Stereophile's Products of 2013 Budget Component of the Year

Budget Component of the Year

KEF LS50 50th Anniversary Model loudspeaker ($1499.99/pair; reviewed by John Atkinson, December 2012, Vol.35 No.12 Review)

Jeez, man! This year, perhaps more than any other in the history of our competition, the Budget category was positively stacked with awesome contenders. Selecting only from our Runners-up, I could easily put together a totally badass little system that even Tinwoman's ex-husband couldn't dismiss (see this issue's "As We See It"). Imagine having either the Peachtree decco65 or the Croft Phono Integrated drive Pioneer's SP-BS22-LR loudspeakers, while using as a source VPI's Traveler turntable, our Analog Component of the Year. Sweet. Or how about a second system comprising PSB's Alpha PS1 powered loudspeakers mated with either the Schiit Audio Bifrost or Meridian Explorer DAC and an Oppo Blu-ray player? Yummy. Or . . . for the ultimate portable music system, you could match our Accessory of the Year, B&W's P3 headphones, with Astell&Kern's gorgeous little AK100 media player.

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See what I mean? The Budget category rules—all of our candidates are worthy of the prize. But with five first-place votes, and more total votes (22) than any other component in any other category, it was KEF's LS50 loudspeaker that pulled away from the pack.

While other loudspeaker companies might've built a cost-no-object behemoth to celebrate 50 years in business, KEF went small, sleek, and affordable. How cool is that? But don't underestimate the LS50. This beautiful little speaker is packed with state-of-the-art technology. The two-way, reflex-loaded design uses KEF's Uni-Q coincident-driver array with a 1" vented aluminum-dome tweeter and a 5.25" woofer with a cone of magnesium-aluminum alloy, and the gorgeous, computer-modeled MDF cabinet incorporates a convex front baffle, offset port, and damped internal cross-bracing for optimal suppression of external sound radiation and internal standing waves.

Even though the LS50 is relatively affordable, KEF refers to it, along with its Muon and Blade floorstanders, as a flagship. And rightfully so. The LS50's combination of overall neutrality and top-to-bottom clarity worked wonders with all types of music, but especially benefited voices. "I would go so far as to say that the LS50 is one of the finest speakers at reproducing female vocals that I have heard—for less than what you can pay for a set of high-end interconnects!" said JA.

A marvelous speaker, indeed—and a downright bargain.

Runners-up: (in alphabetical order)

Astell&Kern AK100 portable media player
Bowers & Wilkins P3 headphones
Croft Phono Integrated integrated amplifier
Meridian Explorer USB D/A processor
Oppo Digital BDP-103 & BDP-105 Blu-ray players
Peachtree decco65 integrated amplifier ($999; reviewed by Art Dudley, March 2013, Vol.36 No.3 Review)
Pioneer SP-BS22-LR loudspeaker
PSB Alpha PS1 powered desktop loudspeaker ($299/pair; reviewed by Stephen Mejias, July 2013, Vol.36 No.7 Review)
Schiit Audio Bifrost D/A processor ($349; reviewed by Jon Iverson, August 2013, Vol.36 No.8 Review)

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COMMENTS
anthony.aaron47's picture

As a refugee from high-end audio (my former spouse got custody of our system), I'd like to offer a counterpoint to what is offered here.

A competing audio site recently (October 24, 2013) reviewed a pair of Omega Super 3T Single-Driver monitors and a Dared 2A3C integrated amplifier.

Based on that review, and some phone conversations with the owner of Omega Speakers and the US Importer for Dared, I purchased a pair of Omega Super 3S speakers (the flagship of the Omega Super 3 series) and the Dared 2A3C SET integrated amplifier, plus Kimber Kable 4PR 8' cables. Total cost, less than $2k.

Thie sound of this system is magical -- even without being fully broken in yet -- and it just keeps getting better as the listening hours pass. The sublime sound of each component is dependent -- and revealing of -- the other. Neither operates in a vacuum. The speakers offer a wide and layered sound stage, fine detail when it's in the recording, and depth down to 38 Hz. The amplifier is dead silent -- and at 8 wpc is well able to push the sound out to these magnificent 4.5" full-range drivers.

This is a sublime system -- and, even though I've had a system that I considered excellent at 7 or 8 times the price -- I'll take this one any day.

bwright's picture

I have to comment on your review of the KEF LS50, as I have listened to these speakers at length.  

The bass is incredible for an enclosure of this size.  It is smooth and expansive.  The midrange is gorgeous and clear, and the air and space that this speaker lends to all recordings is superb.  In those areas, it far surpassed the other models I recently auditioned in the $5000 range.

But given the reviews, it was the aluminum tweeters that left me scratching my head.  On certain tracks, the treble was sharply etched, and had the same harsh and 'ringing' character that 90% of the metal tweeters I have heard typically exhibit.  

On occasion, you will find metal tweeters executed beautifully - Vivid loudspeakers are a notable example.  But in my experience, they are the exception to the rule.

I realize human hearing can be subjective.  Maybe it's just me.  Or it was the recordings or components used.  But that wasn't the case with other models I listened to, and with the exact same amplification and source.

In the areas mentioned, this speaker was truly incredible, and a remarkable achievement.  If your system is a bit more forgiving than most, then you'll love them. 

JohnJ's picture

I just want to give John Atkinson thumbs up for giving "awards"/saluting year awards to the two low budget speakers KEF LS50 and Pioneer SP-BS22-LR :  Great !!

I also want to thank him for his enormous amount of component measuring during many years: I have learnt a lot on where great hi-fi can be found from his conclusions of the measurements: For instance that Benchmark Media and Bryston make excellent measuring gear for a low/sensible amount of money while in contrast DartZeel and Edge are bad value for money.

 

John Atkinson's picture

JohnJ wrote:
I also want to thank him for his enormous amount of component measuring during many years: I have learnt a lot on where great hi-fi can be found from his conclusions of the measurement...

Thanks very much. This aspect of the magazine is very much a labor of love on my part.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

 

bwright's picture

I'll now humbly revise my comments above.  I returned to the dealer who had originally arranged my auditions with the LS50.  They mentioned that I had been one of the first to listen to this particular set of speakers.  Since that point, they had been auditioned numerous times, and could now be considered fully broken in.  

I figured it was worth investigating, and set up the speakers with the same CD, source, cables and amplification.  Indeed, the hardness in the treble noted previously had completely disappeared.

This taught me an important lesson, and made me wonder how many other components I had written off in a similar way.  But one thing I did realize - the Stereophile award was spot on, and the LS50 is an incredible value.  The presence and warmth they add to vocals is stunning.  And if your desktop is big enough, these could be the ultimate computer audio speakers.

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