Unless you have been spending WAY too long in your man-cave in recent years, you will have heard at least something about the KEF LS50 in all its active and passive guises. Originally inspired by the LS3/5a but brought very much up to date with KEF’s latest Uni-Q driver array, the small, high-performance stand-mount has been the loudspeaker to beat since it first appeared almost nine years ago.
If, as Rab Butler said, “a week is a long time in politics”, then nine years is a lifetime for a loudspeaker. Few of the LS50’s peers from 2012 are still around in their same iterations, but it’s something of a testament to the original LS50 design that it took until the latter part of 2020 for its LS50 Meta replacement to roll out, and on the face of it, differences are minimal in the extreme. The LS50 Meta has the same form-factor, the same basic cabinet construction (a resin/GRP compound to produce the gently curved front baffle, with a braced MDF cabinet for the rear and sides). The cabinet has been cleaned up slightly, but you really need a pair of original LS50s in a side-by-side comparison to spot the cleaner rear panel (no more visible bolt holes holding the front baffle in place). But the only real changes are additional colourways, such as the Royal Blue version I received.
No, the changes are more to do with the Uni-Q driver itself and the crossover network, and both of these are extremely difficult to see even on close inspection. The most significant of these changes is ‘MAT’ (short for Metamaterial Absorption Technology). This is an internally mounted labyrinth behind the aluminium tweeter at the acoustic centre of the Uni-Q cone. The 30 tubes inside this MAT are designed to absorb different frequencies from about 600Hz on up, in the process reducing rear resonance firing into the cabinet itself. Meaning the already inert cabinet is even less likely to sing along with the tweeter, making a sound that is less distorted at high frequencies and high levels. The drive unit itself has been re-engineered to reflect eight years of R&D.
An essentially ‘new’ Uni-Q driver requires a new crossover network, but these appear relatively minimal, with just a mild change to the crossover frequency, down by 100Hz to 2.1kHz. Everything else reads as it did in 2012. That means the LS50 Meta follows the LS50 in being relatively undemanding a load; 85dB sensitivity isn’t ‘high’ and that – coupled with a minimum impedance of around 3.5 ohms – means a little more care and attention in partnering is required. KEF is often demonstrated with Hegel at the moment, and this happens to be an excellent combination. But realistically, most competent modern amplifiers will work well.
Setting up Uni-Q-based speakers can be slightly different to the norm, in that often toe-in is negligible, and the speakers end up firing down the room almost parallel to one another. They need some breathing space from the rear wall, however, and at least half a metre will help.
The KEF LS50 Meta has some big shoes to fill as the LS50 was one of the best-loved loudspeakers of its time. It was, however, perhaps a little bit rough-edged at times, especially when playing classical, folk or jazz. They were transparent, with a fine sense of musical bounce into the bottom end, but when faced with the elegance of a fine folk or opera singer, the original LS50 perhaps lacked a little finesse and elegance. In fairness, this was more than made up for by its detail, imaging and impressive senses of scale, headroom and dynamic range for a compact loudspeaker.
The LS50 Meta addresses the elegance issue without undermining the speaker in any of its over performance objectives. The LS50 Meta is significantly more refined than its predecessor. When I had a pair of LS50s, I was surprised at how well they played ZZ Top, but now they add Mahler to that list of impressive things played loud for scale.
I hardly noticed the cabinet of the LS50 singing along with the tweeter, but in hearing the LS50 Meta, you quickly recall where it used to interact because such cabinet intrusion has been whisked away. That high frequency ‘sizzle’ that made the LS50 a little too exuberant at times has gone, but it hasn’t taken any of the excitement to the higher frequencies with it. Instead, you get energy and extension without any sense of ‘sizzle’ or ‘zing’. This means Joyce DiDonato’s voice singing Bellini’s ‘I Capuleti e i Montecchi’ [Stella di Napoli, Erato] holds a purity and finesse that the LS50 could never fully reach. While it also retains the drive and impact of the original LS50 (which comes over in the space around her voice and her ability to sing at eyeball-rattling intensity), the addition of that ease and refinement in the upper midrange and treble is beguiling and highly addictive.
In fact, the LS50 Meta is more of an all-round win than first expected. Yes, it makes well-recorded music soar and spring to life even more than it did before, but it is also in the process a little more forgiving of some of the less-well recorded albums in a collection: I’m looking at you, Oasis… (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? [Creation] might have sold in the grillions, but it sounds thin, shouty and compressed. The LS50 Meta doesn’t transform it into an audiophile recording, but neither does it make an already vexatious recording unlistenable. That clean, refined mid-range and treble don’t tame this album, but neither do they expose painfully its sonic iniquities.
