Roon in the Background
“Roon” sounds like the forlorn cry of a waterbird. Something you might hear at night. Alone. As you sit in front of slowly crackling campfire, a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a shotgun in the other. Right before the Lizard People come slithering out of the lake.
I’m not really sure how I got along without it, to be honest. Both the whiskey, and the Lizard People. Heh. No, Roon. Seriously — computer audio, even for this 21-year tech profession, is still something of a head-scratcher. I really don’t understand why folks have to make it so difficult.
The problem isn’t connectivity. At least, not so much anymore. Most ‘philes worthy of the branding know not to bother with a Microsoft Windows machine. In fact, most have (luckily) moved on from a Mac, too, and on to some kind of special-purpose machine, like an Aurender or an Antipodes or an Inuous. At that point, it’s plug and play (again). Just grab a cable and you’re off.
But my digital audio journey getting to this point wasn’t easy, straightforward, or continuous. I’ve ripped several thousand CDs into my media library. The vast majority are in AIFF file formats — because I’m a Mac guy. But I also have several thousand FLAC files, too. Because some jackass told me “they sound better”, and I was too stupid to know better. What does sound better? Some (but not all) of my high-res files. Most of those are in AIFF and/or FLAC. And yes, there are (now) several thousand DSD files in there too. Best of all? I did each “batch” over several years. Which means that they’re not even remotely stored in the same place. I have three different NAS arrays. Half-a-dozen external USB hard drives. And multiple machines in my home. I quite literally have
shit music files all over the place. Yep, I’m lazy — that’s how I roll.
And this is why I swoon for Roon. I just point Roon at all those various locations … and Roon finds, indexes, categorizes, and finally presents all my music to me. Ta da. And whew. I love this thing. $120/year (which includes updates) seems like a small price to pay for fixing what, for me at least, has been the single biggest issue with an ever-evolving computer audio “problem”. Take my money!
KEF LS50 Wireless
I’ve been a fan of KEF for years now. KEF was the first hi-fi speaker brand I was ever really aware of — it was the massively imposing speaker my best friend’s dad was enjoying — the Reference 107, for those keeping score — when I was in high school, dubbing mix-tapes off of his Dragon deck for use in my vintage (and not in a good way) 1966 Mustang. Anyway, the LS50 Wireless seems about as far from the Ref 107 as you can get and still be in the KEF family — the “New KEF” is not your father’s audio brand. They’ve evolved.
The LS50 (Wireless or Not) are compact speakers, with that
unique Uni-Q two-way concentric driver, they look like they belong in an Apple Store. That is, they’re hawt. Stylish. Sleek. Modern. And now, they’re available wireless.
Well, they’re not entirely wireless. They’re not battery operated, and synchronizing the two speakers really does require an Ethernet cable. I’m told that they could be wireless (batteries and all), but then they’d also not be 24/192 capable (that’s a tech that’s still on-the-way). Maybe in version 3.0. Anyway, cable aside, the real magic here is that, given you have WiFi router and an Internet connection, you really can do just fine without anything else. Everything you need to rock right the heck out is in the box. And that is different.
The LS50 Wireless are active speakers, that is, they do have amplifiers built-in. In this case, there are two amps in each — a 30 watt Class A/B for the citrus-juicer tweeter and a 200 watt Class D for the mid/bass woofer ring.
Digital inputs arrive at the right hand unit and are handed off to the left channel via the (included) Ethernet cable. While the speakers are designated left|right, do note that, based on user feedback, KEF recently introduced an update that now allows you to “swap” the speakers, so the “master” can be on either the right side or the left side, as needed. So, whichever side your “master” now sits on, it receives your digital signals, and then sends the other channel on to the … other channel. Ahem. At that point, signals are then upsampled to 24/192kHz courtesy of the quartet of Wolfson (part numbers are not something KEF shares) digital-to-analog converters. There are two DACs per speaker, one per driver. This division means that KEF can be quite granular with their DSP engine to help you with room setup issues (close to the wall vs away from a wall, large room vs small room, bass boost, &c) and tuning each driver’s response to user-preference. This implies that the analog input is also coupled to an analog-to-digital process, and it is; Wolfson ADC (analog to digital) chips handle that conversion.
