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KEF M500 headphones review: Stellar design and comfort -- and very good sound

They're fairly pricey, but the combination of very good sound and a sleek, comfortable design, make the KEF M500s contenders in the $300 price class.

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Kobo e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Headphones, Bluetooth speakers, mobile accessories, Apple, Sony, Bose, e-readers, Amazon, glasses, ski gear, iPhone cases, gaming accessories, sports tech, portable audio, interviews, audiophile gear, PC speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
5 min read

In case you've never heard of KEF, it's a British company that makes premium speakers that generally sound really good. Those speakers tend to be a bit pricey -- and some are very pricey -- but now the company has made a foray into the headphone market with two new models, the $300 on-ear M500 reviewed here and the $200 M200 headphones, which sound great but won't fit everyone equally well.


KEF M500 headphones

The Good

The <b>KEF M500</b> on-ear headphones are sleekly and sturdily designed and offer a very comfortable fit. They also sound very good and come with two detachable cords, one of which has an Apple-friendly inline remote/microphone for smartphone use. The headphones fold up and fit into an attractive protective carrying case.

The Bad

Fairly expensive; some people may not find the sound detailed enough.

The Bottom Line

They're fairly pricey, but the combination of very good sound and a sleek, comfortable design, make the KEF M500s contenders in the $300 price class.

The first thing I'll say about the M500 is that it's one of the most comfortable on-ear headphones I've tested, ranking up there with the Bose OE2i. Like the Bose, this KEF has memory foam in the "breathable" earpads, and those pads rest nicely on your ears, sealing out a decent amount of ambient noise without feeling too snug. KEF says the headphones conform to the shape of your head, "sitting neither too tight nor too loose," and I'm happy to report that the M500s deliver on that promise.

The M500s have an aluminum frame and 'Smart Hinge.' Sarah Tew/CNET

Just as importantly, the headphones have excellent build quality, with a lightweight aluminum frame and KEF's multidirectional Smart Hinge, which allows you to lay the headphones down flat or fold them up for storage in their included carrying case (it's nice). The one small issue I noticed is that Smart Hinge does have some screws in it and one of the screws started to come out in my review sample after about two weeks of use. Luckily, I noticed it, and managed to screw it back in with a tiny screwdriver (it's a Torx screw but if you have one of those tiny screw drivers for eyeglasses, it'll turn the screw).

The earcups feature memory foam (click image to enlarge). Sarah Tew/CNET

That loosened screw didn't dampen my enthusiasm for the overall design of the product. The M500s succeed in having a unique look that's sleek, modern, and stylish in an understated way. In that regard, they're similar to Bowers & Wilkins' popular P5 headphones, which have a striking design while managing to be reserved. Comparing the two, I'd say the M500s are a bit more comfortable, but like any on-ear or over-the-ear model, they will get your ears a little steamy if you're walking around with them on warmer days.

One of the screws started to come loose. I tightened it back up with a tiny screwdriver (click image to enlarge). Sarah Tew/CNET

Along with the carrying case, you get two detachable cords, one of which has an integrated remote/microphone for making cell phone calls (the remote is made for Apple devices, so some of its functions won't work with Android and other smartphones, though you should be able to use the microphone for calls). Both cords have a flat, tangle-resistant design, and I liked how they connect to the headphones on the backside of the aluminum. I caught the cable on a door handle once and the cable detached from the headphone without incident (and by that I mean the headphones weren't damaged).

How do they sound? Very good. As I said in my review of the M200s, this model has bigger bass and while I preferred the sound of the M200s, the M500s are still quite good but different -- and some people will prefer their sound over the M200s'. The M200s are a little more accurate and have a slightly more forward, immediate sound. But the M500s are relatively well-balanced, accurate, and open headphones that offer good detail and are pleasant to listen to for long periods.

Thanks to the Smart Hinge, the headphones fold up and also fold flat (click image to enlarge). Sarah Tew/CNET

Editor Ty Pendelbury and I put them up against the $300 Bowers & Wilkins P5, a headphone that we both like and Ty uses on a daily basis. The M500s have a little more bass and are a bit warmer (not as bright). But the P5s offer up more midrange detail. Ty gave the slight nod to the P5s for sound, but he liked the design and build quality of the M500s better (he finds the P5's design a bit ostentatious even though he wears them regularly).

"The KEF had a warmer sound and a more cohesive soundstage on 'I Am An Ape' by David Byrne and St. Vincent," Pendelbury remarked. "The bass synth throbbed with greater insistence on the KEFs. The extreme left/right percussion effects seemed more tightly married to the music on the KEFs, while the P5s seemingly threw them out as separate entities."

In short, detail hounds will prefer the P5s but if you want a more "musical" and less taxing presentation the KEFs will be more in your wheelhouse.

If you're wondering how these sound versus the $200 Bowers & Wilkins P3, the P3 is a bassier, duller-sounding headphone. Try the M500s after the P5s and you'll think the M500s sound a little duller. But try the M500s after the P3s and the M500s seem much brighter.

The headphones come with two detachable cables, one of which has an Apple-friendly inline remote/microphone. Sarah Tew/CNET

For kicks I also ran them up against the new Beats Studio, which retails for $300. It's a noise-canceling model, so the comparison isn't exactly apples to apples, but it's certainly a popular headphone in this price class, and Beats has improved the sound in the new model (it's better balanced). The Beats Studio served up more bass than the M500, but the M500 was more accurate; I preferred its sound, but if you're looking for noise-cancellation, the Beats certainly has its appeal (the new Studio sounds better than the Bose QuietComfort 15 but the Bose's muffling abilities are superior).

If you're wondering why I'm not being a bit more enthusiastic about M500s' sound, it's because they just don't have quite enough body (read: fullness) to really blow you away. For example, the $350 Sennheiser Momentum has richer sound (the M500 is the more comfortable headphone, however). And when I compared with the Audio-Technica ATH-M50s, one of our reference midrange over-the-ear models, the $160 Audio Technica came out the winner. But again, the KEFs are a more comfortable headphone and better designed for mobile use -- they also work well as a headset, though the buttons on the inline remote are a touch small.

The headphones nestled in their nice protective carrying case (click image to enlarge). Sarah Tew/CNET

What makes a good headphone isn't just good sound but a combination of good sound, comfort, and build quality. As far as the M500's sound goes, I didn't get that wow feeling that makes you want to go back and listen to your whole music collection again to hear how it sounds through these headphones. But the M500s still sound very good, delivering relatively accurate, well-balanced sound with good detail and strong bass. In all, that makes KEF M500s an excellent set of everyday headphones that works well with a variety of music -- whether you're using them at home or on the go with a mobile device.

At $300, they may not be a bargain, but neither are most $300 headphones, and at least these are built with a good amount of metal, not plastic, parts.


KEF M500 headphones

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Sound 8Value 7