Bluetooth. AirPlay 2. Spotify Connect. Roon. Room tuning. DSP. Firmware updates. Every one an audio tech abstraction until it meets the real world where many of us un/consciously look beyond our sub-optimal listening environments.
With the Berlin summer in full swing, it was time to bust out the BBQ. My rooftop apartment offers a balcony long enough for a large group of people and wide enough for a large Weber-on-wheels — but not a four-seater table. We’d cook, chat and sink cold adult beverages outside but we’d eat in the kitchen.
Of course, it’s not a proper summer social without a soundtrack. Earlier that Saturday, I’d looked at my KEF Muo – a portable Bluetooth speaker that usually attends to radio streams in the bathroom. It looked back at me and I looked away, awkwardly. Yes, the Muo could be placed on an outside table next to the BBQ but its voice would be lost to the open air of the balcony. The Muo offers enough power and scale to fill the kitchen and be heard above conversations but pushing its drivers beyond their comfortable limits can cause aural irritation. We’d not have a party on our hands with the Muo handling music playback.
In my book, better loudspeakers play more agreeably at lower volumes. They deliver “room-filling sound” – as can pretty much every speaker on the planet – but better loudspeakers come on as less intrusive.
Enter stage left the KEF LS X (€1199/pair, reviewed here) — small enough to placed up high atop the kitchen cabinets and offering Bluetooth connectivity for anyone wanting to punch in their own music as well as a streaming input (remote-controlled over the network), a TOSLINK input and an analogue input.
Unlike their bigger brother – the KEF LS50 Wireless – the LSX don’t demand that an Ethernet cable permanently connect the left speaker to the right. Neither model demand a hard-wired connection to a network router. The LSX’s in-built WiFi connection means I didn’t have to run Ethernet cables down a wall and across a floor.
A kitchen is nothing but highly reflective hard surfaces – tiled/wooden floor, ceiling, countertops, white goods – that make for an acoustically-hostile environment.
Unlike more traditional listening rooms, this is no place for acoustic panels or bass traps — we must work with what we’re are given.
Fortunately, KEF’s associated Control app permits frequency response adjustments in accordance with speaker placement and room acoustics. With the LSX enjoying boundary reinforcement from the wall immediately behind and a ceiling immediately above, I dialled down the bass output considerably. I then used the Control app to trim a couple of decibels from the treble because of the kitchen’s ‘lively’ acoustic make-up.
The other reason to revisit the KEF LSX is a June 2019 firmware update that adds support for Apple AirPlay 2. (I figured the kitchen/BBQ context would paint a more interesting backdrop than a press release). AirPlay 2 offers multi-room listening and Siri voice control.
KEF’s Connect app handles the update process and obliges us to re-connect left LSX to right with the supplied Ethernet umbilical before it will OK the firmware’s download and installation.
My enthusiasm for AirPlay/2 doesn’t sit with its ability to turn any iOS device into a wi-fi streaming audio source. The battery life penalty for iPhones and iPads is heavier with AirPlay/2 than with Bluetooth. It’s a penalty that fails to offset the AirPlay 2 connection’s superior sound quality. Furthermore, AirPlay support for Android and Windows sources is anything but official.
Neither does my enthusiasm for AirPlay/2 reside with an Apple TV’s wireless audio routing capabilities. On more than one occasion this year, I’ve connected an AppleTV’s HDMI output to my projector’s HDMI input and routed its audio output wirelessly to an AirPlay receiver in my hi-fi rack. AppleTV-fronted AirPlay/2 reception is now possible with the KEF LSX.
This commentator’s largest slice of Airplay/2 enthusiasm is reserved for its inclusion in the Roon ecosystem. AirPlay/2 can be used in lieu of Roon Readiness. Any Roon Core device (server) can stream to any Airplay-capable device, albeit with the penalties of 1) no RAAT support (Roon’s own streaming protocol), 2) no hi-res support and 3) no bit-perfect playback.
I don’t need to remind you that only 5-10% of Tidal or Qobuz’s music supply lands as anything higher than 16bit/44.1kHz and that your room’s acoustic fingerprint is more detrimental to overall sound quality than Airplay/2’s resampling of all incoming streams to 48kHz.
Case in point: I currently stream Roon to the Hegel H590‘s AirPlay input because any Roon compatibility is better than no Roon compatibility at all. The big Hegel is scheduled for Roon Ready certification in the Autumn.
Fortunately, the LSX don’t depend on AirPlay/2 to enter the Roon ecosystem. The pint-sized KEFs already house a special implementation of Roon’s endpoint code that accommodates bit-perfect hi-res audio streams. They do Spotify Connect too.
Back at Saturday’s BBQ, with Roon natively streaming to the KEF LSX, I applied Roon’s Radio feature to a selection of songs by Tycho, Bonobo, Jeff Mills & Tony Allen, Rhythm & Sound, The Wombats, Stats and Idles to create my kind of party mix, not one dictated by Spotify. (“BBQ Chill”, anyone?). Select the song and Roon Radio does the rest, swimming through the contents of my Roon Nucleus’ music storage and out into Tidal and Qobuz to find similar sounding music.
After we’d polished off the last of the garlic chicken, round cut steak and vegetable skewers, I passed the iPad around the table and invited my friends to choose their own seed song around which Roon Radio would run again: an experience that transcended any quibbles about room reverb (of which there were none).
When my guests tired of my music tastes or rather – as I prefer to imagine – when they became more excited about their own, I would kick a Spotify playlist into life by way of the LSX’s in-built Spotify Connect code. Take that, “BBQ Chill”.
Of course, there’s always one: a friend who absolutely insists on playing a tune found nowhere else but on their Android smartphone. This was no time for researching Airplay2 apps or workarounds. It was time to return the LSX to their aptX-equipped Bluetooth input and let the Samsung phone owner handle device pairing and playback. A few minutes later, another friend intervened against the LSX’s volume level with the remote wand. It was, apparently, “a bit too loud”. Upon reflection, I think she was merely expressing her dislike of what was playing.
Two days later and it’s Monday. The LSX still sit proud and high on top of my kitchen cabinets and in the intervening two days, they have caused me to fall in love again with Pulp’s “Common People” after years in the wilderness due to over-exposure at indie clubs in Sydney. Prior to that, the baby KEFs played a podcast – an episode of Damon Krukowski’s Ways of Hearing – as I made the morning coffee. And with the LSX’s sweet spot coinciding with the standing position between sink and stove, never has chopping vegetables sounded so good.
A hi-fi system’s utility is zero until it is applied to a real-world situation like a kitchen party where it bends to our needs and not us to it.
Further information: KEF