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Review: KEF Reference 1 Meta -A true benchmark

Review: KEF Reference 1 Meta - Apart from that technical improvement, the Reference 1 Meta is an excellent bookshelf loudspeaker.

Last year, KEF took a big step by equipping the LS50 with a metamaterial that significantly improved the rendering. Now the British brand is taking this remarkable Meta audio technology to its highest levels. Does that make the already acclaimed Reference family even more of a benchmark? We are going to work with the KEF Reference 1 Meta with a price tag of 4,500 euros each.

The Reference line has been KEF’s loudspeaker that has to offer top performance for decades. And by decades we actually mean ‘almost fifty years’. And yes, that’s a lot of history. But unlike many nostalgic hi-fi brands, KEF does not linger in the past with the Reference speakers. You will soon discover that if you look at the path that the Reference line has taken since its inception. A lot has changed since that first Reference Model 104aB from 1973. The generation that was introduced in 2014 already brought a series of innovations and a more modern design. Now it’s time for the next step, one that everyone expected. After all, KEF likes to use the fruits of its latest audio research in its top models. But their latest technology was in the cheaper oneLS50 models . An update for the Reference performance beast had to come and so we can now get started with the KEF Reference 1 Meta.

What 3-way bookshelf speaker
Frequency range 45 – 35,000 Hz (+/- 3dB)
Impedance 4 Ohms (with minimum of 3.2)
Sensitivity 85 dB/W/m
crossovers 450 and 2,100 Hz
Dimensions 44 x 20.5 x 42.2 cm
Weight 18.2kg

The benchmark

Fun fact: the Reference name was not originally a hi-fi stereotypical reference to indicate that the speaker was a ‘reference in its class’. However, a ‘perfect’ copy was used that served as a touchstone during manufacture, so that all Reference speakers that were built were of a consistent quality. So it was not just about performance but also about quality control . That was necessary in the seventies, when more loudspeaker brands had mixed reputations in that area.

Meanwhile, the Reference loudspeakers are positioned as benchmarks. They are loudspeakers that have to stand the comparison with competing top models. Showpieces also from the R&D department in Maidstone, UK, today headed by the widely respected young engineer Jack Oclee-Brown. So there is some evolution in these speakers – which is not surprising given half a century of development. Incidentally, the QC approach is still present. KEF says that each pair of Reference may deviate a maximum of 0.5 dB from the proposed standard. Consistency remains important.

At KEF, the Reference speakers are not the highest models. They are, however, the best speakers with a ‘conventional’ design. The Blade 1 and 2 and Muon that (literally) tower above the Reference are very groundbreaking in terms of industrial and acoustic design. The Reference family is also classically built, with the Reference 1 Meta upright speakers as entry-level speakers, the slim Reference 3 Meta floorstander as the middle class and the Reference 5 Meta as the largest column model. Two center speakers – the Reference 2 Meta and 4 Meta – and the Reference 8b subwoofer round off the whole. Although we must mention that there are also some high-end built-in speakers that strictly speaking belong to the Reference family. You can recognize them by the ‘REF’ reference in their model name. This makes it possible, for example, to build a home cinema and music room with separate Reference speakers for the stereo channels and built-in models for the surround channels. Of course it is a high-end project with a hefty price tag.

Modest size

You could call the Reference Meta 1 a bookshelf speaker. In terms of height and depth, that may still be true, the depth of 42 cm means that you would probably rather place it on a stand. KEF itself suggests the S-RF1 floor stand, for sale for 1,200 euros per pair and available in black or white.

A more unique feature of the Reference Meta 1 is its 3-way design. You don’t often come across this with more compact high-end speakers, simply because there is usually no room for a woofer, midrange and tweeter. At KEF it is possible, thanks to its Uni-Q driver.

This is a coaxial driver, which you could translate as ‘2-in-1’. After all, the tweeter is hung independently in the middle of the midrange driver. The Uni-Q driver is very recognizable by the striking waveguide in the middle. It always reminds us of the quarters of an orange. The cone around it moves independently of the center and spreads out the center frequencies. KEF is certainly not the only one who uses coaxial designs, but the British brand is really a convinced lover of the technology. Virtually all speakers it produces contain such a Uni-Q driver.

