KEF KIT100 Instant Theatre Page 2

The system was good at general fullness but sometimes lacking in specific directionality. Front-to-back pans, as when fireworks light up the Shire in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, weren't the system's strong suit. Shutting down the surround channels altogether shrank the soundfield, so the flat panels made a positive difference.

However, the system prospered with music. The flat-panel surrounds did wonders for anything played in DPLII's music mode. As I cycled through my primary CD-R tracks, the system was as comfortable with the massed voices of Waterson:Carthy, the folk soprano of Sandy Denny, the jazz piano of Geri Allen, and the strings of Mr. McFall's chamber as it was with the guitar duet of Derek & the Dominos' Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, the art-metal soundscape of Sonic Youth, and the distinctive blares of The Who, Metallica, and Mountain.

I auditioned Steely Dan's Gaucho in discrete 5.1-channel surround using the DVD-Audio release's compressed Dolby Digital soundtrack. The "Babylon Sisters" mix came through in a new way. The saxophone charts that normally fill the surround channels detached themselves from the speakers but didn't stray far from them. When Donald Fagen sang, "So fine, so young," the backing singers who answered, "Tell me I'm the only one" sounded as though they were clustered around his Fender Rhodes piano—not really in the back of the room, but somehow in a space of their own.

Way Out in Front
In any surround system, most of the heavy lifting comes in the front channels, not the surrounds. Here the Uni-Q drivers performed feats of imaging that—I know you're tired of reading this, but in this case it's doubly true—put more-expensive systems to shame.

In surround, the Uni-Qs conjured a phantom center image that sounded nearly as solid as a physically present center speaker would have provided. That's quite a concession coming from me—someone who rails against multichannel music mixes that under-use the center channel. The system did extremely well in stereo, a test that nearly all HTIBs flunk. And controlled off-axis response gave my ears the run of the room.

Tonal balance was on the bright side of neutral in stereo and more revealing than the HTIB norm in DPLII. It worked well when I played a favorite new acquisition: Chopin's Nocturnes played on two vintage pianos, a Pleyel from 1842 and an ‰rard from 1837 (Brilliant Classics CD boxed set). These ancient instruments have unique overtone signatures that are less full and rounded than modern pianos but can be expressive when played by someone who understands them (in this case, pianist and teacher Bart van Oort). Reticent speakers render them boring, while aggressive ones reduce them to a pathetic tinkle. The Instant Theatre speakers brought out the qualities that make them fascinate me: their tiny fragile voices and their almost-brittle singing tone.

The crossover between the 4-inch woofers and 10-inch sub left the lower midrange a little undernourished, but not noticeably enough to interfere with any particular kind of music. Bass was what you'd expect from a 10-inch cone driven by a modest 65-watt amp. Low frequencies lacked the laser-like focus of the midrange; the Uni-Q drivers clearly outclassed the sub. However, KEF has made the sub easy to adjust with up/down keys on the remote control; if, at any moment, it seems to be doing too much or too little, the remedy is swift and painless.

Dynamics measured up to the HTIB norm. Action movies required an average of 85 percent of the Instant Theatre's volume capability. Compression was evident during the most extreme movie-soundtrack peaks.

As a DVD player, the system was acceptable. The picture was soft, more so from the component output than the S-video. A few jaggies were visible on the Sage/Faroudja test disc but not enough to distract. The disc drive appeared uncomfortable with my main test CD-R, with delays between tracks that averaged 17 seconds.

Otherwise, using the system was one-remote simplicity itself. The remote's buttons are well differentiated by size and shape, and a sensible auto signal-sensing feature automatically selects Dolby Digital or DTS for DVDs (as any good receiver should do), DPLII Music for CDs, and DPLII Movie for audio signals coming in through the A/V inputs. Choices are adjustable in the settings menu.

With the KIT100 Instant Theatre, KEF offers an ingenious new way to work surround into a smallish room inhabited by a finicky person. The system looks fabulous, takes no particular expertise to set up, can accommodate an adventurous musical diet, and handles the cinematic side better than many (if not most) HTIBs. Perhaps most important—both for the history books and as a practical matter—KEF's product designers have found an ingenious new use for NXT flat-panel speakers. Let's hope it's the first in a long line of provocative systems that bring surround sound into more homes.

* Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater, available through

• Flat-panel NXT speakers bounce surround-channel signals off the walls
• Front soundstage is admirably well focused
• Supplied cables make for easy hookup