As part of our series of Audiophile Brand interviews, we were lucky enought to speak with KEF at Axpona last year. We focused on the LS50W because we list it in our best wireless home audio speaker rankings, in fact, this delicious speaker system is number 1. So on to the interview:
KEF LS50W Not Your Dad’s Hi-Fi System
[Paul] Hi, today we are with Dipin Sehdev, KEF’s Brand Manager and we're very excited to talk about the new LS50 Wireless speaker system. Here at rateyoursound.com we're all about making technology beautiful in the home when it's your music system. Looking at the LS50W I wonder if this isn’t one of the easiest ways to get into high-end hi-fi?
[Dipin] Yeah absolutely, These wireless systems are not your dad's hi-fi system where you have the big tower speakers, a rack in the middle, plus you've got all those components. Instead, everything is built into the LS50W speaker system. What we wanted to do was follow KEF’s doctrine of a no compromise approach to whatever new project we take on. So with the success of the original LS50’s from when we launched in about 2011, we thought what's the next step forward? What can we do to make a new LS50 easier, and more accessible to people?
Because people loved the original LS50 and here at KEF we see all the great reviews and top ratings for the LS50. Our approach with new LS50W was not just to slap an amp on the back and add some connectivity.
Instead, we really took our time and thought about it. So, if you're looking at the design, say of the heatsink. It’s not just thrown on the back of the LS50W but it's carefully crafted to work with the speakers port design to make sure all the acoustics of the original LS50 aren't taken away, or compromised in any fashion.
The Keyword is Connectivity
Then from there we went into how can we make this work connectivity wise? And that's the keyword. Because you can hook up them up to just about anything. The LS50W have Wi-Fi, they have a network, they have Bluetooth, they have an auxiliary, they have an optical, they have USB to hook up to a computer. And for the bass-heavy guys they also have a subwoofer output as well.
So, you can connect to pretty much anything which is what we're showing off here at Axpona. If you look at the right speaker (which is the master speaker) you'll see we have it hooked up to a turntable. We have Alexa going, we have an Apple TV, we've got a server going with Wi-Fi. So, we're switching through the inputs to show you all the ways you can use this.
And that's what we want. We want it easy for people interested in music, who doesn't understand how to put together a hi-fi system. But can still approach the LS50 Wireless and it makes perfect sense to them.
Giant Boxes or Giant Sound
[Paul] We like the photos that you've done with the home decorator in mind.
[Dipin] Yeah, we take that into serious consideration because the speaker's got to do two things. It's got to sound good. And somebody's got to live with it. It's got to go in your home so as you know there's some great sounding speakers here at Axpona but they're big giant boxes I know my wife would never let me put that in my house.
But the LS50W look great. And it's actually a complement to our industrial design team that we have over there (Maidstone, UK). Because they're looking, they're paying attention. There is that extra level of detail that KEF puts into it.
On the top of the right speaker you see the OLED screen and it's a nice touch interface trying to make the aesthetics as important as the acoustics to make sure that it fits most people's needs.
Your Touch Device and the KEF Control App
[Paul] One of the things we find most interesting with all these wireless systems is the systems (touch device) control app. We noticed a particular attention to detail with the KEF control app in both the initial setup, the DSP (Digital Signal Processing), and subwoofer controls, and we just wanted to know more about it.
[Dipin] So, our engineers approach this in a very scientific way because creating the app is not a simple task. I mean there was a lot of time invested into it, a lot of different departments within KEF talking to make sure it worked.
So the control app actually does three basic things. First, it on-boards the speakers on to the network. With the LS50W you have to go through a process (as you do with any speaker of this kind) onboarding onto a network so that you can see them on either your LS50W control app or through any other DLNA programs you might have.
Secondly, it works as a interface between DLNA servers as well. So for example, we have a JRiver (a software media center) https://www.jriver.com running off a laptop which acts as our server. So it allows us to interface through it and to stream music to the speakers.
DSP: The hardest part about setting up a speaker in a room is always the room.
And finally, the big thing is the DSP control. Now this was a very very careful approach that we took. And the reason being is we always know the hardest part about setting up a speaker in a room is always the room.
So how can you do it? So we set up three different ways of doing DSP controls. The first is simply on the back of the speaker there's an option (switch) for desk, wall, or whether it's free standing, or on a speaker stand. So, with these simple questions anybody can do a little bit of tweaking right off the bat.
If you then go into the LS50W control app we have a whole section there for basic and expert. Basic takes you through some very simple questions. Like, how is your room? Is it a live room? is it a modern room? Is it a dampened room? Do you want a little bit more bass extension? Do you want a little less bass extension? Do you have a subwoofer plugged in? So very basic things an average person can answer.
The Control Apps DSP Expert Mode
Then for the expert, for the audiophile, for the people who really wanted to deep dive into the settings we can do a treble trim, we can even do different types of setup with the subwoofer and even the subwoofer output. And you know how difficult it is to integrate a subwoofer into a room especially with the speakers.
So instead of just making the subwoofer output hot and sending the whole signal within the app. We actually set up high-pass filters, low-pass filters, sub gain, and polarity, to actually make the subwoofer integrate with the speakers.
