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- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created on Monday, 15 August 2011 01:00
- Written by Aron Garrecht
Each year I allow myself the pleasurable torment of attending the International Auto Show, where I salivate over the sexiest statements of automotive design and pretend, for just one night, that I have the money to buy anything I see. This is probably childish, but who doesn’t like to dream about things they’re passionate about? At the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, it quickly became apparent to me that my passion for cars is now matched by my passion for home audio, evinced by how quickly I resorted to my “dreamer” approach to evaluate what CES had to offer.
But, clearly, something had to give. At a car show, one can keep track of three or four favorites while enjoying the rest of the event. CES is an entirely different ballgame, as I now had entire divisions of favorites to lust after: The top five preamplifiers? My favorite speakers? Even the best combinations of components? It all made my “dreamer” approach more confusing than fun.
Having come to this rude awakening, I regrouped, began using my notepad and camera rather than my brain, and fell into a more productive sort of longing: At the end of each show day, I asked myself which component had most stood out. This year, to my surprise, it boiled down to three pairs of speakers. Taking the crown for the most exotic and alluring was Sonus Faber’s all-new Amati Futura. At a cool $35,000 USD per pair, these luxuriously seductive towers of opulence are something I’ll have to long for indefinitely, just as I expect I’ll do for Bentley’s all-new Mulsanne.
Humbled by the Amati Futura’s price, I was inspired by the performance of PSB’s all-new Imagine Mini. At 1/50th the Sonus Faber’s cost, this tiny, $700/pair minimonitor simply dumbfounded me. The Minis threw a soundstage so wide, and sounded so full, that I actually thought I was listening to the adjacent T5 towers. I asked Paul Barton, PSB’s cofounder and lead designer, what he’d changed in the T5. “Those aren’t the T5s,” he said with a smirk. Retrieving jaw and ego from the floor, I couldn’t forget the impression this Mini-monitor had made on me.
The final speaker that grabbed my ear, and the, er, focus of this review, was an all-new floorstander from Focus Audio: the Prestige FP88 SE ($6800/pair).
Under the glossy finish
When I first walked into Focus Audio’s room at the 2011 CES, where the company was showcasing the latest addition to its Prestige series, I expected to see a large, full-range speaker -- the room was energized with the deep, forceful bass lines normally produced only by big-dollar, big-cabinet, full-range models, or by a smaller, subwoofer-assisted system of some sort. But as I scanned the room, I saw neither. On display was a medium-size floorstander a modest 43” tall, with a footprint of only 8”W x 13”D. Perplexed, I concluded that the Prestige FP88 SE had to be a new model that filled the gap between the smaller FP80 SE ($5800/pair) and the top of the Prestige range, the FP90 SE ($9000/pair).
I took a closer look and saw that the midrange and bass drivers were new, as was evident by their 7” diameter and vented phase plugs. The tweeter, too, was different from the one I remembered seeing throughout the rest of the FP line: a new soft dome with a unique black-metal surround. With a mind full of questions and a pen full of ink, I patiently waited for Kam Leung, Focus Audio’s head designer, to become available to talk to. Once he was free, I practically interrogated him, and for longer than I care to divulge. Leung informed me that my previous observations were on the mark: the only things the FP88 SE shares with its FP siblings are its black Piano Gloss finish, the overall shape of its cabinet, and the floor spikes that screw into the base of its plinth.
We started off talking about the structure of the FP88’s cabinet, which, Leung explained, is primarily built of 1”-thick MDF panels. He then told me that the front panel is a substantial 2” thick, and that there is significant internal bracing between the drivers and at the bottom of the cabinet, also made from 1” MDF. This bracing not only contributes greatly to the structure’s overall rigidity, but is claimed to result in a quieter, more audibly “invisible” cabinet. This is particularly important here because, despite the FP88 SE cabinet’s chamfered edges creating the illusion that there are no parallel internal surfaces, a quick look inside revealed that its interior is, in fact, rectilinear. Normally this would be cause for concern, but instead of using costly curved panels or complex cabinet shapes, Focus lines the cabinet’s entire interior with 1”-thick, egg-crate-shaped acoustic damping foam. Even the crossover and binding posts are carefully hidden behind the foam -- no surface is left undamped.
When we’d finished discussing the cabinet, I asked Leung about the drivers used in the 70-pound FP88 SE. That was when I learned about the all-new Scan-Speak D30 tweeter that is used in this speaker, and has since made its way into all of the new Prestige models, the name of each of which is now suffixed “SE.” The tweeter is a 1” soft-dome design that’s said to give the FP88 SE “an improved linear response with more extended highs” while retaining the highly musical performance of its predecessor, the FS 888.
The two Hexacone mid/woofers are still made by Eton, and from the same combination of Nomex and Kevlar used throughout the rest of the Prestige line, but are 7” in diameter in the FP88 SE, and are now implemented differently. Rather than build yet another traditional two-and-a-half- or three-way speaker, Focus Audio went back to basics and crossed both 7” drivers over to the tweeter at 2.5kHz, essentially making the FP88 SE a large two-way design. The hope was to improve the speaker’s bass dynamics. What’s more, the phase plugs used in the twin drivers are vented. Leung explained that the advantages of this are twofold: first, air is allowed to flow through the phase plug into the back of the driver, to help cool the motor assembly; second, the shape of the vents has been optimized to smooth the flow of air in and out. The result is said to be a more dynamic sound with lower distortion. The entire FP88 SE also breathes through a single port that, according to Focus, has been “optimized to provide both excellent bass extension and transient response.”
