In conversation with KEF Audio

Last week, HiddenWires visited Kent, UK where it all started for audio manufacturer KEF. Jack Oclee-Brown, head of acoustics gives us an insight into where the company is headed as the audio market continues its rapid development.

What do you currently do in the CI space?

CI is an interesting category because I think people see it traditionally as almost commodotised. They see these white circles in the ceiling and they're kind of ubiquitous. If you don't know what you're looking for, the speakers just look the same.
 
But what we've seen is that in terms of in-home CI, it's becoming a really good option for a lot of customers. It's a way of getting audio into their whole house, and not having to compromise sound quality and that's where we've been focusing. We've got a huge amount of driver technology that we've developed for the whole of KEF's 58 years and there's a huge amount that suits in-ceiling or an in-wall situation really well. And for that customer who wants something that sounds great, but they don't necessarily want to see it or they want it to be more subtle, it's a really good way of offering them that. 

We have been slowly expanding our range over the years. We now try and offer the same kind of choice that we have on our traditional speakers – the Q Series range, an R Series range, and then more recently, the Reference Series range. 

KEF-REF-3-Blue-Ice-White

Typically when people are doing this, they are quite often talking about multiple rooms so you then need to offer better speakers for lounge areas, kitchen areas, and people still want something in bathrooms and bedrooms as well. So we're really trying to be the kind of brand where we can offer a solution across the board to everybody. 

I think one of the interesting things more recently is, when people get really into that, they don't necessarily want to hide every speaker. We do make speakers which really can disappear and you won't notice it until you turn them on and you hear great sound, but for their showpiece rooms like a home cinema, we've now got models where they're really starting to look good in the wall and you don't have to hide them away. It then becomes much more of a choice for the customer. Do I buy a traditional hi fi stereo system? Or should I get it integrated? And there are challenges with that to get it to sound as good as Blade or as good as a Reference 5, but you can get very close. And with specialist installation companies who will come and do the bespoke fitting and select equipment and build rare enclosures, you can get some systems that really close the gap. I think it's an area where we see a lot of potential.

Would you ever move into the invisible speaker market? 
We know that there are a companies doing it but I think right now the quality of the audio you get with a completely invisible speaker is not somewhere we would want to go. We don't think it's currently good enough to put KEF's name on it, but we are looking at everything we can do to offer close to invisible. We've got some products in the works where you can make them disappear a bit more than they already do. But I think the jump to completely hidden, like using the wall as a speaker, is a bit too much of a compromise for us right now. However, with a lot of our speakers, you can paint them, you can get them almost completely flush with the plaster and get them so they virtually disappear.

Do you see major developments in the CI market over the next five to 10 years and how audio will be installed into homes? 
I think that the big jump in attitude happened already to an extent. Probably about 10 years ago, people started to really push home automation, actually in CI first. I know at the moment we're seeing a big push in general consumer electronics, because of voice control and things like that, but the integration systems like Control4 were around before. And of course, on that side, there's going to be integration with the voice control and so on. 

KEF CI

I think for the speaker side, we can see more potential to offer higher quality systems that people are more used to with CI speakers. And then there's the question for us as to whether people want more than that. On our more traditional box-mount speakers, you've got products like LSX and LS50W where they have everything built in - electronics, DSP, streaming – we could do similar things on CI but we're not sure if that's what people want. It's normally the case that when people are installing in a house, they get a professional installation company and it's a big job, and they're doing several rooms with several speakers, and it's not a real big problem to have the speaker in one place and the electronics somewhere else. But we could of course do a fully integrated thing if we see there's a market for it. 

But to be honest, I think the acoustic technologies is one of the main areas that we're interested to push. Uni-Q is really good for CI because of its wide coverage of sound, especially in an in-ceiling application, as it's so important that you cover the whole room because if you move around the room, it still sounds good. If we take our products where we've used Uni-Q, in the in-ceiling speakers in particular, and you compare them to other products that don't have that technology, there's a really big difference. That's our kind of cornerstone really.

"We do make speakers which really can disappear and you won't notice it until you turn them on and you hear great sound, but for their showpiece rooms like a home cinema, we've now got models where they're really starting to look good in the wall and you don't have to hide them away."

How did the development of Uni-Q come about?
It was driven mostly from the high end hi fi side. With a high end loud speaker, you have to have several drivers. It's pretty much impossible to design one driver that can cover the whole sound bandwidth that you can hear. It's not a new technology; if you look at every high end loudspeaker for 50/60 years, they have got several drivers. But the shortcoming of that is that you very carefully split the sound up with the crossover and then you design each of your drivers very carefully. But ultimately, the sound is just left to add up as it travels towards the listener. So in most systems, that's relatively uncontrolled and the Uni-Q came about as a way of saying, ‘can we actually do this better? Can we control how these different parts of the audio spectrum add up?’ That was driven from a desire to make the sound quality better for normal stereo listening situations. 

It's a bit counterintuitive, but when you're listening to a speaker in a room, your brain is great at identifying where the speaker is so you get a mental image that all the sound is coming directly to you from the speaker. But there's an awful lot of sound that's coming off the walls. This sound is affected a lot by the directivity, even in a stereo system. But obviously, if you take it to specialist applications like CI where the listener might not be in front of the speaker and then it really comes to the fore.

REF-5-IMAGE

What is your opinion on acoustic treatments in home cinemas and media rooms? Is it important to have the room treated?
It is, but there's two sides to in-room sound. You have to think about what are the acoustics of the room? But then also, what does the source, in our case the speaker, do? You can take any room and you can put different speakers with different characteristics of how they direct sound into the room, and they will make the room sound different. So from our perspective, we know a lot of our products are going into people's normal living rooms or normal kitchens, and they're not in a position to dedicate the room to lots of acoustic treatments. That's really one of the reasons for Uni-Q is that we can control how the speaker directs sound into the room. So we try to do that in a way where it makes sure the acoustics you've already got sound as good as possible.

