KEF LS50 Meta Loudspeakers Review
Marc Rushton witnesses the metamorphosis of an iconic mini monitor into something newer and better…
LS50 Meta Stand Mount Loudspeakers
US$1,599 | S$2,099 RRP
When KEF launched its striking little LS50 standmount loudspeaker ten or so years ago, there was a lot of chatter about BBC monitors, with links to the famous LS3/5a and so forth. The truth is that its use of KEF drive units is where the similarities ended – the LS50 was very much its own design and not an attempt to mimic anything else.
It quickly garnered much fanfare of its own accord, which was surely well deserved. That such a diminutive box produced such a delightful, full-bodied sound – and went louder than it should, and with more low-end response than you'd think physics allowed – was impressive. If only a design such as the LS50 existed when I and many others started our hi-fi journeys, I suspect many dollars would have been saved along the way.
Then in 2017, the company did what everyone expected in the digital age and stuck a couple of amplifiers, some clever digital signal processing, and the next generation of the famed UniQ driver in that same small box. I reviewed the LS50 Wireless upon its release and had only positive things to say. KEF had taken a marvellous speaker and elevated it to another level, thanks in no small part to the synergy between processing, power amp and drive unit. For the best part of a decade, it was a magic that enthusiasts often struggled to find.
There have been other additions to the LS family since, including the LSX Wireless – a smaller, not-quite-as-capable version, but one that's still highly rewarding in its intended application. I had been wondering what KEF's LS future roadmap might look like, until the late 2020 announcement of the company's new “world-first technology” in the form of its Metamaterial Absorption Technology (MAT) breakthrough. This paved the way for a refresh of both its original LS50 and LS50 Wireless models that would see MAT implemented in the twelfth generation UniQ driver. If you want to know more, then you can read this article along with this white paper released by the Audio Engineering Society in June 2020.
GOOD THINGS, SMALL PACKAGES
Comparing the specifications between the original LS50 and LS50 Meta, and they're as good as identical. Aside from the crossover point shift from 2.2kHz in the original to 2.1kHz with the Meta, sensitivity remains at a quoted 85dB, with a maximum output figure of 106dB; KEF says the frequency response is 47Hz–45kHz (-6dB). These are decent figures for a speaker its size and type, although you'll need a gutsy solid-state amp to really get the best from it. Vital statistics are 302x200x280.5mm (HWD) and 7.8kg.
KEF used the opportunity to update the range of finishes available too. Moving away from its glossy lacquers of yesteryear – annoying fingerprints, anyone? – the company opted instead for a range of subdued satin colours, including Carbon Black, Titanium Grey, Mineral White and Royal Blue (Special Edition).
Also offered is the optional purpose-built S2 Speaker Stand package with integrated cable management, placing the LS50 Meta at just the right listening height. They are not cheap at $799 RRP, but once assembled, you can see why they're worth the extra over cheaper alternatives. If this speaker is going to be a long term purchase, you really should factor this into your budget.
Setting up the new LS50 Meta soon reminded me why I enjoyed the wireless version's simplicity – power on, and away you go! Yet, once again, I found myself messing around with various cables and amplifiers, aiming to find a synergistic sounding match. Listening was performed with a combination of Cary Audio, Mark Levinson and McIntosh amplifiers, with those offering more power on tap giving the best results. My Mark Levinson No519 reference was the source of choice for its ability to quickly cycle between Roon (TIDAL and Qobuz) and CD sources.
Unlike most speakers coming through my room, the LS50 Meta preferred straight-on positioning with no toe-in. This helped lock in the centre image, while placement at a small but equal distance from the front and side boundaries yielded the best results from my 2.8m listening position.
The new KEF LS50 Meta is an impressive sounding small speaker by any measure and a satisfying one too – with more than just limited showroom appeal. The engineering changes have brought about a sound that's less coloured and more natural in temperament, one which makes the much-liked original LS50 now seem distinctively off the pace. It has superior grip, detail rendition and handling of dynamics – making it a highly capable design at the price.
Relying on my LS50 review notes and a whole lot of aural memory, it was almost immediately apparent that the new Meta version offered a more forward vocal presentation compared to its predecessor. Midrange appears to be hotter in the mix across multiple tracks, but in a pleasant way and with more clarity. This was evident with Anne Bisson's September in Montreal, which had superior vocal texture to the original speaker. Knowing this track way too intimately, even the decay of piano notes was laid bare, drifting off way beyond what I remembered.
The low-end response of the original LS50 was impressive considering its diminutive size, but the little speaker always benefited from the addition of a subwoofer. The Meta is largely the same in this respect, but there's a tangible improvement in the midband and treble regions – with more air and space than I remember from the original.
This was most apparent with The Power of Seven's acapella version of When Something Is Wrong With My Baby, and also Natalie Merchant's River. The latter's voice can often come across as somewhat shrill, but not so with the LS50 Meta, which handled both the vocal line and the treble delicately. Moving to something more upbeat, Qobuz delivered Sydney, Australia-based rapper D Minor's Concrete Pillow with a full-bodied sound that imparted all the story's emotion. Likewise, guest vocalist Alli Simpson's contribution sounded tuneful and melodic.
The next evolution of KEF's UniQ driver has been elevated to new heights, and one of its strengths is its singular ability to unfold the complexity of recordings. Angus and Julia Stone's Death Defying Acts, for example, exhibited the LS50 Meta's ability to stop and start on a coin while capturing the gritty, raspy, yet velvety tone of the singer's voice. Lesser speakers make a mess of this track, as they do with Guns N' Roses' cover of Knockin' on Heaven's Door. Yet, once again, the LS50 Meta performs some form of audio wizardry to decipher Rose's code, delivering a balanced and coherent sound with all instruments clearly defined in the mix.
The more explicit presentation of the LS50 Meta comes with both greater musicality and warmer tonality. It's not that the original LS50 wasn't musical per se, but I believe it leant more on the polite side when compared to this new baby box. The Meta is a subtle evolution in what will likely be a long and respected LS family lineage. The UniQ driver continues to exhibit its strengths with each new generation and every subsequent refinement.
KEF's LS50 Meta asks for an investment that's entirely reasonable in today's hi-fi market, and what it gives you in return is genuine high fidelity sound and years of service. KEF founder Raymond Cooke passed away in 1995, undoubtedly hoping that his legacy would live on. With his company's achievements in the past three or so decades, and the continued research and development, it's fair to say that Cooke is smiling down over KEF's engineers today.
Perhaps the company's ongoing references to the iconic LS3/5a are simply because it knows that future generations of audiophiles will look back fondly on the LS50, and where it all started. The design has remained true to the lineage, the new LS50 Meta showing another subtle yet clearly audible evolution with this next-generation UniQ Driver. Like the model before it – and standing side by side with its active siblings – it continues to be one of today's audio bargains. Think of it as an authentic introduction to high fidelity sound, at a price that those who bought the LS3/5a back in the day could only ever have dreamed of.
StereoNET’s Founder and Publisher, born in UK and raised on British Hi-Fi before moving to Australia where he worked as an Engineer in both the audio and mechanical fields.
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