We are witnessing an entirely new generation of HiFi. Gone [going?] are the singularly designed, specifically functioning, one trick ponies; all hail the Swiss army knives arriving in lifestyle. Case in point, KEF's latest and perhaps greatest achievement, the awesome KEF LS50 Wireless Loudspeakers (LS50W). Yes. Wireless. As in, "look Ma, no wires!" Everything and I really do mean everything, has been fully integrated into the LS50W's existing chassis, thusly only when you stretch your eyes to the back of the cabinet do you see the rather massive heatsink and connection wizardry integrated into the stern. That's it. Further more, there's this: active? Check. USB? Check. Sub out? Check. AUX (RCA) in? Check. WiFi? Check. Bluetooth? Check. iOS and Android app? Check. Did I mention this LS50 ain't Gramps' ol' loudspeaker.
No stranger to HiFi, KEF have of course been around for some time. Hailing from the premises of Kent Engineering & Foundry, 1961 saw the birthday of KEF. Raymond Cooke, an ex BBC electrical engineering bloke, was—like so many others at the time—seeking to refine, improve, nay, revolutionize the loudspeaker business. Cooke, who passed away in 1995, undoubtedly would have been most impressed with the LS50W's incredible achievement. Sometime late fall last year, I emailed KEF to inquire about a review opportunity and was thusly greeted by KEF's affable, hipster-cool gentleman in command of all PR, Dipin Sehdev, who promptly sought to pencil me in for an appointment at CES 2017. To say that KEF's accolades had preempted my quest for information would definitely be an affirmative statement.
"So, how are the LS50W doing", I asked. "Every batch we make is sold out in advance." That's what I call a great problem to have. At USD $2199, these aren't what I'd call cheap speakers by any means. That's almost twice the asking price of a 256GB iPhone that isn't subsidized by super attractive lease or monthly payment plan specials. That's several times more than what the average person would consider spending on "loudspeakers". Yet, I have to say these are a flipping bargain. Repeat. Bargain. You get a fully active speaker system, fully app controlled, fully integrated, fully loaded with guaranteed future software development for all of $2199. Sometimes, scratching my head, I really just don't know how they do it all.
The key, operative word being software. Precisely why I mentioned earlier that we are witnessing the birth of an entirely new generation of HiFi, one that I feel will have repercussions for many a high-end manufacturer, all in due time. You see, the genius behind KEFs design choice here (Auralic also comes to mind) is that they built a hardware platform that is fully integrated into a software platform, thus, vertically controlling the overall user experience. That comparison to iPhone earlier wasn't merely coincidence: it was to illustrate a point; it is precisely the point. Take a very well developed, mature design that is the LS50, marry it up with a hardware platform that is driven by software and voila, you have yourself a product line you can sell for years to come. Just like iOS, software updates would enhance the functionality of the overall system; just like iOS, I could easily envision all new feature sets being baked into the user experience. Roon? Tidal? Spotify? Active room EQ? That last one by the way, is already built in. Alas, you see my point. Rather than guaranteed obsolescence, you have a platform you can build on top. Sure, just like your existing iPhone will never see an upgrade to its main camera, your LS50W won't get a new amplifier circuit. But let's face it, the technology behind active speakers is well matured by now; software is really the key new ingredient. Believe me, that's hard. Very hard. It is precisely why a company with deep pockets like KEF is able to develop this turnkey solution. Homegrown garage builders simply need not apply. My guess is that developing the iOS / Android apps alone must have cost well over several hundred thousand dollars each. See what I mean? Yet, just like your iPhone, it just "works".
Really, setting up my pair of LS50W was a job lasting all of 10 minutes. No joke. Both speakers are plugged into a wall outlet; both speakers are connected via CAT5 cable that connects the slave LS50W to the master; both speakers fire up the second you tap the OLED display; then, a quick setup procedure via the iPhone app, (not too dissimilar from the process you go through in setting up your new phone) and off you go. If you don't want to, you aren't even required to futz with the app controlled DSP room correction engine. Thanks to Bluetooth and WiFi, a simple tap on the source selector has you playing music in no time at all. Thanks to USB and Toslink, your shiny new TV or Mac / PC are within arm's reach of these puppies. KEF's app is really where the integration comes to life however. Want to adapt the sound of the speakers more to your liking or as an "expert" set these puppies up for better room integration? Tap, tap, tap—done. No really, it's that easy.
