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Quality fails sometimes part 2: KEF speakers

DSC00502The saga of the broken Nespresso coffee machine was resolved after a bit of a struggle, so I’m back enjoying good coffee once again. My KEF loudspeakers failed at about the same time: how long was I going to be deprived of another great enjoyment in life – music? And are the KEF LS50’s as great as they are cracked up to be?

I bought my KEF LS50 wireless speakers based partly on reviews and partly on the fact that a pair of demonstration speakers were going for a discount at a local HiFi shop. I had to make a snap decision but even at £2,000 they are a very good buy.

In terms of sound quality it is very difficult to fault them: they sound astonishingly good and I was particularly satisfied (and relieved) that the bass was so weighty and nuanced. I had considered floor standers in order to get the quality of bass I wanted, with Tannoy being long standing favourites of mine going back to the early 80’s. Space was a consideration however, and the LS50’s had other advantages such as built-in amplification/DAC and the ability to connect to a NAS (network attached storage – where my music collection is kept).

So, if sound quality is so good how can they be faulted? They have two failings that are significant to me: they do not have AirPlay and they cannot correctly read files on my NAS. These place serious limitations on my ability to enjoy music. A third and less important issue is the lack of a digital coaxial connection.

AirPlay

Apple AirPlay is much better, faster, easier to use and altogether more convenient than Bluetooth. End of story. Without it I cannot beam BBC radio from my iPhone or iPad to the speakers – or anything else for that matter such my music collection on VOX. If I want to listen to the radio I have to, well, move to the kitchen and switch on the radio. Bluetooth works on the LS50’s but is clunky and slow – I really can’t be bothered. Having said that, bluetooth pairing is better than on some other devices, such as the Ruark MR1‘s I use with my iMac, which take forever to pair.

NAS: who wants to listen to album tracks in alphabetical order?

The LS50’s find my Seagate NAS easily enough, but I effectively cannot play any of the music on it – HiRes FLAC or CD-quality AIFF. Not only does the KEF app manage to jumble up some of the albums, often in quite amusing ways, but every single album has tracks listed in alphabetical order. For goodness sake, who on earth is going to want to listen to that?!! Yes, it communicates with the NAS but no, effectively it doesn’t, so one of the main reasons for buying the KEF LS50’s go right out of the window. Incidentally, my Yamaha RX-A1060 cinema amp and Cambridge CXN streamer have no problem at all in reading albums with tracks in the correct order, so it seems to me that KEF is getting something fundamentally wrong.

Why only a toslink digital connection?

Of the two main digital connections – toslink (optical) and coaxial – I have always marginally preferred the latter. I was going to bring my perfectly good and hardly-used Marantz universal disc player back into use – I have some DVD-A and SACD discs I would like to have heard through the KEF’s. Just my luck: the Marantz only has a digital coaxial output and the KEF only has optical digital input. Never the twain shall meet. The Marantz went back in its box and awaits a new home, if I can find a deserving person who might want it. I bought a Cyrus CDi just so I could play CD’s through the KEF’s and, actually I’m glad I did. The sound quality is far better than I’m used to and I have to say the Cyrus has restored my faith in CD, which never was a particularly good quality product soundwise compared to a good old fashioned LP record.

And then came the breakdown…

It wasn’t long before my LS50’s developed a fault. Like the coffee machine it occurred suddenly and, like the coffee machine, it was not intermittent. I was listening to a Tidal Masters album on an iMac Pro connected by USB to the KEF’s when, after about 30 minutes, a very unpleasant sound emanated from the right speaker (the one with all the connections). The sound was muffled, and roughly akin to the sound an overweight cat with a loud hailer might make if it was being spun centrifuge-like at high speed. This was not nice – for me or for the cat. I made a recording of the sound and notified the retailer. I assumed that the fault was so obviously serious that the speakers would be collected and immediately replaced, leaving me with no more than a few days without my HiFi. No such luck. It took me some time to learn that KEF would attempt to repair the speakers, so I was looking at some weeks without them.

The KEF’s had a comfortable sit down before I took them out of the box.
After return the only real damage caused by the folks at KEF was on the underside of the main (right) speaker, where two of the feet were chipped and there were scratches on the casing, which clearly had been removed to check the insides. It’s on the bottom of the speaker, which you don’t normally see, so I was not really concerned.

Now, as with the Nespresso affair, you might expect a premium product from a quality company to attract a premium service. To be fair, the service was not that bad, although I was without my speakers for about 7 weeks, including over the entire Christmas and New Year period, when ironically I have a lot of time at home and therefore opportunity to catch up on my music collection. The speakers were returned yesterday and, I’m pleased to say, are working very well. I spent some hours on Monday evening listening to LP’s (Ry Cooder; The Jam), CD’s (Tom Waits; US3) and Tidal Masters (Mary J. Blige; Mogwai) and thoroughly enjoyed it. I think the late night gin-tasting (which is better: Plymouth Gin or Newton Abbot gin?) may have helped. Now, if you want to know which gin won….

Oh, and the answer to the question ‘are the KEF’s as good as they are cracked up to be’ is – YES; most certainly. They sound very good indeed and are worth every penny of the asking price. The flaws mentioned above are a downer but won’t affect everyone, especially if you don’t use AirPlay or have (or so I’m told) a compatible NAS.

Note: no cats were harmed in the writing of this blog.

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