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  KEF Instant Theatre System

      Date posted: June 10, 2006


KEF Instant Theatre System
$ 1299 CAN (stands $299)

Distributor: Lenbrook Industries,
633 Granite Court, Pickering,
Ontario L1W 3K1
(905) 831-6333
FAX 831-6936
www.lenbrook.com

www.kef.com

(Reprinted from the Spring 2006 Issue)

      To many the very idea of a high-end home theatre in a box may seem like an oxymoron, but that’s exactly what renowned British loudspeaker maker KEF has set out to do with the Instant Theatre. At first glance it looks dangerously like a “lifestyle” product, and I suppose that in the minds of marketers and retailers it most certainly is, but it’s important to remember that we’re dealing with a company that has produced more than its fair share of high-end, and highly regarded, loudspeakers since its founding in 1961. KEF’s history has also been characterized by innovation. In 1988, for instance, they developed the Uni-Q driver system, which placed a tweeter at the center of a mid/bass speaker cone, making for a much more precise point source and better imaging over a wider listening area.

      Uni-Q technology lives on in almost all KEF products and the Instant Theatre is no exception. In fact, when you’re trying to duplicate the sound of six speakers with three, it’s a distinct advantage, something I’ll elaborate on below. When you’re tying to make a “lifestyle” product, however, packaging, cosmetics and simplicity are top priorities, and here KEF’s designers and engineers have outdone themselves. The Instant Theatre is made up of only four pieces (excluding stands): the DVD/control unit, left and right speakers, and the subwoofer/amplifier. Wiring the bits together, the very idea of which seems to instill paroxysms of fear into the type of consumers who purchase “lifestyle” products between non-fat, fair trade, organic soy lattes, is about as simple as could be. Proprietary, idiot-proof, multi-pin cables (with plugs and sockets that can only be connected one way - correctly) connect the amplifiers in the subwoofer cabinet to the speakers and the DVD/Control unit. A huge fold-out “quick start” diagram should ensure that even the most technologically challenged consumer or audio writer should be able to get the system up and running with minimal “cable panic”.

      The components themselves add up to a system which exudes minimalist elegance. I’m not sure a home theater system, short of a custom, built-in solution, could be any more unobtrusive. No part of the Instant Theatre is any bigger than absolutely necessary. Measuring only 9.3″H x 4.7″W x 10.2″D this is certainly true of the KIT 100 speakers, which can sit next to a video display on their little platforms, or on the custom stands. The speakers are really the jewels of this system, their build quality and highly innovative engineering separating the Instant Theatre from any other home theater in a box. And for those of you thinking the Instant Theatre might be a little on the pricey side, a close look at these speakers will likely dispel that notion very quickly.

      The KIT 100 is a beautifully made little speaker, more solid and substantial and any home theater package speaker I’ve ever seen and by a large margin. The enclosures are made of a die cast aluminum sandwich, which accounts for their ingot-like inertness. Being of such a complex and unusual shape I imagine they are also very difficult and expensive to manufacture, and I shudder to think what the tooling must have cost KEF.

      The circular bulge at front houses a Uni Q driver array with a 4″ cone and 0.6″ tweeter. Driver materials are not specified, but the tweeter is visibly a metal dome design and the cone looks an awful lot like polypropylene or some very similar material. It’s behind the more conventional cone and tweeter things get more interesting. Firing towards each side wall is an NXT flat panel driver, which, in this application, is used to simulate surround speakers in a manner similar to Yamaha’s YSP-1 Digital Sound Projector (reviewed by AM in the Fall 2005 issue). The positioning of the speaker/panel (note that they must be toed in aggressively) in concert with some digital psychoacoustic trickery bounces rear channel information off the side walls in such a way that the listener perceives this sound to be coming from behind. NXT panels involve a fundamentally different approach to reproducing sound than traditional pistonic drivers. “NXT panels,” explains the NXT website (www.nxtsound.com), “operate in an entirely different way, by initiating and exploiting multiple, organized bending resonances in the panel. This distributed-mode behaviour results in complex vibration, which in turn creates the sound you hear.” After being introduced a few years back NXT technology is starting to make its way into a variety of products, but mostly little multi-media speakers and other mass-market consumer devices. Few, if any, of these products, however, have the sonic aspirations of the Instant Theatre.

      Aside from the five channels of amplification inside and the proprietary wiring for the rest of the system, the subwoofer is more conventional. The enclosure is sealed and uses one 10″ long throw driver firing sideways. While not as bomb-proof as the satellite speakers the sub is nonetheless very nicely made, featuring a well-braced enclosure and an attractive mirror finish face. Aside from the connections for the DVD/control unit and speakers it also includes a pair of analog RCA outputs for multi-room configurations. As for the internal amplifiers KEF is again cagey on details, calling them simply “high power” amplifiers. They’re obviously compact and lack any significant heatsinking, both very good indications that the amps are probably digital.

