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- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created on Monday, 01 November 2010 01:00
- Written by Doug Schneider
Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
It wasn’t that many years ago that, to many, the notion of spending thousands of dollars on a pair of two-way bookshelf speakers or an integrated amplifier seemed outrageous. Bookshelf speakers and integrateds used to be lower-priced, entry-level components; prices would increase into the thousands only for larger, more complex products such as three- or more-way speakers, and separate preamps and power amps.
Times have changed. There are now strong markets for upscale bookshelf speakers and cost-no-object integrated amplifiers. They’re often bought by those with small listening spaces, but who want sound and build quality as close as possible to the state of the art, for which they’re willing to pay quite a bit more. It is those desires that the FP50, the smallest speaker in Focus Audio’s Prestige line, is designed to fill. The Prestige series comes between Focus’s midpriced Signature line and its very top models, the Master series. The word prestige connotes something of high standing, prominence, and distinction, and the FP50 has a commensurate list price: $4300 USD per pair.
The Prestige FP50 measures roughly 13”H x 7”W x 10”D and weighs some 20 pounds. Its cabinet is made of MDF at least 1” thick on all sides and is finished in a top-quality, superthick, high-gloss piano lacquer. The speaker is small, dense, and super-sturdy. Beveled edges on the front baffle help to reduce diffraction and give the FP50 a more elegant look. The rear panel, too, is beautifully finished, with a recessed area for the single set of binding posts, and a port with rounded edges that’s formed as part of the cabinet. The combination of a high level of fit’n’finish, compact size, and attractive shape give the FP50 a jewel-like appearance.
In keeping with the cabinet’s look and build quality are the topnotch drivers. The tweeter is Scan-Speak’s Revelator D30, a 1” soft dome that has found its way into some of the world’s most expensive speakers, including Rockport Technologies’ Arrakis ($165,000/pair), a pair of which Jeff Fritz owns. Focus chose the D30 for its overall quality, in particular for how far it extends into the high frequencies without ever sounding brittle or hard. The mid/woofer, a 5.5” Eton Symphony 5-300/A8, has a cone made of a three-layer Hexacone sandwich. Focus likes Eton’s cone drivers for how incisive and articulate they sound through the midrange and bass. The drivers are crossed over to each other at about 2.5kHz.
A grille is supplied to protect the drivers; for serious listening, however, Focus recommends leaving them off, as they’ll degrade the sound. The grille is affixed to the speaker with pins that slide into holes in the baffle. We’ve seen this sort of thing on speakers for years, but it surprised me here, given the quality of the FP50’s build and the fact that many manufacturers now use embedded magnets to attach their grilles, for a cleaner-looking front baffle. When I asked Focus about this, they said that they feel that using magnets on the baffle can negatively affect the sound.
The FP50 has a claimed frequency response of 45Hz-25kHz, +/-3dB, a nominal impedance of 8 ohms, and a sensitivity of 85dB/2.83V/m. Focus designs their speakers along well-known, well-regarded principles, aiming for the goals of a relatively flat frequency response on axis with controlled dispersion off axis, proper phase coherence between drivers in the crossover region -- this is critical, designer Kam Leung feels -- and as much bass extension as is practical for a given cabinet size and drivers. For the Prestige series, Leung said that he was so enamored of the Scan-Speak D30’s effortlessness in the extreme highs that he didn’t attempt to tame down the tweeter’s very top end, something he’s had to do with less-refined-sounding tweeters. Instead, he let the D30 “soar,” something he said I should be able to hear quite easily. I wondered if I would.
Given the Prestige FP50’s moderate sensitivity, I drove the pair of them with amps that could deliver a fair bit of power: Stello M200 monoblocks, an all-solid-state design rated to deliver 140W into 8 ohms; the Blue Circle Audio BC206, a stereo amp with a tubed input stage and a solid-state output stage, and capable of delivering 150Wpc into 8 ohms; and a Bryston 4B SST² stereo amplifier claimed to hammer out 300Wpc into 8 ohms -- way more than the FP50 would ever need.
Ahead of these were either the NAD C 565BEE CD player with Anthem Statement D2v A/V processor (using Analog Direct pass-through for the purest sound), or my Sony Vaio laptop feeding an Ayre Acoustics QB-9 USB DAC running into the JE Audio VL10.1 tubed preamp (review forthcoming). Speaker cables and interconnects were by Crystal Cable and Siltech; the FP50s sat atop a pair of Focus’s own outstanding 24”-high Foundation stands.
