Klipsch Reference Series 5.1 Theater Speaker System 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Speaker Systems
Written by Ed Masterson   
Sunday, 01 September 2002

Specialty audio/video manufacturers come and go, leaving a rare few who last long enough to see their tenth birthday. Loudspeaker manufacturer Klipsch has survived more than five decades. They have done so with products designed and manufactured with an unwavering design philosophy - reproducing the live event.

Klipsch provided me with a review package consisting of their largest components in the Reference line: the RF-7 floor-standing speakers at $2,200 per pair, the RC-7 center speaker at $800, the RSW-15 powered subwoofer costing $1,800, and the RS-7 wall-mounted surround speakers at $900 per pair. The center channel, front main loudspeakers are video-shielded and are available in three handcrafted furniture-grade veneers: jet ash, medium cherry or blond maple. The surrounds speakers are only available with black or white vinyl finishes.

The RSW-15 powered subwoofer measures 19.25 inches tall, 18.5 inches wide, 24.5 inches deep and weighs 85 pounds. Its bass reflex design uses a rear-firing 15-inch Cerametallic (specially treated anodized aluminum) cone woofer with a cast aluminum frame and a 30-pound motor assembly along with a fifteen-inch Cermetalic cone passive radiator on the front of the cabinet, with an on-board high-output “BASH” digital high-efficiency amplifier. Its rated frequency response is 19 Hz to 120Hz +/- 3dB.

The RF-7 main speakers each measure 45 inches tall, 11.5 inches wide, 16 inches deep and weigh 90 pounds each. The rated frequency response is 32Hz to 20KHz +/- 3dB. This two-way design implements a single one-and-three-quarter-inch titanium dome compression driver coupled to an eight-inch Tractix horn for the high frequencies and two 10-inch Cerametallic woofers. The magnetically-shielded tweeter magnet weighs an unusually hefty 22 ounces, while the woofers each use 50-ounce magnets.

The RC-7 center channel measures nine inches tall, 26 inches wide, 12 inches deep and weighs 42 pounds. This thing will look big even on the top of a 36-inch television. My most rational solution? Get a bigger TV. The rated frequency response is 45Hz to 20KHz. This speaker’s two-way design incorporates two eight-inch woofers in a tapered array, which in this case means that the woofers are arranged horizontally on either side of the tweeter, with one of the drivers operating from the upper midrange down and the other driver operating from the lower midrange down. It utilizes the same horn tweeter as the RF-7.

The RS-7 surround speakers measure 9.5 inches tall, 22.5 inches wide, 9.5 inches deep, weigh 24 pounds apiece and are likewise a two-way design. Each surround speaker has two one-inch titanium dome compression drivers with eight-inch Tractix horns and a single eight-inch Cerametallic woofer. The rated frequency response is 49Hz to 20KHz. Additional technical information is available in Tim Hart's review of the RF-5 loudspeakers published in March 2002.

The overall fit and finish of this speaker package was fairly typical of speakers that I have seen at this price-point. In the case of the RF7s, they are tall, well-finished enclosures, a style adopted by the greater percentile of loudspeakers in their prospective price range. The subwoofer, center channel and mains were finished in the blonde maple veneer. The surround channels were finished in black vinyl. I liked the look of the supple blonde maple and found myself wishing that the surrounds had the same finish. The RF-7s and the RC-7 had bi-wire, five-way binding posts, whereas the surround speaker had a single pair.

The Technology
Klipsch produces both home and professional speakers for which the same design philosophy is applied to all of their products. They believe that a speaker must be able to convey the power, detail and emotion of the music or soundtrack in order to be ultimately satisfying. To achieve this goal, their Reference Series speakers combine Tractix horn-loaded tweeters and Cerametallic woofers in a very efficient two-way design. Klipsch is well known for implementing horns into their designs and horns have a couple of characteristics that make them appealing. What do you do when you want to say something to someone across a crowded or noisy room? You cup your hands around your mouth and aim your voice in the direction that you want to be heard. You are essentially making a horn to direct the sound energy where you want it to go. Horns control the dispersion patterns and increase efficiency by focusing the energy towards the listener. The speaker drivers are housed in a ported and well-braced MDF enclosure. Efficiency is a notable feature in Klipsch’s speaker designs. All of their speakers in the floorstanding Reference line have a minimum sensitivity rating of 98dB at one watt/one meter or higher. The RF-7s have an impressive sensitivity rating of 102dB. This means that it takes very little power to drive them to ear-piercing levels. Klipsch claims that the mains will reach 120 dB with only 64 watts of amplifier power. In comparison, a speaker with a sensitivity rating of 88dB requires over 1000 watts of amplifier power to reach this same level. This may not sound important, but the THX specifications require that a theater bring the system to a sound pressure level of 117 dB during the loudest passages in a movie soundtrack. With this system, most typical receivers will have adequate power to achieve this goal.

For your personal edification, on the evening of May 31, 1976, the Who owned the record for the loudest concert ever at 120 dB, a record that stood for many years. Pete Townsend is now completely deaf in one ear, and can’t hear out of the other.

The Music
Few live instruments give me greater satisfaction than the trumpet. I am fascinated by its beautiful bite and subtle attack. I cued up Miles Davis, one of the all-time masters of the trumpet, from his Highlights from the Plugged Nickel release (Columbia/Legacy). In this live recording, the Klipsch system painted an open, airy picture of the venue, including the lucky crowd. On the second track “Yesterdays,” Davis exudes emotion as if he is actually crying through his instrument. He starts out very gently and gradually builds up to the point were it seems that there is probably anger behind the sadness. The Klipsch speakers recreated the pleasant rush of air through the horn and transitioned naturally to the bite that trumpets are known for. The cymbals remained separate and floated nicely in the stage, while the brushes on the drums were clear and detailed. Overall, the stage presentation was quite good, yet a bit less focused than I have heard some other comparably priced speakers. On the third track “So What,” Davis came alive. The Klipsch system replicated the intensity in the trumpet and gave me the sound that I hope for when I attend a live performance.

