Written by Doug Schneider
Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews
Created: 01 December 2021
Note: measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada’s National Research Council can be found through this link.
In my “System One” column published on September 1, I wrote about KLH’s Albany II loudspeaker, which sells for just $299.99 per pair (all prices in USD). In that article, I described how the US brand was originally founded in 1957 as KLH Research and Development Corporation by Henry Kloss, Malcolm S. Low, and Josef Anton Hofmann. But after being sold in 1964 to Singer Corporation, the company went through additional sells and buys over the years to other entities—transactions I described as “messy,” because from the outside looking in, it sure seems that way. But in 2017, the KLH name was bought by David Kelley’s Kelley Global Brands and set up in Noblesville, Indiana, and I commented that this move brought it “stability.”
Stability is obviously a good thing, but Kelley’s buyout and subsequent launch of a new line of loudspeakers was a missed opportunity—from what I could tell, none of those original Kelley-era loudspeakers, named after streets in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where KLH was founded, resembled any of KLH’s most famous designs. But with the release of the Model Five loudspeaker ($999.99/each, or $1999.98/pair) earlier this year, Kelley and co. remedied that because this new speaker owes its existence to KLH’s original Model Five, a four-driver, three-way loudspeaker that was in production from 1968 to 1977. Included in the price of the new Five is a riser stand made from 14-gauge steel. This small stand lifts the speaker about 8″ from the floor and tilts it back 5 degrees to better aim the drivers at a seated listener’s ears.
I was born in 1964, and I got into hi-fi in about 1980, so the Model Five was already a few years out of production when I first started stereo shopping. As a result, I have no idea what it sounded like, or even what it looked like in the flesh, but when I was offered the new Model Five to review, I jumped at it. I wanted to see it for myself, as well as hear if it could hold its own against modern speakers that aren’t burdened by the need to adhere to the template of a decades-old design.
The Model Five’s cabinet design is the most obvious nod to its old-school heritage. It’s basically a big wooden box measuring 26″H × 13.75″W × 11.5″D, the size and shape of speakers you often saw in the ’60s and ’70s. The cabinet is constructed from 3/4″ MDF, with the sides, top, bottom, and rear finished with a choice of two real-wood veneers: English Walnut or West African Mahogany. But regardless of the veneer, the inset front baffle is painted matte black.
For the English Walnut finish, the magnetically attachable grille that’s supplied with each speaker comes with a cloth covering in a shade KLH calls Stonewash Linen. My review pair came in the West African Mahogany finish, and the supplied grille was covered in a darker cloth described as Old World Linen. You can’t mix and match the veneer and grille-cloth finishes at the time of purchase, but if you really want the nonstandard grille you can buy either one separately for $199.99/pair. That said, for serious listening, most audiophiles will leave them off anyway.
When I first unboxed the speakers, a couple things about the cabinet itself were concerning. Not the quality of the finish, which I thought to be good, given the modest asking price. I think KLH is able to achieve this because a boxy speaker isn’t that hard to build, and the Five is manufactured in China, which cuts labor costs. The Model Five also comes with an impressive ten-year warranty.
Instead, my first concern was that when I rapped my knuckles on the sides of the cabinet, it sounded fairly hollow and a bit resonant. This isn’t a definitive test—it’s akin to kicking the tires on a car—and it doesn’t necessarily tell you much, though it did tell me there aren’t that many internal braces. It got me wondering if the speaker would have a hollow and resonant sound, too. The other issue had to do with the inset front baffle—it’s basically framed by the side, top, and bottom panels, which are each chamfered on the outer edges, but form a ridge, about 1/4″ high, around the perimeter of the baffle. Those sharp edges mean hard reflections (i.e., diffraction) for the soundwaves that the drivers launch—particularly for the tweeter, which sends out soundwaves that are the most reflection-prone because they’re the shortest.
