OUR 300 BEST BUYS NEW AWARD WINNERS!
STREAMING SPECIAL! The best music and video streamers tested and rated
Q Acoustics vs Fyne Audio vs Dali Speaker package shootout!
KEF LSX Stunning Â£1000 wireless music systerm
PLUS THE ULTIMATE BRITISH CAR STEREO? Naim takes to the road with Bentley
W E LC O M E
SoundMagic E10C headphones, wor th £40 – when you subscribe! p30
Sweet streams are made of this… The compact disc is still very much with us, with sales remaining solid, while in decline. And vinyl, of course, is still happily riding the wave of its resurgence. But this year, for the first time, streaming and digital downloads overtook physical media in terms of sales value. And the gap between them is, inevitably, only going to increase in time.
HOW WE TEST
EXPERIENCE. HERITAGE. We’ve been helping the world discover the best in hi-fi and home entertainment for more than 40 years, and have more than 100 years of reviewing experience under our collective belts – so you can count on our expert opinion.
Which is why, in this issue of What Hi-Fi?, we take a look at our favourite music (p36) and video (p49) streamers. Now you can make the correct choice, whatever your budget, should you decide to upgrade – or add streaming to your hi-fi for the first time. We also have a Group Test of home cinema speaker packages (p56). And it has reminded me that, while soundbars are great, you just can't beat a full AV system…
Jonathan Evans, editor
All review verdicts are agreed upon by the team as a whole – not an individual reviewer. Each product will be listened to and/or viewed by several members of the test team, who will then discuss the final verdict before it appears in the magazine or on the website. This avoids any individual bias creeping in.
KEF LSX p6 Its LS50 Wireless system was a triumph – and KEF has nailed it again with its little brother, at half the price of the original.
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We test every product against its peers in our brand new, bespoke reviewing facilities in London and Bath. We conduct all our tests as a team – our opinions and conclusions are always the result of collaboration.
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MY PRODUCT OF THE MONTH
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OUR SCORES EXPLAINED One of the best ★★★★★ A serious contender ★★★★ Worth a look ★★★ Disappointing ★★ Awful ★
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XMAS GIFT GUIDE
Do these KEF LSXs measure up to their predecessors?
Last minute gifts for the music lover or film buff ? We have some ideas...
Seven music streamers on test – there's one to suit all budgets
HEAD TO HEAD
Netflix and Amazon Prime Video go head-to-head for your video streaming subscription
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THIS MONTH WE GIVE THE DEFINITIVE WORD ON THESE PRODUCTS
We round up five of the best TV streamers you can currently buy
Packages from Dali, Fyne Audio and Q Acoustics battle it out in our Group Test
How to set up your speaker package
iFi's configurable and feature-packed DAC... does the sound match?
FIND THE BEST KIT AROUND, FAST!
Every product worth owning. Starting on page 71
DACS iFi Pro DAC
HEADPHONES SoundMagic E11C
HI-FI SYSTEMS KEF LSX
HOME CINEMA AMPLIFIERS Denon AVC-X8500H
IN-CAR AUDIO Naim for Bentley
MUSIC STREAMERS Arcam rPlay Bluesound Node 2i Cambridge Audio Azur 851N Cambridge CXN (V2) Chord Poly with Mojo Google Chromecast Audio Moon Neo MiND
39 40 44 41 42 38 45
SPEAKER PACKAGES Dali Spektor 2 5.1 Fyne Audio F302 Q Acoustics 3010i 5.1 Cinema Pack
58 59 60
STEREO SPEAKERS Audiovector SR3 Avantgarde
SOUNDBARS Samsung HW-N950
TELEVISIONS Sony KD-75ZF9
VIDEO STREAMERS Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Apple TV 4K Google Chromecast 2018 Now TV Smart Stick Roku Streaming Stick+
52 55 51 50 53
VIDEO STREAMING SERVICES Amazon Prime Video Netflix
WIRELESS HEADPHONES AKG Y500 Wireless
WIRELESS SPEAKERS Amazon Echo Plus 2018 Ruark Audio MRx
RD EXCLUSIVE, IN-DEPTH VE
ICTS ON THE LATEST KIT
KEF LSX | All-in-one system | £1000
Mini-me twins are a chip off a really fine block FOR Class-leading insight; bass; rhythmically expressive; design
AGAINST Some app snags
