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KEF LS50 Wireless Nocturne Active Loudspeaker System

KEF LS50 Wireless Nocturne Active Loudspeaker System

I’ve always been something of a night owl. And perhaps like many of you I enjoy listening to music later in the evenings. Lights low, wine glass in hand, ready to relax into stereo sound. For some reason I’ve also always gotten a kick out of stuff that glows: from amplifier tubes and fireflies to bioluminescent sea creatures, neon signs, and even a pair of glow-in-the-dark earrings. My fondness for such whimsy unexpectedly found its way to a modern hi-fi offering perfect for nighttime: the special Nocturne edition of KEF’s updated LS50 Wireless loudspeaker system that features intricate geometric patterns and textures on the front panel and surrounding the concentric driver that glow in the dark. So when I first heard (and laid eyes on) KEF’s updated LS50 Wireless at this year’s CES I knew I wanted to review it—and yes, I requested the Nocturne limited-edition model shown there. The Nocturne edition adds $300 to the price of the standard LS50 Wireless.

This new KEF LS50 marks a well-conceived reinvention of the company’s iconic LS50 compact speaker as a wireless and active system—and in the case of this version, it’s been aesthetically reimagined by the acclaimed designer Marcel Wanders. According to KEF’s website, the Nocturne graphics were “inspired by the circular arrangement of time, a structured, architectural-type pattern with notes and symbols added to the seemingly unending depth of the rhythmic design, like a musical composition.” All that it may be, but in addition to punching above its weight sonically the Nocturne just looks cool.

But don’t let this sleek, smallish speaker system fool you into thinking it isn’t serious audio gear. First off, the LS50 Wireless contains KEF’s patented Uni-Q concentric driver array consisting of a vented aluminum tweeter dome positioned in the center of the midrange/bass cone that features a long-throw radiator for low-end extension. In addition to pumping out some healthy bass, this unique Uni-Q driver is designed to deliver wider dispersion and to improve dimensionality. Another advanced tech feature in the LS50 Wireless is a time-correcting DSP crossover. Based on my listening, my hunch was that this not only offers greater coherence, but it also made speaker setup a snap within my rather large listening room. It was fun to dial the system in further too.

As befits a modern active speaker system, the 230Wpc (a bi-amp dual mono configuration) LS50 Wireless has a dedicated DAC per channel, a streaming preamp, and an end-to-end 192kHz/24-bit high-resolution digital signal path. It doesn’t skimp on connectivity either: 2.4GHz/5Ghz dual-band WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0 with aptX (up to eight devices), asynchronous USB Type B, TosLink optical, and RCA line-level analog inputs. Interestingly, all these connections are found only on the back of the right-channel monitor; the speakers are tethered to each other in a master-slave arrangement via an included 3m Cat-6 interconnect with RJ45 Ethernet terminations. In addition, the LS50 Wireless system also comes with pretty much everything you need to deploy its plethora of connection capabilities: a pair of power cords, a 2m USB cable, and a 1m LAN cable.

For your streaming delight, you can use Roon, Tidal, and Spotify. As one would expect there’s an app for iOS and Android, in addition to the included remote control, which is slim and rather basic but does what it needs to do. The top of the right “master” speaker displays a series of touch-screen-style controls designed to look like push-buttons—a nice touch (and they’re nice to touch). Their symbols for each function/source and their overall ergonomics are clean, elegant, and intuitive.

On the topic of user-friendliness, if you’re like many audiophiles, the words “plug and play” might give you pause, if not genuine doubts about a speaker’s sonic prowess. In other words, there can be (often incorrect) assumptions about its sound quality being directly proportional to the degree of difficulty in setup. Not so here. I went from unboxing to listening in a matter of minutes with no more than a perfunctory peek at the included Quick Start Guide. The LS50 Wireless system was hands-down the fastest and simplest setup I’ve ever experienced (including the KEF Muo wireless speaker system I reviewed in Issue 265). Of course I did adjust speaker placement more to my liking, but the LS50s sounded remarkably good out of the gate, placed on their KEF Performance speaker stands slightly toed-in and about five-and-a-half feet apart. To explore the more “official” set-up process—and for system control beyond the remote—I also gave the free iOS app for the LS50 Wireless a go. It offered clear, step-by-step instructions—starting with speaker and WiFi connection—that seemed pretty foolproof even for those who might find these things intimidating. Myriad music library functions also appeared, from creating playlists to integrating streaming services: Tidal, Roon, and Spotify Connect (for which a Premium subscription is needed), and media server playback. Finally, once your LS50 “master” is connected to your mobile device you can dig into fine-tuning the speakers. There’s a default setting; additionally you can make adjustments either in Basic or Expert mode—the former encompasses basic speaker placement, distance from wall, room size, and sub plug-in. The latter covers degrees of bass extension, phase correction, and further subwoofer tweaks. On the plus side, all the functions seemed self-explanatory; on the downside, Bluetooth and WiFi connections proved fickle on rare occasions, but my less-than-super router undoubtedly played a role there.

