KEF’s original LS50 “mini monitors” are a hallowed name in the audiophile world. Packing trickle-down technology from KEF’s insanely decadent Blade speakers, the LS50s’ concentric tweeter design, rock-solid bracing, and heaps of patents have helped make them rock stars with reviewers, audio engineers, and sound enthusiasts alike. So when we heard about the active LS50 Wireless speakers, which tack on hi-res and Bluetooth streaming, we were obviously intrigued. In short, it’s tough to mess with perfection, so the wireless speakers — which cost $700 more than the originals — are an interesting proposition.
While “wireless” may be the headline, it’s no trick to add wireless streaming to a sound system these days — Google’s Chromecast Audio does it for $35, and virtually every receiver on the market offers built-in streaming. What the LS50 Wireless really have going for them is their minimalist design, intuitive app, and custom-crafted internal amplification, which is digitally timed specifically for the speakers to create the kind of clarity and precision that’s rare (if possible) to find in a standard amp-and-speaker pairing. In other words, it’s a match made in heaven.
Out of the box
At 22 pounds apiece (plus an extra half pound on the right speaker for internals), you will feel it when you pull these speakers from the box. For those unfamiliar with the original LS50, the speakers offer an intriguing aesthetic that’s equal parts exotic and audiophile-chic. Dimpled woofers surround a concentric tweeter shaped like a lemon juicer, while the piano-gloss cabinets are elegant enough to feel at home in the poshest of Chelsea lofts.
The wireless version of the LS50 have their own affectations, including robust heat sinks at the back (which partly accounts for that anvil weight), and CAT-6 inputs to sync the stereo channels. The right speaker holds the real goods, though, including multiple wired inputs, a subwoofer output, and basic digital controls for speaker placement, labeled “desktop” and “stand.” A shiny touchpad for volume control and input selection rests on the top panel. Accessories include the CAT-6 cable that syncs the two speakers, heavy-duty power cables, and a miniature matte remote.
Features and design
Minimalist almost to a fault at first glance, the more you stare into the LS50 Wireless, the more intriguing they become. The 5.25-inch woofers come in electric shades of red, gold, and blue, while the piano-gloss cabinets come in black, silver, or white. Raised blades along the interior of the woofer and a rubberized ring of dimples along the edge help set it off.
The design doesn’t just look cool; it’s the result of countless hours of careful acoustic engineering, compounded by 11 generations of design evolution. The specially designed Uni-Q tweeter/woofer combo sits inside a “precision-made curved baffle” along each speaker’s beveled front face. Inside, the sturdy cabinets are reinforced with serious bracing to minimize vibration and distortion, and a flexible bass port helps the speakers reach deep into the lower register with more muscle than you’d guess.
What the LS50 Wireless really have going for them is their minimalist design, intuitive app, and custom-crafted internal amplification.
Each speaker contains two amps – one for the tweeter and one for the woofer – adding up to 230 watts per channel. Digitally controlled crossover points translate to near-perfect timing (all the frequencies arrive at your ear at the same time) and a wide sweet spot. The frequency response varies by desired digital setup (via the app) moving between 40-47Hz on the low end, and reaching a steeple-high 47kHz at the top.
The app (for iOS and Android) supports Wi-Fi streaming from your device’s library, as well as Tidal, and hi-res tracks at up to 24bit/192kHz resolution from your network drive. Spotify Connect originally slated to arrive in mid-July, finally made landfall for Spotify Premium subscribers in mid-October 2017 via updates to the app (version 1.4, scroll to question A11) and firmware (version 1.1.4). The update allows you to stream directly from within the Spotify app without worrying about interruption from notifications coming to your phone or tablet. Bluetooth offers a way to stream other services, and wired inputs include Optical digital, USB-A, and analog RCA.
As part of the October update, users can also now swap the master speaker from the right channel to the left, in case you have placement issues with the speaker set for the right channel.
Though the app controls the bulk of system parameters, the touchpad on the right speaker and the sleek little remote offer volume, power, and input control — which is where we’ll raise our only real quibble with the system. Because there’s no visible input indicator, you basically have to guess when changing inputs, or stand up and look at the top-mounted control panel. Simple solutions could include a multi-colored LED on the front of the speaker, or easier yet, a button for each input on the remote. Barring that, adding input selection on the app would be nice.
After placing the speakers a good five-six feet apart or more, then connecting the CAT-6 and power cables, it’s time to download the app and connect to the network. Like a lot of wireless speakers, the LS50 can be a little finicky. The system supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi signals, but the speakers don’t like it when you switch routers, requiring a system reset via a small rear button. Even then, we got an error message in the final step, while the speaker selection read “no speakers.” After speaking with KEF, we discovered the speakers were already connected, and only needed to be selected from the drop-down menu. We were assured that error message was a bug which will be addressed in an app update.
App and streaming performance
KEF’s app directs all streaming content, but it also allows you to tailor sound parameters. For instance, you can easily adjust the distance from the wall, desktop or stand setup, the liveliness and size of the room, and subwoofer status, among others.
An Expert window offers even more fine-tuning, like treble trim, bass extension, and even manually setting the subwoofer crossover. The app only works while streaming, but the settings hold for all sources. Adding a subwoofer into the equation is a breeze, done with the flip of a single digital switch and a few quick tweaks. In fact, while there are plenty of settings to mess with, we didn’t have to do much — the speakers just sound fantastic by default.
The app is pretty stable in daily use, even allowing you to adjust settings on the fly and hear the results in real time. We experienced a couple of minor stumbles when streaming from our iPhone library, but seeing as our router can be futzy, we’ll give the app a pass. Overall, streaming is consistent and reliable and only felt sluggish on occasion when switching sources.