A major advantage of Uni-Q, which immediately applies to the Reference 1 Meta, is that it takes up little space. This speaker is 3-way and yet it’s no bigger than most 2-way rivals. More importantly, however, the Uni-Q driver allows both mids and highs to come from one point. That increases the sense of realism, because, say, the sounds of a piano are not distributed over drivers that are spread over the front of a speaker. So there is a higher phase coherence, with the added bonus that a KEF usually still sounds good up close. For example, the LS50 is also often used for nearfield listening.

Naturalness first

A first thing we always appreciate about the better KEFs is their coherence and excellent behavior in the time domain. The naturalness often referred to when talking about their speakers has to do with how that Uni-Q functions. It ensures that a very spacious and well-defined sound image is created. In combination with the Hegel H590 in our test room, we experience a very fascinating soundstage that comes at you in a grand and detailed way. Add to that flawless timing and ‘Hi-De-Ho’ and ‘Eosophobia’ on Jack White’s ‘Fear of the Dawn’ are delivered super tight. Not only does the Reference 1 follow every tempo change without hesitation in these psychedelic rock songs, every little effect and tone of a musical instrument is excellently positioned. Although these are upright speakers, we also do not immediately want an upgrade to a floorstander with a better layer extension. After all, KEF has the habit of providing its smaller speakers with good bass reproduction. Well, the Reference 1 isn’t that small either. But it still remains an all in all compact speaker. We are surprised by the strong bass tone around 41 Hz in Kimbra’s ‘Top of the World’.

We do believe that some people have to get used to the more neutral interplay of mid and high that rolls out of the Uni-Q driver. As a result, the Reference 1 may not immediately stimulate your ear with over-sharp details, but it can initially appear a bit flat. We believe that is the intention. His forté is creating something that comes across as very realistic and natural, and in the long run that will be the better option for many.

For example, we listen to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in E minor, originally recorded in 1975 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by von Karajan and recently reissued by Deutsche Grammophon. From CD, with a Project CD Box RS2 T-transport connected to the Hegel. It is striking how we can really imagine the orchestra in its entirety, playing there in the Berlin concert hall. Just as you would expect from Tchaikovsky, there is a lot of dynamics, with silent parts that swell into a grand symphony or suddenly explode. Those last dynamic jumps really don’t challenge the Reference 1 Meta. Although, as always with KEF, it is important to provide a good amplifier. For example, the Hegel H590 may provide more than is necessary for these speakers. Perhaps a cheaper H390 and perhaps an H190 will suffice. But it is grateful to have that enormous wealth of the Norwegian available.

Although it is already a few years old, ‘The Chopin Project’ remains a permanent stop in our test trajectory. Alice Sarah Ott’s hesitating piano playing on ‘Eyes Shut’ always moves, and that is certainly the case now. The honesty and purity of these Reference 1 Metas conveys all the information. As a result, you not only experience the instruments fully, you also really hear the space in which they are played. It probably also has to do with KEF’s concern not to create additional, unwanted sounds, but this speaker is also quiet. What do we mean by that? Not that the Reference 1 Meta can’t play loudly – ​​then the speaker can, of course, even thanks to the 2 x 301 Watts of de Hegel. However, with some tracks, such as more classic rock songs or techno, you can really hear the silence between notes. It’s measured, tight. Instruments that often play a secondary role, such as an electric bass, come through with more detail and character of their own. It all feels very accurate – but also well balanced.

Conclusion – KEF Reference 1 Meta

The MAT material was a major upgrade for the LS50. And that is also the case here. The Reference 1 Meta becomes even more of a speaker that ‘speaks the truth’. Apart from that technical improvement, the Reference 1 Meta is an excellent bookshelf loudspeaker of the highest class. Despite its more compact size, it delivers a very complete high-end display with an emphasis on naturalness and insight.

Pros

  • Perfect timing
  • True-to-life, coherent display
  • Very luxuriously finished
  • Honest, precise KEF sound great for vocals and stringed instruments
  • Bold bass performance for a standmount
Negatives

  • Deeper cabinet does not fit every stand
  • Correct match with amplifier required

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