Kii Three speaker review

The Kii Three is a new speaker on the market, the brainchild of Bruno Putzeys and friends. There are some reviews floating about, but with the Three being such a new product they’re a bit thin on the ground, and mostly first impression ‘reviews’ conducted in hotel rooms and conference halls. I thought I’d add my take on these speakers, to help fill in the picture a little more.

Like some of the other reviews I’ve read, I’ll put the punchline at the start: they’re absolutely stunning.

Notes about this review

I wanted to do this review in as methodical and considered a fashion as possible. I’m a mastering engineer with a physics degree; nerditude is in my blood. The majority of speaker reviews I read seem somewhat slapdash to me, often featuring the phrase ‘I played with speaker placement until they sounded good’, or something similar. This just isn’t good enough for me. Anyone who has ever measured a room response knows how incredibly sensitive these things are; I spent four days nudging my current speakers this way and that, forwards and backwards, measuring changes to the room response every time. An inch can be a proverbial mile, even in a purpose designed, dedicated mastering room such as mine. So I wanted to remove as many variables as I possibly could; I wanted to hear how the speakers compared to my current setup, nothing more. I’ll give details on how this was done later in the review.

The one big caveat to that is that I didn’t want to disturb the status quo in my studio; I have work to do. Disturbing the incredible setup I’ve worked on for so long, and am so intimately familiar with, would be very stupid indeed. So I set aside a weekend to do all the setup, the calibration, as much listening as possible, and then strip it all down again so I could get back to work first thing Monday. This enforced restrictions on placement, but life isn’t always perfect. And as it turned out, it wasn’t a problem whatsoever.

Background

I’ll be straight up and say that I bought the Threes sight unseen (‘hearing unheard’?). This was based on a few factors.

Mainly, I was in the market for new speakers as I’ll be building a new, second mastering studio. I had several wishes when looking for these new speakers;

  • They should be capable of replicating/improving upon the incredible PMC IB2S / 2x Rythmik F12G subwoofer setup I’ve worked on for the last 5 or 6 years, which will remain where it is;
  • They should have excellent time-domain response (I was hoping for a sealed box design); and
  • They’d ideally be able to work in any room I find myself in in the future.

Some looking about threw up the Kiis as an option, and the more I read, the more interested I got. I’ve used Hypex amplification for the PMCs for over 5 years, and Bruno Putzeys is someone who I consider to be ahead of the game. When I read that essentially, Mr. Putzeys had got together with a bunch of his ultra-nerd mates and had a speaker design party, my ears really pricked up. Other factors that appealed, in conjunction with the wishes above, were;

  • Active design with 6 channels of Ncore amplification per speaker;
  • Incredible time-domain response (see p12 here; that step response genuinely makes me excited);
  • 20-20kHz frequency response, without subs;
  • Active cardioid bass; and
  • Onboard DAC, providing an alternative DAC option to my current Lynx Hilo.

You can find more technical specifications and general information about the speakers on the company’s website, I’ll avoid repeating it here. As far as I was concerned, they seemed too good to be true, and the initial reviews I’d seen were largely extremely positive. And never mind anything else; these had the potential to remove four cables from my studio (I despise cables).The trade-off for such a compact design is always going to be increased distortion / restricted SPL – the graphs in the review linked just above show that over about 90dBSPL things start to get hairy down low. Some people have flagged this as an absolute show-stopper, and they’re right in as far as it’s a potentially serious failing.

However I work at a carefully calibrated 83dBSPL (C-weighted). I quite literally never turn my speakers up any more than that. I can’t think of a single occasion, ever, where I have done. If I’m working on louder music, my monitoring is compensated downwards accordingly. I understand the potential issues when it comes to insufficient headroom for peaks, but understood a recent firmware update has improved the handling. So while I kept this in mind, I didn’t expect it to be a huge problem. More on this later.

Meanwhile, in real life, the whole Brexit thing forced my hand somewhat, I don’t mind admitting. Prices were likely to rise significantly due to exchange rate changes. So I took the jump, knowing that the LF distortion thing might raise its head later on. If it did, then I’d augment them with the Rythmik subs to share the load (the PMCs do fine and could be left in situ, standalone). If they just didn’t work for me at all, well, I’d just return them. I wasn’t worried though, to be honest; I have faith in Bruno Putzeys.

So, it’s fair to say that I wanted to like the Kii Threes. I did, however, honestly try my absolute best to be objective about it all. Ultimately if they didn’t boil my egg, basing my future studio and work around them would be monumentally stupid.