KEF KIT-100

      Finally we arrive at the heart of the system, the KIT100 DVD. Like the speakers the DVD player/control center for the system seems to be built to withstand a minor apocalypse. It’s constructed from die cast zinc and is every bit as solid and inert as the KIT 100s. It will play all manner of 5″ silver discs (excluding SACDs), including data discs containing MP3s, and also includes a full featured AM/FM tuner. Naturally Dolby Digital is supported, as are Dolby Pro Logic II, Dolby surround and DTS.

      For what’s meant to be a one-box home theatre solution the KIT 100 DVD includes a surprising number of audio inputs. There are three in total, and they can be configured to use analog stereo or coax spdif digital. There’s also one optical digital in and even a coax digital out, allowing the KIT 100 DVD to be used as a stand-alone DVD player. Video inputs are S-Video or composite and video output can be either component, S-Video or composite. The KIT 100 DVD is also completely Europe friendly, featuring a SCART video output for PAL televisions, and, naturally, PAL video output capabilities. Controls on the unit’s face are so small and difficult to see from a distance that they border on useless, but as is usually the case, most users will control the unit via the remote the vast majority of the time.

      As with everything else on the Instant Theatre setup is made as straightforward as possible. The on-screen menus are clear and intuitive, allowing you to select the type of television (4:3 or 16:9), the video standard (PAL, NTSC or auto), the DVD output format (interlaced or progressive scan) and calibrate the speakers. The calibration routine is simple, cycling through the channels one by one and allowing the user to balance their respective levels for best in-room performance. Dynamic range control is also offered, compressing the dynamics for times when you don’t want to disturb others in KEF Instant Theatre DVD/Control centerthe house. What’s more useful in this regard, is the direct control of the subwoofer level offered right on the remote, a feature I made use of regularly not only to keep the noise down when needed, but to balance the system for different sources. Other nice touches include detailed on-screen menus for the tuner (displaying station presets, etc) as well as for MP3 playback (allowing the selection of tracks from a menu). And just in case little Johnny decides that David Lynch’s Blue Velvet might be a nice way to spend a winter afternoon, there are even parental control features which will prohibit the playback of certain films unless a pre-assigned password is entered. The DVD in question, however, must broadcast it’s rating to the player in order for this to work. If not Johnny may be haunted by the image of Dennis Hopper wearing an oxygen mask for some time, and nobody needs that.

Lifestyle Sound or Sound Lifestyle?

     I listened to the Instant Theatre in my smallish den (about 12′ x 15′) with the subwoofer sounding best about two feet from the left wall, and about 18″ out from the rear wall. The speakers sat initially on the TV stand on either side of my 32″ Sony XBR Wega television, and then later on the dedicated stands (the stands, by the way, are also very pretty little skyscrapers of extruded aluminum with little channels in which to hide the cables from view).

      It may look like a HTIB, albeit an elegant one, but sonically it certainly doesn’t bear much resemblance to any “lifestylel” system I’ve ever heard. The little KIT 100 speakers are extremely clean and articulate transducers and could hold their own with mini-monitors of very high pedigree. The die cast aluminum cabinet construction pays huge sonic dividends, helping the speakers not only disappear acoustically, but freeing them from the boxy colorations which can plague traditional speakers. This is a big part of why the speakers sound so clean, contributing also to excellent timbral and tonal accuracy. The KEFs painted a remarkably smooth and neutral sonic portrait. The tweeters are particularly good, never falling prey to the kind of sizzly or tizzy sound which can plague “budget” HTIB systems. What’s left is delicate, clean, generously detailed sound, which, although crisp, avoids ever sounding harsh or fatiguing.

     Living up to the theoretical promise of their design, the imaging of the Uni Q drivers was first rate. The phantom centre channel was as precise and solid as I’ve heard and, by its very nature, had the advantage of being placed right in the middle of the screen as opposed to above or below (as would occur with a physical centre channel speaker unless used through a perforated screen).

     Although not quite in the same league as the satellites, the subwoofer acquitted itself well. Bass was solid and very well controlled, but only up to a point. At moderate levels the sub could fool you into thinking it was quite a lot larger and more powerful than it actually is, but, when the going really got tough, it began to draw some attention to itself, sounding strained and occasionally thumpy. A 10″ driver in a smallish sealed box can only do so much, and go so deep, so if you’re fond of action movies and/or have a large room, you’ll need to bear this in mind. It simply can’t energize a room the way a pair of 12 inchers can.

