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Future-Fi in the Kii of Three

  • Three – it’s the magic number.

    It’s been three years since Kii Audio, helmed by CTO Bruno Putzeys (Grimm/Mola Mola/Hypex/nCore) and CEO Chris Reichardt, premiered their digitally active Three loudspeakers at a Munich recording studio.

    Three years since I first sat in a Berlin cafe, jet-lagged, pushing go on Srajan Ebaen’s preview post – Time Delay with Kii Audio – and a shade under three years since his follow-up post – More Time Delay with Kii Audio.

    Ebaen’s KIH/Kii introduction set out the Kii Audio stall ahead of my own first taste of the Kii Three at RMAF in Denver some six months later. See: Future-shocked by the Kii Three Active loudspeaker. All three introductory pieces are essential reading for anyone playing Kii catch-up.

    Question: where is the best place for loudspeakers in a room? The answer, according to Kii CEO Chris Reichardt, is in the wall — where the front baffle is effectively drawn as wide (or as long) as the room itself and front wall reflections vanish.

    That’s the theory. Reality has other ideas. Traditional box loudspeakers are drivers in a (cabinet) ‘room’, sat in our listening rooms with their lower frequencies radiating omni-directionally. The threshold at which this omni-directional radiation kicks in is inversely related to front baffle width. That’s a problem for those of us living and listening in smaller spaces. With a loudspeaker placed close to a corner, we hear its output three times: the initial driver output plus time-delayed reflections from the side- and front-walls which can wreak havoc with the frequency response heard at the listening position.

    Like many digitally active loudspeakers, the Kii’s internal DSP – their engine room – divides the incoming signal between mid/bass driver (here a 5 incher) and tweeter (1”, wave-guided) more accurately and with fewer phase errors than a passive crossover could ever dream of. Strike one.

    However, in coding the DSP, Bruno Putzeys has harnessed the power of complex mathematical modelling so that fewer lower frequencies fire backwards and sidewards. This is where Kii diverge from the active loudspeaker pack: the music signal is shared between focur additional 6” bass drivers (one on each side, two on the rear) whose output is micro-second delayed and phase inverted to cancel lower frequencies journeying to the side and to the rear, turning what would otherwise be an omni-directional dispersion pattern into a cardioid pattern, thus minimising low frequency build up behind and/or to the side of the speaker. Strike two.

    Nowhere does this cardioid dispersion prove more effective than at audio shows like Hamburg’s Norddeutsche Hifi-Tage where rooms can be ultra-challenging, both in size and acoustic makeup. A For Kii, a room barely bigger than a broom closet and listeners sitting a meter+ from the loudspeaker plane proved no obstruction to clean bass and properly tall soundstaging. Seriously impressive.

    The Kii Three (US$15,495 in graphite or white) is not just a pair of loudspeakers but a complete hi-fi system. DACs and amplification part of the deal; just add a digital or analogue source to the XLR inputs. Add Kii Control pre-amplifier (that sidesteps the loudspeakers’ XLR inputs) for US$2000. Add custom-fit loudspeaker stands for US$1795.

    The ‘Kii Three system’ – speakers and Kii Control together – sells for US$16995 in graphite or white; or US$17,995 in a custom colour. The custom stands remain an optional add-on but it’s tough to imagine the Kii Three system buyer taking a pass.

    The injection-moulded polymer speaker boxes measure 20cm x 40cm x 40cm, weigh 15kg, house six drivers, each with matching DAC and 250-watt nCore amplifier. Minimal box count and a farewell to speaker cables and interconnects, hi-fi rack and setup complexity. Strike three!

    Not only. These Kii Three actives also lower system setup time. When Kii’s Chris Reichardt hand-delivered a pair in custom Sakhir Orange finish (+US$1000) to my Berlin digs over the Easter long weekend, we were up and running with music within twenty minutes.

    There are three ways to slice this: 1) Connect each loudspeaker to the mains and XLR terminated analogue interconnects to each loudspeaker for BYO volume attenuation. 2) Alternatively, join the two loudspeakers with Ethernet cable for master/slave communication and connect the Kii Control to the (user-specified) master speaker (also with Ethernet cable) to run its volume knob as volume attenuator.

    Here in Berlin, we went with a third configuration option: the Kii Control playing catch on the Innuos Zenith MKII SE server/streamer’s USB output and handing it off untouched to the master speaker over Ethernet wire. More details in this video:

    This brings us to three things hitherto unknown by yours truly about the Kii Three system: 1) That the Ethernet cables are for intra-device communication and not for hooking the Kii into one’s LAN; 2) That (Apple remote-hijackable) volume attenuation takes place not inside the Kii Control itself but losslessly inside the loudspeaker’s DSP; 3) That the Kii Control allows sub-50Hz information to be tuned to the room and/or taste. Reichardt talks us through the rest:

    It’s telling that Reichardt doesn’t talk up the Kii loudspeakers’ drivers, internal cabinet bracing or port positioning (there isn’t one). Neither does he overplay the active drive card. He’s all about Putzey’s mathematical algorithm and the Three’s cardioid dispersion.

    Our man from Western Germany wants us to see the Kii Three as an evolutionary shift in loudspeaker design. It’s hard not to. Digital guys won’t be troubled by talk of DSP. Analogue purists are advised of the possible gains far outweighing anything lost (if at all) to the ADC and DAC processes that wrap the DSP’s cardioid-calculating mathematics.

    The same goes for those who hung up on materials and construction methods. Reichardt argues that driver materials become less of a factor when DSP can iron out any frequency response kinks and free up the manufacturer to focus on driver speed — how fast the sounds turns on transient shifts, big and small. More time spent with the Kii Three will confirm/deny. Electronic music runs in Darko.Audio’s bloodstream and I’m already working with a thirty track Berlin/Bass-inspired playlist as a starting point: Spotify here, Tidal here.

    Our third video takes an illustrative – not definitive – look at the Kii Three’s output from three angles. Playback volume locked, a UMIK-1 microphone took the temperature of the Kii Three’s front, side and backside. This gives viewers a rough idea of what the Kii can do but more fool the listener who makes a definitive assessment and/or who makes a component purchase based on a YouTube/Vimeo video.

    Three years, three teasers, three points of difference, three setup configurations, three facts unknown, three sides and three videos – that’s the Kii Three previewed to the max. Review to follow in due course.

    Further information: Kii Audio

    Music in the first and third videos comes from a forthcoming EP by French producer Connor, to be released by Nein Records in June and reproduced here with kind permission of the label.

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

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