Finally, I put on master bass guitarist Dean Peer’s latest album, Airborne [ILS Records]. Peer is not only a gifted bassist, but also an imaginative composer who uses heavily modified, audiophile-grade effects boxes to expand the dramatic and timbral range of his instrument. The upshot of this is that, while there are only two musicians at play on Airborne (Peer on bass and Bret Mann on drums and percussion) one often has the illusion that there are sometime more players at work. On the track “Twin Peaks,” for example, the ever-dexterous Peer plays adventurous lead line way up in the high harmonic range of his bass—using effects boxes to give the instrument a sound much like an electric guitar (or perhaps a cleverly voiced synthesizer), while simultaneously accompanying himself by playing deep, powerful bass lines on the lower strings of his instrument. In the meantime, Bret Mann’s clean, crisp, and incredibly tasteful percussion work helps keep the song’s loping rhythm on track, treating the listener to some of the best-recorded drum and cymbal sounds I’ve ever heard captured on any fusion/jazz disc.
Let me tell you up front that I’ve been spoiled rotten by having first heard Airborne through a hyper-expensive high-end audio system based on Wilson Audio’s superb (but extremely costly) Maxx 3 loudspeakers. Given that introduction, I didn’t really expect the sound from the KEF system to compare favorably, yet I found that—to the KEF rig’s great credit—it got most of the musical essentials right at a level that frankly surprised me. The tiny tweeters in the KEF Uni-Q arrays, for example, did an absolutely lovely job with the silvery and exquisitely extended sound of Mann’s crystalline cymbal work, while also nailing the chest-thumping impact of his kick drum. Airborne is really an album that’s all about presenting rich textures and timbres in places where you least expect them, and the KEF system did a really nice job of exposing the intricate voicings of Peer’s high harmonics and upper-register playing on the bass, while also conveying the deep, swift, powerful undercurrents of his low-register lines. I won’t tell you that the KEF rig is a substitute for six-figure high-end audio systems, since that would simply be untrue, but I will tell you that it can serve as a fine, better-than-entry-level music system.
Together, KEF’s HTF8003 front-channel speaker and HTB2SE-W wireless subwooofer represent a stylish and compact solution for music and movie lovers who want much better than average sound, but who absolutely, positively do not want to turn their living spaces into speaker-cluttered “audio dens.” While this system cannot and does not reproduce surround-channel information, it more than compensates through its far better-than-entry-level clarity, cohesiveness, impact, and focus.
Of the two KEF pieces, our impression is that the HTF8003 is both the stronger performer and better value, though the HTB2SE-W sub certainly has its charms. But good though the sub may be, we think it would be greatly improved if fitted with a more conventional set of input and adjustment controls.
KEF HTF8003 Three-Way, Three-Channel Front Speaker
Driver complement: Three driver sets (one per channel) each comprised of: one Uni-Q array with .6-inch aluminum dome tweeter and 3-inch mid-bass driver, one 3-inch low frequency driver, and one 3-inch passive radiator.
Frequency response: 70Hz – 23 kHz
Impedance: 8 ohms
Dimensions (HxWxD): 4.7” x 37.8” x 3.1”
Weight: 13.2 lbs.
Warranty: Five years
KEF HTB2SE-W Wireless Subwoofer
Driver complement: One 10-inch woofer and one 10-inch passive radiator
Integrated amplifier power: 250W class D
Dimensions (HxWxD): 15.3” x 17.3” x 7.6”
Weight: 26.2 lbs.
Warranty: Five years passive elements, One year active elements
System Price: $2000 as tested