Did I mention that the OLED touch screen is bright, clear, and so clean that it looks painted on? I have a similar display on my new MacBook Pro keyboard, and as Apple would cheerfully tell you, this is the tech to have. Nice to see it here on the KEF.
My demo pair came in the “Apple White” (aka, what KEF calls “Gloss White”), with a copper driver. I used my demos on matching mass-loaded stands provided by KEF. On whole, the setup looked slick and made me wonder why the rest of my office was so appallingly style-free.
Got more questions? Check out KEF’s FAQ — they’re updating it constantly.
KEF LS50W US Pricing: $2,200/pair.
This was a remarkably straight-forward system to set up and use.
The instructions were very simple, and if you’re prone to ignoring them until it’s far too late, this is your kind of product. I used my iPhone to first “find” the speakers by tuning into their custom Wi-Fi network, and then with the custom KEF app, I flipped them over into the Wi-Fi network that I wanted them in. Note that there is currently no way to flip them into any other network once this is done, not without a factory reset (which is simple to do). My room is large, so in the “My Speaker>>Speaker sound settings >> BASIC”, I selected “stand” instead of “desk”, maxed out the distance from the wall (>50cm), selected “Damped” from the room settings, and maxed out the room size (>40m²).
There are more settings under “EXPERT” (instead of BASIC). There, you can kick the treble up|down up to 2dB, add phase correction, and goose the bass. For that latter, there are only three settings in the app (Less | Standard | Extra; spec’d to 61Hz, 50Hz, and 40 Hz, respectively), but even then, the difference isn’t all that — physics still applies and this is still a rather tidy box. More relevantly, at least for the bass-hungry, there’s a sub-out on the master speaker, and the app lets you select both|either a high-pass and|or a low-pass frequency. Pretty flipping sweet, that. Sounds to me like the beginnings of a pretty cool 2.1 home theater system. Me, I just ran it wide open.
Did I mention that TIDAL is built-in? It’s true — now you know. You’ll still need your own $20/month subscription, however. Anyway, the point — you can get into TIDAL directly from inside the KEF app, which is tidy. Pretty sure you just need to have the TIDAL app on your phone and the two digitally copulate in a way that leaves you inside the KEF app while you wander around the unfortunately overly complex cascading set of menus.
Did I mention that SPOTIFY Connect is also now built-in? It’s true — Spotify is now new (to KEF). I’m sure this is good news, but I am unabashedly a TIDAL fan, so I’m unmoved. Why TIDAL? Because their CD-quality playback sounds excellent — and yes, while the 320kbps streaming option reserved for Spotify Premium subscribers does help, it doesn’t help enough to interest me in a switch. That said, there are (apparently) still people who like Spotify (who knew?) so I suppose we should rejoice.
Anyway, I downloaded the Spotify app, and created an account. The integration with the KEF app here isn’t quite so slick as it is with the TIDAL; select ‘Spotify’ under the KEF menu, and it flips you out to the freestanding Spotify app. Good? Bad? Whatever. This lack isn’t necessarily a bad thing — one clear upside here is that the Spotify app is significantly better organized than the TIDAL app. Yay. I quickly found a likely tune, selected it, and then a floating window appeared telling me that KEF speakers had been found (hooray!). I selected them, and poof, music started flowing. Pretty slick.
The caveat here is that this play-through on Spotify only works with a Premium account — which is kinda the only way to listen to Spotify anyway, so I’m not sure this is a problem. You want to use Spotify without a Premium membership? Fine — you can Bluetooth your way to convenience. You want better sound? Upgrade to Premium.
I found that the “best sound” I got out of them was with a directly-connect USB server (in this case, the impeccable Aurender W20), even if that meant fishing a 3m long USB cable from Synergistic Research out of a storage bin (worked like a charm). The closest runner-up was over Ethernet, with the wireless and wired versions to be more or less indistinguishable.
I say “more or less” because, as with most things WiFi, your mileage varies radically with your WiFi router setup. Sound quality in this case isn’t so much a matter of “inner resolution”, but of drop-outs, halts, and glitches. 5Ghz is vastly better for streaming that 2.4Ghz, at least in my home and with my current-gen Apple Airport Extremes, but wired gig-E beats the piss out of WiFi any day. And for the record, I was using a 10m Rosewill Cat 7 run for this application.
