As the captain finally apprehends Jaguar Paw, small sonic details seem to snap into sharp focus. We hear the terrible raggedness of Jaguar Paw’s breathing, the deadly sizzle of the captain’s arrow flying through the air to strike Jaguar Paw in the collarbone, the clatter of the captain tossing aside his bow, and the whisper of the captain’s knife being drawn from its sheath. Though badly wounded, Jaguar Paw rises to face the captain, who—with a murderous look on his face—charges forward, intent on killing Jaguar Paw. But just then, time and the soundtrack both seem to slow down. We hear with awful clarity the sound of the captain’s foot triggering the trip-wire of an old trap that Jaguar Paw had set days ago, followed by the terrible thud and squelching sound of the punji-stick-like contraption striking the captain full in the chest, causing his death. To emphasize the sheer finality of the scene, the sound designer forces us to focus on the sound of the captain’s last gasps for breath as his knife slips from his grasp and falls on the dense undergrowth on the jungle floor, even as the downpour drones on in the background.
Several aspects of the KEF system’s performance stood out for me in this sequence. First, while the system could not create quite as enveloping a sound field as a full surround system would have, its three-channel presentation produced a surprisingly rich and wide front “hemisphere” of sound that was quite satisfying in its own right. Second, the KEF sub handled the substantial bass demands of this sequence with good-natured power and grace. Third, the system’s excellent clarity and—especially—its wonderful cohesiveness gave each of the small yet significant sonic details in the sequence a quality of heightened impact and focus. These last elements—clarity, cohesiveness, impact, and focus—are what really set the KEF system apart from many of its competitors. True, you give up surround channels with the KEF rig, but in their place you enjoy other refined sonic qualities that, in the end, may prove even more important to you.
I asked several guest listeners for their reactions on this point (pure sound quality vs. missing surround-channel information). Most said that, while having the normal surround channels would certainly have been appreciated, they felt the width, focus and overall quality of the KEF system’s front-channel presentation was impressive and compelling—representing a huge step forward from listening to traditional TV speakers.
If anything, I felt that the KEF system worked even better for music reproduction than for movie soundtracks, if only because the delicacy and subtlety of well-recorded music plays into the KEF system’s natural strengths. To explore the full range of the system’s capabilities, I tried listening to various types of vocal material, and to some examples of “power music” as well.
First up was Swiss vocalist Beat Kaestli’s cover of the Cole Porter classic “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, from Invitations [Chesky, SACD]. In sharp contrast to Sinatra’s upbeat, big-band take on this song, Kaestli instead takes it at a much slower, more introspective pace, backed only by a small, uncluttered jazz ensemble. Interestingly, Kaestli’s treatment gives the song a much darker and more mysterious feel than Sinatra’s reading, and in the process exposes every small nuance and inflection in Kaestli’s voice. I was struck by the smoothness and unforced clarity of the KEF system as it negotiated the subtle points of emotional emphasis and shades of meaning that Kaestli applied to various lines or phrases in the song’s lyrics—especially to the quality of quietly desperate longing that he brought to the song’s familiar chorus. I was also taken by the revealing manner in which the KEF system captured the deeply soulful, melancholic arc of Joel Frahm’s sax solo later in the song, and by the system’s ability to reproduce delicate reverberant sounds that help the listener understand that this recording was made in a church and not in the comparatively sterile confines of a studio. More than most sound-bar speakers, KEF HTF8003 delivers subtlety and refinement of the sort you might normally expect from a set of good, small monitoring speakers.
Next, I put on “Speak” from Nickelcreek’s This Side [Sugar Hill, SACD]. I know from long experience with this disc that singer (and violinist) Sara Watkins’ voice as captured on this track is not easy to reproduce, since it has a breathy quality that is easily overdone, and somewhat clipped consonants that can—through many speaker systems—sound a bit harsh and edgy. I was pleased to find, though, that the KEF system caught the sweeter aspects of Watkins’ voice, revealing the breathiness and sometimes overly closely mic’d consonants, but not punishing the listener with them. But what really stole the show in “Speak” was Chris Thile’s soaring mandolin accompaniment, which managed to sound delicate and yet highly energetic, all at once. Again, the KEF rig demonstrated a revealing and evocative quality that you might not normally associate with a “mere” sound-bar.