19 August, 2012

Showroom Audition: KEF LS50 and Blade!

pic courtesy of Andrew's iPhone.

Showroom Audition: KEF LS50 and Blade!
Brief Overview: KEF

Sunday was a hot day. I was just languishing and certainly wasn't thinking of venturing far when I made a casual call to my 師弟 Andrew, that man of indomitable spirit. Needless to say, one hour later I found myself joining him and another old classmate Philip in the Kowloon Cricket Club where we just chilled out for a couple of hours.

Andrew had some time before hosting his "back to school" dinner (he has no kids, but plenty of excuses!). I suggested visiting the KEF showroom in Star House to listen to the new and rave-reviewed LS50. A call revealed that the room was being used for a surround system audition. That was the second time I was not able to gain access, as the day before I went to the place before yumcha but someone else was auditioning the LS50.  So it's best to call beforehand.

We then called the Causeway Bay store and within an hour found ourselves auditioning in their really comfortable show room. We were joined there by our friend oozz and his girlfriend.

I must say the service was absolutely impeccable. Staff Mr. Ko was courteous, knowledgeable and very helpful, and he made the experience very pleasant.

Brief KEF Overview
There is no need for me to write much on the background of KEF, certainly one of the most influential companies. In the excellent official website, you can find great coverage of its background and, most commendably, a comprehensive library and photo gallery on older models (something most other manufacturers should do better at). Obviously KEF takes pride in its heritage!

Over the years I have heard quite a few KEF speakers, but have owned few. I think I must have encountered most of the 103-107 Reference series, but there was always something wrong with what I heard (with one exception, see below). Most of the time they seemed rather muffled and overly polite. The bass just dragged and the treble sounded shut-in. I think they probably needed a lot of power to come alive. On the other hand, I had favorable impressions of the later Uni-Q's, usually found in entry level and modest setups. No wonder there, as I am a fan of concentric drivers and a Tannoy user! In the 90's I also helped some non-audiophile friends set up simple systems using their best-buy and decent Coda loudspeakers. Nonetheless, my own interest in KEF was largely for their BBC-related work.

T27 and B110 KEF virtually completely re-wrote history with these two driver units. Of course, these were made famous by the BBC, which used them in the immortal LS3/5A. But they were ubiquitous and could be found in many loudspeakers of the era, including KEF's own kits and the excellent Cresta MkII (sounds uncannily like a LS3/5A, and not to be confused with the Mk I, nor the later Cresta's, which are completely different animals). Of course, the wonderful Linn Kan I also used the B110 but a different tweeter. IMHO, the Kan and Cresta Mk II sound just as good as the LS3/5A. A good pair of the latter is still missing in my arsenal. If you have a pair for sale, contact me! Of course, in the 90's KEF also made several versions of their own LS3/5A's. In general, these have more extended treble, tighter bass and could play louder than the usual ones. Some LS3/5A loyalists like the difference, some don't. I do and I won a rosewood pair.

Reference 104 I used to own a pair of these rather awkward but wonderful speakers (later exchanged for the Yamaha NS-1000). Mine was the later aB version (official link). While it sports the T27 tweeter, the bass unit is a larger version of the B110 called the B200. In addition there is the famous BD139 Radiator, yet another KEF innovation! The sound of the 104 is majestic and, yes, it sounds like a bigger LS3/5A, capable of playing Mahler and Bruckner! I have heard these driven magnificently by a pair of powerful Conrad Johnson Premiere 4 monoblocks. But if you, like me, use only a medium powered tube amp, the sound is just slightly slow and the bass a little ripe. I suspect it will take to a solid state amp, but I never tried it during my time with it. Incidentally, the BD139 is featured in earlier versions of that other magnificent beast, the Sonus faber Extrema (changed to TDL later).

More recently Truth is, KEF in the recent past has lost much ground in the competitive high-end. Many two-channel audiophiles only thought of KEF mainly when it came to multi-channel AV needs. But things started to change for the better after KEF was acquired by Asian Gold Peak, which to its credit has injected new life into the company. Their recent efforts in their Flagship series were bold to say the least.

KEF LS50
This 50th anniversary product is the latest in the Flagship series, sold only directly by KEF in their showrooms. It has garnered rave reviews (HiFi News) and just collected the 2012-2013 EISA award. The first shipment sold out in HK, but a second one is imminent I was told. The cabinet proper has a nice black piano wood finish. The curved front baffle is more unusual, being made of glass composite, which worries me, as it is susceptible to scratches and probably difficult to clean. There is no grill.

At KEF's huge listening room we heard it with the following electronics:

System 1 Marantz KI Pearl Lite SACDP/amp (description here) Mr. Ko explained that this modest combo was used because it is likely more in the price range of potential customers (although someone is using Soulution to drive them!). Despite the size of the room, and although I am not a fan of the Marantz sound, KI or not, the LS50 turned in a decent performance. The soundstage was well spread and imaging was very good - one could sit anywhere and still enjoy it. The sound was just a little too laid back (like too much feedback, probably at least partly due to the Marantz combo) and the bass was truncated and not the cleanest at loud level, though this is a huge room.

System 2 Krell (?Phantom+Evolution) After demonstrating the Blade, Mr. Ko offered to connect the LS50 to the much more expensive Krell system and of course we were delighted. No doubt about it, the LS50 got much better, but too bad we couldn't stay for long!

KEF Blade
The two top models in the Flasghip series are Muon and Blade. Previously I have only seen them in shows and have always wanted to audition them. Both sport fabulous industrial designs. One cannot find many reviews on the net; there is one by HiFi Choice and an informal audition by Stereophile. The point-source driver in the Blade is likely similar to the one in LS50 but not identical. The two pairs of woofers are mounted back-to-back, in quasi isobaric fashion. Mr. Ko kindly offered to let us audition it after we listened to the Marantz combo driving the LS50. Using the Krell electronics, the Blade gave a command performance even of large works. Everything you could possibly want is there: a large soundstage, solidly fleshed out images and tuneful deep bass. And yes, it made the LS50 look and sound like a kid! :-)

Considering we were listening to unfamiliar material, the demonstrations convinced me of the merits of KEF's renewed assault on state-of-the-art. If I can bring a pair of these home, I think it will sound even better! Since the Blade is out of the question, the LS50 it shall be then?

After the audition, we were treated to a fabulous dinner at trendy 浙江軒, complete with several bottles of excellent white wine, including Corton-Charlemagne! It was also nice to be able to dine with several other old friends. Thank you Andrew and Jane!

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