KEF LS50 Wireless II Review
Matthew Jens reckons this clever new wireless speaker package could be the missing link between serious sound and real convenience…
LS50 Wireless II
USD $2,599 | SGD $3,999 RRP
A few years back, KEF's LS50 Wireless standmounting loudspeaker package created an entirely new market segment that combined convenience with serious sound quality. It was a groundbreaking moment when a critically acclaimed audiophile-grade speaker broke the conventions to give hi-fi streaming functionality to mass-market consumers. Those doubting its significance were proved wrong when several rival manufacturers soon tried to copy it…
Yet like all trendsetters, it was not without issues. Stories of connectivity problems, complaints about the app, issues with software updates and reliability woes became common. So the launch of this new KEF LS50 Wireless II sees the company moving on. Boasting new driver unit technology, better wireless prowess, more sonic firepower and a revamped user experience - on the face of it, it's a seriously enticing package.
KEF's LS50 Wireless II is an all-in-one system that comes in two boxes - left and right. Inside these, you'll find what's effectively an entire audio system, including input/output functionality, an amplifier, a digital-to-analogue converter and of course the drive units – literally everything you need to make music short of the source itself. Each speaker weighs 10kg and is built very solidly. Even by smaller speaker standards, these are chonkers, which is forgivable considering all of the madness inside.
There's a sleek touch panel on top of the main unit for changing volume and source, plenty of connectivity at the back, and a cute little remote control for when you'd prefer not to use the app. An Ethernet cable is provided to connect the two speakers, but with wireless connectivity, they'll work just fine without it. As ever, the ideal audiophile option is to go wired.
The all-in-one speaker idea is an interesting one that many pundits thought wouldn't work, back in the day. Imagine telling an audiophile not to worry about cabling, to put away their amplifier and try using a wireless connection! Those pundits were wrong, however, and with this product's predecessor, the company showed that decent wireless loudspeakers were possible, practical and affordable.
Back when StereoNET had the exclusive first review, Marc Rushton wrote: “If I was starting my hi-fi journey again, the KEF LS50 Wireless would be my first choice. Similarly, if I was downsizing from big floorstanding speakers and multiple components, it would still be my choice.” It's a big deal to hear such praise from someone who has had this much experience.
Yet it wasn't just StereoNET that sang the praises of this little wireless speaker package. Enthusiasts and loyalists alike joined the swarms of families, thirty-somethings and everyone in between to get a pair. Internet forums were full of images of LS50s in people's workspaces, bedrooms and living rooms. Some online communities even hinted at banning photographs of the LS50 wireless due to people posting so many every day!
“So what's different about the new model?”, I hear you ask. KEF says, and I quote its website here: “Pretty much everything. The original was fantastic, but LS50 Wireless II is better in every respect, with improved sound, better connectivity and usability thanks to the brand new W2 wireless platform.”
The key 'stand out' differences are the new connectivity and audio performance upgrades. The latest model boasts a larger, 12th-generation 135mm Uni-Q driver array with MAT (see here); the latter is a technology borrowed from the LS50 Meta, which mostly deals with all the messiness happening behind the driver. Compared to the previous 120mm drive unit, this new design is said by KEF to have lower total harmonic distortion and a higher maximum sound pressure level. It also has better high resolution digital audio support including DSD compatibility, and there is almost twice as much power claimed to be on tap. This all adds up to more than just an upgrade; it's an overhaul!
Hooking these boxes up was easy, regardless of platform/smartphone choice. On my Android device, I fired up the Google app, which immediately recognised these speakers, and offered to set them up on my home wireless network automatically. Bam, done! That was all it took, and with that, almost every single Wi-Fi-enabled device in my house was now able to talk to the KEF package.
You don't need any proprietary app to play your preferred music – I'm looking at you, SONOS! Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL are all natively supported. When they aren't, Apple Airplay and Chromecast are built right in – and if even that doesn't satisfy you, then KEF has included Bluetooth connectivity too. Of course, all this is if you ignore the physical connections, including HDMI and an old school headphone jack socket. The bundled app is excellent for adjusting the volume, updating the firmware, tuning the volume steps and changing the speaker settings. The tuning settings include wall mode, desk mode and volume control of the subwoofer output.
An epic speaker system requires an epic testing song which steers me directly to Posterity by Ludwig Goransson (from the Tenet movie soundtrack). The song is littered with aggressive, staccato synth stabs, which neatly demonstrate the lightning-fast transients that the original LS50 was famous for. When the deep, cinema-like thundering bass hits, the Uni-Q drivers don't struggle or stutter. Instead, they put out a reasonable amount of tight, controlled midbass and adequate low-end rumble, more than you would expect from a thing of this size.
For that authentic wall-shaking experience, pair these with a sub. I used a JBL Balboa subwoofer, which turned out to be a match made in heaven. However, since the review sample left, KEF has announced its equally high-tech and compact KC62 subwoofer which I suspect is the perfect natural partner. It's not that the LS50 Wireless II doesn't have enough bass – quite the opposite in fact – it's merely just a matter of taste. When paired with a decent sub, this is a fully formed, full-range system that can fill most rooms with sound; perhaps enough to make you question the need for full-sized floorstanding loudspeakers.
When I say “fill the room”, I mean it. The LS50 can be turned up to ridiculous volume levels for something of its size. We had some friends over for a socially distanced lunch, putting the LS50 Wireless II on duty for background music. Just as a tester, we cranked the system up, and our guests were momentarily silent afterwards – in apparent shock at just how clean and crisp the sound was at high volumes. It felt like we'd be able to fill the entire street with music. The LS50 Wireless II has no business being this loud, it's disturbing!
It's not just volume that makes this box so impressive, however. Firing up Black Sands by Bonobo on vinyl, there's a level of detail and nuance here that's reminiscent of JBL's full-size HDI 1600 standmounters, which I know well. Even when the KEF speakers were connected wirelessly to one another, the sense of balance was perfect, and there was no latency between the two. Those drivers appear to have been matched perfectly, as their imaging ability is spectacular when singing in harmony.
While there is no EQ adjustment to speak of, some broad stroke sound configuration options are provided – such as assigning the bass profile to be “less”, “standard” or “extra”. It's a bit disappointing not to see finite frequency band adjustment. Still, there are enough controls to tailor the sound reasonably well to any normal listening room.
It's fascinating to witness the chameleon character of a great all-in-one loudspeaker package such as this. I took the LS50 Wireless II to my parents' house and set it up in the living room; my whole family was able to connect up quickly, and duly enjoyed plenty of fine-sounding background music. Yet this package also proved right at home in my listening room, under critical review conditions. It was happy to jump back and forth between these different environments and proved more than capable in both.
The new KEF LS50 Wireless II is comprehensively better than its already rather remarkable predecessor – both sonically and functionally. With a detailed and nuanced sound signature, superb imaging and lots of power, it ticks the audio boxes well enough. Then there's the fine wireless implementation, ease of set-up and useful connectivity options. Indeed, this elegant package has impressed me so much that I'm seriously thinking of shelling out for a set – for me at least, there's no greater praise than that!
Constantly keeping himself busy, Matthew is a production manager, Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt, Head-Fi fanatic, coffee enthusiast and all-round cool Dad.
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