KEF LS50 Anniversary Model loudspeaker Stephen Mejias June 2014
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 3XLand 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? YeahI 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 to30 lbs vs the more typical 1520 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 pricerough 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 speakeragain, I'm thinking of the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1seem 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 soundsinconsequential strings of syllables, breaths, and sighsnow 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 wonderthe 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 heardat demos by TAD, Vivid, Wilson Audio Specialties, and YG Acousticsbut 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 pleasantharder, with an empty-sounding center and a more brittle outer shell. Vocal sibilants were less cleanly renderedspittier 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 itthey'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 enjoymore 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