KEF LS50 Anniversary Model loudspeaker Stephen Mejias June 2014

Stephen Mejias wrote about the LS50 in June 2014 (Vol.37 No.6):

In December 2013, the KEF LS50 loudspeaker ($1499.99/pair) was named Stereophile's Budget Product and Overall Component of the Year, marking the first time in 22 years of voting that any component had earned this strange double distinction. Consider the achievement: The former award is typically granted to products that provide outstanding value but may nevertheless exhibit some obvious, albeit carefully considered, compromise(s); the latter, loftier award is often won by cost-no-object, flagship designs that shun even the thought of compromise and inhabit only our wildest audiophile fantasies. It's unusual for an audio component to be both reasonably priced and unquestionably elite. The LS50 managed it.

Still, if anyone could have predicted the LS50's rare accomplishment, it would probably have been KEF: As John Atkinson pointed out in his original review, in the December 2012 issue, the British company makes no apologies about calling the little LS50 one of their "flagship" models, along with their extravagant Muon and groundbreaking Blade. Perhaps an even more impressive peculiarity of the LS50 is that, at a penny under $1500/pair, it is easily the least expensive loudspeaker currently listed in "Class A (Restricted Extreme LF)" of Stereophile's "Recommended Components": $2200/pair less than the next most affordable speaker in that category, the DeVore Fidelity Gibbon 3XL—and staggeringly, almost incomprehensibly, $63,500/pair less than the grandest of all "Class A (Restricted Extreme LF)" speakers, the Magico Q5. Small and relatively affordable, the KEF LS50 stands proud among even the most magnificent company. In 13 years of working at Stereophile, I have not seen another component that offers such a radical combination of value and performance.

Though the LS50 was originally launched to celebrate KEF's 50th anniversary, its manufacture was not limited to that year. Current-production units lack the words "50th Anniversary Model" below the single Uni-Q drive-unit, as well as the anniversary logo on the rear panel, but are otherwise identical. Need it be said that I requested review samples? Who better than I to review our Budget Product of 2013? John Atkinson? Well, of course, but he's already had his chance. Sam Tellig? Sure, but he's already bought a pair. Bob Reina? Yeah—I mean, he would have been a great choice. Art Dudley? Mikey Fremer? Kal Rubinson? John Marks? Yes, yes, yes, yes. Fine. Whatever. While I could easily imagine the KEF LS50s working well in any number of systems, I nevertheless thought it'd be fun and informative to use them in my system, considered through the filter of my biases and compared with my current reference, the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 ($349/pair)—which has supplanted the PSB Alpha B1, our 2007 Budget Product of the Year, as my all-time fave affordable speaker.

The first thing that impressed me about the KEF LS50 was its weight. Although the box that contains the pair of them is no larger than those in which most budget-priced bookshelf speakers are shipped, it was significantly heavier than what I've grown used to—30 lbs vs the more typical 15–20 lbs. Besides its obviously greater weight, I was awed by the LS50's outstanding overall fit and finish. When examining affordable loudspeakers, I expect to see minor physical flaws, a compromise in design, or some other evidence of the low price—rough edges, cheap binding posts, a shoddy finish of wood-grain vinyl. But every physical detail of the KEF LS50 has been thoughtfully considered and achieved without apparent compromise.

Not only does the LS50 look like a flagship design, it feels like one. Rap the side panel of most any truly affordable loudspeaker, including the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1, and you'll hear a hollow resonance, however slight or well controlled; knock the side panel of the KEF LS50 and you'll be awarded with a solid thud to match the speaker's solid overall presence. The thing is luxurious, gorgeous, and, for all intents and purposes, physically flawless. It makes even the most attractive affordable speaker—again, I'm thinking of the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1—seem like a toy.

The first thing I noticed about the LS50's sound was the clarity with which it presented voices. So many pop lyrics that I'd previously taken for granted as mere sounds—inconsequential strings of syllables, breaths, and sighs—now had meaning and purpose. For the first time, I really recognized and appreciated the clever, silly humor in "Number One Hit," from R. Kelly's Love Letter (CD, Jive 780874): "I got a studio up in heaven / And it's the perfect atmosphere / It's guaranteed to make you platinum / All you gotta do is come here." (That's just one example; there are better ones, but they're too sexually explicit to be repeated here.)

The KEFs were far bolder, clearer, more musically explicit than any speakers I'd ever heard in my home, without exhibiting the slightest bit of unwarranted edge or aggression. And this was with my very affordable NAD C 516BEE CD player ($299) and C 316BEE integrated amplifier ($380). Speaker cables and interconnects were AudioQuest's Rocket 33 and Big Sur. During the review period, I also drove the LS50s with NAD's D 3020 ($499), Arcam's FMJ A19 ($999), Creek's Evolution 50A ($1195), and Croft's Phono Integrated ($1895). While the LS50s never seemed starved for more (or less) power, they did respond positively to high-quality amplification. I don't think they'd be out of place with more expensive integrateds or high-performance separates.

