KEF KHT5005.2 Speaker System and Onkyo TX-SR674 A/V Receiver
KEF's KHT5005.2 speaker system and Onkyo's TX-SR674 surround receiver are an odd couple. The KEF speakers are slim, tubular, and chic, the latest thing in décor-friendly sub/sat sets. And the Onkyo receiver? It couldn't be more conventional, conservative, even conformist. It's a plain black box with a very good features set for the price. But could it be that the two complement one another? Could this, in fact, turn into a long-term relationship?
Some speakers occupy a room like an invading army of rectangular solids. The JEF KHT5005.2's sleek tubes, in contrast, are graceful and are at home in upscale surroundings. The grilles are not removable—their curved shape provides the speakers with their rounded frontal form.
But, if you could see beneath the grille, you'd count a trio of 3-inch midrange/woofers. The outer ones' cones are treated polypropylene, while the middle cone is aluminum with an aluminum dome tweeter nestled at its apex. This is KEF's Uni-Q driver array. The arrangement of the tweeter and woofer is coincident, meaning they're both coaxial (in the same axis) and coplanar (in the same plane). This provides several benefits, including more consistent off-axis response near the crossover point and more closely matched dispersion between the two drive units.
The HTB2 subwoofer is packaged with both this system and the KEF KHT3005 (reviewed in the June 2006 issue). The sub's 10-inch woofer and 10-inch passive radiator, located in the front and back, respectively, come in an unusual, nearly round enclosure. A three-way switch adjusts gain at 0 decibels, 3 dB, or 6 dB. KEF assumes that you'd prefer to set the sub level and the crossover in the receiver. This is, in fact, what I nearly always do. Other controls include phase, power auto/manual, and power on/off switches—all mounted on the bottom of the bulging disc. The only input is a single RCA jack. A lit power indicator in the sliced top surface glows blue when the sub's in operation and red in standby mode.
Onkyo's TX-SR674 is like a conservatively dressed man. He likes dark suits, and all of the buttons are right where generations have come to expect them. In this case, that means straight across the front panel, where a rigorously horizontal row of source-select buttons provides access to anything plugged into the back panel. I relate to this rather well—I don't like having to cycle through inputs with a knob. I'm also one of those people who regard suits and sport jackets with more than two buttons as the spawn of the Evil One.
Onkyo pays attention to detail. With this unit, you can reassign the HDMI or component inputs, set gain individually for each audio input source, route bass from the front left/right into the subwoofer channel, or route the rear-surround outputs to a second zone. Some might sneer at the small remote, but it is a model of simplicity and organization.
This straightforwardness extends to the menu structure and even to the manual. I especially like page 43, which reproduces the main menu and all of the first-level submenus and flags each submenu with a subsequent page number. A sheet of adhesive labels, color coded for each speaker cable, is tucked into the booklet.
This receiver may be conservative, but, for video, it's reasonably up to date, with dual HDMI inputs and one output. This is HDMI 1.1, which does not accept SACD but does do DVD-Audio, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. The video features include 1080p bandwidth, deinterlacing of analog video sources, and upconversion of analog sources through the HDMI outs, which means that you can run just one video cable to the TV. There is an XM Satellite Radio input on the back panel. (An antenna and the subscription are extra.) An optional iPod dock lets you operate the player with the receiver's remote.
As a concession to the many people who connect surround receivers to just two or three speakers, there is a T-D (Theater-Dimensional) listening mode that attempts to compensate for the absence of surround speakers by adding reverb. It has two settings, for speakers either 20 or 40 degrees apart, and it works best in a well-dampened room with little reverb of its own. Interestingly, the graphic that accompanies this adjustment shows a tiny seated male figure.
The star attraction among the audio features is the Audyssey 2EQ automatic setup and calibration. The seven-minute process starts automatically when you plug in the setup mike. It measures from three different listening positions: the center sweet spot, the left, and the right. It accurately detected and measured my speakers and speaker distances. The subwoofer setting was only 1 dB below my usual preference, but the overall tonal balance tilted toward a much brighter sound. I preferred the system's unprocessed sound and proceeded with the EQ off. Under different circumstances, though, I might have reached a different conclusion about the need for EQ.
Precise but Rich
Previous experience with Uni-Q KEF speakers and Onkyo receivers has led me to expect an up-front soundstage with tightly focused imaging—something rather cold and clinical. Previous experience with slim tubular speakers has also led me to expect a lean balance. But these KEFs and this Onkyo turned my expectations upside down. The tight focus was still there, but it wasn't the first thing I noticed. What grabbed me initially was the sheer smoothness of the system, a full, rich, darkly textured sound that I normally associate with larger speakers and other receiver brands.
The KEFs' pinpoint-precise coincident driver array changed the way I responded to the system's mellow personality. Normally, a balance that errs on the warm side of average brings a certain vagueness, a golden haze, and that in turn makes me turn up the volume so that I can hear dialogue and build a stronger soundfield. In this case, volume hikes were unnecessary. I could enjoy that full, smooth sound at low volumes and still get enough low-level resolution to make everything intelligible. But, when I turned up the volume, the soundstage acquired more directionality and size, seeming to blow away the walls of my listening room and take me to places altogether different.