But I know you can only truly judge the sound of a speaker by listening to it, so I put those thoughts aside, along with the packing materials, and examined the driver complement. Like the original Model Five, the new Model Five is a three-way design, but gone is the original idea of using two 4″ midrange drivers aligned side by side. That’s probably a good thing, because I think such an alignment would’ve been murderous to the speaker’s horizontal and vertical off-axis responses—the outputs of the two midranges would’ve interfered with each other. Instead, there’s just one 4″ midrange, which has a pulp-paper cone and an inverted rubber surround (i.e., it’s concave instead of convex). The old Five had a 1.75″ paper-based cone tweeter, but this new model has a 1″ tweeter with an aluminum dome, which is crossed over to the midrange at a sensible 2850Hz using second-order (12dB/octave) electroacoustic slopes (“electroacoustic” means that the electrical parameters of the crossover and each driver’s natural acoustic rolloff are considered).
To adjust the level of the combined outputs of the tweeter and midrange from about 400Hz to up past the top of the audioband (i.e., 20kHz), there’s what KLH describes as an acoustic balance switch, labeled Mid-HF Level, mounted on an aluminum plate that’s attached to the speaker’s backside. The plate also holds a single pair of binding posts that support spade, banana, and bare-wire cable terminations. The acoustic balance switch has three positions: Lo, Mid, and Hi, with the latter as the default. According to Kerry Geist, the chief engineer at KLH, a shift from Hi to Mid attenuates the frequencies above 400Hz by 1.5dB, but leaves the frequencies below 400Hz alone. Likewise, switching from Mid to Lo attenuates the region above 400Hz by another 1.5dB.
The amount of attenuation you will use depends on speaker positioning and room acoustics. More reflective rooms might need more attenuation, while more absorptive ones typically want less. My room, which measures about 16′W by 36′L with an 8′ ceiling, but with only about half used for listening (so a 16′ by 18′ listening space), is neither too reflective nor too absorptive, so I used the Mid position for most of my listening.
The acoustic-suspension loudspeaker was invented by Edgar Villchur in 1954, but KLH cofounder Henry Kloss, a student of Villchur’s at New York University, was credited, in part, with commercializing the concept when he partnered with Villchur in 1954 to form speaker-maker Acoustic Research. An acoustic-suspension speaker has its bass driver operating in a sealed enclosure, unlike a bass-reflex design, which has a tuned port or vent that outputs sound at and around a specific frequency to augment the output of the bass driver. Proponents of acoustic-suspension designs feel they offer the most accurate bass presentation, citing things such as improved linearity and transient response. Detractors point to a loss in sensitivity compared to bass-reflex designs, which can lead to power-handling problems.
Most speakers today are bass-reflex designs—including most of KLH’s current models—but since acoustic-suspension speakers were a feature of the early days at KLH, it makes sense that the new Model Five, like the original, is an acoustic-suspension design. This means that the new Five’s 10″ woofer, which is the same diameter as the woofer in the original, operates without the aid of a port. Like the midrange, it has a pulp-paper cone and an inverted rubber surround. It transitions to the midrange at 380Hz, once again with second-order electroacoustic slopes. To ensure that the woofer can take some power, it has a 2″ flat-wire voice coil.
Even though it’s an acoustic-suspension design, KLH claims 87.5dB sensitivity (2.83V/m) for the Model Five, which, if true, is reasonably high given the quoted frequency response of 42Hz to 20kHz (+/-3dB) and low-frequency extension of 32Hz (-10dB). The sensitivity and bass-response figures are more in line with a bass-reflex design. The nominal impedance is said to be 6 ohms, with a 3.5-ohm minimum at 140Hz, making it a fairly easy speaker to drive.
The Model Fives were set up with their tweeters about 8′ apart and each 8′ from my centered listening chair. The speakers’ rear panels were about 7′ from the wall behind and the outer edges of each speaker were about 5′ from the walls on each side.