Have you ever kayaked on a pristine glacial lake? As you glide along the surface, you can peer down through the translucent water to spot fallen trees and massive boulders reaching up from the depths, meters below but as vivid as if they were merely under glass. This kind of clarity is an apt metaphor for the LS50 Wireless’ sound signature.
The speakers soared with every piece of media we threw at them.
The sound is crystalline, set before your ears with sparkling purity, impressive expression, and effortless extension. Music sounds so transparent and articulate you feel you could almost dive in and touch each instrument as it’s playing, and each sound is placed deftly within the wide soundstage, occupying a distinct and nearly tangible point in the air. Details are exposed with organic resonance, revealing each tick and glint of an instrument or voice’s timbre, and just as importantly, the space that surrounds it.
Over the course of a few weeks, we put the speakers through their paces across multiple formats, including hi-res tracks (via the USB input), Wi-Fi streaming, Optical input, and even connecting our turntable. Once we’d dialed in a few very minimal room settings, the speakers soared with every piece of media we threw at them.
We began our aural odyssey in fine fashion, cueing up the remastered Blu-ray of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine via the Optical input, and what a wild ride it was. (Even 50 years on, The Beatles seem to get better and better, don’t they?) As you might imagine, with George Martin at the helm, it’s the strings and brass that shine brightest through the LS50, the horns bursting with dynamic expression and golden buzz, while the strings ride up and down the space in fluid runs that bend and flow with a near-live presence.
Of course, the lads from Liverpool themselves sound spectacular as well. Our particular favorite from the film, Hey Bulldog, is haunting through the LS50, with its stale and roughshod piano lines, over-fuzzed guitars cutting through towards the edge of abrasiveness, and dual vocals cackling at the end in ominous psychedelia.
The amplification within each speaker is flawlessly tuned, to the point that we kept coming back to the word “perfect” to describe the balance — a word we do not use lightly. You almost can’t hear where each register begins or ends, as the sound glides seamlessly from the bottom of the bass to the tips of the treble. That’s compounded by the fact that the speakers are able to get ferociously loud without any audible distortion, so that they serve almost as a sort of unmovable force of sonic poise.
Sound is crystalline, set before your ears with sparkling purity, impressive expression, and effortless extension.
As for the individual registers, bass response is potent for the size, even without a sub, rendered with a warmth that seems almost in conflict with its sheer clarity. It’s full and punchy when called for, yet ready to recede into the background when a clean vocal line takes center stage, as if the DSP is performing a live mix. Treble is taut and ultra clear, without ever becoming strident or sibilant — even the clanky ring of the crash cymbal in Blind Faith’s Can’t Find My Way Home manages to emphasize the cold cut of the metal without offending the ear.
Of course, adding KEF’s $1,700 400b subwoofer was a blast, too — we obviously weren’t going to argue when KEF offered. The sub gives more gravity to cinematic content, but it’s most impressive for hip hop. Jay Z’s Black album was an absolute party, as the powerful unit took on the big beats, letting the speakers focus on the upper register for ultra-clear lyrics and percussion above the fray. We couldn’t help letting the system loose, despite some odd glances from the neighbors, reaping nothing but clean lyrical potency.
We liked the speakers best, though, when rendering acoustic instruments — especially percussion. You know when the pop of a conga pulls you back into the room for its sheer presence, something is going right. One of our favorite moments came in the LS50 Wireless’ rendition of Ripple by the Grateful Dead. We’ve heard this song dozens of times over the years, but the speakers bring something really special to the table. The acoustic guitar at the intro sounds almost visible in space on the left side, while the rest of the instruments curl around in their own distinct locations within the stereo image. At the chorus, the dual mandolins are near magical in their precision — you can actually hear the room echo flutter between each click of the frenzied strumming.
KEF’s warranty for its active and passive products differs greatly. Since the LS50 Wireless include both, its warranty does as well, covering all passive elements (the basics of the speakers, cabinets, etc), for a period of five years, and all active elements (assumingly the DAC, the amplifier, etc.) for a period of one year. For more details check out the website.Our Take
Frankly, it’s hard to think of a more convenient and feature-packed way to introduce audiophile sound into your home, at this price or above. KEF’s LS50 Wireless are a thrilling and ultra-convenient way to step into stunning audiophile sound, offering what just may be the best performance we’ve experienced in a bookshelf speaker — wireless or otherwise.
What are the alternatives
It’s difficult to find comparable shelf speakers that can stand with the LS50 Wireless, as their active power, internal DAC system, and wireless connection make them pretty distinctive in the audiophile genre. Our powered JBL LSR4326 pro monitors at home couldn’t come close to the clarity or openness (though they are admittedly less expensive), and even some of the top studio monitors we’ve heard from the likes of Focal, ATC, and others would have difficulty matching the performance.
While we didn’t have the chance to A/B the passive LS50 and the Wireless directly, for those already saddled with a quality amp or receiver, the passive pair represent an obvious option. Still, we recommend trying the Wireless version first, as they really are that good.
How long will it last
With premium build quality, perfectly tuned amplification, and app updates aplenty, we expect the LS50 Wireless to last as long as you want them to.
Should you buy it
Absolutely. In fact, the only reason we can think of not to buy the LS50 Wireless is if you’re looking to build a receiver-based surround sound system for a full home theater setup. Otherwise, buy this system and don’t look back.
Update: This review has been updated to include the addition of Spotify Connect via firmware and app updates.