Sunday, September 4, 2011
B&W Vs KEF - And the Winner Is?
I wish it were that simple. I'll tell you this much, when pitting the B&W CDM 9NT against the KEF 105.2, I was forced to make a tough decision and admit some uncomfortable truths. First of all, if anyone of you has been following the KEF 105.2 sale on Audiogon, you may have noticed that I've raised the price to $1,500 for the pair. I've also pulled them from CraigsList. Why? Good question. It all came down to some critical listening tests I've done over the past few days.
The fist speaker comparison I performed was between the B&W CDM 9NT and my KEF Reference Two speakers that have been my, well, 'reference' for mid-priced quality loudspeakers for over two years. The result here was that, in almost every way, the B&W beat the KEF Reference Twos. Bass extension, midrange and treble clarity... the list goes on. Not that there was a "night and day" difference. That's why the comparison needed over a month to complete. Had this been a slam dunk, you would have been reading about it in early August. The result? I sold one of my pairs of KEF Reference Twos last night. Still have another pair, in rosewood, that's in my office. I'm keeping these for the time-being, but if you REALLY must have a pair in excellent condition - shoot me a line.
Now, on to the KEF 105.2 story. Posting these great speakers for sale was not an easy choice, but I simply needed the room. The addition of the B&W 801 S2 pair and the CDM 9NT was creating a clutter condition more akin to hording than collecting. After the KEF Reference Two had gone up against the CDM 9NT, I felt it only fair to give the 105.2 one last chance at saving itself. Turns out that the CDM 9NT got a run for its money.
The KEF 105.2 proved equal in the bass - both extension and overall "punch," and much more natural and more mellow in the mids and highs than the B&Ws. Where the Reference Two was lacking clarity in these two critical tonal areas, the 105.2 held onto clarity and brought a true-to-instrument naturalness that I had forgotten they possess. I'm so glad I took the time to listen carefully to these speakers again. After only an hour or so, I pulled the CL sales advert and adjusted the price up to "extreme gear enthusiast" level on Audiogon. If someone wants these for $1,500 - we'll talk, but it's gonna take that kinda scratch for me to consider letting them go.
How did the CDM 9NT compare to the 105.2? Pretty darn well, actually. The one characteristic that takes getting used to on the CDM 9NT is the forwardness (read: brightness) of the midrange. That 6.5" surround-less midrange driver packs a serious punch, and throws vocals right through your eardrums. This is fine for most purposes, and I suppose desirable for movie soundtracks where vocals often are lost, but for casual listening? Notsomuch.
I tested several vocal tracks, but kept coming back to Sade's Diamond Life album. "Your Love is King" sounded cool and natural on the KEF 105.2, but Sade's voice plowed right through me on the CDM 9NT. It actually was quite grating. Switching back to the 105.2, I realized that these KEF speakers offered the kind of "all-day-listening" that most people seek in quality loudspeakers. Listener fatigue can be caused by many things - muddy or sloppy bass is one I've experienced recently, but brightness in the mids and highs is another. Everyone is different though. Upon hearing the same Sade song on the B&W, a friend noted that the detail was amazing. His take was that the KEF's, although plenty good, sounded muted in comparison.
As I've noted before, when it comes to comparing speakers, it all comes down to personal taste. Specs mean nothing once you get past the Best Buy listening room speaker stock and on to more vintage or higher-end, specialty speakers. Whenever possible, take time to listen and compare speakers prior to making a purchasing decision. This is rarely an option, and I've bought plenty of speakers with only hearing a selected track or two, so I'm asking you to do as I say, not as I always do.
You can get speaker recommendations from a friend, an online blog (hello!), or someone who claims to have a golden ear, but the only ears that you have to satisfy are your own. If nothing else, remember this from this post: If a vocal or musical passage seems grating to your ears or even slightly unpleasant, regardless of how the speakers shine in other areas - beware! Remember that these speakers may, eventually, end up in a primary listening space, and all-day listening comfort will become a concern.
So now what? As soon as I hit "publish," I'm going back up to the loft to move the KEF 105.2 back into position and pump some tunes through them, enjoying every single natural, sweet note.