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Klipsch RF-3 - floorstanding loudspeakers

Just like live!

[Italian version]

Product: Klipsch RF-3 loudspeakers
Manufacturer: Klipsch - USA
Approx MSRP price: 800$ (pair)
Reviewer: Lucio Cadeddu
Reviewed: January 2001

[Klipsch RF-3]
Klipsch RF 3

Klipsch is one of the golden names in HiFi history, a Company that has made "high sensitivity" its credo, its own flagship. Following a long established tradition all Klipsch loudspeakers make use of horns to "load" their drivers, so to reach high sound pressure levels with just few watts.
The model under test makes no exception to this rule and it comes equipped with a titanium dome 1" tweeter loaded with a 90 x 60 Tractrix horn, matched to 2 (8") aluminium membrane bass-reflex loaded woofers.
Thanks to the horn and the efficient woofers the RF-3 has a very high sensitivity at 98 db/w/m which means that, with just one mere watt from your amplifier, they produce 98 dB of sound pressure at 1 meter, exactly the same pressure your common loudspeakers (88 dB avg sensitivity) would produce with 10 watts, that is, a power ten times higher.
The crossover network frequency is located at 1975 Hz, biwiring is allowed, thanks to an easy to use set of 4 binding posts. Also available are two pairs of feet: adjustable spikes and plastic damping feet, depending on the floor you have.
The Klipsch RF 3 are 98 (H) x 23 (W) x 41 (D) cm and weigh in 25 kgs each, so they're not small nor lightweight. The cabinet (mostly empty on the inside) is made out of MDF and is available in "plain black" or "cherry" finish. The drivers are shielded so these spekaers can be used inside a Home Theater system, close to a TV set, without causing troubles on the screen.
Still from Klipsch, a whole set consisting of a central channel and surround speakers is available. Also, still from the same series, two bigger models make use of independently powered woofers, so the customer can build a complete HT set with no need for a separate active subwwofer unit. Neat.

The claimed technical data are:

The Klipsch RF 3 have been evaluated under very different conditions both with solid state and tube amps (SETs) over a long period (2 months) inside my main reference system and room (30 sqm).

Just like live!

800 US $. Probably a little bit more outside of the US, depending on the Country you live in. Not a lot of money considering how expensive HiFi stuff can be. For this little money the Klipsch RF-3 have a lot to offer: they can be used even inside a HT system, they let you choose between spikes and damping feet, allow you to bi-wire them and give you extremely high sound pressure levels with just few watts. But you'd like to know HOW they sound.
Well, remember to fasten your seatbelts when you hook up these babies to your system because the listening experience you're about to live is one of those you (and your neighbours) won't easily forget :-)
First of all, remember to turn that volume knob counter-clockwise, as the watts you normally use would probably result too many unless you want to have a party. These babies DO sound loud, even with a couple of watts, so you've been warned.
Once you have decided the listening level - and you'll probably end up listening at a level way higher than normal - you can concentrate on the character of these beasts. If you're already familiar with the "Klipsch-sound" they won't be a surprise but!!! if you're used to 84 dB sensivity mini-monitors, the impact could be D_R_A_M_A_T_I_C.
Let me start from the bass range: four 8 inches high-sensitivity bass-reflex loaded woofers move such a large amount of air that you will find yourself in trouble keeping the furniture firm in place, not to mention the windows panes.
These woofers are killers. Period.
No, don't imagine a bass range completely out of control, fat and gummy. No, imagine the impact of a kick drum that, if your neighbours are tolerant enough, can sound exactly like a LIVE kick drum. Imagine the slap of an electric bass guitar that makes your chair vibrate. Imagine your whole body pulsing with the rythm of the drums.
Alas, you don't need to "imagine", the Klipsch RF-3 will bring you back to reality soon, they will slap your face, trash your furniture and literally SHAKE your floor. All without the need to turn up the volume as you used to. 50 watts are enough to get LIVE sound pressure levels inside a mid-sized listening room. Perhaps you'll end up using just 10 watts most of the times.
So, the question I hear you whispering is: is it the "ultimate" bass performance? Nope! The Klipsch RF-3 are thunderous till, say, 40 Hz, then the energy level drops quickly. It seems the designers have given the bass frequency response a "steep" character: linear till 40 Hz, then quickly decreasing. You'll be able to notice this if you're used to speakers that go down till 25 Hz without trouble, otherwise you'll be simply dazed and astonished because of the bass performance of these American babies.
Actually, I'd have preferred a slightly more articulated bass but one can't have it all for 800 $!!!!!! Their performance is already "over the top".

