KEF R3 Meta Speaker Review. Juicy Beats.
By Steve Huff
Wow, I can not believe it is already May of 2023. I have been able to hear so many amazing audio products this year alone and they just keep flowing in for review. It seems my reviews in the audio realm have been taking off, getting more popular! I thank all of you who have watched my videos and read these pages over the years. I try to improve my reviews with each and every one that I do and am glad that some of you enjoy them. I’m just a guy who loves to write and talk about things I like, and audio is one of them.
The Diablos have been without question one of the finest sets of bookshelf speakers I have heard in my life but it took careful system matching and setup to get there as they are picky little buggers when it comes to associated gear and setup.
I still love some of the designs from Sonus Faber, Fleetwood Sound, Klipsch, Tannoy, B&W, Devore and quite a few other speaker makers though. I do not have an all out favorite brand today but I do enjoy the sound of most KEF speakers because I find they have a unique sound, just to them. They always seem to be a popular choice due to the quality offered for the price asked. They often punch above their price class and this is a good thing.
Over the last year I have been able to hear some stunning speakers. The Buchardt S400 II are one set that come to mind. That special Fauna edition blew me away for what I was getting for the cost. I have also heard speakers from Harbeth (also beautiful) and Emotiva this year (budget champs).
The KEF LS 50 Metas are smaller than the R3 and are beloved by many audio fans.
I tried to remember the last KEF Speakers I have heard. After much thought, I believe that they were the LS50 Meta. To me the Meta was an improvement over the originals that I found to be crazy good at detail extraction but super weak on bass (sub would be needed for me). I remember being enthralled with the original LS50 for the energy, excitement and detail they produced, I just wanted more bass from them as at the time I did not own a subwoofer.
The LS 50 Meta’s were better (than the OG) for sure and they are very well regarded speakers with fans all over the world. They are not priced into the stratosphere yet expose the details from music in a sweet crispy fluid way with more warmth than before. They can wow you with a remarkably crisp soundstage and imaging. Not the most full bodied sounding little things but impressive with more of an “audiophile” flair to the sound.
KEF says it is due to their Uni-Q Driver as this is something that sets KEF apart from other speaker makers.
I do remember hearing the original R3’s at a dealer when they came out and I walked away a little bit uninspired in that short 20 minute audition. In fact I was all set to buy them that day and had the cash in my pocket to do so because I fell for the looks of the brown set with the sheer grille.
After listening though, we walked out, both Debby and I saying “Let’s keep looking”.
I fell for the looks and was hoping for an LS50 with more bass. It wasn’t quite like that though as I found the sound a little too polite and without much bass, again. To me they sounded a little thin in the mids as well. Maybe it was the room or the setup but they didn’t touch my heart during that audition. They were great speakers just not what I was looking for at that time.
ENTER THE 2023 KEF R3 META. Will I like them this time?
When KEF asked me if I would like to review the new R3 Meta I was all in. It took a while to get a pair from them but when they arrived I was excited to see how these would sound compared to Buchardt speakers, and even my reference Focal’s. I was also excited to really set them up in my own room and system, knowing I will hear them how they were meant to be heard.
The packaging was very good and kept the speakers protected during shipping and this is in line with other speakers in this price range. Not better but not worse. As I slipped them out of the protective wrapping I saw these were the Piano Black versions.
I love the look of the gloss black but have to say that KEF should include a pair of gloves here as just setting them up was getting them full of fingerprints. Keep this in mind if choosing a color. Paino Black will show every fingerprint as well as dust or fine scratches. These also come in white and a beautiful walnut.
Once set up I do have to admit that the piano black finish looked quite striking. They were set up where my Focal Diablo usually go and the KEF’s are just as tall but a few inches thinner. I was using my Falcon Acoustic stands from my old LS3/5a’s and the speakers fit just fine on them, but my Dynaudio stand 6 would be better still as these are not tiny speakers.
The R3 Meta is a three way speaker so I was expecting some decent bass here though upon reading the specs, KEF says they go down to 38hz which tells me they should be pumping out some deep bass.
