Pros: Amazing detail retrieval, decent soundstage for a small can, high end engineering and construction
Cons: Slightly dubious fit, can be a little wobbly on the head when walking around
KEF are a speaker manufacturer of the old heritage, stuffy hi-fi systems with mortgage level speakers. As has been the case with many audio manufacturers, the headphone sector is where it is hot right now and everyone (KEF included) are wanting a piece of the pie.
This is KEF's first stab at a headphone, and very good it is too.
Price point if around the £250 mark which puts it up against the benchmark in this area, the Sennheiser Momentum, themselves an amazing headphone that turns audiophile heads.
So, what does your money get you? Firstly, the KEF is well packaged, the box has a magnetic-closure opening flap that gives info on the cans. Open the box up and the cans are encased neatly in their lovely zip-up, semi-hard case. A previous reviewer compared the case as being like a large sunglasses case, a fair and accurate comparison. Everything feels pretty high grade at this point but one detail lets it down, the case sits in a cheapo plastic tray within the box. The Momentums rest in regal fashion in a die cut foam interior, probably more expensive to make but so sweet looking.
Anyway, nothing to freak out about, the cans themselves are the main attraction here, not the box. So, inside the zip-up case we have the cans themselves, two flat tangle-free cables (one with microphone and volume switch for iphone use), a 6.5mm adaptor and an in-flight adaptor. The package all fits in the case very neatly.
The cans themselves are very nice looking, made from brushed aluminum and black pleather. Opening removing them from the case the smart hinges unfold and the cans pop into place. The headband has friction adjustability but the even the smallest setting is pretty big, my noggin is by no means tiny and I barely need to adjust it from minimum to get a good fit.
The headband is well padded, maybe a little slick as it can move on the head a wee bit if you rock out too hard. Other reviews have mentioned that the KEF's don't sit too snugly on the head and I have to agree, the headbands' slippery feel and the fact that the cans don't grip your head that tightly make it a little wobbly at times. However, if you find the sweet spot on your head they sit not too bad.
The speaker units are very unique here, they are hinged within the aluminum surround and swivel slightly, the speakers themselves are pleather coated and sit on the ear. The padding on the ear consist of pleather covered memory foam and they are supremely comfortable on-ear. You don't get that closed in feel and the cans offer pretty good sound isolation, a pretty unique and well thought out combination of features.
The cable attaches to the rear of the left unit and is tucked out of the way, again a welcome and well thought out feature.
Okay, so what about the sound? Well, I was both excited and disappointed upon plugging these in. Let me explain.
I am firmly in the Sennheiser camp, I have used their products for years and love them. KEF come from a different angle, they make high end speakers and their technology has obviously filtered into these cans. Immediate impressions upon first listen were that the detail was there but not the sparkle.
As I burnt the cans in and listened to them extensively I began to realise that these cans are good, very good indeed. What makes them different is that they have a fairly flat response curve throughout the bass, mid and treble frequencies. There seems to be very little apparent flavour added to the sound, a move that is brave and leaves little room for error. Lesser cans will usually add bass hump to give the impression of better sound reproduction. KEF are going out on a limb by adding little to no flavour to the EQ of these cans, this seems to offer an all or nothing experience. Either the cans are excellent or they will suck, there is not middle ground here.
Initially my thoughts were that they sucked, they sounded flat and lacked sparkle, however, I am a firm believer of the burning-in of headphones so wasn't ready to judge them straight out of the box. After a good twenty hours of listening they seem to have opened up a good deal and a bit of life has come into them.
I am waffling here so lets get in to specifics. For listening I use the following lineage
ipod classic > rockboxed > Fiio amp from dock out > FLAC files
Sandisk Sansa Clip > rockboxed > FLAC files
As I type this review I am listening to the War of the Worlds on my Sandisk player. Detail retrieval is amazing, I can hear notes and weird alien purrs that have not been apparent before, even with my Momentums. There is no bias to the sound, the bass is tight and well rendered, mids are beautifully detailed and there is not a hint of sibilance to the treble. An involving and emotionally well rendered listening experience.
It seems to me that the voice coil in these cans is something to behold, the surety and presentation of the notes in the music is something that is so confident and assured that it takes some getting used to. As my ears overcome this lack of EQ bias I find myself reaching for these cans more and more. I am a bit of a detail monster, I love hearing the same passage of music on successively better equipment and hearing more and more from the original recording. The KEF's deliver on this in spades.
Next up on the listening list is Imagine Dragons - It's Time. Thoughts are that the vocals are badass, the singer sort of spits his words out and you can hear this with the KEF's, the strings are well rendered, the bass is tight without dominating. Again the feeling of slight flatness comes across, each section of the song is well presented and nothing is pushed forward, the sensation is slightly strange. But then the chorus kicks in and somehow you are drawn in by the notes.
Johnny Cash - Hurt - is up next. Guitar notes are lush and sweet, the vocals have amazing detail, the echo-less whispered Cash vocals that seem to be a signature of the American Recordings series are are just brilliant. The building sibilance in the notes can be detected very early in this piece. Beautiful, just amazing, a song that draws tears and the KEF's will have you pulled in.
Mumford and Sons - Awake My Soul - wow! Detail, nice echo to the vocals, strings are just wow. Yes. Bass sends shivers down the spine. Yeah!
Hurts - Miracle - again brilliant. A busy, complex piece that is well presented with no dubiety as to the place of each instrument in the mix.
Throughout my listening sessions with these cans I find myself consistently impressed with two things. First, the aforementioned detail retrieval and confident presentation, secondly, the soundstage is fairly expansive for cans with suck small drivers. This is an area that certainly outshines the Momentums by a considerable margin. I believe the soundstage is due, in no small part, to the earpads, they offer good sound isolation but don't feel enclosed and sealed like the Momentums, they are getting near open backed cans in soundstage width and depth without the concomitant issue of sound leakage and isolation. A very interesting and well engineered aspect of these cans.
So, what do I think about these cans? Well, the flat response takes some getting used to, having been so used to flavoured EQ it feels initially quite flat but, once you get used to the way these cans present their music you begin to understand how bloody good they are. The voice coil is very high end, the detail presented here is just fabulous. More vocal and string oriented pieces seem to be the forte of these cans. Everything is tight, well defined and just begs to be paired with good source material.
I would highly recommend using better than MP3 files on these cans or you may be disappointed, the detail retrieval is such that any lossy format will be exposed for what it is. FLAC files simply shine through these cans.
If you like your cans able to play busy, complex pieces of music with effortless ease, consummate style and a mature, grown-up presentation then gives these an audition.
I am tempted to throw an extra star up there as this is really is a high end package, the only niggle is the slight wobble of the cans on the head. The flat response is not a fault, more an observation and certainly nothing that can be held against KEF.
A brilliant and intoxicating pair of headphones.