Brass instruments took my breath away. One memorable audition was Bach: Works for Trumpet by Alison Balsom, an EMI Classics CD. Recorded in a chapel in Kent, in the south of England, Balsom's instrument rode a magic carpet of reverb, enhanced by my default listening mode of Dolby Pro Logic II. Accompaniment was sparse—only violin, viola de gamba, and harpsichord or chamber organ—leaving plenty of room in the soundfield for the trumpet's journey through space.
The new Philip Glass symphony, his eighth, gave me more of the same on a larger scale. Performed by Dennis Russell Davies and Austria's Brucker Orchester Linz, this somber work gives plenty of play to the trombones and is full of space between the notes, acquiring a depth and gravity that might surprise listeners familiar only with Glass's busily percolating early work. This system reinforced the emotional impact. I was just riveted.
After a while, a third characteristic added itself to a list that already included focus and richness. That was an accentuation of surround effects. It did much to produce my pleasure and fascination with some material. But it also became distracting on a set of sprightly tangos by Piazzolla, performed by cellist Eduardo Vassallo and pianist Cristina Filoso. Having so much action in the surround channels interfered with the rhythm and pacing of the playing—there was just too much directional information floating around the room. Rather than fuss with my DPLII settings, I simply switched to stereo. This clarified the soundstage beautifully.
With or Without a Center
A few SACDs in Chesky's jazz series have come my way lately. Popping them into my Integra DPS-10.5 seemed only natural—Integra is Onkyo's sister brand. Traffic showcases a jazz-rock trio led by Larry Coryell, on both electric and acoustic guitars, with bassist Victor Bailey more than keeping up with the always dynamic Lenny White on drums. Producer David Chesky made only sparing use of the surrounds and eliminated the center channel altogether. The result was a kind of stereo-centric quad with a sub, and, while I am on record as being a 5.1 kind of guy, these 4.1 channels were artfully deployed. Wide-open spaces are what I love about the Chesky sensibility, and the KEFs collaborated by seeming to dissolve the walls of the room. A brisk "Manic Depression" (Hendrix) and "Misterioso" (Monk) were among the highlights.
John Pizzarelli has spent his career preparing for his Dear Mr. Sinatra album, costarring on the Telarc SACD with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. The big band was spread evenly among the front and surround channels, with slightly more emphasis in the front and slightly less in the center. With all of those brass instruments in the soundfield, I was glad to be listening through a system without a harsh midrange or hyped treble. Up-tempo numbers like "How About You?" were a treat, but I loved quiet ones like "If I Had You" even more, with reed instruments caressing the vocals.
I've always thought that Sandinista! by the Clash is a first-rate rock epic with no fat on its bones, a peer of the Beatles' White Album. When it first came out, on three LPs, I played a side or two every day for months on end—in stereo, then. Rediscovering it through the two-disc CD edition, I was fascinated as Dolby Pro Logic II spread the album's spacey polyglot virtuosity through the room like peel-speckled marmalade on a piece of toast.
The Virgin of Juarez is based on a real murder spree that has claimed the lives of hundreds of women south of the border. These horrific events receive an overlay of mysticism in this fictionalized film, leading to a soundtrack rich in atmosphere. The opening juxtaposes vaporous choral sound with a newscaster's voiceover. Spanish guitar presides over the subsequent scenes, and mystical events get subtle synthesized accompaniment, with the wordless chorus finally reappearing at greater intensity in a fiery climax. I was enveloped in a cathedral-like soundfield where elements of the mix floated gracefully about the room. While the movie's moral complexity may have been a bit slippery, it nonetheless moved me.
A Prairie Home Companion turns Garrison Keillor's radio series into a gentle narrative revolving around the stage of an old theater where mean corporate radio bosses are about to shut down the program's fictional equivalent. The first half is pure Robert Altman, with the filmmaker's characteristic use of overlapping and interwoven dialogue. As the story meanders sweetly to its somber conclusion, dialogue becomes more conventional, and the music that plays onstage leaks into backstage halls and dressing rooms. Here the KEF speakers reinforced the story's gentle magic.
At the other cinematic extreme, Mission: Impossible III came through with well-proportioned bass and good dynamics. And the futuristic, antitotalitarian, graphic-novel-based V for Vendetta was dramatically effective, although the explosions—accompanied by Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, no less—might have benefited from larger woofers in the satellites and a gutsier sub. If you really want to blow up the house, you should probably look at speaker systems with more bass response and greater output capability.
The KEF KHT5005.2 speakers and the Onkyo TX-SR674 receiver transcended my preconceptions of both brands. I was genuinely surprised at how smooth, natural, forgiving, and generous this system was—and by how much genuine pleasure I got out of it. This odd couple literally made beautiful music together. I enthusiastically recommend it.
* Audio editor Mark Fleischmann is also the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater (www.quietriverpress.com).
KEF KHT5005.2 Speaker System:
•The slim satellites won't hog the room
•Look thin but don't sound thin
•Uni-Q drivers provide tight focus
Onkyo TX-SR674 A/V Receiver:
• Sophisticated video connectivity
• Audyssey 2EQ measures from three listening positions
• Traditional design; it's no show-off