Mark Henninger takes on the task of testing a sizeable speaker system that promises high sensitivity and fidelity. Does it deliver?
Klipsch is among the best-known American speaker brands, specializing in high-sensitivity horn-loaded designs. The Reference Premiere series replaces Klipsch's Reference II series and features performance-enhancing improvements, including a newly designed horn made of molded rubber. The series—introduced at CES 2015—is the top of the Reference lineup. In fact, the company says Reference Premiere speakers are the core of its business.
In a pair of recent reviews, I covered the capabilities of the Klipsch RP-280F tower speakers
and the R-115SW subwoofer
. Those components were just a part of a complete 7.2-channel surround system Klipsch sent me. This review is about the whole 380-pound package.
When the speaker system arrived at my studio, its sheer size presented a challenge. I work out of a Philadelphia row house, and the AV studio is on the third floor. The subs in particular weigh 75 pounds each, so I called a friend to help lug them up the stairs.
When I first set up the system, I had to chuckle because it barely fit in my 11-foot-wide room. I had just a few inches to spare after placing the subs, towers, and center channel up front. Aesthetically, it's garnered the most compliments of any system my friends have seen—the copper-colored aluminum woofers look stylish when exposed. This a system you'll want to keep the magnetic grills off.
The complete 7.2 Reference Premiere system used in this review consists of four different speaker models plus twin 15" subwoofers. One of the unifying elements of the main speakers is the use of a Tractrix horn-loaded titanium-dome tweeter and aluminum woofers. The new tweeter design combines a round throat with a square mouth, which is supposed to improve imaging. Klipsch says the rubber used to make the horn reduces resonances that can result in a harsh sound.
Here's a close look at Klipsch's new tweeter.
The review samples' MDF cabinets came in an ebony wood finish; there also is a cherry option. Chamfered front baffles help reduce diffraction effects and provide a nice aesthetic touch when the grills are off. Magnetic grills—used on all the speakers—attach and detach easily.
The system features RP-280F towers for the front left and right channels. This 2-way speaker features a Tractrix horn-loaded 1" titanium-dome tweeter and two 8" aluminum-cone woofers. Each one weighs 62.5 pounds and measures 10.5" (W) by 43" (H) and 18.3" deep.
Klipsch lists a frequency response from 32 Hz to 25 kHz (+/-3 dB) for the RP-280F. Rated sensitivity is 98 dB/W/m, and each speaker can handle up to 150 watts of continuous power (600 watts peak) with 8 ohms nominal impedance. The crossover frequency is 1750 Hz, and the speaker supports bi-amping as well as bi-wiring. The tuned Tractrix port vents to the rear.
The RP-450C center channel is a 2.5-way ported speaker. It sports a Tractrix horn-loaded 1" titanium-dome tweeter and four 5.25" woofers. Two of the woofers—the one directly to the left of the tweeter and the one on the far right—handle midrange duties between 500 Hz and 1500 Hz. The other two woofers cut off at 500 Hz, and arrangement meant to reduce lobing artifacts. The center weighs 35.7 pounds and measures 31.13" (W) by 6.81" (H) and 14.51" deep.
The RP-450F center has four woofers, two cut off at 500 Hz and two play up to 1500 Hz.
The frequency-response spec for the center is 58 Hz to 25 kHz (+/-3 dB). Rated sensitivity is 97 dB/W/m, and each speaker can handle up to 150 watts of continuous power (600 watts peak) with 8 ohms nominal impedance. The crossover frequencies are 500 Hz and 1500 Hz. Again, the tuned Tractrix port vents to the rear.
A pair of RP-250S surround speakers handled the side-surround duties. These speakers are markedly different from the rest of the Reference Premiere line in terms of design. They are sealed, and they feature two identical sets of drivers in each speaker. Two sets of 1" titanium-dome tweeters and 5.25" aluminum-cone woofers are mounted at a 90-degree angle from each other. The result is 180-degree horizontal coverage, which in many cases is perfect for surround-sound envelopment.
The front and rear of the RP-250S.
Klipsch rates the RP-250S's frequency response from 58 Hz to 24 kHz (+/-3 dB). Rated sensitivity is 95 dB/W/m, and each speaker can handle up to 100 watts of continuous power (400 watts peak) with 8 ohms nominal impedance. The crossover frequency is set at 1500 Hz.
