Price: $13,999.98 per pair (discontinued)
Design: The Reference 3 (Ref 3) is the middle child of English manufacturer KEF’s outgoing Reference range, replaced in early 2022 by the new Reference 3 Meta in the company’s Reference lineup. It’s a mid-sized floorstanding loudspeaker that measures 47.3″H × 13.7″W × 18.5″D and weighs a substantial 113.1 pounds. My pair is finished in Satin American Walnut; several other finishes were available during its 8-year production run, including Piano Black, Luxury Gloss Rosewood, Blue Ice White, Copper Black Aluminum, and Silver Satin Walnut.
The three-way design is comprised of KEF’s distinctive Uni-Q concentric driver array, which features a 1″ vented aluminum dome tweeter nestled in the throat of a 5″ aluminum midrange cone, vertically flanked by a pair of 6.5″ aluminum woofers. It’s a conservative-looking loudspeaker that, like all of the models in the outgoing Reference and current Reference Meta ranges, is manufactured entirely by hand in KEF’s English facilities in Maidstone, located 35 miles outside of London, England. The driver arrangement is point source-ish, which promises excellent integration from one drive unit to the next, and unusually coherent stereo imaging. The Ref 3’s weight highlights the amount of bracing and damping that goes into KEF’s top speaker line, and while both build quality and the materials on offer are commensurate with their $13,999.98 (when available, in USD) asking price, it’s no longer the standout that it once was at the time of its release in 2014.
While it isn’t quite full range—for that you’d want to step up to KEF’s larger Reference 5, with its larger cabinet and pair of additional 6.5″ woofers—the Ref 3 does have a frequency response of 43Hz-35kHz, ±3dB. Cleverly, it features two sets of bass reflex port liners, one short and one long, which allow you to tailor the floorstander’s output to your room. The short ports offer additional output near its port frequency but roll off faster, while the long ports offer slightly greater low-frequency extension and a shallower rolloff, at the expense of more linear output around the port’s tuning frequency. In-room, the Ref 3 offers meaningful output below 30Hz with the long ports installed. While not necessarily difficult to drive, the speaker does require high-quality power due to its 3.2-ohm minimum impedance (with a nominal 8-ohm rating) and 87.5dB (2.83V/1M) sensitivity.
Why I chose them: SoundStage! founder and publisher Doug Schneider reviewed the Reference 3 back in 2017 and measured his review samples in the anechoic chamber at Canada’s National Research Council (NRC). It was his review and the associated measurements that put me onto potentially purchasing a pair of my own. First and foremost, I was deeply impressed with how they measured. Its frequency response plot—see the Listening Window chart in the linked measurements—was textbook, with its slight left-to-right tilt, which should sound neutral and natural in-room, and its overall smoothness. I also liked that the Reference 3 offered a lot of bass output—and looked pretty good, to boot. So when I was eventually able to afford a pair, I jumped at the opportunity. I’m sure glad I did.
The sound is many things. It’s big and focused, with wide and deep soundstaging and excellent stereo imaging characteristics. The floorstander is also terrifically transparent, something I value highly in any component I spend my own money on. It doesn’t offer—ahem—the reference-level transparency you could expect from its top-flight Vivid Audio, Magico, or Focal competitors, but it’s not far off either. And perhaps most importantly, the Ref 3 is unapologetically neutral. No matter what component I may have in for review, I know that I can count on hearing that hardware’s sonic contributions to the signal chain, with minimal editorializing on the part of my loudspeakers. KEF’s Reference 3 isn’t flashy in its styling or its sound, but it’s got everything that I value in audio gear: it’s a reliable, no-nonsense, high-performance product for a not-unreasonable amount of money.
. . . Hans Wetzel