In recent months, several Stereophile writers have used as an evaluation tool the hit single "Royals," from Lorde's breakthrough album, Pure Heroine (CD, Lava/Republic B0019254-02). I've also been listening to Lorde, but I think she's far more ambitious and successful than any one-hit wonder—the entire album is worthwhile. "Buzzcut Season" begins with a catchy synthesized organ riff and a simple three-note piano figure that rises, falls, and repeats. A damped kick-drum sound augments the spare arrangement and runs for a measure before Lorde's slightly husky, slightly honeyed voice finally enters: "I remember when your head caught flame / It kissed your scalp and caressed your brain." Through the KEFs, the organ sounds were appropriately round, warm, and situated behind the synthesized piano notes, which moved subtly and cleverly from speaker to speaker across the soundstage. The kick drum suddenly emerged from nowhere, with just the right amount of impact and driving force. Lorde's voice was positioned suitably high and slightly forward in the mix, with eerily realistic presence, natural tone, and striking beauty. The imaging precision and soundstaging stability weren't the best I've heard—at demos by TAD, Vivid, Wilson Audio Specialties, and YG Acoustics—but were still remarkably good, and easily the best I've experienced at home.

In no rush to return my Wharfedales to the system, I continued to use the KEFs as my primary speakers for several months. In hi-fi as in life, for better and for worse, relatively rapid adaptation to radical change is a part of human nature. We get used to things. I got used to the KEF LS50s. But it wasn't until I replaced them with the Wharfedales that I really recognized and appreciated their brilliance. Through the Wharfedales, "Buzzcut Season" was a different song, shorn of the sweetness, emotional impact, and sheer beauty I'd experienced through the KEFs, and with a general hardness and hollowness to the overall sound that impeded my enjoyment of the music. The opening keyboard sounds were less pleasant—harder, with an empty-sounding center and a more brittle outer shell. Vocal sibilants were less cleanly rendered—spittier and more abrasive. The overall sense of timing was still good, but now music lacked the thrilling senses of touch, focus, and speed that the KEFs had provided. And when the kick drum came in, it did so without the superb solidity and impact that I now expected and needed.

I'd never thought of the Wharfedales as fatiguing. Far from it—they've proven to be the most natural- and seductive-sounding affordable bookshelf speakers I've heard. But the KEFs are in an altogether different league. With the LS50s in my system, there's just so much more to enjoy—more body, more beauty, more control, more music. Are they worth the extra $1151/pair? Oh, yes. I believe so.

Can I forget the KEF LS50s? No. Can I become inured to their excellence and satisfy myself with the very good Wharfedales? Yes, I can. But I don't want to. With Ms. Little's blessing, I think I'll have to buy the review samples.—Stephen Mejias

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COMMENTS
Audio Asylum Bruce from DC's picture

Being a dedicated "stand-mount" guy and something of a cheapskate, this review got me really excited.  Maybe I should replace my 10-year old Joseph Audio RM7si Signatures!

Imagine my disappointment when I went to KEF's US website and tried to find a dealer.  Even at maximum range from my location -- Washington DC -- I came up empty.  There is a local dealer, but it stocks only KEF's low-line stuff, not any of the fancy products (including the Reference Series).

Assuming that one would agree that Washington DC is not the sticks, it might be worthwhile for Stereophile to enquire of KEF exactly how many US dealers the company has which stock this product -- or the Reference series for that matter.

Sergei's picture

The reason you can't find a pair Audio Asylum is because KEF in their wisdom decided to insult all of their loyal dealers by offering this product ONLINE ONLY!

I am a Canadian Dealer(soon to be ex-dealer now) for KEF. We had a clent want to hear a pair of these and most likely purchase due to being a long time KEF fan. To both of our surprise when I contacted my KEF rep he explained this was ONLY available through the KEF online store.

We played him a pair of other bookshelf speakers he happily purchased instead.

There is really no logic as a business man and Hi-Fi enthusiats that KEF would want to snub their dealer base with an "Anniversary" product. We were even considering displaying the Blade's in our showroom...

 

hcie95he's picture

In the review the LS50 is compared with the B&W CM5 and the LS3/5a. In the past John reviewed also the Harbeth P3ESR and the Spendor SA1, which are both more expensive. I am wondering if the LS50 is in the same league as the Spendor and the Harbeth?

By the way I am surprised that KEF doesn't sell the LS50 in the US via their dealer network. In Europe you can buy and audition them via their dealers.

norcalhifiguy's picture

 

Sad to see the previous comments, but as the owner of small audio shop in a very small town I can say with absolute authority that these are indeed available from direct dealers. (I can't speak to the Canadian issue as we are in the US)

We are thrilled to have these on display in our main listening room and must say they live up to the great reviews. These are amazing little speakers.

Please, do seek out and support your local independent audio dealers. 

These are people that love great audio as much as you do.

