We first encountered KEF's Reference 1 speakers in 2018. Those speakers left a significant impression on us at the time; offering a detailed yet balanced presentation, excellent technical performance, and comprehensive engineering really made an impressive package. But standing still in the Hi-Fi industry is never a good idea, so five years on from our original review, we're sitting in our test room with the new Reference 1 Meta unboxed.
KEF Reference 1 Meta MAT Technology
A few years ago, we got acquainted with KEF's Metamaterial Absorption Technology (MAT) through the LS50 Meta speakers. The MAT component is located behind the tweeter and takes the form of something that looks like a hockey puck.
Inside this housing, there is a labyrinth-like structure designed to absorb the sound coming from the back of the tweeter dome. This leads to cleaner sound and less distorted results. KEF claims that this technology absorbs 99% of unwanted rear sound emission and is much more effective than the damped chambers that most competitor designs use to do the same job.
Adding MAT to KEF's signature Uni-Q driver array is far more complex than simply placing this technology behind the driver. This requires significant engineering and KEF has taken this opportunity to add a series of improvements to the motor system and geometry, thereby enabling better performance.
As in the original Reference 1, you can adjust the low frequency performance of the speaker thanks to two different port length options. These ports are made of an elastic material to avoid the resonance problems of typical rigid plastic designs, allowing the speaker's user to customize the intensity of the bass response to suit the characteristics of the room to be played.
The short port extends the speaker's low-end reach up to 40Hz, while the longer one expands it to 37Hz. Changing ports takes a minute and you just need to flip an outer cover that holds the port in place. The difference in sound between the two lengths is relatively small, but in our test room measuring 3 x 7 x 5m (hwd), the longer option provides a more balanced sound.
KEF Reference 1 Meta Design Features
The construction of the Reference 1 Meta is as stylish as ever. The cabinet is available in three different color options: walnut (with silver Uni-Q/bass driver), black (with grey or copper Uni-Q and grey bass driver options), and white (with blue or champagne Uni-Q and white bass driver). Regardless of color, these speakers will look modern, minimalist, and elegant in most environments.
KEF manufactures a dedicated support called the S-RF1 speaker stand. Additionally, it will please homeowners as it proves quite useful for cable management. However, it is not necessary to purchase these stands, but whatever you get, make sure it's hard, low-resonance, and can stably support the weight of the Reference 1 Meta.
How Should the Amplifier Selection for KEF Reference 1 Meta Be?
A loudspeaker of this level is a system that should be used with high-end equipment. Highly detail-oriented, these speakers relentlessly bring out any shortcomings in the top. Therefore, the quality and compatibility of all components of the audio system are of paramount importance.
The sensitivity of the Reference 1 Meta is considered low at a level of 85dB/W/m, and its nominal impedance is set at 4 ohms, with a minimum specified at 3.2 ohms. Therefore, it is recommended that common amplifiers have sufficient power. The choice of a powerful amplifier is important for optimal performance of these speakers.
We use the Burmester 088/911 Mk III pre/post amp set as a reference for most of the testing, but we also try the Naim Supernait 3 integrated amp to see how they perform with more modest electronics. Our main sources are the Naim ND555/555 PS DR music streaming device and the Technics SL-1000R/Kiseki Purpleheart turntables.
Reference 1 Meta is not particularly sensitive to room layout. One of the main strengths of the UniQ array is that it offers a consistent pattern of distribution regardless of direction, which reduces the importance of the listener's seating position. Thus, more flexibility is provided in the placement of the speakers.
The optimum soundstage is presented in a very wide and expressive manner, and when placed at a slight angle to the listening position, these speakers create an amazingly wide and beautifully focused soundstage.
Reference 1 How is Meta Audio Performance?
When listening to Dvořák's New World Symphony, it's easy to pinpoint the exact position of the instruments. The soundstage is wide, layered and steadily expanding. It is difficult to determine the physical position of the speakers when we close our eyes, which shows the quality of the carefully designed cabinet.
At the end of our reference system, they offer a sound much larger than their size and deliver the thick bass we usually hear from options that rise from the ground. Certainly, competitors like the Bowers & Wilkins 805 D4 don't offer as big-scale, muscular or expressive sound as the KEF Reference 1 Meta. KEF speakers are also capable of playing loud. It presents the dynamic changes of the music with determination and minimizes the feeling of stress. They just stay clean and deliver the sound with the impact it deserves.
Tonally, these speakers have a nice balance and deliver the music fuller than most. We were musically impressed with their ability to reveal details and how information was organized and presented. While presenting a controlled presentation, Reference 1 Meta manages to effectively convey the passion in music.
We switch the music genre to Major Lazer's "Pon The Floor" and the KEF speakers shift gears with ease. In this type of music, the KEF speakers sound agile and powerful, vividly presenting the rhythmic energy of the song. The low frequencies are delivered tight and pleasantly, while the bass notes hit strongly. As you move up the frequency range, you will notice that sounds begin to come with clarity; every detail is conveyed clearly and proportionately.
The high level of transparency of Reference 1 Meta is undeniable; however, they never sound in a way that highlights the flaws in the recordings. If there are flaws in the recordings, you will hear them, but there will be no spotlight on them at all. These speakers preserve the true sound of recordings by presenting the music in a natural and balanced way.
In conclusion; KEF engineers did a great job with these speakers. The original Reference 1 speakers were great, but the sound refinements brought by the Meta upgrade have increased significantly.
At the time of this writing, it's hard to think of such a comprehensive alternative in this price range. These KEF speakers are sure to win you over.
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