Sound Tasting, KEF style

KEF Blade 2,
KEF LS50 Wireless
Sound Tasting, KEF style

While the collective audio industry rolls out endless analogies with cars, watches, and cameras, there is also a lot of commonality between the world of good audio and that of good wine. We both have our own vocabularies, both rely on observational parameters to assess real-world differences in performance, and both have price structures that are a source of entertainment for the public at large. However, few think of trying out music or sound in the same way someone might go for a wine tasting session.

KEF, on the other hand, did just that; the company arranged a ‘sound tasting’ session at Tileyard Studios near Kings Cross in North London. A small group of press (mostly tech journalists from newspapers) were selected for a trial run of the concept. We were each asked to provide five tracks before the event, which would be analysed and discussed by resident engineer and producer Sean Hargreaves. Hargreaves pointed out key elements in each track from an engineer’s perspective, and snippets of the relevant tracks were played through a pair of KEF’s Blade 2 loudspeakers in Tileyard’s control room. A pair of KEF’s LS50s were also placed as desktop monitors, and the two were compared on a vocal track (‘Paul Is Alive’ by El Vy). Toward the end of the session, the group were invited into the smaller studio where a pair of active KEF LS50Wireless loudspeakers were also playing, in part to show the contrast between two rooms, but also to show the consistency between the loudspeaker systems. Alongside Sean Hargreaves, there were a number of KEF’s bigger hitters to hand, among them Head of Acoustics, Dr Jack Oclee-Brown, to talk more about music and the loudspeakers too. 

The session was fascinating on a number of levels. First, it showed just how diverse a range of tracks were provided by the guests (my choices are in the list – I’m giving no clues as to which ones were mine, except I’m not copping to Bruno Mars!). Second, it showed just how much can be extracted from all kinds of music with a good system in the right room. Then, it also showed how different people listen out for different things. It shows how our terminology is subtly shaped by our background. And it gives a fine example of a form of ‘music tasting’ many music lovers and audiophiles alike would love to experience.

Rather than edit this material down, I have republished the press release and whole track list and the comments made, unedited and unexpurgated, below. If you are a Tidal user, you can even listen to the relevant tracks yourself and try to match what Sean Hargreaves heard to what you can hear. OK, so he thought Mahalia Jackson recording was modern and the people recording it were striving for a vintage vibe, where in fact the recording is 60 years old, but this is the right way of getting the wrong answer!

What I’d love to see is a replicated form of this Sound Tasting appearing in audio shows. Yes, the point of a show is the word ‘show’, and exists to ‘show’ off the products, but those products need good music to operate, and what better way of showcasing what good audio can do than to highlight what to listen out for in music? Granted, this in only one aspect of music appreciation, and everything from the Classic Albums Sundays project to listening to a composer, conductor, or musicians discussing their work also counts. But this concept of Sound Tasting is a good step in the right direction. Let’s make it more of a thing in audio!


The Track List

You can listen to KEF Sound Tasting Tracklist here:

Sean Hargreaves, engineer and producer at Tileyard Studios, has uncovered details in each of the recordings that you have previously unheard, helping you to hear the layers and depth that the original music recordings were intended to have.



Bruno Mars, 24k magic

Listen out for the clarity and width of the vocals, the secret “woop woop” and the synth imaging and bass depth. 

Paul is Alive, El Vy (Return to the Moon)

There is a beautiful vocal that you can hear is well recorded. You can hear the differences between the real guitar vs. the synth elements. You can also clearly hear the tail of the processed snare.

Sandro Perri, Wrong about the Rain

You can hear the clav clearly and at the beginning the drums get slightly out of sync.  Look out for the delay, it was probably due to a tape, and there is a spring reverb on the vocal. 

Little Simz, Wounds

Listening to this track on the Blade 2 allows you to hear the fret noise on the guitars. Look out for the beautifully recorded electric guitar at the beginning because you can clearly hear the amp. The beat when it comes in is programmed and there is a slight delay on the backing vocals. 

Mahalia Jackson, Trouble of the World 

You can tell that they made a decision in production to make this sound vintage as it has less treble, less deep sound and a less glossy vocal. The snare is also very noticeable. 

Bebe, Amimales hambrientos 

You can very clearly hear the digital reverbs, higher bass extension and treble response in this recording. Look out for the dulcimer. 

Capuleti e I Montecci, Act 2: "Tu sola, o mia Giulietta... Deh! tu, bell'anima" (Romeo) – Joyce DiDonato [Stella di Napoli]

This is one is brilliant at 1’26 it sounds like there is an audience noise which hasn’t been removed - watch out for it. You can also hear the reverb of the concert callin which it was recorded and the clarinet. 

Human, Sevdelizer

This track is very filmic, you can really hear all of the ambiences on each element of the track. The vocal has great clarity, you can hear how it has been tracked and the delay. 

The Package, A Perfect Circle

A lot of care has been taken with the trashy, roomy backbeat at the beginning of this track. You can also hear a sharp contrast with the close miked snare once the track picks up. 

Nick Cave, Red Right Hand

This has a very close vocal it almost sounds ‘furry’. 

Lorde, Royals

With this track you can hear that they used a chamber on the lead vocal, the imaging on the backing vocals is crips and there is a really great bass extension. 

NIN with David Bowie, I'm Afraid of Americans

With this track the constituent synths are very clear, you can also hear how the panning on the ‘uh uh uh’ backing vocal. 

Soundgarden, Let me Drown 

There is a slapback delay on the local that is very cool, you can also tell that this is a deliberately lo fi recording. 

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Jubilee Street 

This has a great vocal and the drum sounds roomy. What’s really exciting is that you can hear that the tambourine player drops the tambourine during the recording. 

BB King and Eric Clapton, Riding with the King 

There's a lot of reverb on this track on everything and listen to how the vocal sits relatively at the back of the mix. 

Cave In, Shake my Blood

Listen out for how clear the compression on the snare is. The producer took a lot of care with the guitar it sounds almost furry and roomy at the same time. 

Azelia Banks, Fierce

There is an excellent bass extension on this track and you can also hear how they tried to give the vocal a ‘telephone’ quality. 

Marilyn Manson, Deep Six

Listen to this one at full volume. The mix is brilliant and the speakers really capture how balanced each of the elements in the speaker are. 

Motley Crü - Kickstart My Heart 

Can hear chugging low guitars v clearly. Really well recorded How far back in mix LVs are (as you'd expect)

Azealia Banks, Heavy Metal and Reflective

You can really hear that this is a digital recording, it has reverbs on everything. 

Mabel, Mad Love

The male backing vocal on this is heavily distorted, look out for it. Also, the lead vocal is very delayed and you won’t have noticed this previously. 


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