I looked over the speaker front to back, top to bottom and the build was very nice, about in line for a $2500 speaker (These are $2200). The binding posts where you connect your speaker cable was not as robust as I am used to but they do the job and look super nice. They are nicer than some other speakers I have seen in this price range quite honestly. The speakers are also able to be bi-wired if you own bi-wire cables and can also be bi-amped.
As I sat in my sweet spot and stared at them I thought “If these $2200 speakers get even close to my $24,000 speakers I am going to cry”. Well, not really but these speakers enchanted me already with the looks and I was hoping for a clean sound, an airy sound and a beautiful smooth yet detailed sound with enough bass to make it all stick together. I was excited to hear them.
The R3 Meta do not seem to be a super easy drive as they are 87DB efficient and come in at 4 ohms though the specs say they can be driven with as little as 15 watts. I have a tube amp here as well as two reference level class D amps that have enough power to peel the walls in my small room.
I decided to start out with my reference Aavik U-150 integrated as it has plenty of juice to power any speaker with authority. It also has a refined, smooth and open sound that is quite magical indeed with a hint of warmth and also some sweet sparkle up top. I prefer it to any other integrated I have heard in life and not by a small margin. It’s a special piece for many reasons and you can read more about it in my review HERE.
I was ready to see what a modern day $2200 speaker can sound like from a very well respected audio company. I was ready to settle in and get going but first I had to run these in for a few days. After about 50 hours I started to listen and I kept listening, and listening, and listening. They did open up after just 2-3 hours and a little more after 30 hours. By 50 hours they were sounding pretty much where they ended up throughout their stay here.
Out of the box they sounded a little bit stiff and lean, then went through some kind of lean phase that I did not enjoy. Eventually they fleshed out and sounded complete and I knew the break in was done (if you believe in that sort of thing). No need for 300 hours here though, just enough time for the drivers to loosen up and not have any resistance.
I started with my dual REL S/510 Subs turned off to judge the bass of the speakers themselves.
WITH THE AAVIK U-150 INTEGRATED AMP
So what do these speakers sound like in my space with my reference amp? In one word, FANTASTIC and better than I expected.
The R3 Meta’s are airy, open, gently detailed and smooth with the U-150. They also deliver music and vocals in a fully glare free way with a wide open soundstage that brings with it an organic type of imaging. Meaning, not etched or surgical. The sound is not fat or plump but almost “juicy” as the drums sound wet, fluid and slightly punchy.
There is some treble excitement up top so these will sound nicely detailed and YOU WILL hear every hit and detail of cymbal hits and creates with crystal clarity here. These are also good at letting some notes hang in the air, where reverb trails are heard. I have heard speakers do this better but at a much higher cost. The U-150 also has a part in this though, as this amp can make magic.
There is also extra energy in the upper mids with the R3 Metas, at least that is what my ears tell me. This brings out the sounds of some instruments and vocals into the room a bit more when set up properly.
As for set up, I have them 7 FT apart and sit 7 1/2 FT from them. Slightly toed in but aimed behind my head.
The sound is ethereal in a sense and the mids are not thick, nor is the bass. This is a speaker that gently brings the music to you without force or a heavy handed approach. It’s a “floaty” kind of sound like a balloon floating up in the sky, your music seems to gently float out from the speakers. The mids are not full throated and chesty, rather they are clean and airy, and with some well recorded music the vocals float in mid air between the speakers.
No hard sounds, no overly done crispy treble (though the treble is lit up) but the excitement is indeed there, much like with the LS50 Metas. They sounded quite nice indeed and when listening to Landslide from Fleetwood Mac through Roon/Qobuz the sound was just gorgeous with such sweet vocals from Steve Nicks coming forth. There was a nice warmth here as well.
In my system here with this Aavik amp the R3 Metas are sounding more like $5-$6k speakers but again, this amp seems to make magic with most speakers. The R3 Metas are not as refined, dense, sparkly, energetic or powerful as my reference Diablos but these are 10X less in cost and they allowed me to enjoy the music just as much as the big guns.
The Metas are also not as forward as the Focals and offer up a more fluid and relaxed presentation vs the Utopias.
What these R3 Metas do excel at is spatial qualities, depth and width of the soundstage. They also have that familiar KEF house sound. Ambient music is stunning with the R3 Metas.
