KEF's new T-Series range of home cinema speakers are definitely a sign of the times. They've been designed with a clear purpose in mind – to be an aesthetic match to newer, thinner, flatscreen TVs, enabling buyers to couple their hi-def movies with authentic 5.1 sound without their living room looking like a branch of Sevenoaks.
The question is: has KEF sold out? Can these skinny speakers deliver the audio quality that everyone knows the brand is capable of?
Auditioned here is the T-205 system, which uses the larger T301 and T301c cabinets for the front left/ centre/right soundstage, a pair of the smaller T101 for the surround channels, and is underpinned by the T-2 subwoofer. It retails for around £1,500.
The step-up £1,700 T-305 system uses the bigger cabinets throughout; those who live inside a shoebox can go for the £1,200 T-105 array.
Whichever package you opt for, one thing remains the same – the thinness of the cabinet. Each speaker is an impressive 35mm in depth. They're sleekly styled, too, with a black cloth grille, black aluminium side trim and just a KEF logo to let you know that what you're looking at is actually a loudspeaker.
KEEPING A LOW PROFILE: The T-Series cabinets are only 35mm deep – a perfect match for your flatscreen TV
If you were to see these in, say, Philippe Starck's apartment, you might confuse them with very minimalist objets d'art. Even the subwoofer is a stealth product, designed specifically to be slung in the corner of your room and out of your wife's sight.
The look of the whole package might not be to everyone's taste, but I like it. All the T-Series components are only available in black, although if Samsung keeps selling shedloads of titanium effect TVs, you'd think KEF might make silver side trims available, too.
A unique feature about the T-Series speakers is that they are meant to be wall-mounted. Speaker's usually sound best when they are positioned away from walls – when they are placed in close proximity they tend to get a bass boost, which can overshadow the midrange a bit. KEF has compensated for the influence of the wall in the speaker's design.
However, not everyone will be wall-mounting these, so a special stand, called the Selecta-Mount, comes into play. Here, KEF re-adjusts the sound character of each speaker by introducing an extra filter section, before the speaker's crossover network, to switch the speaker into what the brand calls 'free-space balance'.
This means the T-Series speakers can be wall or stand-mounted without adverse effects.
The T301s are a two-and-a-half-way design, with a single 1in aluminium tweeter sharing duties with a pair of KEF's new twin-layered mid-frequency drivers.
It's this latter piece of tech that has enabled the brand to get the T-Series' startling form factor. Itself only 27mm in depth (compared to the KEF's KHT3000 Uni-Q driver, which is a positively obese 70mm), the MF driver has been crafted with Finite Element Analysis (FEA) computer modelling, borrows a bit from KEF's super-high-end Concept Blade prototype, and claims to deliver the same acoustic performance as a 'true' 4.5in mid-range. But does it?
To test the T205's mettle I first put on what has become everyone's reference BD disc for sound quality, Avatar, and skipped to the Viperwolves chapter. This scene is a cinematic masterpiece for aural excellence and the slim, sexy KEF's handled it well.
There was seamless integration between each speaker in the 5.1 setup, enveloping my listening position and drawing me into James Cameron's action. Sound was clear and detailed. When the 'dogs' are chasing Jake, they seemed dangerously close. Subtle effects in the cinema mix were deftly presented, too, adding an extra feeling of immersion into the movie.
When speakers are able to do this, you know you are listening to something that is very good. Switching to Piranha 3D, the Kef's tweeters showed their worth, and the high-frequency chatter of the killer fish teeth tearing through flesh was real enough to make me wince.
The T205 system can play loud, too. For such a slim cabinet design, I was surprised by the SPL levels achieved. Better yet, it was able to go loud and maintain clarity. This suggests these speakers have inherently low distortion, but based on the amount of R&D that's gone into them I'm not surprised.
A lot of speakers can go loud, but thankfully the T-205 isn't ignorant when it comes to quieter material, either. In Avatar, after Neytiri saves Jake in the Viperwolves chapter, their awkward introduction to one another shows how dead silent the system can be – the only noise you hear is what was in the original mix.
Whether it's with the raucous delights of Avatar and Piranha 3D or more serene movie fare like the cop comedy The Other Guys, I found dialogue remained pinned down and clear. The centre channel's performance is commendable. Centres are the workhorse of any home cinema, and they have to be able to handle the most complex scenes with a high level of composure. The 301c can do this.
Let's play the music!
With the T-Series clearly crafted for living room installation, it's likely it'll get a lot of use with music, too.
For this I spun up a selection from AIX Records' Audio Calibration Disc HD Music Sampler (not got it? You're missing out...); hi-res tracks that really put speakers through their paces. The result was very natural-sounding, with a good amount of detail present.
Some speakers can sound hyper-detailed, as if they're altering the original music signal and boosting the high frequencies, but here high notes were extended and clear, but not thrown in your face, so you won't get fatigued during a long listening session.
However, the audiophile in me did feel it was missing something on these tracks. I wanted more transparency from the KEFs. Don't get me wrong, you can hear a lot of low-level detail, but I felt as if there was a bit of veiling of the music. Also, these cabinets are better when given support up by the T-2 subwoofer.
BELOW DECK: Adjusting the phase and bass boost levels on the T-2 sub will involve lifting it off the ground
Should you ignore advice and listen to pure stereo you'll get a somewhat thin sound. Bring the 10in, 250W sub into play for a punchier, fuller performance. This little trouper can reproduce relatively low bass notes (down to a claimed 30Hz), but, more importantly, has a wonderfully tight, well-controlled and tuneful sound.
Overall, the T205 is a seriously enticing 5.1 system. Build quality is excellent, it dazzles with movie soundtracks, and will suit most people's music needs. The icing on the cake is the slim, wall-mountable design – if you're looking for an affordable low-profile cinema system to complement your ultra-slim flat-panel, then look no further.
With its T-Series, KEF has identified a target market and grasped it with both hands. Other brands will have to try hard to wrestle it away…