When I review a small speaker, the first thing I listen for is its bass extension, as that’s where it might differ from other like-size speakers -- or, in the case of a small but expensive speaker such as the Prestige FP50, other speakers that are like-priced but much larger.
The FP50’s bass was limited -- you can get only so much bass from a speaker with a cabinet and bass driver of these sizes. I didn’t expect much below 60Hz, and I didn’t get it. The FP50 reached to about the same down point as PSB’s Synchrony Two B speaker, which I reviewed two years ago on our GoodSound! site, and which uses a bass driver of about the same size. Listeners who want truly deep bass will need a larger speaker or a subwoofer. But if they want to stick with the FP50, one way to give it a bit more heft is to place it fairly close to the front wall, which will somewhat reinforce the bass region compared to placements farther out in the room. Because I wanted to review the FP50 with as little room interaction as possible, I left them farther out in the room than would most.
But while the FP50 was bass-shy, the bass it did reproduce sounded right: very tight and extremely detailed, which resulted in a far more realistic sound than I usually hear from such small speakers. I no longer have the PSB Synchrony Two Bs, so I pitted the FP50s against a pair of Von Schweikert VR-1s I’ve had for years. When available, the VR-1 was considerably less expensive (about $1000/pair) than the Focus, but its 6.5” woofer lets it go lower in frequency than the FP50. As a result, the VR-1 sounds weightier. The Von Schweikert is also more sensitive, and so plays louder with less power. But despite all this, the VR-1s didn’t sound better than the Prestige FP50s in the bass -- or in the rest of the audioband.
The FP50 couldn’t reach quite as low as the VR-1, but where they did reach they sounded tighter and more visceral, with far better detail and control. For instance, when Benmont Tench strikes a low note on his piano just after Johnny Cash sings the word around in the title track of his American IV: The Man Comes Around (CD, American 063339), the VR-1 sounds full but woolly -- basically, the most incisive point of this keystroke sounds indistinct. In contrast, the FP50’s reproduction of the same note was very tight, to the point where I could almost feel the hammer hit the string. There was no blurring whatsoever, and because of this the FP50 sounded more natural and more real. A friend who was listening with me, more a music fan than an audiophile, pointed his finger forcefully downward, mimicking each keystroke reproduced by the FP50s, and said, “That speaker sounds right.” You don’t need to be an audiophile or a reviewer to know what sounds real.
Better-recorded piano can be heard on Ola Gjeilo’s Stone Rose (SACD/CD, 2L 2L48SACD). This is one of the best piano recordings I’ve ever heard, and it showed off what the FP50 could do not only in the bass but throughout the audioband, all the way up through the highs. Again, the very low end was missing -- and with it, the sheer size and weight that a much larger, truly full-range speaker can produce -- but the FP50 again had that same incisiveness in the upper bass, which continued up through the midrange and highs. The folks at Focus say that they like the Eton drivers not so much for their depth and weight as for their detail and control. I could hear why. Plus, the FP50’s Eton proved a good match for its Scan-Speak tweeter -- there was no sense of discontinuity as the signal crossed over from mid/woofer to tweeter; the highs were of the same quality as the bass region, but with some distinctive attributes of their own (see below).
Despite the FP50s’ being small and bass-shy, they could play so much louder than I expected them to that I found myself pushing more power into them than I thought I would -- or could. I also found that my decision to use beefy solid-state amps was a good one: the Focuses needed a decent amount of power to play at normal listening levels, and kept sounding good when I pushed them past that, when they needed a good bit more. I wouldn’t partner the FP50 with a solid-state amp rated at 50Wpc or less, and I sure wouldn’t try to drive them with a very-low-powered tube amp, particularly a single-ended model -- not enough control, and simply not enough power. But don’t worry -- you won’t need tubes. The FP50 sounded robust, particularly through the midrange, and most noticeably when reproducing voices. In fact, vocal reproduction was where this small speaker shone.
In fact, male and female voices sounded spectacular through the FP50s, and for the same reasons that Benmont Tench’s piano keystroke sounded so realistic: detail, texture, impact, control. Johnny Cash’s voice on producer Rick Rubin’s American recordings is tough for some speakers to reproduce -- extremely close-miked, it can sound too coarse and often chesty, with a blurring resonance that shouldn’t be there. The FP50s struck an interesting balance with these recordings, conveying Cash’s voice with the fullness, richness, and warmth of an actual human voice. It’s what Rubin’s recordings need -- a sound so full and holographic it was almost tube-like, but with enough solidity, detail, and refinement that there was no blurring resonance or obscuring of detail. Through the FP50s, Cash’s voice was never lost in the dense mix, just as Tench’s piano wasn’t; in fact, quite the opposite: details were easy to pick out. All told, the Prestige FP50 sounded startlingly precise and surprisingly rich -- an interesting and unique balance that I think most listeners will like: it sounds so real.