These speakers are a magical match with the Aavik amp and it makes them sound absolutely beautiful with nuances and texture from the music being exposed. Again, not to the heights of my reference speakers but for the money that these cost…I was really impressed with what KEF has done with the new Metas.
For me, these are much smoother than the OG LS50’s and the bass, while not bombastic, is extremely tuneful, tight and they are somewhat punchy in a transparent way. This means I hear each bass pluck with clarity and snap. It means I may not feel the bass but I hear every nuance within the bass frequencies. It’s clear yet extended and smooth, which sounds very nice.
Vs some others…
The Buchardt S400 II’s are warmer, meatier and have a bigger bass kick but the bass is not as detailed as the KEF R3 Metas. Some may prefer the thicker sound and some will enjoy the more airy sound. The Buchardt’s are warmer and really can rock out where the KEF are are more airy and detailed (yet with some warmth).
Something like the Dynaudio Special 40’s will have more impact and slam but will not be as refined in the treble, nor will the soundstage be as wide as the KEF. They will sound more dynamic than the KEF.
The R3 Metas throw a pretty wide soundstage, and in this area they somehow surpass my Focal Diablos. I kept writing in my notes that the music was very “Airy” and “Smooth” but with “beautiful imaging and 3D qualities”. The more I listened the more I was really digging what I was hearing. After a few days I was starting to get attached to the sound they brought even though it was lighter footed than my reference. The KEF sound is quite nice indeed.
They reminded me somewhat of those Buchardt S400II’s but with more top end extension. More air. Slightly less bass punch.
Cuing up “New York” from St. Vincent had me really enjoying this tune for the first time. I have heard it a few times and the last time I heard it was a few years ago. Back then I thought it was a flat sounding track but with the R3 Metas it was glorious! The soundstage was truly wide, not so tall or deep but the music projected into the room and the speakers were able to mostly disappear.
The R3 Metas have that KEF sound but it seems more refined than I remember and also more alive at the same time. Whatever they did to tune this speaker up from the previous gen really worked.
Some of you will want that detail and depth, others will want a more musical sound. The KEF R3 Meta does indeed offer a bit of both. They are musical and detailed at the same time so you will always have some body to the music but not in an overdone kind of way. They seem to balance everything out but they image like a champ as well.
Again though, as I listened there was something about the upper mids that I was noticing. This is nothing bad, just different from what I am used to. Almost like the upper mids were brighter than I normally hear, less dense.
I was listening without my subwoofers here and the bass was not as big as I had imagined it would be, but again, tuneful and tight. In a large room you will want a sub. In a small room, all depends on how much bass you like. I’ve lived with more bass shy speakers than these and enjoyed them very much without subs, and I could live with these Metas in my 13X18 room without a sub.
TURNING ON THE SUBS
I have a dual set of REL S/510 Subs here and I love them.
Anytime I bring in new speakers to test I have to re-adjust the subs as each speaker is different. With my Focal Diablos I have the crossover set low and the volume almost as low as these bad boys can go. This is because the Diablo speakers put out strong, present and tight bass. With the R3 Metas I had to turn up the crossover and volume a few notches for it to all blend correctly.
The KEF has a leaner mid bass than the Diablo so I allowed the sub to fill it in a little.
Once I did get the dual subs dialed in with the R3’s…WOW!!!
Yes, even in my 13X18 room with small 8 ft ceilings the subs really just “make” the sound. These subs are one the best additions I have ever made to my system, without question. I couldn’t live without them now that they have been in for a few months. They really do help to add dimension and depth to the sound so it’s not all about bass when it comes to using these in a 2 channel stereo setup.
I tend to prefer bookshelf speakers as I find them easiest to set up and place in the room. I also find them to disappear much better than larger speakers.
With the subwoofers on I played some good old fashioned vinyl on the Pure Fidelity Harmony table with Stratos Cart.
Whoa! Starting off with the latest album from Depeche Mode, Memento Mori, I was loving the sound of the synth machines and powerful electronic drum beats. The spatial qualities of the opening track “My Cosmos Is Mine” are extraordinary and the R3 Metas did a remarkable job of presenting this song with all details intact. In fact, the sound was smooth but wide open and these were imaging like some much more pricey speakers.