For the rest of the system, my Asus Zenbook UX303U laptop running Windows 10 and Roon was feeding music files via a Shunyata Research Alpha USB link to an Anthem STR preamplifier-DAC, which, in turn, drove a Purifi Audio Eigentakt stereo amplifier (rated at 200Wpc into 8 ohms) through Crystal Cable Standard Diamond balanced interconnects. QED Supremus speaker cables connected the amp to the speakers. The amp’s Shunyata Research E-Tron Alpha HC power cord was plugged into a Shunyata Venom PS8 power distributor, which, in turn, was plugged into one of the two dedicated outlets for my system with a Shunyata Venom HC power cord. The preamplifier was plugged into a Shunyata Hydra power conditioner with a Shunyata Alpha NR power cord. Another Alpha NR power cord plugged the Hydra into the other dedicated outlet.
When I played “5 Days in May,” the first track from Blue Rodeo’s Five Days in July (16-bit/44.1kHz WAV, WEA), I was shocked at how cleanly Jim Cuddy’s singing voice was reproduced by the Model Fives—it sprung from the speakers with an almost uncanny clarity. There was also an openness to the sound that I wasn’t expecting from such large cabinets, but that I welcomed, because the impression was that the Fives were getting out of the way of themselves and projecting sound very freely into my room. At that moment, my preconceptions about the cabinet imparting a hollow or resonant sound vanished. With this track, I also found that the speakers could place vocal and instrument images accurately within the soundstage, and that they could also convey a good sense of acoustic space, left to right and front to back.
I was also impressed by the solidity of Glenn Milchem’s drumming, which lends a firm underpinning to this song—it had some punch and power through the Fives. But since this song has a rich, warm sound, with some pretty deep bass, I could also tell that the speakers weren’t reaching below about 40Hz in my room. That’s still deep bass—it’s just not ultra-deep, like a large floorstander or dedicated subwoofer can provide. On the other hand, I wasn’t really expecting ultra-deep bass given the speaker’s price and, more importantly, its size—it’s a big standmounted speaker, but it’s not huge, compared with many floorstanders.
While the bass didn’t reach below about 40Hz, the middle and upper bass sounded powerful, so the Fives never sounded lightweight in my room. This was most apparent on “Dark Angel,” the tenth track on Five Days in July. Greg Keelor sings lead on this track, while Sarah McLachlan provides backing vocals, and, I think, is also playing the piano. The vividness of their voices was notable again—they sprang from the speakers with startling clarity, as Cuddy’s did on “5 Days in May”—but what struck me most was the sound of the piano, which was clearly reproduced and with just the right amount of richness and robustness in the low end. It was also dead easy to hear the “air” around Keelor’s and McLachlan’s vocals, as well as around Keelor’s guitar.
Throughout all the tracks on Five Days in July, I also noticed that, with the Mid-HF Level control in the Mid position, the high-frequency balance sounded just right. However, I could occasionally hear a little bit of a “steely” quality in the upper treble, mostly when the speakers were reproducing guitars. So I switched between the Lo and Hi positions to see if that would eliminate it. It didn’t—when I changed the switch position, I could hear the subtle changes in the treble level, but the steely sound of the tweeter didn’t disappear, so I put the switch back to the Mid position and moved on.
To investigate the upper-treble behavior further, I next turned to Lana Del Rey’s “White Dress,” from her Chemtrails Over the Country Club (16/44.1 WAV, Polydor/Interscope), because it has an inherently bright and wispy sound that can be exacerbated by speakers that are too trebly. This wasn’t the case with the Fives, which again showed me that the voicing of the Five’s treble is about right. It also wasn’t as steely sounding as I had heard with Five Days in July. If anything, the treble just sounded a little less refined—i.e., not quite as pristine—than I’ve heard from more expensive speakers. For example, the tweeters of the Revel Salon2 floorstanders that I’ve used for more than 10 years, and the Vivid Audio Kaya S12 standmount speakers I’ve had for almost a year just sound cleaner—but, of course, the prices for those speakers are way higher. The Revels sell for about $22,000 per pair, and the Vivids for $6500 per pair.
