First impressions and issues with KEF LS 50 Wireless and customer support

Off the bat it has to be said the speakers themselves are excellent and are very satisfying sonically.

My main problem seems to be with DLNA connectivity and control. I realise that these speakers are a new product and one of the challenges in making them work will be in part down to coping with varied and perhaps idiosyncratic set ups that customers are bound to have.

Even so, despite the redundant observation made by many people that these aren’t “wireless” the branding is a conscious pitch to perhaps a more “lifestyle” oriented consumer than if KEF had decided to call them “actives”.

As such the claim that these speakers are plug and play really needs to stand up to scrutiny and crucially work in any reasonably standard set up.

The hardware

After much deliberation I plumped for the titanium/red combo which looks even more handsome in the flesh than when viewed online. The speakers themselves are excellently made and have a pleasing piano gloss finish but a word of warning about the touch panel: this is plastic rather than glass.

I guess in 99.9% of cases this won’t be an issue but entirely due to my own carelessness I managed to scratch it and this is evidently easy to do if care isn’t taken.

The remote

The remote, on the other hand, is a pretty grim affair. The fact that it is plastic wouldn’t be a problem in itself if it didn’t feel so cheap and wasn’t so poorly designed. It audibly creaks in my hand as I’m operating it and the red on black button markings are all but legible in low light and challenging to use without any raised buttons for volume or mute controls.

Considering my £80 Apple TV comes with a nice aluminium remote it’s a shame that much of the tactile and UI experience for such a well engineered and not exactly inexpensive product feels like a cheap afterthought.

No visual feedback

Remote use is also frustrated by the fact there is no visual feedback from the speaker to show any response to operating the controls. On the plus side volume control is in very fine increments, on the downside it is so subtle that it is challenging to tell if it is going up or down particularly during a dynamic piece of music. The touch display does flicker in indication but because it is flush with the top of the speaker you are forced to stand up to check.

The same goes with source selection, unless you memorise the source positions and count the audible beeps as you cycle through the options you have to stand up to check where you are.

A trivial point I guess but perhaps a flip up panel might be a useful future option. I’d also like to see a volume indicator, particularly when interacting with apps. So far the correlation between actual volume and what is shown on the app defies estimation and I’ve had a number of times where the speakers come on from cold at full volume.

Perhaps a petty quibble, the musical sting the speakers play on start up and shut down is a bit naff. Bearing in mind the sound quality of the speakers it’s a pity a bit of creative sound design hasn’t been used here (or perhaps is redundant – they make an audible click when switched on or off in any case).

The LS 60 Wireless app

The biggest problem I have is the unreliability when using apps. I’m UK based and my wireless set up comprises of a Synology DiskStation 412+ and a BT Smart Hub (the router I imagine will be pretty common in my domestic market).

The on-boarding process is OK I guess though I have had some challenges getting the Wi-Fi set up working to my satisfaction and I’ve come across some odd quirks with app operation depending on what Wi-Fi band the LS 50 is connected to.

Different behaviour depending on Wi-Fi channel

When the speaker is connected to the 2.4GHz channel on my router the LS 50 refuses to play track lists or whole LPs automatically (i.e. one track after another without manual selection). When connected to 5GHz it works more successfully but when I select more than a few tracks while hopping through my collection the app becomes progressively unresponsive and any or all of the following may happen:

  • The app no longer plays LPs or playlists automatically meaning I have to select individual tracks manually
  • Volume control stops working (I have to use the app in conjunction with the remote)
  • Volume indicator often bears no discernable relation to actual volume – can be like Russian roulette when first switching on, these speakers play pretty loud
  • Jumping between tracks gets progressively slower or stops responding altogether
  • The app stops indicating track time elapsed

Also the first couple of seconds of any track are invariably cut off or stutter – this happens regardless of whether any app is working well or not.

Any or all of these can happen and may or may not be solved by restarting the app and/or the speaker which isn’t ideal. Shutting down the app creates a fun scenario where a track carries on playing via DLNA despite the fact you can no longer control it.

DiskStation apps

Because I have a DiskStation I also have other DLNA apps I can use: Audio Station on my Macbook or DS audio via iOS. I find these apps much better to use in terms of selection and searching my music collection (LS50 Wireless doesn’t allow search for instance – no fun scrolling manually through 1000s of items to find what you want) but the same bugs affect these too.

I have been through the palaver of resetting the speakers, the DiskStation, the media server, removing and reinstalling the speakers via my router admin any number of times before reaching my currently relatively stable but far from perfect set up.

Customer support

Some of the app issues at least might not be a fault with my LS50. It could be to do with my set up and I would be happy to accept that but I don’t know for sure, and why don’t I know?

Because KEF refuse to engage me on the issue.

I first contacted KEF via their web contact form and tried to provide as much detail as possible (imagining that they might appreciate the information seeing as the product is so new). They did reply within the stated time frame and said they would look into my problems, then I heard nothing.

In app feedback link

As an aside in the reply they suggested I use the in app Feedback link which I hadn’t noticed. As my frustrations increased I went to use the link only to get a pop up message to say my email address had not been configured. I can’t for the life of me find a way to do this and have sent two further emails in good faith to KEF via their website and have not had a reply to either one.

So here I am on a public channel kvetching about a product I really want to like and about a company I really thought might appreciate some early adopter feedback not knowing if my problems are a warranty issue or due to quirks in my set up because they refuse to respond to me.

I’d class myself as a reasonably technically minded individual. If I’m having these problems this early in a product cycle how will people that have picked these up expecting a turnkey lifestyle product fare?

I fully hope and expect KEF will improve the product with app and firmware updates but meanwhile a little customer care wouldn’t go amiss. Particularly if they expect any “crossover” appeal at all.

And all of this is a damn shame because when they work these speakers sound terrific, they really do.

The trouble with QR codes

To be upfront about it I really don’t like QR codes at all.

Just in case you are one of the many people that fall at the first hurdle described in the diagram further down the page, this is a QR code:

If you have the right phone, software and time on your hands you could photograph this pattern, have it decoded as a web address and be sent to the page it links to (hint: it’s this one, so don’t bother).

Well I’m not dead set against them but as someone who is likely to be asked to implement them at some point I am not going to be particularly enthusiastic about it.

The majority of the time they are a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Even if that weren’t the case there are major barriers to them being anything more than a novelty promotional tool.

That is not to say there are no good use cases for QR codes, it’s just that these are likely to be pretty specific and appeal to a limited user base.

I’m open to the idea that the situation might change based on improvements in technology but even then I can’t envisage a time when they will ever go mainstream.

Here’s a flowchart:

Chart showing potential problems for QR code use

Now I won’t claim that the user journey described in the chart is exhaustive, and you might argue that some stages are redundant depending on the ability of the user.

And I don’t apologise for including “Do they have a smartphone?”. OK so a QR code strategy may target smartphone users specifically but in doing so will exclude everyone else. What about the user who wants to get at the content but can’t because they have an older phone?

The point of the chart is to show that the obstructions to usage may be insurmountable and are determined by awareness, apathy, hardware capability, a user’s proficiency with own their device and so on.

All of these factors will be outside the control of the publisher.

As it stands even a QR code enthusiast is going to have to be pretty determined to use them. For everyone else the pay off is going to have to be worthwhile to encourage engagement.

And that is my biggest beef with them really. I’ve been in scenarios where I could have easily sailed round the user journey described in the diagram but haven’t done because the thought of having to was enough to put me off.

Why should anyone use a technology that just creates more hurdles?