The Mini Cooper, Michael Caine and Benny Hill – British icons all. Caine’s cockney hollering of “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” is a seminal moment in British cinema history. Observe:
In hifi, the BBC’s LS3/5a broadcast-grade loudspeaker, primarily designed to optimise reproduction of the human voice, has inked its place as a British icon.
History tells us that the key to the LS3/5a’s commercial success – ~60,000 pairs sold over four decades – was the BBC’s stringent production standards for which consistency was critical.
A handful of manufacturers were licensed by the BBC for official LS3/5a production: Rogers, Spendor, Audiomaster, Harbeth, Chartwell, RAM, Goodmans, Stirling Broadcast and ex-BBC-employee Raymond Cooke’s KEF, who were also charged with manufacturing the drivers.
KEF – Kent Engineering and Foundry – was founded in 1961 and ran for thirty years as a company as British as Suet pudding. But times change, people change. And so do companies.
Perhaps it was KEF’s acquisition by the Hong Kong-based Gold Peak group in 1992 that led to the late ’90s discontinuation of the LS3/5a’s B100 mid/bass driver and its T27 tweeter. Maybe a call from on-high demanded a new business direction, one that didn’t lean so much on the past, one that centred on KEF’s own take on loudspeaker design.
According to Wikipedia, Gold Peak Industries (Holdings) Limited owns an 85% interest in GP Industries which in turn holds a ~62% interest in GP Batteries – one of the world’s biggest battery brands.
Located at the 10,000 employee strong Hong Kong Science Park toward the north of the city are Gold Peak’s new headquarters. The area is dotted with conversation starters: the waterside views that look across Sha Tin Hoi; the Anish Kapoor-like mirrored whale sculpture; the four-legged spaceship structure that greets new arrivals.
KEF’s Brand Ambassador Johan Coorg leads my tour of the inside and the out, ably assisted by Senior Product Development Manager Julia Ho and Head of Design Simon Davis, each of whom offer different and interesting insights into the inner workings of the modern day KEF.
Up on the ninth floor of one of the Science Park’s numerous glass and steel buildings, we turn left for GP Batteries and right for GP Acoustics, KEF’s mothership. Stick-in-the-muds who would poo poo Chinese control of once British-owned audio manufacturers might find their antiquated world-view turned upside down.
Electronics engineering and research are executed up the road in Shenzhen. Acoustic research and high-end model manufacturing still takes place 10,000kms away in Kent. Everything else is made in China. Hong Kong is where KEF’s product development goes down. And it goes down in style and with purpose.
The furniture pieces that pepper the open-plan central meeting spaces on both sides of the GP divide reveals a company with a sharp eye for the neoteric.
Correspondingly, it was this Hong Kong team who pushed the LS50’s ultra-modern styling over the line – a proper break from the loudspeaker norm of rectangular prisms and wood veneer.
We know how that played out: KEF’s Uni-Q coaxial driver array, developed in the 1980s trickled down from the equally visually striking Blade and Muon, tangerine waveguide, curved front baffle, piano black finish — as it turned out, the necessary elements for a now iconic design. In the four years since its introduction, the LS50 has become the US$1500 standmount to beat.
Under the stewardship of GP Acoustics, KEF are now a million miles from the few former LS3/5a compatriots still doing business. Never mind the futureshock of Muon and Blade, even KEF’s more traditional-looking Reference Series plots a very different path to that of Harbeth and Alan Shaw’s ongoing commitment to BBC-type designs.
Similarly, we don’t see the now Chinese-owned Rogers imploring us to hifi our computer with networkable, DAC-loaded active Uni-Q loudspeakers for a thousand bucks? Nor do we see Spendor serving up a best of breed Bluetooth speaker.
Moreover, KEF have been in the headphone game for a good few years already. The sleek aluminium of the M500 on-ear still comes highly recommended.
GP’s new HQ paints a picture of a loudspeaker company in a state of flux – one eye on the past and everything else pointing toward a brilliant future.
Otherwise engaged, young gun Jack Oclee-Brown, KEF’s Head of Acoustics, had flown in from Kent for a day’s Acousting Engineering 101 with the Hong Kong-based product development team. “The War Room” was visibly packed with eager eyes and ears, leaving a sea of empty desks at the end of the hallway.
It was here that I was asked to cease filming.
Off camera, a glimpse of the future about which I must maintain my silence if not my excitement. Prepare to have your hair blown back and your bloody doors blown off…