audio: casually serious KEF speakers

I’ve been looking for something better than my little Jambox desktop speaker for years (here and here). After reading a glowing review of the KEF LS60 floor-standing active wireless speakers, I realized its baby siblings have the same do-everything connectivity in their Mark II guise (Bluetooth, USB, Google Chromecast, Roon, 3.5 mm aux in, optical in, even HDMI from a TV). The mighty LS50 bookshelf speakers seems amazing (I considered it back in 2017) but weigh 20 kg (44 lbs) a set, a bit much for my desk and $2,800 is a lot for casual listening. The LSX II is lighter (only 7.2 kg/16 lbs a set) and a friend likes them; when I found KEF USA offering a special deal of the LSX II with the Kube8b subwoofer for only $1,750 I pulled the trigger on a snazzy blue pair. The speakers were the same price at Amazon, Crutchfield had the same combo offer, so I ordered direct.

KEF LSX II compact wireless powered speakers in Cobalt Blue with Kube8b subwoofer

Shipping was free but KEF are too cheap to pay for “signature required” and UPS just left them on my doorstep; I was lucky I was home otherwise someone would have stolen two clearly labeled boxes of valuable electronics! I plugged them and the subwoofer in to power outlets (it would be cool to have a single custom power cord with a tail for each unit), linked the left and right speakers with the supplied and optional Ethernet cable, and found an RCA cable to plug in the subwoofer. The KEF app told me to set up in Google Home, and bam I can Chromecast YouTube music to the KEF system (and Roon recognized it as a endpoint).

It wasn’t quite that simple. When I set up an account at KEF, the confirmation e-mail provided a link to a broken page with nothing but a red ‘X’ and various errors in Firefox, even after I turned off ad blocking; after a few goes in chromium it worked. And neither the LSX II instructions on paper nor the KEF app told me how to connect KEF’s own subwoofer. And I was unable to get Bluetooth in a couple of tries (just as a test, because normally I’ll use my phone to tell Chromecast or Roon to play through the speakers).

Not used to subwoofing

screenshot of the audio adjustment in basic mode of the KEF Android app

The KEF app in basic mode lets you specify the speakers’ setup: desk mode, distance from the front edge, distance from the walls, how lively and large the room is. The sliders are weird, they don’t show many gradations. You can tell it you have the Kube8b subwoofer, it tells you how to set the subwoofer’s physical knobs, and then there are confusing sliders in the app for speaker-subwoofer balance and subwoofer output.

Apart from various 2.1 computer speaker systems, I’ve never had a subwoofer. I know my door-sized Magneplanar 3.6Rs are light on bass, but how much bass am I supposed to be hearing? Without a separate subwoofer to adjust you don’t worry and the mark of a quality stereo is the absence of tone controls, which I miss about 0.1% of the time; I just enjoy the startling clarity of the Magneplanar sound. But with a system including a subwoofer I now have to guess how prominent the bass should be: how much bass the musicians were assaulted by in the recording studio, adjusted by how much bass I want to hear. To start I dragged the app’s balance towards the subwoofer and set its subwoofer output on maximum. A whole lot of muffled bass sounds going into the floor! It’s OK when I’m in front of the speakers enjoying the treble, but at a distance the treble doesn’t carry and the low bass is too much, so I backed the knobs off. The Kube8b is OK for my desk area, but is probably woefully inadequate for our entire office/kitchen/dining space with Markoff-Fullerton’s beautiful high ceiling.

So the sound…

I need desk stands (KEF charges a high $200 for aluminum stands but there are cheaper ones on Etsy) and more tweaking, but damn right away the mids and midbass are 😘. 30 seconds into his version of “Tuesday Heartbreak” and I need to make love with Michael McDonald.

Where to point them

The problem is I have four places I could set them up: on my desk as extreme computer speakers, facing my office area, flipped to put sound into the kitchen and dining area, and as TV speakers (since I never did set up a TV multimedia system). For three of those the subwoofer doesn’t have to move, but it’s fiddly to move the speakers around. I knew I would have this problem which is why I spent years hoping to find a single-box solution. One answer would be to buy three more systems…

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