KEF Instant Theatre Subwoofer

     And what of our virtual rear channels? Well those expecting to hear phantom surrounds the way they hear a phantom centre channel will be in for a letdown. With the speakers carefully placed on the stands I got reasonable surround performance (quite a bit better than with the speakers sitting next to the TV). It wasn’t particularly precise, or perfectly timbre matched to front channels (the NXT panels have a noticeably different acoustic signature than the traditional drivers), but when the soundtrack called for it I could hear things happening at the far sides of the room and occasionally in the back corners. It was a little like stereo on steroids when the surrounds kicked in, presenting a super-wide soundstage, but not quite what most people would call surround. My room is rectangular, which should help the psychoacoustic effect, but the side walls are not simple, flat surfaces, but covered on one side by windows and a radiator and on the other by a closet and bookcase. The acoustic diffusion caused by these things probably diluted the bounce effect somewhat and may have diminished the effectiveness of the surround performance. With this system you actually want a strong first reflection point on your side walls! If you’re looking for a system for an asymmetrical or complex space where the speakers will not be able to “bounce” the surround signals off sidewalls, the kind of virtual surround of systems like the KEF might not be the best solution.

     Virtual surround aside, the Instant Theatre made for very enjoyable movie watching, and I watched plenty on the system. Perhaps the toughest test was Miracle, the story the 1980 US Olympic hockey team’s unlikely victory over the Soviets at the Lake Placid Olympics. I worked on the film as an assistant picture editor and know its soundtrack intimately. I not only spent every day at the mix, the editor and I created much of the initial sound design in the cutting room. The hockey sequences in the film are by far the most elaborate and realistic ever filmed and the sound during these sequences is extremely dense, combining not only dozens of tracks of hockey effects but crowd, music, dialog and play by play commentary by the announcers. Keeping all these competing elements coherent and distinct, and not letting any one of them bury the others, was perhaps the biggest mixing challenge. Nor surprisingly, this kind of soundtrack density presents a similar challenge to playback equipment.

     The KEF system did a very good job on Miracle, maintaining its composure and coherence even in the most frantic moments of the big game. There is a lot of crowd noise in the surrounds during the game sequences and it could be heard coming out of the rear corners of the room. The virtual surrounds had a tendency to sound a little thin and occasionally phasey, but they were certainly present and definitely heightened the effect of the movie. In fact, even when there was minimal activity in the surrounds, the Instant Theatre did a very good job of conveying the scale of large spaces. Perhaps the most telling thing is that I was totally drawn into the movie, even though I’ve seen it countless times. I could have used a little more authority in the bottom end, and a dedicated center may have helped a little with dialogue intelligibility during the busiest sequences, but there was little else to fault.

     The KEF’s smoothness and musicality was highlighted by a completely different DVD: Festival Express. The film is a documentary about a music festival which traveled across Canada by train in 1970, featuring performances by The Greatful Dead, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, The Band and (inexplicably) Sha Na Na, among others. As a documentary it seemed a bit of an afterthought and the viewer is left wanting to see much more of what happened on that train and behind the scenes (there is, however, a hilarious moment when, having run out of booze, the train stops in Saskatoon, cash is collected, and the musicians empty the closest liquor store). It does, however, make for a fascinating concert film and the sound is truly excellent. In fact, it’s some of the best live concert sound I’ve ever heard and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a DVD sound so much like analog before. The KEF system certainly did it justice, sounding consistently sweet, musical, and unfailingly smooth throughout.

     I didn’t pay very much attention to video quality, and perhaps this is a tacit complement to the Instant Theatre since I was certainly never troubled by anything that looked like inadequate video performance. My 32″ interlaced Sony Wega, while an outstanding NTSC set, is not nearly as revealing as an HD display, but movies through the KEF looked great on it. When compared to my old Panasonic DVD A-310 DVD player I felt the KEF machine had a slight edge in terms of sharpness and freedom from artifacts. If you’re serious enough about video quality to find significant fault with the KEF system then you’re almost certainly also the kind of person who would be more inclined to assemble a more serious, component based home theater system anyway.

     And this brings us back to the basic premise of the Instant Theatre. This is a system designed for people who want an elegant, “set it and forget it” home theater solution without a drastic compromise in sound or picture quality. In this regard the Instant Theatre succeeds brilliantly, offering extremely good two channel performance, a decent surround experience (in the appropriate room) and good video performance in a package that would make an interior decorator smile.

Aaron Marshall

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