It’s difficult in this review not to ignore the importance of the original LS50 sound, and instead focus on the improvements between that and the LS50 Meta, but it’s worth going over what’s unchanged in the presentation because it’s still so damn good. This is a loudspeaker that images beautifully; there is a three-dimensionality to the sound that both scales well (small sounding vocals remain small, over-produced 1970s Olympic Studios drum sounds remain giant) and can cope with everything from small folk combos to large orchestral pieces, remaining surprisingly solid and precise throughout. It’s also extremely dynamic and times surprisingly well, too. Vocal presentation in particular is clear and articulate, as you might expect from a loudspeaker designed to carry the LS3/5a baton into the 21st Century.
However, in truth, I thought the name a bit silly and expected to lay into KEF over it (“What’s next? The Blade Zeitgeist Edition?”), but in fact, it’s absolutely right. This is not a ‘Mk II’ or a ‘special edition’, but it’s more than just an LS50 with a lower-case vowel as a suffix. ‘Meta’ has several meanings, but the three that spring to mind are ‘describing something of a higher-order (like a metalanguage)’, describing a change in condition (like metamorphosis) and something self-referential (but not in a sarcastic way). The LS50 Meta ticks all those boxes; it’s made very much with reference to the LS50, but the LS50 is transformed by the Meta updates, and it makes it a higher-order design.
Finally, I tried the LS50 Meta with the S2 floor stand designed for the original LS50 and still very much in production. It’s both a visual match and a sonic improvement to the loudspeaker itself. It’s the right balance of mass (too much mass can make the LS50 models slightly bass light, while too light makes them a bit ‘zingy’ in the upper mid), and the pairing results in a ‘nothing to criticise’ £1,400 combo.
Would the LS50 Meta win me over if I didn’t like the originals in the first place? Probably not, but the improvements mean you shouldn’t dismiss them out of hand. OK, if the reason you didn’t like them in the first place comes down to not liking the sound of Uni-Q then no amount of Meta is going to change that (personally, I’ve never ‘got’ this argument, but some simply don’t like one speaker in the acoustic centre of another on a point of principle). However, if your reason for not buying a pair was because you felt the original LS50 ‘a little uncouth’ or ‘a bit unrefined’, the LS50 Meta fixes those concerns, and then some.
Then, would I buy a pair of LS50 Meta if I already own a pair of LS50? That one’s a little harder, but on balance, I’d say ‘yes’. If you own an original pair, the improvements the LS50 Meta brings will be marked and noticeable. The question becomes a little harder to answer if you have a pair that are just out of warranty but not by much. In absolute terms, the LS50 Meta is good enough to be a worthwhile upgrade over the original, especially as if you like the LS50’s sound, then the next step is likely a KEF Reference model, and that’s a larger financial commitment.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is clearly a maxim that KEF lives by. There was a lot in the original LS50 that KEF got so very right, there was little point in changing it. So, it didn’t! Instead, it changed the parts that could be brought up to date and the result is a loudspeaker that will continue to set the standard for affordable stand-mounts for years to come. More importantly, the original LS50 was loved for its combination of guts and clarity, and now it is gutsier and even clearer than ever. And it does so without losing that easy musicality and effortless fun the original put into the replay. I even like the stands. There is no way these LS50 Meta are going back to KEF!
KEF LS50 Meta
- Type: two-way bass-reflex stand-mount loudspeaker
- Drive units: Uni-Q Driver Array (HF: 25 mm vented aluminium dome with Metamaterial Absorption Technology MF/LF: 130 mm aluminium cone)
- Frequency response (±3dB): 79Hz–28kHz
- Frequency range (-6dB): 47Hz–45kHz
- Typical in-room bass response (-6dB): 26Hz
- Crossover frequency: 2.1kHz
- Harmonic distortion (90dB, 1m): < 0.4% 175 Hz–20 kHz < 0.1% 300 Hz–10 kHz
- Maximum output: 106dB
Amplifier power (recommended): 40–100W
- Nominal impedance: 8Ω (min. 3.5Ω)
Sensitivity (2.83V/1m): 85dB
- Finishes: Carbon Black, Titanium Grey, Mineral White, Royal Blue Special Edition
- Dimensions (H×W×D) with terminal: 30.2 × 20 × 28.1 cm
- Weight: 7.8kg per loudspeaker
- Price: £1,000 per pair
KEF S2 Floor Stand
- Finishes: Carbon Black, Titanium Grey, Mineral White, Royal Blue Special Edition, Crimson Red Special Edition
- Dimensions (H×W×D), with plinth: 65.2 × 22.6 × 30.8 cm
- Weight: 4.85kg per stand
- Price: £400
Manufactured by: KEF
TEL: +44(0)1622 672261