I like Sarah McLachlan’s The Freedom Sessions (CD, Arista 803208) for many of the reasons I like Rubin’s recordings of Johnny Cash: despite being studio creations, they have a natural, nearly live sound that makes them sound much more realistic and interesting than many of the pop and rock recordings released today. Sessions has superdeep bass on some tracks, and, not surprisingly, much of that bass weight goes missing through the FP50. But what kept the Focus from sounding light (or, worse, thin) was that texture and detail in the bass that it was able to reproduce, as well as beautifully rendered mids that were robust and full, yet always highly textured and detailed. McLachlan’s voice was majestic in “Good Enough,” soaring from the speakers to hang tangibly in space, with realistic amounts of body and weight, and all the spatial cues I needed to accurately place it on the stage. Those are two of the key selling points of this design: mids that fully bloom without ever being overblown, and plenty of detail. It’s like having the richness of an old-school tube amp and the speed, detail, and incisiveness of a modern solid-state design.
I’m pretty familiar with Focus’s designs, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that the Prestige FP50 delivered a bit more energy in the highest highs than most of their other models do. With a poorer tweeter, this could easily be a bad thing; the speaker would likely sound bright and/or brittle. But with the Scan-Speak Revelator D30, the FP50 never sounded bright, and certainly never edgy or crisp or fatiguing -- plucked guitar strings were never steely, cymbals never splashy or hard. Other Focus speakers I’ve reviewed have had a supersweet top end, but none has sounded quite this airy. I won’t say it’s the best HF extension I’ve ever heard -- the beryllium tweeter in Revel’s Ultima Salon2 ($22,000/pair) extends every bit as effortlessly and sweetly -- but the FP50 is right up there at the top, outclassing more modestly priced speakers. The Von Schweikert VR-1 can’t come close to this sort of top-end refinement, and even PSB’s Synchrony One ($4500/pair), an outstanding floorstander that’s one of my reference speakers, can’t match the Focus’s top-end sweetness and air.
I suspect that this extra bit of energy in the highs also helped make the FP50 sound a bit more detailed and the images in the stage more precise -- and, surprisingly, didn’t make things too in-my-face, as some uptilted speakers can. When a credible sense of depth is present in a recording, as it is in most of the tracks of Ani DiFranco’s Not a Pretty Girl (CD, Righteous Babe 007), the FP50s properly laid out the layers of the soundstage, starting from the plane described by the speakers’ front baffles and extending to the front wall. All in all, that makes for an interestingly voiced, extremely refined-sounding compact speaker design.
Focus Audio’s Prestige FP50 may lack low bass, but it makes up for it with exceptional detail and articulation in the bass region that it can reproduce, and stands out with a rich, highly detailed midrange and very refined highs. I was particularly taken with the way the FP50 reproduced voices -- richly and robustly, with strong detail and iron-fisted incisiveness -- and prominent yet effortless highs that sounded exceptionally airy but never bright. The FP50 is a distinctively voiced speaker that I really like. I attribute its success to the high quality of components used, particularly the drivers, and the care and attention taken in voicing the overall design.
The Prestige FP50 is not inexpensive, but it will be ideal for a particular type of listener: someone who wants exceptional refinement of build quality and sound in a loudspeaker that will complement a smallish listening room. That listener, of course, must be able to afford it -- $4300 isn’t chump change. But for such a person, that price probably won’t seem outrageous or absurd at all; it will buy him or her something of distinction -- precisely as is implied by the name Prestige.
. . . Doug Schneider
- Amplifiers -- Stello M200,
Blue CircleAudio BC206, Bryston 4B SST²
- Preamplifiers -- Anthem Statement D2v, JE Audio VL10.1
- Sources -- NAD C 565BEE CD player, Ayre Acoustics QB-9 USB DAC, Sony Vaio laptop
- Interconnects -- Crystal Cable, Siltech
- Speaker cables -- Crystal Cable, Siltech
Focus Audio Prestige FP50 Loudspeakers
Price: $4300 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Focus Audio Inc.
43 Riviera Drive, Unit #10
Markham, Ontario L3R 5J6