The sound was somewhat smaller and less muscular than my reference but they were sounding so musical and quite lovely. Easily speakers I could live with long term.
These speakers sound AMAZING with vinyl, at least this setup. Rich, warm, the feeling and vibe with tremendous bass from the Harmony Table. In fact, I almost proffered the sound with vinyl to the Diablos as the Metas were somewhat smoother and more fluid/warmer.
At 1:30AM when I was listening to this album I felt as if I was transformed to another dimension as the song went on. The R3 Metas were smooth with this entire album and with the subs on, the bass was felt as well as heard.
After more time with the speakers, with and without the subs on, I feel they can do well either way. If you have a small room, you will not “need” a sub as they do a great job of just filling the space with music, and they do this in a spatial way as is. If you are someone who wants to feel the bass, then a sub will be recommended.
LOW POWER TUBES CLASS A?
Next I unhooked the Aavik U-150 and placed in the Galion TS120 SE integrated tube amp I have in for review. I am running this fabulous piece in Class A, 30 watts per channel. KEF says that these speakers can be powered with as little as 15 watts so I was very curious to see how the Galion handled these.
I opened up ROON and brought up some Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. Streaming “Angelica” from Tidal through ROON was delivering quite the experience with the R3 Metas. The sound again was gentle and never forward or overbearing but the sound was a little bit brighter with the Galion than with the Aavik.
The Galion is a little more tipped up in the treble vs the smooth sailing Aavik. What this does to the sound is make it a little bit more open and exciting. The good news is that it never gets aggressive or fatiguing in any way with the Galion unless you throw on some music that was very poorly recorded.
The bass with the Galion is extraordinary for a tube integrated amp but it’s somewhat lighter than the bombastic super powered Aavik. Even so the midrange with the Galion is cleaner and sounds beautiful and well, very REAL. This means voices sound present and alive with the tube amp and R3 Metas. These speakers present the voices like a real human is in your room. Tubes can be fantastic in this area and the Galion is no exception.
My Diablos have a way of projecting the artists into the room with an amazing energy. The R3 Metas also bring the artists to the room with the Galion at the helm but in a lighter kind of way. It’s a beautiful airy sound that is also very holographic, something tubes can excel at.
I’m really enjoying the Galion amp and a review is coming to these pages soon.
WITH THE GATO 400S
Another very cool integrated amp I have here is from Gato audio in Denmark. This beautiful stylish amp looks remarkable and houses a powerful class D amp much like the much more costly Aavik. The Gato comes in at under $4000 and is pretty remarkable in design and sound.
I was curious here as the Gato uses the same Class D Pascal module as the 4X as expensive Aavik U-150. Implementation is different but overall these should have a similar vibe, right?
Well, not exactly.
The Gato has a more lit up sound in the treble vs the Aavik which is more analog like with warmth, detail and crazy depth being its focus. The Gato focuses more on the “smooth clarity” kind of sound with the R3 Metas. The sound is a little more dynamic as well but honestly there is not too much that separates the GATO from the Aavik in sound besides the internal DAC and Phono stage, which is world class on the Aavik and I believe why it costs what it does.
Listening to Michael Buble sing FEVER with the Gato 400S and the KEF R3 Metas was a great experience. The sound was alive, dynamic and the vocals were rather sweet, intimate and realistic. The Gato leans a touch warm through the mids and has body and oomph behind it but details are also here to be found.
The Aavik brings a rich, dense and smooth presentation that also excels with micro and macro details and all out refinement with the R3 Metas. It’s magical.
The Gato has a somewhat thick sound but is more alive (and a little flatter sounding) than the Aavik with the R3 Metas. The sound is not as dense or warm as the Aavik but has a sort of silky sweet smoothness about it.
The Galion tube amp when in Class A operation brings a more holographic stage but its not as all out smooth as the class D offerings and it is leaner in the mids vs the Aavik and Gato, though vocals are more clear, clean and realistic. Again, a sound some will prefer as it’s a gorgeous sound. The Galion won the soundstage war here with the widest and deepest of the bunch.
