Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Visit with the KEF iQ30 speakers

KEF was founded in 1961 by electrical engineer Raymond Cooke. KEF is known for several products, including the BB110 bass driver and T27 tweeter used in the famed LS3/5A broadcast monitor. Through the 70s and 80s, they pioneered the use of new materials and porting to speaker construction. 1988 saw the introduction of Uni-Q which became their signature driver. It’s a time-aligned coaxial driver using a neodymium tweeter where the dustcap is normally located. This unique construction allows KEF speakers to act like a true point-source and has excellent dispersion for listeners sitting off-axis. In the past, I’ve reviewed the vintage KEF C-75, Q30 and the Q60 speakers that first used the Uni-Q. I’ve always enjoyed these older speakers for their smooth midrange and coherent character. With a rounded treble and warm bass, their faults were always of omission– a perfect speaker for budget components and lower quality recordings.

When I decided to replace my Q60s with something that would better fit our latest decor, KEF immediately came to mind. So after some research, I purchased a pair of new iQ30 speakers from for $399. The iQ30 is a bookshelf speaker that uses a 6.5” Uni-Q driver inside a curved cabinet to minimize internal reflections. Of interest is the tangerine phase plug which reminds me of something that Altec-Lansing used on their vintage horn drivers.

Since this is a small speaker, I also needed to buy a pair of speaker stands. I decided on a pair of VTI UF Series stands from Racks and Stands. Sitting at 24 inches tall. these stands can also be filled with sand to increase stability. Since I have cats and kids, I went this route.

So how does the iQ30 stack up against its older brethren? Let’s find out.
I received the iQ30s three days after placing my order. Packaging was excellent and the speakers arrived without a scratch. This is one great looking speaker with a modern shape and look that works well with the Ikea Expedit shelves I use to store my records. However I found the stock bi-wire links to be troublesome so I replaced these with 18awg bare wire. I then replaced the Q60s with the VTI stands before placing the iQ30 speakers on top.

Initial listening impressions were very impressive. For such a small speaker, the sound is quite dynamic and punchy. The lowest bass is pretty much non-existent which is to be expected for a 6.5" driver. However the upper bass is very good and with pop music, I certainly don't feel like I'm missing much at all compared to the 8" driver in the KEF Q60. For such a small speaker, the iQ30s sound bigger than I expected. I used to run a pair of vintage KEF Q30 tower speakers which also use a single 6.5" driver, but they sounded nothing like this modern iteration of the Uni-Q. In comparison, the iQ30s have more definition, speed, treble extension and detail. Extended listening smoothed out the slightly aggressive treble and increased the resolution even further.
Though the KEF iQ30s are surprisingly dynamic for their size, listeners of bass heavy music will be happier with a larger speaker or an added subwoofer. But for the price, the iQ30s punch way above their class; offering a taste of high-end audio that is highly addictive. Resolution is excellent as is soundstage depth and width. There is a coherency to the sound that reminds me of speakers costing much, much more. Highly recommended, but with caveats since they are limited in bass and will work better in smaller rooms.
Power rating: 15-120W
Input impedance: 8 ohms
Tweeter: 0.75" aluminum tweeter
Midrange: 6.5" bass driver
Crossover: 2.5kHz
Cabinet design: Bass-reflex, ported cabinet
Sensitivity: 89dB
Maximum output: 110dB
Frequency response: 45Hz - 40kHz
Dimensions: 8.7"W x 14.4"H x 12.9"D ea
Weight: 14.8 lbs ea

Second System:Preamplifier: Audio Research SP-7
Amplifier: Audio Research D-52B
Analog: Dual CS-5000 turntable - Audio-Technica AT95E cartridge
Digital: Pioneer DVD-V7400
Speakers: KEF Q60
Speaker Cable: Canare 4S11 Quadlink
Interconnects: Cardas Crosslink

Update (03/26/13): It's rare for me to keep any audio component for so long, but the KEF iQ30 is a good looking and very competent performer.  I recently swapped them for the Spica TC-50s, using the KEF speakers in my main system.  I was very impressed - they handled bass and dynamics better than the Spicas, all while having a much more coherent sound.  With the improved front end and Eico amplifiers, they really do punch higher than their price suggests.  So now the Spicas reside in the second system while the KEFs stay with my more expensive setup.  In the future I would like to explore some more KEF products - perhaps the LS50 or Q300 monitors.