Next, I started comparing the RF-7 loudspeakers in various surround modes provided on my Krell Theater Standard processor. Curiously, this is the first time that I consistently preferred the sound of stereo recordings played back in the matrix surround modes. It seemed as if the Klipsch system was designed with multi-channel playback in mind. The overall balance of the system seemed to go from a little bright in two-channel mode to very well balanced in multi-channel mode. From this point on, I listened to everything in a custom configured multi-channel mode. This mode uses all channels and pulls the stage forward, while leaving the crowd in a live recording around and behind you. I started shuffling through all of my old favorite '60s and '70s rock recordings. During the Who's “Live at Leads,” I found the system played with a physical impact that I had previously only experienced at live shows. This speaker system played with greater dynamic range than I have ever heard in a home theater before. The quiet passages revealed the sound of the movement in the crowd, while the band members spoke at natural levels. When the music started, I had the sense of being completely immersed from a front row center seat.

The subwoofer is so powerful that it can change your breathing pattern and the highs will make you think that you probably should be wearing earplugs. Did I mention Pete Townsend’s hearing issues? Hey, what fun would a concert be if your ears didn’t ring a little the next day? One of my favorite discs while testing the RSW15 subwoofer was ZZ Top’s “Greatest Hits” (Warner Brothers). Lower frequencies could make my pants shake. I found this addicting and started playing with everything from rap to dance stations on my satellite music channels, looking for anything with wall-rattling lows. I began to wonder how long it would take before my neighbors called to complain.

The Movies
When it comes to family and friends, I have found that movies tend to be much more popular than music. It seems difficult to find people with the same musical tastes, yet almost everyone loves to watch movies, even the bad ones. With movies, this speaker system disappeared both visually and sonically. My kids’ newest favorite, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone" (Warner Home Video) has gobs of surround effects that provide a nice tool for testing the timbre matching of the speaker system. Harry seemed to fly around my room while playing the game of Quidditch. The rear surround speakers never drew my focus while the players circled overhead. This is a good indication of properly matched front and rear speakers.

I recently had guests in town from Florida on their first visit to California. I put in "Happy Gilmore" for them. In the scene where Happy goes to a miniature golf course to practice his putting and encounters an earthquake as an obstacle on the 18th hole, my guests jumped up to run for the door, thinking that they were experiencing their first earthquake. This is a good testament of how much low frequency air this subwoofer can produce.

Soon after that, I played “Black Hawk Down” on pay-per-view in Dolby Digital AC-3. If you are an action movie lover and have not seen this, you should prepare yourself for a riveting experience. This movie is a dramatization of a real-life, unexpected battle that occurred between U.S. troops and Mogadishu local militia during the conflict in Somalia. The sound effects in the movie were conveyed realistically, with no attention drawn to any specific aspect of the sound. The voices were distinct and intelligible even during the most complex scenes. The center channel seemed to handle everything with ease and without drawing attention to itself. The surrounds conveyed the power of the explosions well. The crunching and scraping sounds were terrifically detailed as the Black Hawk helicopters crashed. Bullets ripped through the room, making you feel the need to wear a bulletproof vest. I have heard other systems that provided a more natural sense of texture in the sounds, but few that could create the impact that the Klipsch package provided.

The Downside
The high frequencies tended to be a little forward and sometimes a little grainy, which is not uncommon for speakers in this price range employing metal dome tweeters. This tended to make the soundstage a little less focused than that of some comparably-valued speakers that I have heard.

This system could sound a little flat at low volumes, yet it really came alive at higher decibel levels. I think that this package would be better suited for homes with adequate isolation rather than apartment dwellers for that reason.

I found the low bass was also a little less focused than some of the best speakers that I have heard in this price range. This could be due in part by my room’s inability to handle the immense amount of low frequencies that this system provided.

The RF-7s had one feature that I felt was below the caliber of the rest of the speaker materials. As pointed out by Tim Hart in his review of the RF-5 speakers, the plastic feet on the RF-7 mains were disappointing. A powder-coated cast aluminum or zinc foot design would better match the quality of the rest of the speaker.

This Klipsch package brought me loads of musical and movie enjoyment. Their design philosophy has led to a speaker system that does not require huge, expensive power amplifiers to achieve incredible volume and performance. The combination of extended highs and well-defined lows with the ability to play loud enough to squeeze your brain will satisfy everyone from fans of Master of Puppets to aficionados of Mahler. If you are looking to start with a two-channel stereo system, I would strongly recommend the RF-7s and RSW-15 subwoofer. In some elegantly decorated rooms, this package may stand out like a Flyers fan at a Rangers game, although the wood veneer finishes allows the speakers to fit into many living environments. This system can finesse you, but I feel its strength lies in its ability to project music as a live event. This Klipsch system possessed the impact necessary to make you feel a part of the performance. If you like to host large parties, you may find these to be just the ticket. Movie lovers will find this package to be incredibly involving. At higher volumes, I felt a part of the action, more so than with any other speaker package in this price range. If you want to fly an attack helicopter without joining the armed forces, Klipsch can make it happen, but watch the volumes -- your neighbors may start shooting back.
Manufacturer Klipsch
Model Reference Series 5.1 Theater Speaker System
Reviewer Ed Masterson

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