There are few UK based audio companies with quite the history and pedigree of KEF. KEF has been a fixture in Maidstone, in the UK’s South Eastern corner, since 1961 and was once one of the town’s significant manufacturing employers. But although these days only the company’s high-end speakers are still manufactured at the original location, KEF’s long-held traditions of investment in electro-acoustic ideas, analysis, engineering and technological development are clearly in rude health.
I’ve been involved in the UK speaker industry since the early 1980s and have visited more than my fair share of speaker companies and factories, but remarkably, until late December 2017, I’d never visited KEF. The invitation to put that right came from KEF’s Director of Acoustics, Jack Oclee-Brown thanks to my writing a review feature on the LS50 Wireless in Sound On Sound magazine. Jack was kind enough to show me and a couple of other guests around, and patiently to answer a barrage of questions.
The tour began in the Museum where examples of KEF models from the early 60s to the present day are displayed. It makes for a fascinating narrative, not only of a company obviously becoming more ambitious and technologically advanced, but also of customers demanding increasingly sophisticated and more overtly “designed” answers to the same basic question: that of playing music in the home.
Following on from the Museum, the R&D department demonstrates, perhaps above all else, just what is now possible with simulation tools to enable speakers to be designed and analysed virtually. And it’s not just mechanical and industrial design that can be done, “in the box”. Electro-acoustic simulation has reached a point at KEF where it’s possible to imagine, in the not too distant future, virtual models of complete speakers and rooms that could be “rendered” listenable over headphones.
From the R&D department we moved to the measurement and analysis areas where both the small anechoic chamber and much larger measurement room are located. The measurement room is simply a very large open space. A speaker is positioned in the middle of the space, stimulated with a test signal, and its impulse response captured and gated before the arrival of the first wall, floor or ceiling reflections. These digital measurement techniques, now commonplace in electro-acoustic design, were pioneered by KEF in the 1970s and their development has been hugely influential in the company’s technological success since. If it existed now at all, KEF would I think be a very different organisation if it hadn’t been so committed 40 years ago to the ground-breaking development of advanced digital measurement techniques.
On to KEF’s now relatively modest manufacturing facility, where the Muon, Blade and the Reference Series products are produced. Along with areas dedicated to stores and testing, the space is divided into manufacturing bays. There is no traditional production line, instead, each bay is occupied by a manufacturing technician who build, tests and packs pairs of speakers from scratch.
Our final stop was an area alongside the Museum that’s used as a listening space. A pair of Blades in Lamborghini green were set up and on a wide range of material they left us in little doubt that KEF’s measurement, analysis and technologically driven approach to speaker design and engineering is very hard to argue against. I’d experienced the Blade once before, at an audio exhibition in Munich, and felt then that it was easily one of the most convincing speakers I’d ever heard. Hearing it again in Maidstone, I had no reason to change that opinion. Many thanks are due to Jack and his colleagues for a fascinating and rewarding day.