Setup

As I’ve mentioned, I wanted to be systematic about this review. Actually it’s not because of the review; it’s because I need to know that these speakers are going to be good enough for me to work on. I’d just spent an absolute ton of money on these things; they were going to get a very thorough testing. These speakers will be the main tool for my new studio. The review was just a ‘bonus’. I needed to hear the difference in the speakers and not where they were in the room, etc. No guesswork.

Therefore, the following aspects were considered and as far as possible, minimised in effect;

  • All testing and setup was done using the analogue output (ie DAC) from the Lynx Hilo, and not the Kiis digital input. Once the initial listening was done, I’d move on to trying the Threes’ DAC.
  • Height. The PMCs are a little unusual in that they are intended to be set up with the tweeter 15 degrees above ear height. The Kiis (as far as I am aware) follow the typical ‘tweeter at ear height’ recommendation. They were placed on the dedicated Kii Three stands, which were filled with sand and set on concrete blocks.
  • Listening angle. The Threes were placed such that the acoustic centre was along the same plane as the PMCs – so, directly in front of the PMCs as viewed from the listening position. The listening distance was 2m 10cm.
  • Monitoring level. This was rechecked and measured for the PMCs before setting up the Threes, and then the Threes were set to match. This was done three ways; using Acourate, Room EQ wizard, and an old school SPL meter at the listening position.
  • Correction. I use the excellent Acourate software for the last few % of correction and tailoring of the final room response (it really sounds excellent, highly recommended). I generated correction filters using the same target settings and parameters for psychoacoustic windowing, frequency dependent windowing, pre-ringing compensation (amongst others) as I had used for the PMCs. These might change in future, but I wanted to keep them the same so as not to shift any goalposts.

Here are a couple of quick pictures that show how things ended up. Actually this top pic wasn’t taken from exactly the listening position, but standing up a bit behind. I hope you can forgive me.

20161001_160928 20161001_133820
Reflection analysis via ETC in Acourate confirmed that the Threes were still safely in the reflection free zone in the front portion of my room, with all early reflections below -20dB. No unexpected oddities had emerged due to the lower and more forward position – I was concerned about edge diffraction from the computer monitors but nothing of any concern appeared in the measurements.

It has to be said: the initial room shots with the Threes were very, very positive – they elicited a genuine, instinctive ‘wow’. The blurb had said they are easy to place; I didn’t feel any need whatsoever to try anywhere else, which sort of says it all.I’m aware of the potential interactions between the PMCs just behind, but the Kii website suggests a minimum of 8-10cm from a wall , and with the PMCs basically being wooden boxes full of trapping, I wasn’t too concerned about it. And jeez, this is the real world after all. Everything possible in the circumstances was accounted for, measured, tested, and corrected before any listening was done. Given the restrictions on time and placement, this was pretty good. So I went ahead and generated the correction filters in Acourate, ready to start listening.

And all that technical stuff aside – look how tiny those things are!!

Listening

With all the preliminary quasi-scientific-acoustic-technoguff out of the way, it was time to actually listen to some music (‘about bloody time!’, I hear you say). Material ranged from the Mark Wilder-mixed version of Miles Davis’ ‘Kind Of Blue’ (obviously!), to extremely bass-heavy electronic music (which forms the bulk of my workload), very loud and aggressive electronic music, acoustic jazz of various kinds, straight up pop music, Americana (I think they call it that – Bill Frissell stuff), hip hop, heavy rock, and all manner of recent projects that I’ve mastered in the last month or so.

These speakers are absolutely incredible.

I’m not quite sure where to start, but my immediate reaction was to be pleased that they sounded pretty close to the PMCs, so, the whole preparatory stage had been worth it. Phew. After that it was a case of my mouth hanging open on a very regular basis . There were tears, headbanging, air drumming and huge grins of enjoyment. When Miles Davis started his solo on ‘So What’ I had extreme goosebumps all over.

Reading the handwritten notes I made, I’ve written this considered, erudite comment;

‘They are so f#cking tight in the low end. LOL, just LOL’.

In fact I wrote virtually the same comment on the other side of the same piece of paper. I honestly never thought I’d hear – and have never heard elsewhere – anything tighter than the IB2S/F12G combination in my room. It’s stupendous. The Kii Threes are stupendouser. They’re so good, I just used the word ‘stupendouser’ and I’m not going to edit it.