Scaling something down proportionally to create a smaller replica may work for model villages and food recipes, but in speaker design the rules aren’t quite as simple. Nevertheless, KEF has gone for it and shrunk its multi-Award-winning LS50 Wireless streaming system (£2000) down to make a miniature, half-price version, the KEF LSX. The LSX shares its successful sibling’s blueprint as an all-in-one hi-fi system: a network streamer, Bluetooth receiver and amplification within a pair of compact stereo speakers. But creating the LSX isn’t just a case of simply miniaturising everything in the LS50 Wireless’ anatomy and cutting the price in half. In addition to the smaller cabinets, smaller Uni-Q driver arrays and smaller, 200W amplification, some changes have been made to cater for the price and size reduction. Rather than combining a Class A/B circuit (to feed the tweeter) with a Class D module (to power the mid/bass unit) as the LS50 Wireless does, the LSX’s amplification is purely Class D. Having this kind of design allows everything to be more compact as well as more power efficient. Crucially, it reduces the need for large, bulky heatsinks and means that KEF can keep the cabinets (plastic on the LSX and MDF on the LS50) as small as possible.
The LSX system loses a couple of its bigger sibling’s connections: USB Type B (for computer and laptop hook-ups) and RCAs for connecting legacy hi-fi kit. But KEF has evolved its stereo speaker system concept on the LSX. Since the LS50 Wireless was launched last year, the company has developed its proprietary, wireless inter-speaker connection so, unlike that set-up, the LSX system doesn’t demand an ethernet cable to connect the two speakers.
Sampling rates The system can play hi-res files all the way up to 24-bit/192kHz, but will downsample to either 24-bit/48kHz if the speakers are connected to each other wirelessly or 24-bit/96kHz if you do decide to run the supplied ethernet cable between them. The LSX’s ’miniature’ description isn’t just relative to its larger sibling. Each speaker is smaller than any passive stereo speaker we can recall testing, bookshelf-friendly and easily transported to another room.
Bold – and beautiful The smaller proportions may make them less of an eyeful than their sibling, but they’re no less bold. The LSX speakers see the return of KEF’s distinct-looking Uni-Q driver array, in which a 19mm aluminium-dome tweeter sits in the
centre of a 10cm magnesium/ aluminium mid/bass cone. And this time the cabinets are, bar the curved baffles, wrapped in an attractive woven fabric. KEF has been involved in many design collaborations over the years – including the ’Nocturne by Marcel Wanders’ edition of the LS50 Wireless, the multi-coloured KEF Muos by Ross Lovegrave, and KEF’s Porsche Design Space One headphones. For the LSX system, KEF has had a helping hand from British designer Michael Young, whose signature is subtly printed on the olive green (with gold cone and red tweeter) version. You can also opt for red with red cone and silver tweeter, blue with blue cone and silver tweeter or black with silver cone and red tweeter variants. There’s also a fabric-less glossy white version with a silver cone and red tweeter.
A selection of sources The LSX has many sources you’ll want to make use of. Over ethernet or 2.4GHz/5GHz wi-fi, users can stream networked music via DLNA or from Tidal – all from within the KEF Stream app. Spotify Connect and aptX Bluetooth are due to be joined by Apple AirPlay 2 over the coming months. While the LSX’s master speaker discards the RCA and USB type-B
connections of its pricier LS50 relative, its optical and 3.5mm aux inputs usefully provide the means to connect TVs and portable devices, while a subwoofer output helpfully offers the opportunity to add more bass to the system. You can always add a bit more bass by tweaking the balance in the system’s EQ settings, which can be found in KEF’s Control app. The app is also used to get the LSX on your network, apply room settings, perform firmware updates and switch sources. The latter can also be performed via the supplied remote – as can volume adjustment – but the LSX lacks the on-speaker touch controls of its elder sibling.
