Three KEFs Compared: LS50 vs. Reference 1 vs. Blade Two

To Doug Schneider,

You have written pretty supportive reviews for the KEF Reference 1 and now the Blade Two. What do you get/give as you go up or down the line? For a medium to small room, the Reference 1 might be the sweet spot? They all like many watts, correct?


I not only reviewed the Blade Two and Reference 1, but also the LS50 and R500. But let’s talk only about the LS50, Reference 1, and Blade Two, since they illustrate the kinds of differences you get as you move up in price.

There’s no question that KEF’s LS50, which sells for $1499.99/pr. (without stands), is an astonishingly good speaker for its price. Its bass is surprisingly deep and full for a small-size speaker, its highs are very clean and well extended, and its midrange is so smooth and clear that vocals sound absolutely magical. A pair of LS50s can also cast a very wide and deep soundstage (providing the recording has such spaciousness captured in it), with imaging that I found to be very precise. Overall, the LS50 provides such high performance for its price that, for some, they might see no need to spend more, particularly if their room is small. For example, Hans Wetzel runs our SoundStage! Access site and has bought and sold a number of speakers over the last couple years, but he hasn’t let go of his LS50s, because he loves the way they sound in his room. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be bettered.

When you move up to the Reference 1, which sells for $7999.99/pr. (without stands), you get a much larger speaker that produces bass that’s not only deeper, but has much more authority, detail, and impact than the LS50 can muster. In comparison, the LS50 sounds boomy and a bit woolly. The Reference 1 has even cleaner highs, provides more detail in the midrange, possesses far greater output capability across the frequency band, and is more neutral overall. Where the Reference 1 doesn’t necessarily better the LS50 is soundstaging and imaging -- I found them roughly the same in those aspects. Providing you don’t need bass output below 40Hz and your room is not super-big, the Reference 1 is about as perfect a loudspeaker as you’ll find anywhere near its price -- or even for two or three times its price. It’s also built really well and is available in some beautiful finish options. So you’re right, it might be the sweet spot for KEF, though, a penny shy of $8000 is a lot of money for most.

Next there’s the Blade Two, which costs $24,999.99/pr., so more than three times what the Reference 1 costs -- and more than 16 times what the LS50 costs! The Blade Two betters the Reference 1 by providing even deeper, more powerful bass -- it is pretty much a full-range design that needs a fairly big room for a pair to play well in. Then there is the stellar imaging -- the Twos were uncanny in the way they precisely focused sonic images in my room, even when those images were way out to the sides of the stage. Those are the main things that are better. Less noticeable, but still relevant, is that the Blade Two is a bit more open in the mids and highs than the Reference 1, which I think has a lot to do with its cabinet shape, which is very narrow and has a smoothly curved front baffle that gets out of the way of the soundwaves being launched from the drivers. The Blade Two’s uniquely shaped cabinet also makes a strong visual statement in a room, whereas the Reference 1 and LS50, despite being nicely styled and well built, do not have quite the same impact.

Insofar as power goes, all the KEFs I’ve reviewed have been no more or less demanding than most speakers I’ve reviewed -- they’re about average. I wouldn’t necessarily partner any of their speakers with a tube or solid-state amplifier that struggles to get 20Wpc out, since that would likely be too weak for them. However, I’ve partnered all the KEF speakers I’ve had here with my JE Audio VM60 monoblocks, which use tubes and output 60W each. They all worked fine with the JEAs, providing I didn’t play them really loud.

That’s my summary of those three KEFs. Obviously, there are some similarities when it comes to sound, since they all come from the same design team; however, there are some major differences that, for some, will be worth paying the extra money for. That, though, is for each person to decide. . . . Doug Schneider