For rear surrounds, I used the RP-160M monitors, a bookshelf-style speaker more in line with the rest of the Reference Premiere design. It's a 2-way ported design that relies on a Tractrix horn-loaded 1" titanium-dome tweeter paired with a 6.5" aluminum woofer. A RP-160M weighs 19.9 pounds and measures 8.81" (W) by 16.67" (H) and 12.86" deep.
Here's a look at the front and back of the RP-160M. You can see the Tractrix horn and the Tractrix port.
The frequency response of the RP-160M is specified from 45 Hz to 25 kHz (+/-3 dB). Sensitivity is 96 dB/W/m, and it can handle up to 100 watts of continuous power (400 watts peak) with 8 ohms nominal impedance. The crossover frequency is 1500 Hz, and the tuned Tractrix port vents to the rear.
The R-115SW sub is a 75-pound bass-making beast, and for this review, I used two. Each sub boasts a 15" aluminum driver and 400 watts of power (800 watts peak). It's a vented design with a front-facing slot-style tuned port. The rated frequency response extends from 18 Hz to 125 kHz (+/-3 dB), and Klipsch claims a peak output of 122 dB. It measures 19.5" (W) by 21.5" (H) and 22.3" deep.
I used the system as my primary surround system for almost two months. I positioned the speakers as I normally do—the front left and right speakers were placed so the front baffle was 30" from the side walls and 40" from the front wall, while the subs went in the front left and right corners.
The center channel rested on a 14-inch-tall TV stand with the TV on top of that. The side surrounds were wall-mounted on each side of my sofa; the tweeters were 42 inches from the floor, and each surround was 5'6" away from the sweet spot. The rear surrounds were 5 feet away from the sweet spot and located behind the couch. Each rear speaker rested on a 32-inch stand, putting it at approximately the same height as the side surrounds. The rears were 3 feet away from the wall, and 5 feet away from each other.
I used a Pioneer Elite SC-85 AVR as a pre-pro for the whole review, and a Crestron Procise ProAmp 7x250 7-channel amplifier
provided power. I had miniDSP's DDRC-88A Dirac Live processor handle room correction for a 7.1 speaker configuration. (I used a simple passive splitter to feed both subs.) My sources included an Oppo BDP-103 Blu-ray player, a Roku 3 streaming box, and a DIY PC running Windows 8.1.
After placing the speakers, my next task was to create a profile using Dirac Live. You can read more about that process in my review of the miniDSP DDRC-88A DL processor here
. One of the great things about Dirac Live is that it lets you choose how much of the audio spectrum gets processed. I used the feature to create two separate room correction presets for the review.
The first preset was optimized to apply a traditional house curve, with a slight downward tilt from bass to treble. The second profile restricted room correction to 180 Hz and under. I chose that frequency because I calculated it to be the point below which my room's standing waves dominate frequency response at the listening position. This point is known as the Schroeder frequency, and it normally occurs between 100 and 200 Hz, depending on the room's reverberant characteristics.
When I restricted room correction to below the Schroeder frequency, the "character" of the speakers was more evident. That character is partly a function of the speaker's dispersion and distortion characteristics interacting with the room—the space within which a speaker operates always affects the way it sounds. Using room correction and EQ throughout the entire audible frequency range helped remove the effect of the room. I expect many home-theater surround systems implement room correction, which is why I performed a significant amount of my listening with Dirac Live processing the entire signal, not just the bass.
One final setup note: I prefer room correction and symmetrical arrangements with subs up front regardless of whether or not I am reviewing a system. It saves space and looks good, and it practically eliminates any risk of localizing a sub when using a high crossover such as 100 Hz or 150 Hz. However, that arrangement only works if you have a processor that is effective at dealing with dips and humps in the bass-response curve as measured from the listening area.
This is a kick-ass home-theater surround system. I already covered the capabilities of the towers and the subs in prior reviews. When incorporated into the full 7.2 system, those components performed extremely well and provided the brute strength needed to give movie soundtracks physical heft. The rest of the speakers in the system exhibited a similar level of smooth, dynamic, precise, clear sound I heard coming from the towers.
The most notable characteristic of the Reference Premiere system is the quality of the treble. Whatever Klipsch did in redesigning its tweeter, the result is silky smooth highs without any loss of detail.