Bluetooth sounded “fine”, but was a noticeable drop in resolution over just about anything else, and yes, that was with an AptX sender (my old MacBook Pro) to the AptX receiver built into the speaker. I found it convenient when I wanted to scare my kids or dog, but I didn’t find the addition of Bluetooth (over Roon, or TIDAL or Spotify) to warrant suffering with the grain. YMMV.
Analog and the Shinola Runwell
There are a pair of analog RCA inputs on the back of the LS50W, and they practically begged me for use, so naturally I went looking for the thing the cool kids might want to drop back in there — and found a Shinola Runwell turntable ($2,500). This ‘table, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is a joint collaboration with VPI, and shares not only DNA but actual bones — that tonearm and platter is pure VPI, for example, even if the overall styling and plinth is a step to the side (and a step up, if you ask me).
Outfitted with an Ortofon Blue cartridge, the Runwell also sports and on-board phono preamplifier == which just means that all you need to do is connect the included RCA cables to the KEF and Bob’s your uncle. One note of caveat — the RCA connectors on the back of the LS50W are a little squeezed (real estate is a bit of a premium back there, you might say), so if you’re using fat connectors on your cables, you might have a space issue. I found that a business card kept unwanted shorting at bay.
I’m still not really sure that you can say that a turntable has a “sound” — cartridges do, for sure. Turntables may have “drive” or “impact”, but that seems odd to say, too. Suffice it to say that this pairing of the Runwell with the LS50W is about as hipster as I’m gonna need to get — these two components, together, is astonishingly complete. The sound I was getting was dynamic, rich, and immersive — the LS50W clearly has been designed to accommodate whatever your proclivities regarding source components. Got analog? Go for it, says KEF.
I will note that a $5,000 combination is hardly inexpensive — and I’m not claiming that you cannot do better for that money — I’m quite sure you can. But this compactly? At this level of sound quality? A VPI Player turntable could save you $1,000 — but it does drop you down both in sound quality (the Player comes stock with an Ortofon Red — an excellent entry-level cartridge, but a step down from the Blue) and in aesthetics. Of course, a grand buys a lot of records …. The value of the choice is deliciously moot, however. Feel free to explore.
Back to Roon
As of this writing, Roon v1.3 now fully supports the KEF LS50W endpoint. Turning the speakers on via the little remote will give you about a 30 second lag before they pop up in the Roon interface, but the speakers show up clearly and unmistakably in the Settings > Audio of the Roon interface, and do so as “KEF” — they’re their own thing, with logo and all. In the window below the music, the KEF endpoint shows up with a miniature sketch of the speaker. Ta da! Integrated.
Playback via Roon is pretty involving, and by that, I kinda mean “there’s a lot to look at”. Not in the “first time in a fighter jet plummeting toward the earth at Mach 3” kinda way, but there is stuff to know.
Sitting next to the track selection in that bottom progress bar is a little glowing dot. Click it, and it tells you about the path, the file, the resolution, and whether or not that playback is lossless (if it isn’t, there’s a series of three dots to the side that can take you to the configuration panel where you can sort that out).
Volume control can be handled by Roon or by the remote or by the interface on top of the speaker — it’s all digital, and all actually handled at the speaker, so I’m not sure it makes any difference where you do your fiddling.
As part of this review, I got to spend some time actually digging around in Roon. The DSP section — select a “Zone” (speaker), click the little gear icon next to it, and it pulls up a section that I suspect will be very interesting in the future if/when Roon integrates some room correction features. I’ve used several in the past and the results are almost always startling, so color me intrigued. Note that KEF has its own DSP functions and parametric EQ features, and the ones found in Roon are not in any way related, connected, nor do they communicate.
My favorite part here was the “discovery” of all my sources — I’ve already mentioned that I have crap all over the place (the general state of my desk is a good indication that I think I have better things to do with my time) — so having everything to-hand was really exciting. But it was also daunting — I was paralyzed for the first month or so of using Roon. I didn’t set up any playlists. I only hunted down random songs. In fact, the most time I spent on Roon was looking for MQA files in TIDAL, which had nothing really to do with this review, TIDAL or Roon … but there you go.
My “a-ha!” moment came when I found all my playlists. And yes, I mean “all”. This iMac Retina isn’t all that old, but I have been using it for “server duties” for a while. And that included using it for Amarra, Pure Music, Audirvana, all of which promised to make my iTunes playback more interesting. Well, turns out that I also used that install to format the old iPod I used in my now-defunct BMW. And Roon found all those “old” playlists and pulled them in, and folded them into my TIDAL playlists. The what-to-play problem? Solved.