We’ve mentioned two KEF apps (Stream and Control) in this review, because they perform separate functions; one for set-up and control, and another for navigating network streaming. It feels unnecessary given how some rivals manage to integrate everything in one app, but at least you can easily switch between the two without having to open and close them.
Rather than being just smaller LS50s, the LSXs are very different internally
A little niggle Our biggest grumble is that the Stream app has a tendency to trip up during playback from Tidal. It’s not the end of the world, but the occasional dropout and delay stops it being a completely
“The LSXs are clearly sonic descendants of the expressive, tonally even and rhythmically astute LS50 Wireless”
satisfactory user experience. Thankfully no such problems occur when we stream from our media server, although the interface does have a simplistic list view, rather than a grid view for browsing music libraries. KEF is pitching the LSX as equally competitive for its price category as the LS50 Wireless is. We only need to hear the serene drum beat and guitarplucking duo of Nick Cave’s Jubilee Street to know that these KEFs do, to borrow lyrics from the song, “practice what they preach”. From the poised delivery of Cave's first stanza, the LSXs are clearly sonic descendants of the expressive, tonally even and rhythmically astute LS50 Wireless. The audible assortment of guitar notes, along with the varied emphasis upon each, is credit to the LSXs' transparency, not only in the amount of
“The LSXs appear as comfortable in revealing layers as an expert trifle maker”
detail they dig up but also the dynamic discretion it delivers. The placement of the crystal-clear vocal is given no less consideration than the bells that come in subtly beside it. Warren Ellis’s violin entrance pushes the soundstage’s ceiling and inflates the presentation, while denser electrics and choral accompaniments busy the soundstage but don’t overwhelm the LSXs, which appear as comfortable in revealing layers as an expert trifle maker. Timing is of the essence with any piece of hi-fi kit and, no doubt thanks in part to KEF’s trademark-pending ’Music Integrity Engine’ digital signal processing, which works to ensure accurate time alignment and phase coherence, the LSX has an assured approach to rhythms.
Smooth but insightful We switch to Ólafur Arnalds’ Ljósið, and the LSX really engages us. Smooth and bodied enough to bring a sweet lushness to the piano playing, it’s nevertheless insightful enough to reveal the varying weight on the keys as well as the slight coarseness in the accompanying violin. Its rendition easily carries us through the track’s duration. While the LSX falls short of offering the absolute last word in dynamic expression, it offers a degree of variation
Connectivity is generous, and will soon include Apple AirPlay 2
that isn’t bettered at this price point, and you could hardly ask for more than that. Despite the smaller mid/bass driver (10cm as opposed to 13cm) and cabinet volume, it shares its sibling’s relative talent for bass performance. Whether it’s punching out the potent beat opening to St Vincent’s Los Angeles or pushing along the tubby yet tuneful bassline in Mac Miller’s What’s The Use?, the LSX’s low-frequency delivery is consistently taut, agile and lucid.
A clear-flowing stream With Tidal streams, the LSXs remain cohesive without feeling condensed. Play Shame’s The Lick and the building swamp of electrics underneath thickens the presentation’s consistency but doesn’t drown out its clarity or that of the singer’s deliberately prolonged pronunciation. The LSX doesn’t defy the scientific logic of smaller drivers and boxes equalling smaller sound, but that doesn’t feel like a shortcoming, especially considering its soundstage is more expansive than that of one of its closest rivals, the single-box Naim Mu-so. The undulating synthwave that underpins Thom Yorke’s Has Ended (from the Suspiria remake) manages to be atmospheric and room-filling, despite the LSXs' diminutive size. Naturally, the
LS50 Wireless would be able to more impactfully mark the occasion with its greater power, scale and dynamic reach. That, along with the extra connectivity, keeps the LS50 Wireless very much relevant in KEF’s streaming system offering. But the presence of the LSX in the line-up feels almost as justified. Here, KEF has managed to squeeze much of its innovative system’s performance and feature set into a more modest stature. It means it can offer the convenience and versatility of the tried and tested package at a much more accessible price that is relatively budget for an all-in hi-fi system. Indeed, the LSX is a scaled down, carefully crafted copycat of its sibling, and for that is just as triumphant. Take heed, rival systems, these miniature marvels are going to take some beating.