Having said that, if you have a situation where you have a dedicated room, and you can put some treatments in, then that's the icing to the cake. If you look around our listening rooms we do have treatment because we're trying to do things in a really controlled way when we're developing the product. We want to have a room that doesn't have a strong characteristic, otherwise we would develop things that wouldn't work in a range of situations. 

Most of our high end dealer network would offer a kind of service where they might provide some or give some advice on acoustic treatment, but it's not mandatory. You can get a pair of KEFs, stick them in a normal room and get sound that will put a smile on your face, so it's not mandatory.

I'm not against acoustic treatments, but you don't have to have ugly looking panels to have good acoustics. You can have rooms which, naturally because of the features they have and the furniture and things like curtains, just give it a nice acoustic anyway. But you do get rooms where there are problems, particularly constructions which have got very, very rectangular rooms without any features on the wall. In that situation, a bit of treatment can help. But the thing I also appreciate is that you're used to hearing sound in rooms all the time, you're quite good at dealing with what a room does. So in most cases, if you put a speaker in and it's designed thinking about that anyway, it's going to perform pretty well. So I can see both sides. 

anechoic chamber
The wall in KEF's anechoic chamber

I think the other thing is that there's quite a few situations where I've seen rooms that have been acoustically treated and they haven't been done very well. They've made environments which are too controlled and then everything sounds very dead, it's very lifeless and things just don't sound interesting. You even get situations where it's not a pleasant room to be in. We have an anechoic chamber here and it's a fascinating room. When you play things in there, you hear exactly the sound coming directly from the device or the speaker, but you don't want to hang out in there, it's quite unpleasant actually. I've come across lots of rooms where lots of effort and money's gone into treatment and I think, well, this has been done in a way that I probably will enjoy the system less than if it was just a normal room. I think it's seen as a bit of a black art, room treatment. There's an idea that you're trying to absorb as much as possible, but you're not necessarily going to get the best result. You need to find that happy medium and it depends what kind of room it is and having an expert who really knows what they're doing.

How do you work with designers on your speakers?
Part of KEF is that we offer a complete design, including industrial design, technology and engineering. And that gives us a challenge sometimes. KEF is a loudspeaker company, we make innovative technology, innovative acoustics, that is something that has to come first. And then the challenge for all of the engineering team is how do we combine that with something that people want to look at as well? But actually, in general, it's quite a nice experience. Most of the time, you can find something where the designer can understand what your requirements are and they can come up with a proposal where you think, ‘I didn't think of that and it works acoustically’. And that's the ideal. For me, that's really what sets apart the best industrial designers. 

In the world of design, there's lots of types of design and in fact, you have this hazy line between the sculpture and art. The industrial design in particular, it should be all about how do I get a form which achieves the performance, technical requirements and the manufacturing ability and is still a stunning thing to look at. I think we've been quite successful in our collaborations, for example with Ross Lovegrove and Eric Chan on Blade and coming up with these incredible shapes where they really work acoustically as well.

KEF-BLADE-Lifestyle_Spread

The best case scenario is when we have a very clear idea of acoustically where we go but we try not to tie things down too much. We just tell them what we need for the acoustics and leave everything open for them to then direct us. And when you get it right and it all comes together, that's when it works best. I mean, there are some projects where you get people pulling in different directions. The joke is always that the speaker designer wants to make the product as big as possible, the industrial designers want to make it as small as possible, and the project manager wants to make it as cheap as possible. There's truth behind that but in a professional working team, you all have to say, ‘what is my red line of compromise?’ And then there are also things where you can have tricky working sessions where you say, ‘actually, that's not going to work for me because of these reasons’. And that is the catalyst then to the second version of the design, which is something nobody would have ever reached without this process. So yeah, it is enjoyable.

What is next for KEF?
I think that the thing that we see is that the appetite for good sound is just as big as it ever has been. The number of consumers consuming audio is probably bigger than ever as well. If you look at all of the ways that you can get hold of high quality music, there's probably never been a time where it has been more available. We know that we have the technology to deliver somebody's music in a way that's going to take their breath away. But we have to make sure that we're also providing them with systems they really want to own as well. Our traditional market of a person who wants to mix and match and buy some speakers and an amplifier and probably steadily build their system over years and years, but that doesn't appeal to people who have grown up with streaming and Bluetooth and wireless headphones. We want to offer our technology in a way that's really accessible and LSX and LS50W are the two products which are exploring that especially. So LSX systems sound really good by anybody's standard. We're quite proud of all the great reviews we've had from traditional audiophiles, but equally, you can hand them over to somebody who has never set up a pair of speakers, and hopefully can plug it all in and get it working and be wowed by it as well. And that's the sweet spot for us, a scenario where we're trying to go. And the thing that's great about that is that it's totally in harmony with normal technology. Technology we develop for CI, or develop for hi fi, equally applies to this area. It's all really still trying to create the best possible sound experience we can.

TSeries_lifestyle black stand

With the appetite for audio growing, is it harder than ever to compete? 
I'm not sure it is. I think it's harder for us to reach people. The 80s were the hi fi boom years, but even the 90s people were aware of hi fi and if they wanted better sound, that's where they would go, but maybe that connection's been lost a bit.

But in terms of competition, we're used to competition. In hi fi there's really stiff competition to produce good speakers and we've produced some of the best, we have the technology to do it. And I think the challenges is having a whole load of people who love music, but they don't know what they're missing by not having a good system and finding those people is our challenge.
 

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