You almost feel like they might be lacking fullness/low-mid beef, but it’s not that; everything is just tight, accurate, and not smeared in time or pressed-sounding. Kick drums on these speakers are ridiculous in their tightness and accuracy. Acoustic and electric basses are the very definition of the word ‘articulate’. The time-coherency extends, of course, across the whole spectrum. Transients are, well, transients.

The imaging on these speakers is also absolutely unbelievable, in all dimensions. The front to back depth is unreal; room information is conveyed incredibly well. You’re there. In fact it might be the depth that astounded me more than anything else. The stereo image is absolutely enormous, involving, and everything sounds real. Drums pop out like drums do (or don’t, if they don’t). The main acoustic guitar in Holland and Habichuela’s ‘Hands’ was unbelievably real. The sound is huge, and absolutely pristine in all regards.

They are incredibly revealing – I heard things in tracks I know extremely well that I have never heard before. I heard micro-movement inside tracks from compression/sidechaining that I’ve never heard before. I heard mistakes in work by very famous engineers in tracks I’ve listened to a million times. I heard mistakes in my own work (tiny ones, I promise!) that I absolutely would not have allowed to pass had I heard them previously. That kind of says it all.

The whole time though, you’re thinking; ‘how do those tiny little speakers make all that sound?!’. With eyes closed and a good-sounding track playing, the room is absolutely full of sound. When you open your eyes, it’s almost as if the illusion is destroyed – there’s simply no way those little things can produce all that sound. But they do, and they do it easily and effortlessly.

I want to be absolutely clear; I love the PMC/Rythmik combination and it is a stunning, stunning setup. I’ve mastered thousands and thousands of tracks on it, and ‘normal’ people would probably hear some sort of difference but probably say the Kiis sound pretty much the same. It’s a few %, all things considered. But it’s a crucial few % in my work. I honestly feel like a layer of doubt is removed, and in my trade, doubt is anathema.

At all times, I was trying to keep some degree of objectivity (honest!). Only one question truly mattered, and I asked myself that question repeatedly. ‘Can I work on these?’. The answer is most certainly yes.

DAC

With the main stuff out of the way, the approach I’d taken also afforded me the opportunity to test the built-in Kii Three DAC against the Lynx Hilo’s DAC. Switching on the Kiis was a breeze – a couple of switches, connect them with the supplied cable, job done. After the requisite level change, away we went.

One note: with any DAC test, ideally you should have instant AB, but obviously in this case that wasn’t possible. Deal with it. So with that said, I’ll write some brief notes on how I felt.

My immediate reaction was that I preferred the Kii DAC. I could write a ton of stuff here but it boils down to this. You have two flavours of excellent; the Hilo is precise/crisp/borderline-clinical, the Kii feels a little more natural. Something about the midrange – I’d say ‘full’ or ‘warm’ but that implies an eq thing. It’s just a bit more natural-sounding to me. Did I say natural?

I remember when I went from the Mytek 8x192ADDA to the Hilo, and immediately thinking it was a bit thin/crisp and very wide. I’m not the only person with that impression, for what it’s worth. I completely appreciate that (particularly in that circumstance) it was down to the increased precision over the Mytek, but it’s never quite been 100% my cup of tea. The Kii is like a small step towards naturalness. Vague enough for you?

Let’s be clear: this is miniscule stuff and both are absolutely superb. This isn’t scientific, but based on how it made me feel. So take it for what it’s worth. I’ll be using the Hilo for the analogue chain and the Kii DAC for monitoring in the new studio.

A word on low end distortion

My fingers are getting tired now, so I’ll keep this comparatively brief. The low end distortion thing didn’t raise its head once. I listened as I do in real life to tracks I’ve listened to a berzillion times; I listened to sine tones;  full tracks lowpassed; music with deep cajon hits…. nope. Didn’t hear a peep. In fact I’d say that looking back, the one thing I haven’t stressed enough in this review is how absolutely clean the sound is.

One point here: the correction filters, on average, brought the low end down by a dB or two, which would increase headroom. In fact the Kii site stresses something similar as a strong point – you don’t have the time domain problems near walls so you can use the boundary reinforcement to increase headroom. But if you have a couple of deep, sharp nulls then any overzealous correction might reduce headroom to the point where it could be a problem.

Anyway – in my own real world conditions, the Kii Threes are cleaner than a frog’s armpit.

Summary

This is pretty simple really; the Kii Three is an incredible speaker. I’m only sad that I have to leave them in the box until the new studio is complete. I can’t wait to get to work with them. I wouldn’t say that going back to the PMC IB2S/Rythmik F12G has been a disappointment, but I do find myself wondering what I’m missing – especially in low end dynamics.

