KEF LS50 Meta Bookshelf Speaker Review
By Chris Heinonen on
I’ve been infatuated with the KEF LS50 speakers since they launched. As soon as I saw photos of the black and bronze design I wanted to test them out. I finally had the chance when doing a bookshelf speaker guide for Wirecutter, and everyone on the listening panel thought it was the best speaker tested. It had a defined, natural sound that no other bookshelf we listened to could touch.
That experience started me down the path with KEF speakers. I bought a full set of the R-Series for my home theater setup while doing that guide, and later upgraded to their THX in-wall system when I bought a house. I reviewed the KEF LS50 Wireless and thought it was a great revision that paired well with a TV or short throw projector. Fellow RHT writer Mark Vignola uses the KEF Reference speaker system for his apartment as chronicled in our Apartment Renovation series. When KEF announced they were upgrading the LS50 with the new LS50 Meta I reached out to see how they could improve on what most consider a modern-day classic.
KEF LS50 Meta Improvements
The LS50 Meta is named after the Metamaterial Absorption Technology they are using in a speaker for the first time. Simplified, it’s a complex structure that goes behind the driver inside the speaker, eliminating 99% of the reflections that would typically occur. By removing these internal reflections, you reduce distortion at the driver, and have a clearer sound coming from the driver itself.
That driver is also an updated 12th generation Uni-Q. This driver is what sets KEF speakers apart from all other speakers I’ve tested and why I prefer them. With the tweeter set inside of the midrange driver, sound from both drivers is originating from the same location. With a conventional speaker driver array, the tweeter and midrange drivers are located slightly different distances from your ear, so time alignment of the signals is harder to get right. When listening to a KEF speaker I always notice a bit more clarity and detail from this driver design.
In addition to the classic carbon black and bronze color scheme, the LS50 Meta comes in mineral white and bronze, titanium grey and red, and my personal favorite, a royal blue special edition with a gold Uni-Q driver. KEF has matching stands available for the LS50 Meta that are an exact match for the color of the speakers themselves.
I hooked up the LS50s in my two channel listening system in the living room of my new house. The room is around 15’ wide and 25’ long giving the speakers plenty of room away from all walls and lots of space to throw a soundstage. My source components were a Rega Planar 1 turntable, a Sony SACD player, Yamaha R-N303 and Denon X3600H receivers, and a Control4 EA-5 that can stream 24/192 audio from Qobuz.
I’m sure some people will criticize the choice of a $350 or $800 receiver with the LS50 Meta, arguing that you can get more from the speaker with a $5,000 or more amplifier, and I’m sure that’s the case. But I think you’re better to spend as much money on your speakers as you can compared to the system behind them, as the speakers are almost always the limiting factor in performance.
I did almost all of my listening using lossless, often HiRes, tracks from Qobuz. I kicked things off with one of my favorite albums from 2020, Taylor Swift’s Folklore. I chose the Long Pond Studio Sessions version for it’s more stripped down versions of the tracks compared to the studio album. During “Cardigan” the vocals are so close and intimate it’s like she’s playing piano and performing right in front of me. It sounds so real that I can visualize her over the microphone and hear the emptiness of the room behind her. In these COVID-times I don’t expect to see live music soon, so having the LS50 Meta recreate that feeling is impressive. The background here is dead silent, with no hint of hiss or coloration.
I decided to push the limits of what the LS50 Meta could do. Throwing on “The Game Has Changed” from the Tron: Legacy soundtrack showed that you just can’t get the heavy impact out of the LS50s. You could still hear the bass line, but while it shakes the walls in my home theater when you play it, here it just was present but not room shaking. Everything else in the song sounded great, with a wide soundstage and impressive detail, but I used this to let me know I could only push the LS50 so far.
“Royals” from Lorde was very similar to Tron: Legacy through the LS50 Meta. The song is very dynamic and both vocals and instruments are incredibly clear, but to feel impact from the deepest bass notes you will need to add a subwoofer. I can feel a small vibration in the floor as the LS50 tries to reproduce these notes, but it just can’t deliver the slam that a large woofer can.
But as soon as I put on “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, that limitation in the deepest bass is quickly forgotten. A track like this is what the LS50 Meta is made for. The individual elements are reproduced perfectly, with superb separation between the vocals and instruments, and a clarity to them that you can’t find in less expensive speakers. When the song calls for it, the LS50 rises to the task of reproducing the dynamics, and it can effortlessly communicate the nature of the song.