Then you have the mid range. Please remember the crossover network frequency is 1975 Hz... this menas that the two 8" aluminium woofers must reproduce a good portion of the mids. Also, it seems (by ear, so take this "as is") the polar emission of the woofers doesn't match the one of the horn-loaded tweeter so the "blending" between the woofers and the tweeter isn't completely "smooth".
These two factors contribute to give the mid range a sharp character. Voices, for example, appear to be reproduced clean and undistorted but sometimes on the cold side. Also, with certain instruments and female voices, one can perceive a kind of "boxy" sound.
No, it is not the kind of harsh sound one may expect from inexpensive horns, it is just a bit metallic and edgy. A friend of mine, probably used to listen to wrongly designed horns, was highly surprised to find the sound of the RF-3 so little aggressive, though.
As quite usual with horns, the sound of the tweeter is rather "direct" and "in yer face", in the sense that small variations of the listening "angle" produce quite large variations of the perceived sound.
Nevertheless, the Klipsch designers have been able to preserve the harmonic richness of the tweeter. This sounds quite refined and detailed even at very high frequencies. It is _NOT_ the annoying zinn-zinn kind of sound you'd expect.
A well-trained ear can still easily detect it is a horn loaded tweeter but, believe me, you can easily live with it. Considering the retail price, the result is outstanding.
The Klipsch designers clearly know well how to properly design a horn.

Summarizing: very open, crisp and detailed sound, lively but not sparkly, with a killer bass range: powerful, fast and punchy as you always wanted it.
Let's state this clear: it is not the kind of sound you are used to if you own bookshelf loudspeakers with silk dome tweeters. No, The RF-3 are not SWEET, they will assault and trash you, when needed.

Dynamics

Oh well, do you really need to know how terrific these babies are in the dynamics department? I'm sure you can guess this easily by yourself...but let me try :-)
Have you ever experienced that tedious dynamic compression during very loud dynamic attacks? I'm sure you have. And you hate your system when it happens. Well, now forget it. With the Klipsch RF-3 you can experience a dynamic performance that will be limited only by your ears. Can they sound loud? You bet! With 98 dB/w/m and 200 watts RMS of power handling you can easily have a party at home.
Just add a pair of Martini's (and George Cloneey or Jennifer Lopez, depending on your tastes).
Turn the volume up, play your most dynamic test records, sit down (if you can!) and enjoy the "just like live" experience.
Nothing, I mean NOTHING, has been able to make these speakers suffer, no matter how hard I've tried. Insert the Reference Recondings Berlioz's Sinfonia Fantastica, Massive Attack's Mezzanine, Prodigy's The fat of the land, Orff's Carmina Burana....and watch your jaw dropping. NO COMPRESSION, that's it. As loud and dynamic as it can be, no problem, these speakers will shake the seat of your pants, strip your underwear :-), they will literally change your hair style. Yes, no kidding here.
I've played Morcheeba's Howling (album "Who can you trust?", highly recommended) and when the bass got really deep I've felt a breeze in my hairs. Literally. Oh yes, I always play this kind of Music at very high listening levels...as it should always be (peaks at 110 dB, let me tell ya).
The same happened with an album by Extreme: the impact of the kick drum was of the jaw-dropping kind, again. Now, at such high listening levels, sometimes, the horn tries to prevail a little but it is hard to tell if it is its fault or...the room that, above a certain amount of dB's, starts to "reflect" high frequencies a bit too much.
Anyway, I'm talking of listening levels so high that it is a miracle I haven't been immediately arrested and locked in jail :-)
So, now you start to understand why the Klipsch motto is Just like live. That's it, a live experience. And yes, they can sound at lower listening levels but they're not born to play background easy listening Music.