I could write a load more, I really could go on all day. But I’m going to simply say that I 100% agree with every single word of this review. It’s no coincidence that I’ve used many of the same words in my review here, without realising it. The ‘pros’ at the bottom sum up my feelings, using exactly the same words I’d use myself;

‘Extremely natural, richly textured, spatially detailed, stupendous microdynamics, phenomenal bass’

What they said.

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  1. #1 by duffah on October 10, 2016 - 2:51 pm

    So is the new room going to have a specific purpose, or are you getting some ‘staff’? 🙂

  2. #2 by bobmaccsblog on October 10, 2016 - 9:33 pm

    ‘Staff’ will be taking over the current room. I’ll be moving 😉

  3. #3 by duffah on October 11, 2016 - 11:22 am

    Nice!

  4. #4 by George on October 12, 2016 - 7:12 pm

    If your room is tuned/calibrated to 83 dB(C) then I’m assuming that you (most likely) ran pink noise at -20 dBfs to set that level. That would mean at red-line (clipping) you’re, at 103 dB(C). That would be far above the 90dB issue you’ve mentioned. As a mastering engineer I’m guessing your digital meters definitely go over -13 dBfs. Am I missing something? (and I’m not talking about peak but continuous RMS levels)

    As the Kii Three is designed around a completely digital system (filters/crossover/amps), if you feed signal in from the Hilo, you’re doing DA there and then the speaker is doing AD again (followed by its own DA at the amp.) If you’re feeding the Kii Three with digital, you’ve removed that one cycle of DA-AD. What I’m getting at is there’s no way with a speaker like the Kii Three to remove the DA portion of the process that the Kii has to perform; it’s inherent to the design that it will do digital to analogue conversion.

    Finally, what did you think of the delay of the whole signal? That’s a much talked about issue with these since there is delay necessary for the processing. If you sent audio to the PMCs and the Kii, the Kii would always be late. Did you try the low-latency mode?

    • #5 by bobmaccsblog on October 12, 2016 - 8:15 pm

      Good points all round George, thanks for bringing them up. It’s been a monster day so forgive my brevity.

      – Calibration. Long story short, I use the general idea of the K-system. I say general idea as I attenuate by more than the K20 system does. Being 100% honest I’d have to recheck the precise gain structure. It has probably sneaked down a little in general a bit over the years as music gets louder and louder. I work on lots of VERY VERY VERY VERY LOUD music, what can I say? Don’t judge me, a man’s got to eat…

      In the circumstances I took the levels from the PMCs with the auto-calibrated (in REW) UMIK-1 mic, measured in Acourate, checked it quickly with the SPL meter, then redid/verified all of the above was the same with the Kiis.

      Above all, given the circumstances, it was important that it was ‘the same’ as usual. It all felt right to me. Hope that makes sense!

      – Conversion: Good point, well made. I will note this in the review, I swear I jotted that down on a piece of paper somewhere. Thanks. FWIW I don’t have any problem with well-implemented conversion. I know for some it’s absolutely verboten, but I’m a pragmatist.

      Don’t let me forget to amend this! Lots of work mails still to write…

      – Delay: Doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Acourate’s linear phase correction filters have a pretty hefty latency, and you know what? I like it. When you switch, say, a band on the G14 eq or something, it makes a (physical) click. The latency allows you to make a change, reset your brain, then hear the change. It gives your brain a chance to prepare ; ‘does this change do what I want it to do?’. While it took a little while to adjust, I actually quite like it, and have got completely used to it over the last couple of years.

      So because of a) the above reason, b) the fact time was short as I got carried away listening, and c) the fact it was Sunday and the pub was open, I completely overlooked low-latency mode. Didn’t cross my mind. I’ll check it out when things are all set up again, whenever that may be 🙂 … 😦

      Hope this all makes sense, and thanks for reading.

  5. #6 by Mark Robinson on April 21, 2017 - 5:17 am

    Great review thanks! Curious, are you listening full time thru the acouritels correction filters? Do you find this necessary, and if so are they running 20 to 20? Thanks!

    • #7 by bobmaccsblog on April 25, 2017 - 6:30 am

      Yep, all the time and 20/20. Simply put, there’s no reason not to in my eyes – and integrating them into a partial solution would mean quite a lot of farting around. Crossing over, latency adjustment, problems in the crossover region etc. You could use Acourate to build all that into a single correction filter (ie part-corrected) but frankly, I trust it. It really is excellent, if somewhat hard to use…

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