Ever since audio legend Paul W. Klipsch began manufacturing loudspeakers in the 1940s, the name Klipsch has been associated with horn-type drivers, and it's easy to understand why. Horns are inherently efficient, and as one modern-day Klipsch positioning paper points out, “Efficiency is inversely proportional to distortion.” Today, Klipsch Reference Series speakers maintain the tradition using 1-inch titanium compression tweeters to drive square Tractrix horns (the term Tractrix describes a specific shape for the bell of the horn). In turn, the bass and midrange are handled by one or more Cerametallic drivers whose distinctive copper color has become a Klipsch hallmark.
Klipsch offers Reference Series speaker bundles ranging in price from $1349 to $6394. For this review, we chose the comparatively inexpensive RF-52 system, which sells for $1844. The system includes two RF-52 floorstanding speakers, an RC-52 center channel, a pair of RF-42 surround speakers, and a 260-watt RW-10d powered subwoofer. The main and surround speakers are 2-way designs, while the center channel is a 2 1/2-way design.
A quick glance at the specifications panel reveals two important points. First, unlike most systems at this price, the RF-52 bundle includes full-range main speakers that play down to 34Hz. Second, all three of the front-channel speakers boast sensitivity ratings of 96dB, which is much higher than the norm. Together, these factors add up to a system that’s easier to drive than most, and whose main speakers shoulder a significant share of the overall bass workload. These details are impressive, but how does the RF-52 system sound?
Let me come right out and say it: The Klipsch RF-52 system sounds wonderful—challenging, in some respects, the sound of good systems in the $3000 to $4000 price class. How so? Well, the first characteristic that caught my ear was the system’s ability to resolve fine sonic details. The Klipsch speakers effortlessly resolve small textural and transient details that get lost in other systems. During the finale of the Oue/Minnesota recording of Respighi’s Pines of Rome [Reference Recordings, 30th Anniversary Sampler], I could hear instrumental nuances unfold even as the piece grew in complexity and dynamic intensity. Yet at the same time the Klipsch system revealed subliminal high-frequency details that made it easy to picture the size of the recording space and the positions of the orchestra sections on stage. In short, the RF-52 rig served up the sort of sophisticated realism I normally expect only from costly high-end speaker systems.
I was also struck by how vibrant and full of life instruments and voices sounded. In contrast to competing systems, the Klipsch speakers never sounded forced or strained—not even at high volume levels. Instead, they got out of the way and let music and soundtracks simply flow. As you might expect, the RF-52 system also performed beautifully on effects-heavy, blockbuster soundtracks, such as the gut-wrenching battle scenes from Saving Private Ryan. But it also shone in sequences where small details make all the difference, such as the scene in V for Vendetta where Dr. Stanton whispers her deathbed apology.
Some horn-loaded speakers exhibit obvious, megaphone-like colorations that impose a nasal, “honking” sound, but the Klipschs did not. Their horn-loaded tweeters sounded quite natural, and integrated smoothly with the midbass drivers. The only drawback is that the tweeters do tend to expose any roughness or stridency present in music or soundtracks. When this happens, they produce a sharp, biting sound that tugs at your ears and disrupts imaging and soundstaging. But this is an acceptable tradeoff given the terrific detail and nuance these horn tweeters bring to the party.
The RW-10d subwoofer was a strong performer, particularly when placed—as Klipsch suggests—near a reinforcing back wall. The sub played lower than most in its class and delivered serious dynamic grunt, though it was no doubt helped by the RF-52 mains, which kick out plenty of bass on their own. Interestingly, the RW-10d features an easy-to-use, top-mounted control panel (complete with multiple EQ presets)—a clever and welcome touch I wish more subwoofers provided.
At the end of the day, the Klipsch RF-52 ensemble is easily one of the two or three best sub-$2k surround speaker systems I’ve heard, and for many listeners it may mark the happy conclusion of a quest for great sound. Few affordable systems offer a more compelling blend of detail, finesse, and dynamic clout plus an almost magically vibrant quality that brings music and movies alive. Bravo, Klipsch.