I started to fiddle with the placement of the LS50s during this track as well and found I preferred them to be toed-in and slightly facing me than to be completely parallel. When I moved them back to a parallel position, the song sounds hollow compared to the more open and natural sound with them toed in. It may vary based on your room, but I’d recommend toeing them in.
I was completely unprepared for what happened when I moved onto “All Along the Watchtower” from Jimi Hendrix. The song explodes out of the LS50s, filling the room with sound unlike any of the tracks before it. The soundstage is huge, and the sound is bold and loud, fully capturing the vocals and guitar. Nothing was missing here and it is as in-your-face as you want Hendrix to be. It’s a track that made me want to invite friends over to hear what these compact little speakers are capable of.
“Silent All These Years” from Tori Amos is a track I’ve used for testing for over a decade and I’ve been listening to since it was released. On the LS50 Meta the vocals are clearer and easier to understand than I’ve ever heard them in the past. I’d normally chalk this up to it being the first time I’m truly focusing on a song, but I’ve been using this track for so long that it truly stands out. By eliminating all those reflections and using the Uni-Q driver, the LS50 Meta can better communicate those small, indistinct details than anything I’ve listened to before.
I don’t have a bookshelf speaker in the same price range to compare the LS50 to around, but I hooked up the ELAC UniFi UB5 bookshelf speaker which also has a concentric driver, though costs less than half as much. Going back to Folklore, the backgrounds through the ELAC aren’t nearly as silent, and you lose much of the intimacy of the recording that the LS50 Meta can deliver. Taylor Swift’s voice is darker and more muffled by comparison and it removes the feeling of being in the same room. Since the goal, to me, with high-end audio is trying to recreate the feeling of live music, and the emotion that it brings, the LS50 does that far better than the ELAC can.
KEF LS50 Meta Review Conclusions
The original LS50 is the speaker that made me love the KEF sound, and the LS50 Meta only improves upon that by reducing the coloration of the sound to be even more natural than before. The flaws in the LS50 are not flaws but limitations, as a compact monitor is never going to generate the ultra-deep bass or impact that a tower with 8” woofers can. The LS50 Meta might not be able to communicate that physical impact of deep bass, but it can so effortlessly communicate the emotion and feeling of music that you might not miss it.
If anything, it made me far more aware of the mastering work done with songs and the dynamics of them. Some albums that I love, like Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, didn’t have the same dynamics and intimacy of others and so I found myself not listening to them as often. The albums that sound more real through the LS50 Meta kept drawing me in to listen more. KEF just introduced a subwoofer meant to pair with the LS50 Meta, the KC62, which I plan to test and see how well it addresses the impact of tracks like “Royals” in my room.
The other reservation I have with the LS50 Meta is that I wonder if most people aren’t better served by the LS50 Wireless II. It takes the LS50 Meta, adds discrete amps for the drivers, a plethora of inputs (HDMI eARC, Optical, Coaxial, Analog, AirPlay 2, Chromecast, Roon, Tidal, Spotify, Qobuz, and more), and works in a true wireless manner aside from needing power. This lets you pair them easily with a TV in a living room or family room system, not have to worry about matching them with a receiver or integrated amp, and makes it incredibly easy to get music to them from your digital and streaming sources. If I didn’t already have the electronics, or didn’t want to use them for reviewing other audio electronics and speakers going forward, I’d certainly go for the Wireless version myself.
In conclusion, I think the LS50 Meta is a fantastic speaker. It performed well in my system, and I would love to pair it with the NAD M10 or Naim Uniti Atom that I’ve previously reviewed due to their superior amps and integrated streaming. Before the year is out, I imagine I’ll have a pair, likely in that Blue and Gold finish, in my two channel system to serve as my reference bookshelf speaker going forward. I highly recommend finding a pair to listen to, as they’ll truly reveal what your music sounds like and connect you to it.
Superb detail and clarity that brings even the most obscure details of your music into the foreground, great dynamics despite their small size, great build quality and finish.
Can't reproduce those deepest bass notes without a subwoofer, music that sounds flat in the mastering won't sound nearly as good and natural as more dynamic tracks.
The KEF LS50 Meta is an amazing sounding bookshelf speaker that faithfully reproduces the musical experience. In a time when we are unable to see live music, the LS50 Meta made it sound like performers were right in front of me and offered that emotional connection to the recording. A fantastic speaker and a great centerpiece of a two channel system.