Rating SOUND FEATURES BUILD
VERDICT A neat, compact and entertaining all-in-one system of unrivalled sonic quality
FIRST TESTS View offers
AKG Y500 Wireless | Wireless headphones | £129 | whf.cm/Y500Wireless
Great sound quality – it’s as easy as AKG
FOR Detailed and refined sound; excellent build When we reviewed the AKG Y50BTs back in 2015, we were just as impressed by the superb wireless on-ears as by their wired Y50 counterparts. “What you have here is a rare example of headphones that are equally excellent across audio performance, features, design and build quality,” we said. Three years on and the Y50BT’s successor, the AKG Y500 Wireless, ups the game once more, thanks to a smarter design and a hugely listenable sound. The new Y500s remain on-ear designs, with a cushioned, adjustable headphone band and memory-foam ear cups. Gone is the large-lettered branding on the brightly coloured earcups; instead, the new Y500s come in shimmery metallic finishes – the blue finish seen here, but also in green, pink and black. The AKG logo is smaller and a much smarter design than before. The mix of aluminium and plastic leaves the Y500s feeling sturdy yet lightweight, and the polished metal edges around the earcups give the cans a touch of class. The earcups are soft, but clamping pressure is a little high on our new sample. We would expect this to ease off with time, though. You can fold the headphones flat, bundling them up small enough to fit into your bag or a large pocket.
LED astray The controls under each earcup have been redesigned, too. The power switch has a blue LED to indicate when the Y500s are switched on and connected to your smartphone. Subtle beeps indicate when your headphones are paired. There’s also a button for AKG’s ‘Ambient Aware’ feature, which works effectively by subduing the music and letting outside noise seep in naturally, so you are more aware of your surroundings and don’t miss that train announcement. On the other earcup, there’s a small button for playing and pausing music (double-tapping it summons your smartphone’s voice assistant) and a neat volume switch that you slide up or down. The controls are responsive, and it takes mere seconds to get used to them.
AGAINST Some may want a little more excitement
The AKG Y500 Wirelesses have a smarter look than their predecessors With a standard 3.5mm-ended cable included in the box, and a simple in-line remote for controlling playback, there’s the option to go wired. The Y500s can be charged via the supplied microUSB and battery life is a claimed 33 hours – a big jump from the Y50BT’s 20-hour lifespan. Another feature is that the Y500s automatically pause music when you take them off. Put them back on, and music starts playing again. It’s a neat feature, but we find it a bit hit and miss.
33-hour battery life
Mature sound What’s clear right from the start is that AKG has opted for a more refined and grown-up sound with the Y500 Wireless headphones. There’s plenty of detail, and every bit of it is composed and clear. We play PJ Harvey’s Good Fortune and are met with a bold, solid delivery in a pleasingly spacious presentation. There’s ample heft and punch to the low end, edges of notes are crisply laid out, and her raw vocals are projected with excellent clarity. The Y500s go loud too, without ever sounding rowdy or unruly. If you want headphones that you can just put on, listen to and enjoy with minimum fuss, these are ideal. Taut basslines and a confident handling of timing make Massive
Attack’s Angels an enjoyable, if not overly demanding, listen, and the Y500s’ silky, crowd-pleasing character make them a more long-lasting listen – they’ll keep you bopping along to songs for hours. AKG has opted for a more composed and polished presentation, sacrificing a little of the previous dramatic and energetic flair, but retaining a level of clarity and organisation you won’t get in most other rival Bluetooth headphones. Juggling good sound quality, clever features, durable build quality and attractive design is no mean feat, but AKG has made it look easy. The Y500 Wirelesses are hugely appealing – you will struggle to find such a complete wireless headphone experience at this kind of price.
