KEF LS50 Wireless Speakers Review
By Chris Heinonen on
I’ve made no secret that I’m a huge fan of KEF speakers. To me, their UniQ driver offers superb clarity with treble and midrange, as instruments and voices originate from a single point. When I wrote about bookshelf speakers for Wirecutter, I brought in the KEF LS50 as a reference point to compare the entry-level speakers to. KEF has added the LS50 Wireless to the lineup, combining the LS50 with integrated amps and wireless capabilities to serve as a high-end but easy to set up music system. While it has a couple of usability details that could be improved, it sounds much better than any sound bar or wireless speaker system I’ve ever reviewed and is highly recommended for those after incredible sound with the least work.
LS50 Wireless Design and Integration
If you’ve seen the LS50 than the design of the LS50 Wireless is familiar. It offers the same look, with a single UniQ driver on the front and a bass port in the rear. The difference is there are no binding posts to be found here, but large heat-sinks on the rear for the integrated amplifiers. The right speaker features all the inputs and controls for the pair, with optical, RCA, Ethernet, WiFi, and Bluetooth connectivity along with an IR sensor and subwoofer output. The two speakers are joined by Ethernet, though both do require their own power connection.
As expected the fit and finish on the LS50 Wireless is superb. The surfaces are a glossy finish and each speaker is very hefty. The rear heat sinks are smoothed so you have no risk as cutting yourself on them as I have on heat sinks in the past. Touch-sensitive controls are on the top of the right speaker, and an IR receiver can be seen just below the UniQ driver. The included remote will control the LS50 Wireless as well as change inputs, or you can use the app on your phone. Unfortunately, the LS50 Wireless can’t learn alternate remote codes, so you can’t use your TV remote to control volume.
There are three finishes for the LS50 Wireless now, though I’m partial to the white with copper drivers myself. The glossy paint finish looks spectacular, well ahead of almost any other speaker in this price range. The other choices are a metallic gray with red drivers and black with blue drivers, though KEF did a limited edition Nocturne version recently that is black with glow-in-the-dark accents. KEF also offers matching stands for the LS50 Wireless that matches the finish and includes cable routing inside.
To test out the KEF LS50 Wireless, I used them in my living room audio system where I typically have a Sonos soundbar setup. KEF also sent along the Kube10b subwoofer which I hooked up to augment the bass. Using Roon as an audio server made direct comparisons between the Sonos Playbar, KEF LS50 Wireless, and Bluesound Pulse soundbar possible. Instead of stands, I placed them on top of my credenza next to the TV as I imagine many will do.
KEF LS50 Wireless Listening Tests
Earlier in 2018, Meshell Ndegeocello released Ventriloquism, an album of covers. The cover of Prince’s Sometimes it Snows in April is a true highlight, and sound fantastic on the LS50 Wireless. Her voice is remarkable on them and the soundstage they project is just fantastic. While they can compete with and replace a standard soundbar, the LS50 Wireless are real bookshelf speakers and show it. Adding in the Kube10b the lower octaves are improved and fill the room. It doesn’t have the physical impact of larger subs but does a good job of delivering those bottom octaves that the LS50 Wireless cannot on their own.
The War On Drugs is who I’ve been listening to more than anyone else the past year. Loading up Lost In The Dream from Spotify, the detail offered up from the LS50 Wireless was way beyond my usual daily speakers. I typically listen to a Sonos PLAY:5 in my office because it’s just so easy to use Spotify Connect, but using the LS50 Wireless is just as easy and the sound is way beyond what the Sonos Five offers. While listening I was impressed with how the Kube continued to fill in the lower octaves. When I went to disable the Kube to listen to the LS50 Wireless without it, I discovered it wasn’t active and I was only listening to the LS50 Wireless. Turning on the Kube filled in the bass even more than before, but the LS50 Wireless still provides a full-bodied sound without a subwoofer.
The one worry I had with the LS50 Wireless as a soundbar replacement is that as a two-channel setup, you don’t have a center channel. Connected to my TVs with an optical cable, this was never a problem. With the UniQ drivers, vocals were always clear and easy to understand without being muddled up in the musical mix. Compared to a good soundbar like the Sonos, the KEFs offered a larger soundstage for movies and TV, with sounds coming all across the front wall and not just from the TV itself. Vocals still managed to be anchored to the center of the screen, but there was never a comparison here in sound quality.