Thanks in part to the horn-loaded tweeters, Klipsch's Reference Premiere speakers feature high sensitivity for a consumer-oriented speaker. A mere 3 dB increase in sensitivity translates to needing only half as much amplification to get to the same output level. That means you can use a modestly powered AVR to drive the system and still achieve impressive output levels. Most speakers with regular dome tweeters require heftier external amplification to reach the same output levels the Klipsch achieve. For multi-channel home theaters based on an AVR, that's a good thing because you'll have more headroom during intense scenes, especially when there are many surround effects.
Because of the high sensitivity and high output capability of the Klipsch system—especially the RP-280Fs—I was able to run it with the Pioneer Elite SC-85's built-in amps, and in my room (which measures 11' x 20' x 9'), I had all the power I needed to get up to reference levels. However, the SC-85's built-in MCACC Pro room correction does not come close to Dirac Live in terms of sound quality or customizability. So I connected the MiniDSP DDRC-88A and profiled the speaker system using Dirac. You can read more about that process in the DDRC-88A review
Dirac Live processing requires external amplification, and I used the Crestron ProAmp 7x250 for that purpose. Unlike the SC-85, it easily exceeds the power requirements of all the speakers in the system—even with all channels driven simultaneously.
Using the Dirac preset that restricts processing to 180 Hz and under, I cranked up the system for a stress test—reproducing the deep bumping and thumping sounds in the movie Gravity. During its more intense action scenes, Gravity's mix uses every speaker to its maximum capacity. I have the Atmos version of the Blu-ray, which the SC-85 decoded into an excellent 7.1 presentation.
Aside from the RP-280F towers, the RP-450C center is the star of the show. I'm not a huge fan of center-channel speakers because they are typically not able to keep up with high-quality left and right main speakers. In addition, a horizontal array of woofers often results in lobing issues. Nevertheless, the Klipsch center, with its 2.5-way configuration, not only sounded clear and precise, it managed to keep up with the powerful towers. As far as center speakers go, it's quite large. It's the only center channel I've reviewed that allowed me to literally rest the TV on top of it. But the size seems to pay off because it's performance is notably good.
In movies with good mixes, the soundfield generated by the Reference Premiere speakers was always enveloping. Furthermore, it was capable of rendering objects in precise locations. While watching Gravity, I was able to track each sound effect precisely as Sandra Bullock struggled with her predicament. The key is that all the speakers managed to disappear—even without using room correction. That's a major benefit of speakers with controlled directivity; the treble doesn't interact with the room as much. The only exception was the center speaker. Because of its lower height, it would draw my attention on occasion.
As nice as the soundfield was with Dirac Live processing only the bass region, using room correction for entire audible spectrum took the speaker system to a higher level of transparency. Crucially, it eliminated the apparent offset of the center channel. The character of the speakers didn't change much—it sounded quite neutral without EQ—but with full Dirac processing, all the speakers completely disappeared, leaving an even more holographic soundstage.
When it comes to movies, I covered a wide range of genres in the two months I used the system. I especially love space movies and sci-fi in general. Jupiter Ascending, Interstellar, Gravity, Chappie, Star Wars: A New Hope, Guardians of the Galaxy—all of them absolutely rocked.
The system also handled upmixed music well. I use the AVR's Dolby Surround feature when I listen to electronic music, and it really complimented albums from artists like Bassnectar, The Orb, Air, Dub Syndicate, Renegade Soundwave, Waterjuice, and Boards of Canada. Moreover, when I listened to acoustic recordings, be it jazz, classical, or folk, there was a tangible sense of a front stage with musicians on it and room ambience coming from the surrounds.
So far, I've heaped nothing but praise on this system. You might be wondering, what are its weaknesses? I'm not willing to say that sound quality is one of them. Frankly, Klipsch delivers exactly what I'd expect if I plunked down five grand for such a system: power, precision, nuance—it's all there. Yes, I've heard more refined speakers, but the Klipsches serve up sound with more gusto and still have enough refinement to put a smile on a skeptical audiophile's face.
I can criticize the binding posts. The nuts are made with plastic, as are the binding-post backplates, and they feel a bit cheap compared to metal binding posts I've seen on other speakers at the Reference Premiere line's price points. Granted, you never see them, and I'm sure it does not affect the speaker's performance one iota.
I can't say I have any other issues with fit or finish worth mentioning, at least not relative to the cost of the speakers. Yes, pricier speakers often come with fancier real-wood veneers or glossy paint jobs, but they often don't sound better than these do. The new tweeters are that good! There is a real sense of value to the system, thanks to the quality of the sound it creates.
