinction the sub never failed to make. The thunk of the Chinese fighting muffin had the necessary impact. In the racetrack scene, a car that zoomed from the center to the left surround provided a cheap thrill. And, when the Angels dress up in traditional German attire for a yodeling number, their trio of vocals had all the plangent beauty of—oh, why even finish the sentence?
As you've guessed, my music library is richer than my video library, and the KEF KHT 3005 had me plundering it. That's always the sign of a superior loudspeaker system. The Linn Classik Movie kept up with both the speakers and my whims. Together, they're proof that, no matter what planet you live on, there is a happy medium between massive rack systems and going iPod full time, the audiophile equivalent of clinical depression. Here's a little system that'll fit almost anyplace on Earth. And it's out of this world.
* Audio editor Mark Fleischmann is also the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater (www.quietriverpress.com).
KEF KHT 3005 Speaker System:
• Strikingly beautiful form factor
• KEF's signature Uni-Q drivers
• A sub/sat set for the gods, or those who feather their nests
Linn Classik Movie DVD Player:
• Disc drive and medium-powered amps in a deceptively modest box
• Idiosyncratic but, for the most part, easy to use