I did more A/B comparisons between the Sonos and LS50 Wireless using Roon. It might strike you as unfair to use the Playbar against a pair of stereo speakers, but Sonos doesn’t let you use a pair of PLAY:5 speakers with a TV so you’re restricted to the soundbar options. Massive Attack’s Angel has a far crisper attack through the LS50 Wireless, and the bass is tighter and deeper even without a subwoofer. The beautiful melodies and highs on The Beach Boys God Only Knows have more sparkle and clarity on the KEFs, sounding far more like the instruments in real life. The Sonos is a remarkably good soundbar, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the KEFs when it comes to stereo music.
Roon isn’t the only way to get music to the LS50 Wireless of course. Integrated support for Tidal and Spotify Connect are here as well. I set up my kids with Spotify accounts and both enjoyed playing Bruno Mars and Imagine Dragons through the LS50 Wireless from their iPads. Of course, you can hook up a pair of passive LS50s to a stereo receiver with Spotify Connect for the same results, but it’s a messier setup with more wires and puts you back at passive speakers with a passive crossover instead of the active LS50 Wireless that have amplifiers perfectly mated to their drivers.
A pair RCA jacks serve as an analog input for the LS50 Wireless, letting you pair it with a turntable or other analog source. There isn’t a phono preamp here, so you’ll need to add one yourself or get a turntable with it built-in. With the infinite supply out there of analog sources, including tape decks that are seeing a mini-resurgence today, it’s good KEF gave everyone an input even if most people are likely to stream their music on the LS50 Wireless.
LS50 Wireless Improvements
The main improvement I’d like to see in the LS50 Wireless is a pair of features that would bring it in line with the Sonos Playbar: automatic source switching and IR code learning. If I turn on my TV and the optical signal goes live, I want to listen to that and would like the KEF to switch to that input automatically. Adding the ability to control the volume with your TV remote, since most TVs let you disable the internal speakers now, and the KEF LS50 Wireless will just work. Friends and family can turn on the TV and get fantastic sound without needing to do anything.
I did pair the LS50 Wireless with a Harmony Elite remote while I was testing them and, after updating the firmware on the LS50 Wireless to the newest version, it controls them perfectly. The Harmony software knows exactly how they work, can do direct input switching, and controls the volume on them. Since I already love the Harmony Elite as a remote adding it to a system with the LS50 Wireless is an easy way to sidestep this issue, but hopefully, KEF can fix it in the future as well.
Spotify Connect also would not automatically turn on the LS50 Wireless, or switch to the Spotify Connect input when you start playing to it. Since most receivers and soundbars work this way, it’s frustrating that the LS50 Wireless don’t as well. Again, it’s another way for anyone to be able to get great music from their phone without needing to ask anyone for a remote or how to turn on the speakers.
KEF LS50 Wireless Conclusions
The KEF LS50 Wireless speakers are what I’d consider a lifestyle speaker, in that they break away from a series of black boxes and look attractive in a living room. However, the connotations of a lifestyle speaker are that you’re putting style before substance and picking a solution that looks good but only sounds OK. With the LS50 Wireless you aren’t putting sound behind anything as they maintain the fantastic KEF sound of the passive LS50s, but in a package that is much easier to install and setup than a traditional speaker system.
Where the KEF LS50 Wireless falls short as a lifestyle speaker is in usability. While KEF can teach Sonos a lot about building a great sounding speaker, Sonos still has the edge when it comes to ease of use. With a couple small changes, maybe even with new firmware, the LS50 Wireless could easily integrate into a living room TV system without any extra remotes or hardware. It does support the Harmony Elite and other AV integration systems, but also working seamlessly with a basic TV remote would make it a better option for most people.
For music lovers that refuse to sacrifice sound quality but want to be free of a rack of black boxes, the LS50 Wireless delivers. With integrated streaming support, an analog and digital input, and fantastic sound the KEF LS50 Wireless gets a huge recommendation from me. It fills that missing gap for a lifestyle system that actually sounds amazing.
Fantastic sound quality and build quality, support for all the essential inputs and streaming services you need, easy setup and integration into a home without extra boxes.
Not as easy to integrate into a living room system as a Sonos Playbar would be.
For those after true high-end sound quality without a rack of black boxes or lots of wiring, the LS50 Wireless is the best sounding solution we've heard. It sounds better than any soundbar and takes only minutes to set up. It offers no compromise in sound quality and can easily integrate with your living room.