I then played track 6, “Dark but Just a Game,” since it has super-deep bass that, when a speaker or subwoofer is capable of reproducing the low end in its entirety, is not only heard but felt—something I experienced when I played the track through a pair of KEF KC62 subwoofers ($1499.99 each) that I had hooked up with the Kaya S12s. Again, the Fives stopped outputting at around 40Hz. As a result, the Fives couldn’t thump my room the way the S12/KC62 setup could, and I couldn’t feel the bass from them. But the retro pair certainly didn’t sound light in my room—they conveyed enough low end that no one would accuse them of sounding bass-shy. They also played the bass on this track well from low to surprisingly high volume levels, which showed me that the Model Five isn’t some delicate flower—it can take some power and, with it, deliver high SPLs when required.
I also listened to Crowing Ignites (16/44.1 WAV, True North Records), an all-acoustic instrumental album that Bruce Cockburn released in 2019. It’s grown on me to the point that I now use it for almost all my audio reviews. One of the most telling tracks is the final one, “Bells of Gethsemane,” where Cockburn plays baritone guitar, as well as Tibetan cymbals, singing bowls, chimes, and even a gong. The middle- and upper-bass weightiness of the Fives gave Cockburn’s guitar the heft and weight it needs to sound real, while the midrange and highs were reproduced with tremendous clarity. Through the Fives, it was super-easy to hear everything in this complex track.
If there was a problem, it was that the high treble had a touch of that unrefined character I had noticed when I played “White Dress.” It was most noticeable with the cymbals and gong, which weren’t reproduced as pristinely as I’ve heard from my reference speakers and others that, admittedly, cost quite a bit more than the Fives. So that’s one knock on the Five—and really the only knock.
But if someone were to hold a gun to my head to force me to point out one more flaw, I’d say that the upper bass was a touch too robust and bloomy from what’s strictly “accurate”—there’s a little more energy there than, say, out of my Salon2s. On the other hand, I can’t say I had much of an issue with that because that extra energy gave Cockburn’s baritone guitar more presence, which made it sound more realistic than I have heard from smaller standmounted speakers—and even some large floorstanders. All told, KLH’s Model Five might look retro, but its natural, clear, detailed sound is thoroughly up-to-date.
I’ll tell you straight up that I didn’t have high hopes for the KLH Model Fives when the pair first arrived—I thought they might exhibit more style than sonic substance. I also wondered how well a loudspeaker based on some old design ideas could perform when held up to modern-day standards—and if it was a good idea to start with such a blueprint.
But after living with a pair of Fives for many months, I can confidently say that those worries were unfounded—the Model Five sounds fantastic and is competitive with speakers up to and somewhat beyond its price. Granted, I would’ve liked to have heard a little more refinement in the top end of the treble, but I have nothing but praise for the clarity of the midrange, the robustness of the middle and upper bass, and the voicing across the entire frequency range.
In summary, if you bought a pair of Model Fives for their looks, you’d get the bonus of great sound. But if you’re out shopping for great sound, you shouldn’t overlook the Fives just because of their appearance. This is a case where old school and cutting edge have combined to create something that’s truly special—and at a very reasonable price. KLH finally seems to be on the right track with the Model Five—and I hope there’s more to come.
. . . Doug Schneider
Speakers: Revel Ultima2 Salon2, Vivid Audio Kaya S12.
Subwoofers: KEF KC62.
Amplifier: Purifi Audio Eigentakt.
Preamplifier: Anthem STR.
Computer: Asus Zenbook UX303U laptop running Windows 10, Roon, Tidal, Qobuz.
Digital link: Shunyata Research Alpha (USB).
Analog interconnects: Crystal Cable Standard Diamond.
Speaker cables: QED Supremus.
Power distributors: Shunyata Research Sigma S12 and Venom PS8 with Defender module.
Power conditioner: Shunyata Research Hydra.
Power cords: Shunyata Research Venom HC, Alpha NR, E-Tron Alpha HC.
KLH Model Five Loudspeakers
Price: $1999.98 per pair.
Warranty: Ten years, parts and labor.
984 Logan Street
Noblesville, Indiana 46060
Phone: (833) 554-8326