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SPEAKER REVIEW: KEF Ci3160-RL THX Ultra In-Walls

SPEAKER REVIEW: KEF Ci3160-RL THX Ultra In-Walls

When you’re shopping for speakers or any other piece of AV gear, the internet is typically a great resource, with tons of review sites offering a vast diversity of opinions. You can aggregate all of that information and decide what you think the best option would be. Easy as pie.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with architectural speakers.

Some of this plight is caused by the fact that most custom install brands aren’t available for sale directly to the public. It’s also understandable that built-in speakers are a much smaller market than sound bars or even traditional Hi-Fi speakers that sit in the room.

There is an unmistakable void for honest opinions and unbiased reviews of architectural speakers. If you’re building a new home or dealing with a custom installer you’re pretty much flying blind.

Here at Audilux, we’re going to change that going forward. This post is the first of a series of in-wall and in-ceiling speaker reviews. I promise to do my best to avoid the typical audiophile sensory wankerism and offer clear and level headed insights.

This is important since in all likelihood you won’t be able to demo any of these speakers yourself.

We’re going to start our new series near the very top of the food chain of in-wall speakers.


The Kef Ci-3160-RL:
THX Ultra Certified

Kef speakers are manufactured in Tovil, England, just as they have been for the last sixty-plus years. While most of the industry’s component production has shifted to Asia, Kef is one of only a handful of companies to maintain control of every aspect of their supply chain by manufacturing custom drivers and electronics in-house.

If you’re not familiar with the rest of Kef’s Architectural offerings, they offer three different series that can be specified depending on the quality level desired; ER (Value), CR (Good), and QR (Best). The Ci-3160’s happily occupy a notch above the rest of the QR series and one rung below the flagship reference series.


Unboxing & First Impressions

The first thing that’s apparent when unboxing each speaker is the staggering build quality and weight.  25 lbs. is formidable by any standard, but even more so for a product that lacks a cabinet. Everything about the package exudes attention to detail and high-quality construction.

On a typical in-wall speaker a “dog” tab provides pressure at regular intervals surrounding the baffle. The tabs are tightened and sandwich the outer frame of the speaker with whatever substrate you are installing into.  With the Extreme Series, KEF has opted to use a secondary frame that encompasses the entire perimeter of the unit.

This might seem like a subtle difference, but it’s one of the many details that add up to next-level performance.

Pro Tip: One side effect of this design is that the rear frame has to be slid into one side of the rough opening and then pulled back to the intended center location. This does limit how closely the speaker can be installed to any framing so I would suggest adding at least two inches of clearance space to either side in order to facilitate a smooth install. 


Stunning Good Looks

Ci-3160 Aluminum Baffle
SPEAKER REVIEW: KEF Ci3160-RL THX Ultra In-Walls 2

It’s no coincidence that the Ci-3160RL made the top of our list of speakers your interior designer will love. The faceplates are machined from a solid piece of aluminum that provides an undeniable bit of visual interest to your decor.

If you’re passionate about hi-fi or an unrepentant audiophile, you’re going to love the look.

In their bare form, the Kefs are an elegant conversation starter and great excuse to put on a record. Kef also includes paint-able magnetic grills in the box if incognito is more your style.  


Music Performance

onic performance is a very subjective metric, but I would describe the overall tone of the Ci3160-RL as very focused, punchy, and smooth. One of the significant benefits of using 6″ bass drivers is the very fast transient response. Sure, you’re not going to get earth-shaking low frequencies (or frankly get much action below 60hz), but that would be a silly goal anyway.

When paired with a sub to handle ultra low-end duties, the Kefs offer an accurate representation of the frequency spectrum that’s sure to delight.

As far as the top end is concerned, the equipped Uni-Q tweeter was enjoyable despite my militant preference towards smooth or warmer sounding tweeters. (Read: I Love Ribbon Tweeters) I found it to be very musical and articulate, but it never hinted at taking my head off even at very high volumes.

It’s very pleasantly detailed but mercifully lacks the skulking razor-sharp armament of a Babadook Klipsch horn threatening pain around every corner.


Home Theater Performance 

Using the Kef CI3160’s for movies is a walk in the park. They’re capable of nonchalantly delivering soul-crushing volumes without breaking a sweat and then quietly retreating into dialog before you even know what happened.

