- Written by Jim Milton
- Published on 08 June 2009
Founded by Raymond Cook in the 1960's on the premises of Kent Engineering & Foundry (from where the name KEF is derived), KEF speakers have been a popular loudspeaker brand in Europe for many years. With interest in expanding their presence here in the States, KEF is introducing their XQ series which ranges from the XQ10 bookshelves to the XQ40 towers. What I consider to be their most innovative design is the Uni-Q, a point source that consolidates the tweeter into the mid range driver. The advantage to this design is a smoother blending of the sound (due to a simpler crossover network and better time alignment configuration) and a larger "sweet spot" for listening. The XQ10 is the smallest speaker in the new XQ series from KEF and though it is geared for serious 2-channel listening, I found that it held up well with multi-channel and home theater usage also.
- Design: Two-way bass reflex
- Drivers: 1 0.75" Aluminum Dome Tweeter, One 5.25" Woofer
- MFR: 63 Hz - 55 kHz
- Crossover Frequency: 2 kHz
- Nominal Impedance: 8 Ohms
- Sensitivity: 86 dB
- Recommended Power: 15 - 100 Watts
- Dimensions: 13" H x 7.5" W x 9.75" D
- Weight: 14 Pounds/each
- MSRP $1,300/pair USA
Design and Build Quality
The XQ series comes with a choice of three finishes: Birdseye maple, Khaya mahogany and piano black. My sample came in the mahogany and the finish is gorgeous!
I know some of you troglodytes are all about the sound and as far as you are concerned, the speaker can be in unfinished particleboard as long as they perform. I, on the other hand, think a speaker is a lot like a musical instrument. Shape, design and finish are important as well. After all, why can't a speaker appeal to the eye as well as the ear? The shape of the speakers are not just for eye candy. The (voluptuous?) curves serve to eliminate standing waves and cabinet resonance.
The XQ10s are a two-way design, though when you remove the magnetically attached grilles, they look like a single driver. The advanced (5.25in.) Uni-Q 'point source' array sports a new 'tangerine' waveguide that acts as an acoustic lens that helps widen the tweeter dispersal. Why "tangerine"? When looking straight on, the tweeter looks like you are looking down on a peeled citrus fruit…or at least, that is my theory.
I will talk more about this later. The dome tweeter is .75 inches in diameter. Under the Uni-Q driver is a reflex port that can be plugged if you so desire (foam plugs are included). These speakers can be bi-wired and/or bi-amped.
Three spikes are provided; two in the front and one in the rear that is height adjustable. Also included are concaved rubber pads should you choose to not use the feet and want to place the XQ10s on speaker stands or a shelf. I selected this option as the pads allowed me the ability to tilt the drivers slightly up toward ear level from my speaker stands. These speakers would work well on a shelf as the port is in the front and the pads provide a solid fit on a flat surface. The XQ10s are magnetically shielded, so placing them close to a CRT is not a problem. These speaker are touted as the "rightful heir to the revered LS3/5a professional studio monitor" by KEF, but I am not sure why. They have a different driver array, different cabinet design, and different sonic signature. Perhaps the description is more about the lineage? Well, none of this really detract from the XQ10s own performance, which is really quite good.
Setup and Sound
My media room is small but suitable for an intimate listening environments. My speaker stands are about 26 in high and 10 inches off the front wall. The XQ10s were placed on the supplied pads and with the help of my trusty laser level, I had the speakers Uni-Q drivers angled up and slightly toed in at ear level. My rear wall has an Ecuadorean tapestry hanging directly behind my seating area and my sidewalls have been treated to reduce first order reflection. Directly behind each speaker I have acoustic panels placed on the front walls. This configuration works well with most speakers I have reviewed and I used this configuration throughout the remainder of the audition. My seating distance is about 9 feet from the speakers. I removed the grilles for some of my listening and ultimately chose to leave them in place. Whether on or off, I could not detect any change in the sonic performance either way. The speakers look handsome with the grilles, but with the grilles off, the Uni-Q driver reminded me a bit of the one-eyed character from "Monsters, Inc."…you know, the Billy Crystal character. In spite of my weird imagination, the speakers looked pretty sharp with the grilles off, as well.
All right, let us get on with some listening tests, shall we? Since these speakers are particularly suited for 2-channel listening, I decided to start there. I picked a nicely recorded piano to warm up my ears. George Winston's recording of Vince Guaraldi tunes from "Linus and Lucy" is a wonderfully recorded piano album.
