KEF renewed the R speakers at the end of 2018. It was not a minor update, but a complete commemoration of the loudspeaker family. And that certainly produced results.
The 3-way R11 that we receive in the test room is the flagship of the new R-series. At KEF this family is situated just below the Reference speakers, which together with Blade and Muon belong to the ultimate of what they can think of at KEF in Maidstone. The R-series is not strictly speaking the ultimate high-end of the British brand, but you wouldn't think that if you take the beautifully built R11 out of its box. A job that you best do with two people, because the speaker weighs just under 38 kg each – and KEF ships them in very solid packaging that itself adds a few kilograms to the story. But we recommend not only because of the weight that you work with two. The finish of the R-speakers is really premium, and you have to take care not to scratch the beautiful exterior.
Impressive driver line-up
This is the top model of the R family, with a price tag (2,499 euros each) that is a lot higher than other R models. Then you can expect something. KEF clearly didn't want to disappoint, as the R11 combines a centrally mounted Uni-Q driver with four 165mm hybrid aluminum woofers. That foursome is neatly divided: two above and two below the remarkable Uni-Q driver. If there is one thing that characterizes KEF, it is this very special driver with a coaxial design. That is, the tweeter is independently suspended in a midrange driver, bringing high details and mid frequencies from the same point. Many speakers work with a separate tweeter and one or more midrange drivers that are mounted elsewhere in the cabinet. Loudspeaker builders do their best to ensure that in your listening chair you do not notice that the sounds of an instrument actually come from different drivers (for example, by designs that bend towards you or mount tweeters recessed), but this is challenging. If the timing is not quite right, the sound becomes less accurate and you lose things like placement on a soundstage.
The great advantage of a coaxial driver such as Uni-Q is that you do not have that; all frequencies that you can place in space start from one point. That is not a theoretical advantage. When testing KEF speakers with Uni-Q, we find time and time again that you indeed experience a tightness that gives a very natural sound feeling. Another plus: a coaxial driver is suitable for nearfield listening. With classic loudspeakers you still have to keep a certain distance in order to achieve the intended tonal character. Ok, with the R11 that plus point may play less. They are not speakers where you sit half a meter away. But that Uni-Q driver is also in small monitors like the LS50 and the wireless LSX speakers, and you might want to listen up close. The Uni-Q driver in the R11 is now the latest, twelfth generation of this driver. It is one of the major upgrades in the new R-series. Remarkable also: this new Uni-Q is actually more modern and newer than the part in the more expensive Reference series.
Sleek and handsome
The updated R-series comes with new finishes, which are more premium than before. The black or white versions in gloss lacquer are very beautiful, but the real highlight is the walnut version in our opinion. On marketing photos, the contrast is sometimes slightly increased, so that the grain of the wood shows more explicitly than in when you see it. That makes the R11 in this version a bit less dramatic in reality, but perhaps also a bit more interior-friendly. What is very successful with the R speakers is that KEF provides the driver cones in an appropriate color. The white speaker is therefore completely white, the black R11 pitch black. In the walnut version, the drivers are in a kind of copper color, for a very refined overall image. Of course there are no screws and bolts in sight, what you expect in this price range. The fact that you only sit a cone – the magnet and voice coil are mounted on the back – ensures a very tight result. We know few speakers that look as modern as these KEFs. We already talked about the heavier weight of the R11. That initially surprises, because despite its height of just under 130 cm, this R-speaker still looks slim. It is not that wide in proportion, which creates that impression. If you place them, you will notice that the R11 is quite deep. We are not sorry about that, because there is enough cabinet volume for those four woofers to work properly. Incidentally, the weight of the R11 also has to do with the extensive reinforcement (bracing) on the inside of the cabinet, in order to prevent cabinet resonance. Everything to achieve that KEFian objective of the purest possible sound.
We visited the R11 for several months, which allowed us to combine the speakers with a range of amplifiers. Not that a constant change was necessary. Whatever we hung on, the KEF speakers were willing to be controlled. Even with a Sonos Amp (new version) the R11s cooperated, although we still had to look a little higher to really get everything out of the speakers. The R11 with its sensitivity of 88 dB is not extremely difficult to control, but you still have quite a bit of power on surplus. We liked the combination with the NAD M10, but also the Hegel Röst that we have in the test room sounded nice. You will probably encounter the combination of R11 and Hegel H190 or the new H390 on the market, since KEF and Hegel work together in many places. “Exit Music (for a film)” is put down by the R11 in a way that grips our throats. It is completely right: Thom Yorke is in a large room, somewhat distant, but when the percussion joins that large, open soundstage remains intact. We experience exactly the same with “Unfinished Sympathy” from Massive Attack, which is rock solid. There is an immensely powerful bass layer, but it does not affect the high detail or voice of Shara Nelson. The R11's natural reproduction is striking when we listen to the beautifully recorded Wonderland album by talented pianist Alice Sarah Ott. Every subtlety as well as great dynamic jumps are performed without any problems by the KEF speaker. This natural character also makes the brand new Calexio / Iron & Wine “Years to Burn” sound like a live performance performed in our living room. Beware of KEF, this sounds dangerously close to a Reference speaker to our ears.
The R11 is not suitable for every living room due to its size and low performance. You should give this giant the space – or opt for a more compact floorstander like the R5 or R7. Or the R3s. We have also tested it for a long time, and for a relatively compact speaker, the R3 performs very well. With all R models you discover the strengths of the R family: a clear, natural display that is very coherent. Low-mid-high, it forms a harmonious, perfectly timed whole.