KEF’s M500 headphones are the mellowest product I’ve ever put on my head, short of the floppy hat I wear skiing. If you listen to real music played through real devices, meaning CD and MP3 quality sound played from iPhone or equivalent, these will be a good match. By real music, I mean recordings that might not be the first you would think of as test or demonstration music – music that is not perfectly recorded. Follow me on my musical exploration from streamed MP3s to CD to Blu-Ray Audio…
For instance, the M500s were at their best on Neil Young’s recent album A Letter Home, recorded in Jack White’s 1947 Voice-o-Graph amateur recording booth.Hearing Young’s cover of Dylan’s “A Girl from the North Country” makes me feel like I am right there in the recording box with Mr. Young. Playing from an iPhone 6 via highest quality stream on Rhapsody, the KEFs allow me to hear every mechanical noise and record scratch, not to mention Neil Young’s special voice, with depth and clarity. I am joking of course, and I do think it’s a great record, but maybe not for audio product evaluation.
Moving a bit up the audio quality chain, I tried an actual audio relic also via Rhapsody, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus from 1968, with my personal favorite, “Yer Blues” sung by Winston Leg-Thigh and his back up ensemble The Dirty Mac. It’s not a highly produced recording, rough but not overly processed. These KEFs are exceptional at bass articulation, and Keith Richard’s bass pulls the whole song together.
Jumping forward to the 1980s I tried one of my favorite recordings, the Violent Femmes’ eponymous first album from 1983 played from CD on an HHB pro machine. This fully acoustic album opens with “Blister in the Sun” and includes the song “Gone Daddy Gone” later covered by Gnarls Barkley. My favorite point in the album is the bass solo in “Please Do Not Go” – perfect material for the M500 headphones. This is not an extravagant recording overall; it is well balanced and competent, a good match for the KEFs.
Let’s Be Fair
The gospel group Fairfield Four didn’t fare so well – this is where the mellowness of the KEFs works against them. These headphones just don’t convey a sense of space, air, or openness that is relatively commonplace in speakers and better quality headphones. In fact, I’ve used the recording Standing in the Safety Zone – the cut “Roll Jordan Roll” in particular – to demonstrate all kinds of speakers because it makes them sound GOOD. With these headphones the sound is very smooth, but sounds like it is covered with a blanket. These are not the headphones for a cappella singing.
I tried a variety of high resolution tracks from digital files, SACD, Blu-Ray Audio disc, etc. through a Denon Universal Player set-up. Probably the best I heard the M500s sound was with the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty on DVD-Audio, 2.0 96kHz/24-bit. This is a substantially re-mixed (and in some cases re-recorded) version of the original, punchy and spacious – in fact, overly spacious, balancing the KEFs well on this lush redone version of “Brokedown Palace.” The headphones were made for this recording. The headphone’s capabilities with articulate bass and punchy percussion shows well on the song “Ripple,” with a clear distinction between kick drum and electric bass at the opening.
Two Dirty Secrets
First, headphone fit, sound, and overall effect are immensely personal and subjective features that differ person-to-person, so you should try the M500 headphones yourself for sound and comfort. Second, frequency response (tonal balance) is often a major unattributed reason why speakers or earphones have sound that is open, spacious, wide, smooth, velvety, forward, punchy, or any one of a thousand terms. These headphones have a gentle, somewhat rolled-off high frequency characteristic, making them suitable for non-optimal recordings but also perhaps dull if you are used to speakers or headphones that augment the sense of space or air by tweaking the frequency response in a different way.
With the KEFs I feel like I am listening to hi-fi – just like a classic pair of KEF speakers. I have the sensation of listening from across the room, not in the sense of spaciousness but more in the sense of distance, rather than directly in front of performers. It’s a hi-fi sound, not a live performance or studio monitor type sound. This is not a slight – it’s a valid approach.
That all said, these are enjoyable headphones for real music in real life. You should try them.
© 2015 Stephen Shenefield