This music will put a smile on your face due to the whimsical nature of the music and the detailed recorded sound. The mic for this recording is close to the piano, making it sound large, solid and resonant. The XQ10s were able to displayed a very solid and deep sound stage. What was lacking however was the low end of the piano. Considering the size of the driver, I was not surprised. I hooked the XQ10s up with my subwoofer and tried them again. Now we are cooking! They blended well with the sub with a high pass cutoff at 80 Hz. The piano now sounded rich and full-bodied. I realize that for you purists, this really is considered 2.1, but I think that in real life you are going to want to give these speakers a little help in the low-end department anyway. These speakers are not really designed to be full range. If you listen to your music softly or just in the background, the bass is adequate. But if you want a full range of sound played at life-like levels, a sub is recommended.
Next up, an old recording from my college days that really sounds awesome with headphones. Isao Tomita's realization of Holst's "The Planets" on synthesizer is a sonic tour-de-force.
If a speaker pair has trouble with imaging, it will show up here. The music swirls around in your head with headphone listening, but the same effect can be mimicked if the speakers are properly set up and have outstanding imaging capabilities. The 10s did a very good job with the music and I heard sounds far to the left and right of the speakers. The broad soundstage also extended beyond the front wall and behind me. The nice thing here was not only did it produce the 3-D effect, but also the soundstage remained stable over a broad listening area. If I moved to the seat immediately to my left or right (about 3 feet off axis), the soundstage stayed stable and the stereo effect held up well. This phenomenon is likely due to the Uni-Q drivers' point-source array and the tangerine tweeter array I mentioned earlier.
My last test was designed to really push the dynamic capabilities of these small speakers. Small speakers, when pushed too hard, can sound compressed and strident. This is particularly true if the speakers are of poor design or quality. I do not normally push my speakers very hard, but for the sake of this review, I know that you would want me to go for it. From the Telarc label, I selected the coronation scene from Mussorgsky's opera "Boris Godunov". The scene starts out with an ominous piano chord and eventually works up to a thrilling crescendo with chorus.
The soundstage again was very wide with full chorus and orchestra going at it with each other. I turned the volume up quite a bit (but not to insane levels…I respect my ears!) and at no time did the speakers show any sign of strain or breaking up. I placed my hands on the cabinets just to see if I could feel any chatter or extraneous vibrations. There was virtually none…just a barely perceptible sensation that let me know they were indeed working. Remember the curvaceous shape of these speakers? The shape and design were optimized just for this purpose. When cabinets vibrate or resonate, they add "color" to the sound and can have deleterious effect on imaging.
These speakers were rock solid in their sound presentation and the mid range was remarkably smooth and open. The treble lacked just a bit of "air", but if your current system is a bit too bright, this can be a good thing. I have some analog recordings on CD that have slight amounts of audible tape hiss. When played on my monitors, I can clearly hear the hiss, but the tape hiss was much less pronounced on the XQ10s. Again, not a deal buster, but the treble was not quite as "airy" as some silk dome tweeters I have heard. On the plus side, I found this type of treble to be much less fatiguing over extended listening sessions.
I played multi-channel SACDs and of course some movies with these speakers as well. As pleased as I was with their abilities with stereo, I was equally impressed with their ability to play well in a HT environment. These speakers blended well with my surrounds and center channel. When sounds panned across the front of the room, I would have thought the three speakers were timbre matched…they sounded that well! It is nice to know that the KEFs will "play well with others" if they need to. Overall, these speakers sound both natural and BIG. They deftly handled movie soundtrack and in a darkened theater environment, they never betrayed their small size. I would think that in a larger room than mine, the XQ20s would be a better choice, or perhaps the KEF towers. However, if you sit close to your speakers and like the broad rich sound of 2-channel music in a smaller space, the XQ10s are a great choice. I give high marks for the mid range quality of these speakers. Remember, to get the most out of them, pair them with a quality subwoofer and you should be richly rewarded.
I really liked the XQ10s. With their ability to cast a wide and accurate soundstage, the XQ10s are a stunning looking and sounding speaker. Their small size offers a lot of placement options, and the construction quality of the XQ10s is outstanding. My time spent with these speakers really got me back into enjoying my CD collection. I found myself dusting off some discs that I had not played in years and (to use a cliché) it was like hearing them again for the first time. Well, at least in a wider, 3D soundstage sense. With a little boost in the bass, these speakers provide rich, open sound. Any speaker that can reignite my interest in hearing stereo over multi-channel is high praise in my book! In this price range, there are many other speakers out there vying for your attention, but if I were you, I would put the XQ10s on your short list. Small size, big sound…and looking good doing it!