As for the subs, I already covered their performance in my review
. Still, it's worth noting that they did offer enough headroom to handle everything I threw at them. They are big subs with genuine room-shaking output that drops right into the infrasonic realm. I found that with Dirac Live processing, the bass in the system was extremely tight and crisp. More importantly, Dirac worked with the subs to reduce the effect of standing waves, and the reward was very even bass throughout the listening area.
Frankly, I never thought I'd be this enthusiastic about a mainstream Klipsch speaker system. Overall, Klipsch's system pulled off a performance that left my jaw on the floor more than a few times. Did you read the Thiel TT1 review I wrote
a few months back? Those $6000/pair speakers were great performers. However, I could not wait to get those out of my system and put the Klipsch Reference Premiere RP-280Fs in—I enjoyed listening to the Klipsch towers quite a bit more. Whereas the Thiels never provoked goose bumps, the Klipsch system had my arm's hairs standing on end several times the first day I set them up.
In terms of performance, I think the Klipsch towers have as much or more to offer home-theater aficionados and music lovers alike, and at about one quarter the price. Make no mistake; the towers anchor the system with their prodigious output. Fortunately, the rest of the speakers keep up with them, making the system a very compelling offering. Indeed, it's probably the most dynamic and impactful surround system I've auditioned thus far—it can definitely shake your booty.
I should note that the Klipsch RP-160Ms are extremely good speakers in their own right. If you shrink the system down to 5.1 with just one sub and put the RP-160Ms up front, the result is still a killer system. Whereas the full 7.2 rig runs $5300, the aforementioned 5.1 system would run $3050. However, it's definitely a few notches below the 7.2 configuration I tested in terms of ultimate capability. I know money does not grow on trees, but the combo of big gun RP-280Fs and dual R-115SW subs really make the system something special.
For 2-channel music fans, it's worth noting that the RP-280Fs are extremely good at that task. This 7.2 system can easily perform double-duty as a pure 2-channel rig, or a 2.2-channel system if your AVR or pre/pro supports it. The towers are fantastic speakers, but the RP-160M bookshelf-style speakers are also great—I appreciated the opportunity to use them in a 2-channel configuration. Don't discount Klipsch for critical music listening; these speakers deliver a proper 2-channel experience.
The RP-450C center channel easily keeps up with its powerful peers. Furthermore, the wide-dispersion RP-250S surrounds really did their job with great competence—when I used the system in 5.1 mode, without the RP-160 rear channels, they provided a great sense of envelopment and kept up with the mighty front stage when things got loud.
There's a good reason it took me two months to get through this review—it's that I did not want to disassemble the system when I was done. I'm confident many of you can relate to what it's like to get your surround speakers dialed in just right. You don't want to give it up! Alas, with these words my time with the Klipsch Reference Premiere system ends. For movies, it's the most competent 7.2 surround system I've had the pleasure of testing to date. It made the Pioneer Elite 5.1.4 Atmos-compatible system I reviewed
back in February seem like a toy. Indeed, if I had to choose between the two systems, I'd give up Atmos in a heartbeat for the superior overall audio performance of the Klipsch system.
While the Reference Premiere system genuinely blew me away, it has some very stiff competition coming up in the review queue. Because of advances in computer simulation and modeling as well as materials, today's speakers truly are better than ever. For Klipsch, incorporating those improvements puts it in the elite ranks of companies that make speakers capable of playing at reference levels without causing listener fatigue. This system can do precisely that, and a whole lot more, which is why it earns my highest recommendation.
DIY PC (Windows 8) running Tidal, Spotify, and iTunes
Oppo BDP-103 Blu-ray player
Amplification and Processing
Crestron Procise ProAmp 7x250
Pioneer Elite SC-85 receiver
MiniDSP DDRC-88A Dirac Live processor
Speakers and Subwoofers
Klipsch RP-280F towers
Klipsch RP-450C center
Klipsch RP-160M bookshelf speakers
Klipsch RP-250S surround speakers
Klipsch R-115SW subwoofers (2)
Monoprice 12-gauge OFC speaker cables
Mediabridge Ultra Series subwoofer cable
Mediabridge Ultra Series HDMI cables
Monoprice Premiere Series XLR cables
Samsung PN64F8500 64" plasma TV
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