My test install was in a room that measured 25′ x 30′ x 15′, which is far beyond the purview of the THX Ultra spec.

They easily filled the space at reference level.


Value

It’s probably time I address the elephant in the room regarding the KEF Extreme THX in-wall speakers. They’re undoubtedly expensive.

At $2000 per speaker the real question is are they worth it? That requires answering a few more questions.

  • Are you in a 8+ seat dedicated home theater, or a big open concept living space?
  • Do you want a speaker that offers audiophile performance but blends into your decor?
  • Are you someone who lives their life by the mantra “Buy the best, buy it once”? 

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, I think not only are the CI-3160’s worth it, but they’re a great deal.

Keep in mind these are the install equivalent of the Kef R7, which will set you back an additional $300 each and a lot of floor space.

The Kef Ci3160-RL is one of the few circumstances where choosing in-wall is no compromise at all. 


Top 4 In-Wall Speakers That your Designer Will Love

Top 4 In-Wall Speakers That your Designer Will Love

Top 4 in-wall speakers That your designer will Love

Usually, when installing speakers in ceilings or walls, the goal is to make them disappear. If I had to summarize the most common request we get from clients, it would go something like this; “I want it to sound good, but I just don’t want to see anything.” It’s sometimes even a stretch convincing someone they’re markedly better off with a subwoofer tucked in the corner of the room rather than being completely hidden away.

I understand the quandary entirely; when you’ve worked hard with an interior designer to make your space just right, the last thing you want to do is clutter up the design with ugly utilitarian speakers boxes.

That’s why most of the time, making things vanish is the best course of action. 

While my inner modernist rejoices at the simplicity of the “heard and not seen” approach (Trust me, I AM a modernist), There actually are a few in-wall speaker options that can take your design up a notch rather than mucking things up.


#1-KEF Extreme THX Ultra Series

KEF CI-3160 Extreme Series In-Wall Speakers
KEF CI-3160 RL In-Wall Speakers

These posh in-walls are constructed with a baffle from a single piece of aluminum and built to the same exacting standards as KEF‘s fabled Reference series.

As part of THX Ultra certification, the extreme series can fill even the largest rooms with audiophile quality sound while adding palpable visual interest and modern punch to your design.   

Kef Extreme THX Series In-Wall Speakers
Top 4 In-Wall Speakers That your Designer Will Love 13

#2 – Focal 1000 Series In-Wall

Focal 1000 Series Luxury In-Wall Speakers
Focal 1000 Series Luxury In-Wall Speaker

While they may be lacking some modern bling compared to the KEF’s, The Focal 1000 series sport a clean industrial design that would be equally at home in a basement speakeasy or the most well-appointed living spaces.

You also get the bonus of a great conversation starter, a pure Berrilyum tweeter crafted in France from one of the planet’s rarest materials.  

Focal Beryllium Tweeter
The Focal Beryllium tweeter.

#3- Klipsch Reference Series In-Wall

Klipsch Reference Premiere

At #3 we have our first American-made entrant into the battle of the beautiful. The Klipsch reference premiere series features their signature copper-colored drivers. In addition, the bold Klipsch Horn gives the speaker an almost art deco look.

These are considerably more affordable than our first two options and prove you can still make a statement without breaking the bank. 


#4-Dali Phantom S280 In-Wall 

dali phantom s 180 livingroom no grilles 2
Dali Phantom with exposed drivers

Danish hi-fi company Dali has taken a different approach when it comes to their flagship in-wall systems. 

You can choose to display these vintage-vibe speakers ala Christopher Lloyd or use their included grills for a refined but modern appearance. We can’t help but think these would be the perfect addition to a listening or music room.  

116301 dali phantom s 180 livingroom cam01
Dali Phantom In-Wall Speakers with grills

If In ROom is an option

Focal Kanta 3

Focal Kanta 3
Top 4 In-Wall Speakers That your Designer Will Love 14

While they may not be in-wall, if you want to add some stunning visual appeal and jaw-dropping sound, you might be looking for Focal Kanta. Hand-made in France and featuring automobile quality paint jobs and a vast array of color options, this in-room option is A+. 

Focal Kanta Color Options
Focal Kanta is available in a fantastic array of colors

Do you want to learn more about Surround Sound & Home Theater?

Read our post “Surround Sound Basics” for more information!