The whole idea is to make the speakers work for you in whatever room or whatever environment you're in without compromising the advancements we've made on the LS50 loudspeaker driver from the engineering side. So, it was a really difficult challenge that I honestly I think our team over there nailed it.
[Paul] We thought the end result was fantastic. As you know, we've reviewed LS50W for our Top 20 wireless systems article and I think you're adding to why we selected KEF.
[Dipin] Yeah absolutely. The part for me which I actually like the best is we've never come across anybody who hasn't heard a difference when testing the DSP. And this is that entry level approach, you know. We get a lot of people who say they can't hear the difference. I go, well let’s sit down and try this. Did you hear that? Yeah I heard that. Now I can explain exactly what's happening.
That's part of bringing more and more people into the side of listening to the music and understanding there's different ways of making speakers sound great in a room. And the KEF approach, as always, has been to try to make the best loudspeaker possible using modern materials and modern technologies. And that's where the LS50W is a whole combination of that.
More on Connectivity
[Paul] We are at Axpona on a sunny day in Chicago talking about high-end audio and taking a close look and deep dive into the LS50 Wireless speakers. One of the things that I wondered about is you've got a lot of people who have big CD collections, big vinyl collections and have a component base system. LS50W may be a replacement system, it may be an add-on system, and I wonder is it an appropriate system if you have a turntable CDs?
[Dipin] Of course. The thing with the LS50W is connectivity. That's why you see all the inputs on the back of the master speaker, which is the right one. Hook up whatever you like, actually here at Expona we have the VPI turntable hooked up and will be playing some vinyl throughout the show as well. We put all these inputs on the back so that whatever your situation is, however you like to listen, we want to make all options available.
So if you have your own CD player you’ll come through the auxiliary input, or the optical input, depending on your setup. Depending on your turntable, you may also need a small phono pre-amp for the LS50W. (phono pre-amps are available for $10 or more on Amazon)
LS50 Wireless. Greatness. Amplified.
Better Than CD Quality
Now the one of the big things we did is throughout the whole system is we kept everything 192/24. So even when you come in the auxiliary input everything in the analog and digital (A/D) is being converted at 192/24 (so greater than 44.1/16 which is the Redbook standard format for CD).
So KEF from the engineering side are trying to keep as much integrity of the original source as we can. The only input that's limited is the optical input just by the nature of it is 96/24. But through this system you can actually stream one 192/24 as well. And obviously we know bluetooth has its own limitations.
The LS50 or LS50W?
But whatever equipment you have right now there is definitely a way to integrate the LS50 into your system. And if you're having difficulty with the LS50 Wireless we still have the regular LS50 available to hook to your amps and listen to them that way.
[Paul] We also recommend regular LS50’s because we want to get people excited about the LS line and some of the greatest sounding speakers around. So if they've got their components and they want to hook up a pair, it's as easy as buying a the passive LS50’s.
[Dipin] Yes, and some people think we did something new to the LS50W but we didn’t. We we use the same construction, the same technology we put into the port, the Uni-Q driver is the same. So we're not doing anything fancy on that side but it was just a matter of controlling the DSP, being able to do all the inputs, and putting together a system that's easily approachable to anybody.
[Paul] We're here at Axpona with Johan doing a deep dive on the LS50 Wireless active system and one of the things we’ve learned is that all Digital Sound Processing (DSP) is not the same.
[Johan] The KEF approach, was dare I say, “bespoke”. The DSP algorithms are clearly written for us and tailored to the what this system is. The parameters and capabilities of the drivers which push the air, etcetera, etcetera..
But thanks to DSP what we can do at the digital crossover level is, for example, depending on the Sound Pressure Level (SPL) when you have a passive loudspeaker you will hear an endpoint when things start to get dirty and muddy. And when the driver physically hit that endpoint, and it all gets nasty within DSP. As SPL increases, through an algorithm, we can actually limit the excursion of the bass in relation to the treble and it's kind of intelligent limitation.
The alchemy of this is is is rather to to make sure that the speaker remains even-tempered. So the conclusion is that with the performance capabilities that we can wring out of this acoustic design go a whole bunch further.
A Mouth Watering Conclusion
So in conclusion, if you buy passive LS50’s ($1,299) and a great amplifier which controls it really well. I mean I've heard LS fifties on $10,000 amplifiers and it's been terrific, but kind of nuts, but great.
But when you consider LS50W for $2,200 dollars for this system package, to get something similarly performing you'd have to spend, and I'm not exaggerating here, four to five times more money. So for us, it's a mouth-watering prospect opportunity for the listening public to get into high-end with a simple easy-to-use system.
I have in conclusion, and this is a true story. I have a 25 year old daughter, she loves her music. But you know, once I stop boring her with audio techniques and technologies, and say gave her a pair of passive LS50, a bunch of wires, an amplifier, a source and all that, and then came back the next week, what chances does she have of actually getting music out of those things? I would say close to zero. Give her a pair of LS50W’s, the system.
Can she plug them into the wall? How will she use them? Can she pair something Bluetooth? She'd (snaps fingers) have music playing within four five minutes, fully optimized and taken care of. She doesn’t care about the technologies.
Fortuntely we at Rateyoursound really do care about the technology which is why we rate the LS50W our Best Wireless Home Audio Speaker!