Side note: all of my kids’ TIDAL playlists (they figured out to use my account) are pulled in as well. Lots of Disney, with an odd inflection of The Scorpions, Fall Out Boy, K-Pop, CSNY, Imagine Dragons, Journey, and Taylor Swift. How on earth … I can only imagine the therapy bills. But it does bring up an unexpected feature of Roon — “Radio”. There’s not a lot of info on this, but essentially, it seems to work like Apple’s Genius which is to say it works like Pandora Radio — based on some set of metrics, “similar music” is selected from your library (or TIDAL) whenever you reach the end of a playlist or a song. Doesn’t always work (maybe metadata is missing on those old Napster files — cough — what did you say?), but it’s usually good for filling in those null spots when your attention (or your body) wandered away from the Roon interface.
In my view, the LS50W is killer. There is a reason why it’s won accolades and fawning press — this “whole package” approach really is quite something. They play demon-coming-over-the-falls loud and are refined enough to pick apart bad source material from merely mediocre, and good enough that you’re not going to want to bother with either. On second thought, that may not be a plus. Oh well — caveat emptor; feed it trash at your own peril. Me, I fed it a steady diet of TIDAL and came away 10lbs heavier than I did going in. That is, I sat. A lot. And not only listened but had a damn fine time doing it, too. The bass on these little suckers is downright alarming and the super-fine detail (see The Cricket Test, for a fuller explanation) was exemplary.
The sound quality of the LS50W varied most critically with volume. Resolution at low-to-mid volumes was good, with excellent imagery and placement, and an overall engaging level of quality. Turning the volume knob over, however (or in this case, jamming the + button over and over), resulted in magic. These babies love to play loud. Bass is just exceptional for something this small/compact, and I loved it. The soundstage was 3-D and wholly holographic.
I really get why these speakers, or at least their passive counterparts, have been so loved over at Stereophile for years — see 2015 Recommended Components as a case in point — and I think these new versions are every bit as deserving of that same attention.
This wasn’t forgone in any way — a small speaker, active, with lots of electronics jammed into it — is a recipe for sonic compromise and limited shelf-life. This shows up, too, in the inability for the speaker to accommodate the newest audiophile flavor du jour, MQA — the current platform simply doesn’t have the hardware necessary to make that happen. Maybe in Version 2.0. The list can spool out pretty quickly from there, too — wouldn’t it be great if these speakers had batteries? And were 3-ways? And had a turntable built-in (on the top of the one without the volume control, maybe)? And could levitate? And had lasers & a fog machine? Yeah!
Look, a guy can dream.
While I’ve been visited by no little birds, I will venture to say that this approach — fully active, with digital controls, integrated streaming, and the like — can and probably will be found in future KEF products. It really is just too simple to pass up. Simple — not in construction or execution — but in life. The lack of wires and extra bits means that the LS50W can go just about anywhere. Like the living room. An office. A bedroom. A dorm room! Though, maybe not the latter without some optional anti-theft deterrents, because these will draw not just eyes but outright lust.
This is the future. This is what lifestyle could be. I know reviewers that have (and probably still are) debating about whether or not this is what the high-end ought to be. And after living with the LS50W, running Roon and TIDAL, I am finding it very hard to disagree.
Roon adds so much to this “package” that I’m having a hard time separating out the experience. TIDAL’s user interface is just bad, and Roon sponges away the hurt and the confusion, and just folds my every other source into a single, unified whole. It just works. I like that. It’s like a big, happy, sigh. Everything is better when everything is all together. I’m thinking: peas and carrots, peanut butter and jelly, dark chocolate and sea salt caramel, me and coffee. Synchrony. It’s a beautiful thing.
Again, just to be clear: the passive version of this speaker won all manner of accolades. From my listening, this is deserved. But the LS50 Wireless just takes a magnificent platform and catapults it over not only the competition, but over what the competition is apparently even imagining right now.
Will this combination of the LS50W and Roon with TIDAL: appeal to everyone? Yes. Yes it will.
Best of the Year contender? Yes. Yes it is.
The LS50W is fun to use and sounds bloody great. Period. Full stop. Here endeth the lesson.