Granted, some basic level of touch based UI interaction is required; however, if you've been using your iPhone or Android phone, you'll feel right at home. This app wasn't coded over night by some high school kid you paid off with tickets to see Star Wars. This is legit stuff, very, very well executed. To boot, the UI exudes a level of fit-n-finish that plays well within the overall look and feel of the LS50W: sleek, sexy, soulfully satisfying. Sitting a top a pair of custom made four post 24" Soundanchor stands, I quickly gained insights into the LS50W sound quality. Actually, I played them on both the Soundanchor stands and my USM Haller 3 shelf office credenza. Both seemed to work fine, though the LS50W ultimately preferred the more resolute (Sound)anchor. Weighing in at some 65lbs each, the Soundanchor stands offered a certain sense of weight and resolution which the USM system simply couldn't afford. Alas, therein lies the beauty of the LS50W: they are happy to jam pretty much anywhere you pluck them down. I had them splitting time between my office and bed room setup. Certainly, that use case is where the built in DSP engine makes the most of your setup: care to use them in your bed room on a TV stand? Check. Take your TV / PS4 / Xbox experience to the next level with Toslink optical? Check. There really is no scenario the LS50W aren't prepared for.
Cueing up the usual suspects, KEFs 11th generation Uni-Q all-in-one driver is certainly up to the task: Malia's Convergence (in collaboration with Boris Blank, he of the infamous Yello power duo) sounds as big as it is. A truly massive, open, yet delicately detailed soundstage presents you with a Cinemascope sound field that's quite astounding. Bass is deep, tight and quite well defined for such a small speaker punching out some serious decibels. The inherently time aligned and phase coherent driver undoubtedly plays a large part as do the perfectly matched amplifiers for both drivers; on the 24" Soundanchor stands in particular, you really get the illusion of Boris Blank futzing with ProTools / Logic right in front of you.
Delicate performances such as Milstein's reading of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D, reissued by savant and resident record impresario, Mr. Record, on the now defunct CISCO label, equally shows you what the LS50W are capable of. Here, the delicate, nuanced, perfectly played violin brings out Tchaikovsky's technically challenging concerto in a way that is nothing short of magical. For the curious connoisseur, I played this record via the analog, nay, auxilary input of the LS50W connected to EINSTEIN's The Little Big Phono and Technics' 1200G giant slayer via Dynavector's equally stunning (and still one of my all time faves!) XV-1s. Proof positive that the analog input's conversion to 24/192 is pretty much fully transparent to the source. I say pretty much, because no doubt, purpose built, stand alone A/D converters would wring out that much more performance. Alas, I challenge anyone to a "blind" test: I'm willing to bet you'll fail each time, so good is the built in A/D converter.
It's really neat to be able to fire up KEF's iPhone app, set the input to WiFi and start streaming music straight from my phone's 256gb memory bank. Not only is this convenient, it also works as a great show off to would be, soon to be fans of the LS50W. Said one visitor recently, "I never would have considered spending this much money on a loudspeaker, but in this case, I could see myself doing so". One such friend did just that. With KEFs nearly universal distribution channels stretching all the way to Amazon, this is HiFi 2017. Heck, KEF really does make it easy. Cueing up Apple Music's weekly new for you music feature on my MacBook Pro synced to the LS50W via the superior aptX Bluetooth connection, I delighted in discovering Germany's synth-pop export Alphaville having a new album out. Dense, tight, with a solid recording driving each of the tracks, the aptX Bluetooth connection was working well ahead of what you'd expect from Uncle Bluetooth.
That the LS50 Wireless are rather grand, I would hope you understood by now—I can't think of any component in recent memory that has been this much fun to unbox, setup and take around the house, room to room so to speak, identifying its various commitments to multi-room, multi-condition sound. My Sony TV and Playstation sounded better than ever via Toslink leash; Bluetooth either via superior aptX or standard brew, sounded equally great. WiFi streaming kind of took the cake as it were: welcome to HiFi 2017. Have I mentioned that these puppies also look rather stylish and cool? To boot, I have zero doubt that KEF will continue to build out the LS50W platform. Surely, Shirely, I'd wager a dragon's tail that before long you'll see your favorite streaming service fully baked into the LS50W goods. Likewise, I'd be willing to bet Roon adds yet another endpoint to their long list of partners. Best of all, these "updates" would require merely the download of new firmware, nay, software and off to the races you'd go. How anyone in HiFi could plan for the future and not consider the fallout from all this integration and software driven platform scale, I'd seriously shake my head. This is the future, no question. My only ask of KEF is this then: please offer this integration into your Blade system—heck, scale it to every loudspeaker your make. I bought the review pair. Well done. A+++
Retail: $2199 / pair