Hear them in person. Buy them locally!

audiodoctornj's picture

As one of KEF's highest level dealers, Audio Doctor, has the Blades, the entire Reference Series, R Series, Q Series, and T Series products as well as the LS 50, I can tell you they are available at select dealers, I don't know the issue with the Canadian distributor but they should be available to them as well.

WIth that being said, I do feel that is unfortunate that KEF does not have more stocking dealers with the LS 50, or with a wider range of their products.

The current KEF lineup is some of the best products the company has ever produced and in particular the BLADE represents $60,000.00 and above levels of performance for $30k, the BLADES are amazing speakers!

I feel that there are a few issues going on, Stereophile and the Absolute Sound do not really do comparative anaylsis of one product to another in their reviews, if they did and were not affraid to stand up to their advertisers, they  would proclaim that the BLADE is a bargin for the abolute top level of performance that they give and would recommend that anyone looking at a Wilson, Magico or YG etc should give the BLADES a listen before considering spending more on anything else.

We did the High End Audio Show in NYC last year, and our setup with the BLADES and all Chord Electronics sounded as good as any of the other setups at the show including a $300,000.00 plus YG setup and another mega dollar MBL setup and these were $30k speakers standing up agains $110k speakers!

So in summation, KEF makes fantastic products, has a weak dealer network, and needs to revamp their advertising and marketing to get more people excited by their products.

You should hear a pair of LS 50 setup with the really nice little KEF R 400 sub you have a roughly $3k package that sounds remarkable, huge soundstage, shocking dynamics and great transparency!

If anyone wants to visit our shop call 877 428 2873 and make an appointment to hear these incredible little jewels.  

10sephirot's picture

The little KEF sure is getting good reviews.  Lets face it looks count also.  It made me think about what stands would look best.  In my opinion the Usher RSW-708 in walnut would be a very special look:

http://audioscape.ca/wp-content/uploads/usher-rws708.jpg

The KEF plus the stands I subjectively think look best is a $2000 proposition. 

I'll go ahead and match that up to the Vincent Audio SV-236 in black:

http://www.audioadvisor.com/ViewLargerIMage.asp?title=Vincent+Audio+-+SV...

another $2000.

I'll go ahead and add the Musical Fidelity MMF-51SE:

http://www.elusivedisc.com/images/MMF-51SE-Large.jpg

Yeah well anyway that is another grand.   $5000 total.

I told all this to Santa and I got thrown out of the shopping mall.

But in all seriousness this is what a good review makes us do: dream. 

Thanks Stereophile.  Another afternoon wasted daydreaming:)

JRT's picture

In the measurements, the waterfall diagram showing polar response in the vertical plane passing thru the voicecoil centerline appears to be much smoother than the polar response in the horizontal plane.   So I think the first tweak for improved performance, clearly demonstrated in the measurements, would be to lay the speaker on its side.  

prof's picture

In the measurements, the waterfall diagram showing polar response in the vertical plane passing thru the voicecoil centerline appears to be much smoother than the polar response in the horizontal plane.

Umh, no. You've been fooled by the difference in scales. The scale on the vertical waterfall plot is ±45°. The scale on the horizontal waterfall plot is ±90°. At ±45°, the horizontal dispersion is as-smooth or smoother than the vertical dispersion.

techblogpool's picture
ryebread's picture

Quest For Sound in Bensalem, PA

bought them last week, epic speakers

wgb113's picture

@ryebread,

Curious what amplification both QFS and you are using.  I might try to head over there for an audition.

Bill

Gradofan's picture

 

The sound I'm getting from this set up is "stupendous!"  Don't think it can get any / much better - certainly not for less than 10X the price!

 

Using the Sony  XA5400ES SACD/CDP (the best there is), into the Anti-Mode 2.0 as a pre and DSP to eliminate the "room boom," into a tube buffer, into the Class D Audio amp into the LS50's and R400b produces real "you are there" sound.  Incredible detail, resolution, tone, tenure, texture, stage, image, bass, mids and treble... etc., etc...  

 

Hard to believe... really... 

 

And just an incredible value!

 

wgb113's picture

Everything I've read about the LS50s indicate that they're great for a small room.  My room is REALLY small @ 10'x12'x9'.  It's been acoustically treated but placement of the speakers and listening position results in a near-field setup.  Are the KEFs going to work well in such a setup?  It seems their manual recommends 6'-10' between the inner sides of the cabinets before toeing in.

Bill

Azani's picture

I've just purchased the pair after searching high and low for floor standers to replace Rogers LS2a/2. Auditioned Harbeth P3ESR, like it but thought it sounded like big voice coming out from small mouth. Haven't got the chance to audition any Spendor monitors tho. 

Anyway, my room is also small (8x13)' with acoustic treatment but still able to handle LS50 quite well. Generally, a slight enhancement from Rogers LS2a/2, livelier that is.

just yesterday, started to experience sudden annoying jerks and "tone switching" (for the lack of better word) on the right speaker whenever CD is played. It was fine the day before. Yet to figure that one out. Anyone experience it?

Cheers

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