3D Soundstage

As previously remarked, the performance of the tweeter highly depends on the "toe-in" angle. With zero "toe-in" the horns spit their sound right in your face, not good for creating a realistic soundstage. Things change, and for better!, at 30-40 degrees of "toe-in, as the soundstage becomes wide and fairly deep. The loudspeakers, despite their size, tend to disappear, and the virtual image appear to be precise, crystal clear and very well focused (with spikes, a bit more blurred with the rubber feet).
Not exactly very deep nor high, it is still quite realistic, especially if you have in mind the retail price of these loudspeakers. Similarly priced minimonitors or bookshelf loudspeakers not necessarily "image" better.
To improve the height of the image you may try to "tilt" upwards the speakers by means of the adjustable spikes. For depth, please keep the RF-3 FAR from the rear wall! There's a huge air blow flowing from the large rear-firing reflex ports...leave it free and away from early reflections!

Complaints

Manufacturing: if I forget their retail price, I could complain about the el-cheapo vinyl finish, a bit better the cherry than the black one. The MDF cabinet tends to resonate a little, because of the reduced thickness of the walls.
Also, these speakers are big and heavy and because there are no safe places to use as "handles" they are hard to move. Finding to right position into the listening room by small adjustments can be pretty painful (not to mention the reviewer's point of view, unpack 'em, place, move to another room, pack 'em again etc. :-)).
Finally, a strictly personal opinion on looks: the black finish is pretty ugly and hard to match with elegant wood furniture. The cherry one is a bit more living-room friendly but the color of the horn (black plastic) and the gold of the woofers membranes doesn't help. Low WAF, that is.

Sonically, if one considers the retail price (800$/pair, MSRP in the US) it is very hard to complain about something. These speakers offer so many things (quantity and quality) that they could easily cost twice and still remain a bargain.
But since we are dirty, mean and almighty unclean (cf. AC/DC's "TNT" song) let me say that the woofers and the tweeter "intersection" isn't as smooth as one would like. Also, the mid-high range is sometimes boxy and metallic. Ok, ok, I know, 800$... 'noff said.

Some advice

Room placement: at least 80 cm far from the rear wall because of the enormous quantity of air the rear-firing reflex ports produce. A good amount of toe-in is necessary to tame the horn a bit. The spikes are included, so use them! Better if after you've found the right position...these speakers are heavy and hard to move, the spikes could very easily scratch your floor.
Don't be afraid to place them near a TV set, the drivers are shielded.
Amplifiers: total freedom of choice. From low powered sweet SETs that will finally be able to produce some sound pressure to speak of ;-) to big solid state amps, better if not of the harsh kind. For example, I would avoid the cheapest KAV-series Krell power amps.
As for SETs or tube amps in general: I've tried a 1,5 watts SET amp and the sound pressure was still inadequate to my ears and into my listening room (30 sqm). With a 2A3-equipped 4,5 watts power amp things were a bit better and the sound pressure was adequate for most applications. But if you want that breeze in the air you need some extra meat (read: watts). Those who listen with 5 watts and 85 dB loudspeakers may need to discover what is a realistic musical reproduction.
Give the Klipsch a try, you won't regret it.
One of our readers with an Audio Note Oto amp has already bought 'em and loved since day one. They can play loud with few watts as Lowther-equipped horns...and give these a run for their money in the bass & dynamics dep't.

Conclusions

I didn't expect so much sound quality from such a honestly priced loudspeaker, especially considering it has been designed having in mind even HT applications.
No, the Klipsch RF-3's don't have real wood and leather finish, gold plates and stuff like that, they just give you a lot of Music for your money.
Let me put this straight: this is one of the loudspeakers with the highest quality/price ratio I've ever heard. Oh yes, they're very far from being perfect (nothing is perfect at 800$) but they'll easily give the competitors a run for their money.
These babies could be not everyone's cup of tea, as they are not sweet and velvet-smooth but if you're in the market for a REALISTIC musical experience, with plenty of live dynamics and bass to die for, do not miss these. You'll love them.

Thanks to Mr. Giorgio Biffi and the whole Outline staff (Italian distributor for Klipsch) for having sent these speakers to test.

© Copyright 2001 Lucio Cadeddu - http://www.tnt-audio.com

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