The remote control proved handy for basic functions, such as adjusting volume level, powering on/off, and changing inputs—though for this last one you’d either have to memorize the number of button presses required to “scroll” from one input to the next in sequence, or peer at the top of the right-channel speaker to see which input is selected. Or just use the app for input selection instead.

 

As for my initial sonic impressions of the LS50 Wireless speaker system, right away I was struck by its high degree of detail and general naturalness of timbre—particularly through the midrange—though you can also expect a touch of sweetness and warmth on some recordings. In some respects the Nocturnes can sound more expensive than they are, especially on well-recorded material. Also, these smallish speakers aren’t shy; they pump out punchy bass that delves deeper than expected while still maintaining composure. They’re quick-stepping and snappy, and relentlessly musical across genres. Dispersion and dimensionality proved to be other strong suits, especially for a compact. And they sound bigger than they are. Also I’ve had mixed sonic experiences with (and sensitivity to) metal drivers but found that this array practically never skewed harsh or aggressive.

In my hasty excitement to hear these LS50s I began with the closest source at hand—the one in my hand: an iPhone 8 Plus. Via the Tidal app and Bluetooth, I queued up Andrew Bird’s Are You Serious in Tidal’s HiFi mode. The speakers seem to present just the right mix of detail balanced with substance—a pleasing sense of weight and body. The quite realistic tone and timbre of vocals and sweet violin wowed me on “Puma.” Imaging, including the placement of the singers and their string instruments within the soundstage, had compelling presence and immediacy on guitar strums and violin bowing on the more stripped-down track “Left Handed Kisses.” Chimes and other percussion were rendered with quick attacks with sustains and decays ringing out beautifully. It’s also a good sign that I was only going to listen to a track or two but found myself so engaged in the music that the album played on. Given that I’m also an analog lover, this was quite remarkable.

Next I plugged my MacBook Pro (circa 2012) laptop in via USB and queued up Roon. A listen to LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean” delivered expansive dispersion and some rather impressive lower-octave oomph. I never really felt tempted to bring out the subs. We’re not talking nightclub-level, cage-rattling bass here, but still far more depth than expected, especially from compacts. Of course, when I turned up the volume a few notches, some edges and aspects softened slightly in the bass, but the big picture didn’t fall apart. Per the specs, SPL maxes out at 106dB but I didn’t push that far. The LS50s conveyed this track’s broad-spectrum layers and gave all a great sense of groove and potent energy. I switched to Lila Downs’ “Aqua de Rosas” from La Cantina (Red Book CD rip), where multi-layered percussion was reproduced with crispness and clarity within a pleasing sense of airy openness. There was a rich smoothness to her smoky contralto vocals.

The LS50 Wireless speaker system packs big sound—along with plenty of technology and cool style—in a little box. And yes, this Nocturne edition brings extra fun to late-night listening in a dark room. Day or night, it’s been a delight to have around.

Specs & Pricing

Type: Active loudspeaker
Driver complement: Uni-Q concentric array with HF 1″ vented aluminum dome, LF/MF 5.25″ magnesium/aluminum alloy
Frequency response: 45Hz–28kHz; ±3dB, measured at 85dB/1m
Amplifier output power: 2x 230W (LF, 200W; HF, 30W)
Inputs: 2.4GHz/5GHz dual-band WiFi network, Bluetooth 4.0 with aptX codec, USB Type B, TosLink optical, RCA analog line-level, 10/100Mbps RJ45 Ethernet
Output: Subwoofer output
Streaming options: Spotify, Tidal, Roon
Dimensions: 7.9″ x 11.8″ x 12.1″
Weight: Right speaker (master), 22.5 lbs.; left speaker (slave), 22 lbs.
Price: $2500, Nocturne edition; $2200, regular LS50 Wireless (passive LS50 is $1500)
 

KEF
10 Timber Lane
Marlboro, NJ 07746
(732) 683-2356
us.kef.com

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