I cued up some Tom Waits from his Mule Variations album. Listening to “Low Side of the Road” brought Tom into the room and with all of the lights out it was a treat. The soundstage was wide and I was hearing a very detailed and musical warm performance here. The R3 Metas were once again sounding as they should.
There are so many great speakers out there these days. I have been blessed to be able to hear many of them in the 2 and 3 way bookshelf variety. I haven’t really heard a bad one yet. Each speaker brings a slightly different kind of sound, vibe and energy. The key is finding what works for you and your ears (and eyes).
KEF has been making speakers for a long time, and they have also been innovating as they go. They have a unique sound that is sort of light footed yet rhythmic with some warmth in the mids and lower mids. A sound that is open and wide but with fantastic imaging. A semi-smooth sound with an extended treble that stays in line with the rest of the frequency range, meaning the treble doesn’t stick out or hurt your ears but it is extended.
If you are looking for boomy bass or sloppy bass, these will not bring that to you. The bass here is tight, rhythmic and a little punchy at the same time, though it depends on what is powering them as to how much bass is presented. These are not bass heavy booming speakers, rather they are somewhat refined.
The KEF R3 Meta are beautiful in looks and offer up a more mature sound than previous versions with more presence, depth and air. They also seem more spatial to me but this is most likely due to the tweeter here and the way KEF builds these speakers. For me, they sound quite a bit more refined and smooth vs the LS50 though I feel the upper mids could be smoother or more fleshed out. Oh, and yes they do deliver more bass than the LS50 Meta.
I found the sound to be beautiful, delivering details in a harmonious kind of way. They cost $2199 and are priced very right as it would be tough to beat these for this cost.
The R3 Meta in my system were smooth, silky and refined. They look and sound more like a $3k speaker than a $2100 speaker so they do punch above their price point. With my reference amp they sounded more like a $5k speaker so they do scale well with higher end gear as well. They could not match my $24k reference bookshelf’s but if they did that would be quite the feat and they would be sold out for years ; )
Keep in mind these may sound different depending on your associated gear but all in all they should bring the same sound I am hearing with all of these amps. An open smooth but detailed sound that offers up great vocals and extended highs that do not get harsh. These can sound magical with the right power and front end behind them.
The R3 Metas sounded like butter with my vinyl rig from Pure Fidelity. Man, they sounded great here.
With the Aavik U-150 they were powerful, smooth and silky above all else. They had spatial qualities and brought forth a somewhat 3 dimensional soundstage.
With the GATO 400S I have in for review they sounded a little sharper and more dynamic and alive while keeping that nice wide stage. There was some warmth in the mids with the Gato.
With the Galion TS120 SE they sounded brighter all the way around but never overdone. This amp brought more magic due to those tubes and while the Galion is bringing forth only 30 watts per channel, it had no issue driving the R3’s. The bass was lighter than the Class D offerings but if you like tubes and a more lit up presentation all throughout the frequency range then the Galion has no problem driving the Metas.
I did end up hooking up my Pass Labs setup to them as well. The XP-22 preamp along with the X250.8 Amplifier. This Class A/B setup had the R3 Metas sounding quite wide open and textured. They still had the same character as with the other amps so these seem to do well with almost any kind of amp as long as there is good current and power behind it. I still love Pass Labs and keep them around for these kind of comparisons. Some of my fave gear ever.
If I have to think of a con I can think of only one for what these cost.
The R3 Metas are not the greatest low volume speakers. Thy flesh out more the louder they play and at low late night levels they may sound a little lean. These are not bass heavy speakers but what they do have on tap is tight, taught, rhythmic and tuneful. These speakers lean to the audiophile side of things but with sweet smoothness added in.
KEF knows what they are doing when it comes to speaker design and if you have been curious about these speakers I suggest trying them out in your own home.
Very cool to see them on Amazon and via Prime. I may have to add a brown or blue set to my review collection for future comparison (when I can). They do sound lovely. Did I miss my Focal Diablos while the R3 Meta were in? Well, maybe on a couple of nights but in reality I did not. I just enjoyed the sweet music that the R3 Metas make. KEF knows how to make a great sounding and looking speaker and the new Meta series is quite spectacular for the price they are seeking. Easy recommend if these are within your budget but do not forget that you will need some stands for these as well.