says 4x finishes
Rating SOUND COMFORT BUILD
VERDICT Classy design, sophisticated audio performance and clever features make these Y500s a crowd-pleasing hit
FIRST TESTS View offers
Sony KD-75ZF9 | Television | £4999 | whf.cm/KD-75ZF9
This TV doesn’t quite match Sony’s ambition
FOR Realistic images; decent upscaling; good range of apps
AGAINST Lacks black depth of the best; uneven backlighting
The Master Series represents the new pinnacle of Sony’s TV line-up. Designed to produce a picture closer to the director’s intention than any commercially available television has done before, the models in the series are the AF9 OLED, which we gave a five-star review, and the ZF9, here in the form of the Sony KD-75ZF9. The key difference is that the ZF9 is an LCD model with a direct LED backlight – it is essentially the successor to the ZD9. That might make the ZF9 sound like the poor relation, but, as Samsung has recently shown with its Q9FN, traditional backlit TVs are capable of mixing with even the best OLEDs. The ZF9 is more affordable than the AF9, with the 65in versions of each costing £2799 and £3999 respectively (there’s no 75in version of the AF9). Compared with the easel-like design and innovative speaker solution of the AF9, the ZF9 appears rather staid. It’s not unattractive, but it doesn't stand out from the crowd. There's a smart, speckled finish that Sony says is based on that of a DSLR camera.
The set measures 6.7cm at its thickest point, but it tapers neatly and so is a little less imposing than it could otherwise appear.The TV’s two feet are chunky at the back, but relatively dainty at the front. They have channels which mean cables can be hidden from view. All in all, it’s a rather neat and thoughtful design. Connections include four HDMI 2.0 sockets (all capable of handling 4K HDR signals), three USBs, headphone and optical outputs, ethernet, one aerial socket and two satellite. As is the norm for all but Sony’s most basic current TVs, the ZF9 uses Google’s Android TV operating system (version 8.0). It still has a long way to go to match Samsung and LG’s equivalents for attractiveness, usability and customisation, but it is getting better with each iteration. The overall app selection is one of the most complete out there. On top of the full suite of catch-up services, you get Netflix and Amazon Video (both in 4K and with Dolby Vision), Google Play Movies & TV (4K but not HDR), Plex, VLC, Spotify, Deezer and TuneIn. The only absentee of note is Now TV – just
HDR10, Dolby Vision, HLG
LCD with direct LED backlight
Subtlety and realism
Channels in the ZF9’s feet allow for neat storage of the TV's cables
add a Smart Stick (or Sky package) if you want live Sky sports content. Google Assistant is now on board Android TV as well, introducing more advanced voice control and smart speaker-like features. There’s even a microphone built directly into the frame of the telly, in theory making the whole experience properly hands-free. Its use is limited though, with opening apps and finding specific films on Google Play Movies & TV being the main benefits. The TV’s processor is the X1 Ultimate, Sony’s new state-of-the-art silicon chip. Compared with the X1 Extreme of the A1 (and XF9005) the Ultimate adds a number of enhancements, such as Object-based Super Resolution, which enhances specific objects in an image, and an improved Object-based HDR Remaster feature, which enhances the contrast of an image on an object by object basis.
Play Alien Covenant on 4K Blu-ray and the ZF9 is a pleasure to watch, with colour balance a particular triumph. There’s real subtlety and realism here – a delicacy and neutrality to everything, from the storm-soaked fields of Planet 4, to the skin tones of the crew. Motion is good, too. The set isn’t perfect, struggling a touch with small, fast-moving objects as they flit across tight background patterns, but those moments are rather rare. As the Covenant ship glides into view, the Sony reproduces the motion with no blur or judder, while the same scene played on the Samsung Q9FN leaves more of a ghost in comparison. But the film also highlights some of the Sony’s shortcomings. For a start, it seems to be incapable of producing the sort of deep blacks that the Samsung can, let alone an OLED. You might assume that the trade-off would be more detail in those darker parts of the picture, but that’s not the case. If anything, the ZF9’s less-black blacks are murkier than those of the very best in class and swallow more detail.
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