We demonstrate a high-sensitivity ultrafast emission spectrometer based on the optical Kerr effect that time resolves emission simultaneously in the ultraviolet and visible ranges. We show that using benzene as the Kerr medium leads to the optimal balance between time-resolution and sensitivity of the optical shutter with low losses due to ultraviolet absorption. Using this medium together with high contrast broadband polarizers and charge-coupled device detection, we achieve efficient detection of emission transients (bandwidth >1.5 eV) in a time bin of ∼500 fs. To highlight the distinctive insights that can be gained by resolving complex subpicosecond dynamics in a single experiment, we present UV-visible transient emission spectra of technologically relevant wide bandgap zinc oxide. With an enhanced broadband detection, subpicosecond effects such as thermalization, bandgap renormalization, and carrier trapping can be easily assessed, with ramifications for optoelectronics and energy-related technologies. © 2014 AIP Publishing LLC.