Based on my first impressions of the FP88 SE, I was already a believer -- but Leung wasn’t done yet. The final component required to allow all of these technological innovations to sound their best while working together was a completely new crossover. The newly designed assembly is one that takes advantage of high-quality parts such as Litz air-core inductors and high-speed polypropylene capacitors. Connected to this assembly by ultrafine pure copper wire and solid-silver solder connections are new three-way binding posts of gold-plated copper, from Cardas, that accept cables terminated in bare wire, spades, and banana plugs, but don’t permit biamping or biwiring. Put all these components together and you have a speaker with a claimed frequency response of 30Hz-25kHz (±3dB) and a sensitivity of 90dB, and that presents a 4-ohm load to whatever amplifier is driving it.
Earning the Prestige label
Having now a much better appreciation of what constitutes a pair of Prestige FP88 SEs, as well as an idea of their performance potential, I requested a pair for review. Just a few weeks later, the same set I’d heard at CES arrived on my doorstep. Since the speakers were already well run in, I was eager to replace my KEF XQ40s with the Focuses. In doing so, however, I was quickly reminded of the importance of the size and positions of speakers in a room. Normally, I place my KEFs along a shorter wall of my 21’L x 12’W room, with about 18” of breathing space between them and the front and side walls. Sitting about 9’ away, it took me all of 30 seconds to realize that this placement wasn’t going to work with the FP88 SEs: with any frequencies below 50Hz, the bass was overwhelming. After about an hour of tinkering with toe-in angle and distances from the walls, I settled on placing the FP88s about 2’ from the side walls, 4’ from the front wall, and toed in about 10 degrees. Observation No.1: the Prestige FP88 SE needs room to breathe.
I experimented with the port plugs, and found that restricting the port volume by two-thirds yielded a performance “closest to open port” while letting me move the speakers a foot closer to the front wall. If you’re short on space, a better option might be to save $1000 and opt for Focus’s slightly smaller Prestige FP80 SE ($5800/pair).
Now I could finally sit down, relax, and take in what the FP88 SEs had to offer. After some months of listening and deliberately putting off the writing of this evaluation, I grudgingly began by reviewing my observations. I noticed a few consistencies: above-average imaging ability, fine resolution of detail, real-life dynamic range, and beguiling low-bass performance for such a modest-size floorstander. When I listened to “What a Shame,” from Patricia Barber’s Café Blue (CD, Premonition/Blue Note 90760-G), her voice was reproduced with such palpability and three-dimensionality that it made me feel as if she were onstage in front of me. Further to this, the FP88 SEs’ high level of resolution added a great degree of texture to everything on that stage. Hands beating on bongos now sounded like skin on skin, the hi-hat was clearly delineated with excellent transient response, and the leading edges of plucked double-bass strings were clearly articulated.
Later on Café Blue, the Focuses again drew me into the music by presenting “Too Rich for My Blood” with an undeniable sensuality. The track begins with a piano, double bass, drums, and Barber, on a seemingly blacked-out stage. The drums had a tightly focused image and were placed at the far right, and the bass and piano were equally well located at center left and center right, respectively. From deep center stage, the layers of Barber’s voice were painted within a smoky atmosphere, giving me the impression that she was in a 1930s jazz bar. As Barber increases the intensity of her voice throughout the song, it was if she were emerging from that deep black stage, her face illuminated by a single spotlight. The air around her was thick, the band remained in the dark, and everyone focused on Barber as she slowly swayed her hips to the easy tempo of the song, all the while singing into the microphone. What I’m trying to say here is that the FP88 SEs had an uncanny ability to reveal the life and musicality of well-recorded music, putting me right in the middle of it. Textures, tempos, atmosphere, and micro- and macrodynamics -- all were presented with ease and naturalness.
Later in “Too Rich for My Blood” comes a drum solo that slowly builds against Barber’s voice as she seems to fade back into the darkness. At the same time, the sounds of cymbals struck slowly, with increasing intensity, permeate the soundstage. As the drums and cymbals become more dynamic, everything else fades away until only those two instruments are heard. The drumstrokes continued to grow dynamically, and were effortlessly presented with alarming impact. And again, when I closed my eyes, the FP88 SEs did a very convincing job of putting me right in the middle of the action.
Similarly, when listening to “Take 5,” from the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out (CD, Columbia/Legacy CK 65122), the FP88 SEs’ wide dynamic range and articulate nature took this track to the next level in my listening room: tightly focused instruments such as the trumpet and cymbals imaged clearly at their respective positions. What really impressed me here was the level of control and ease with which the FP88 SE handled the double bass’s strong lines. With lesser speakers, these can sometimes sound boomy or “one-note” in nature; through the FP88 SEs, the bass was wonderfully articulate, with clear dynamic fluctuations that were further aided by precisely timed attack and naturally delayed decay. I could hear and feel the intensity of each plucked string, and was able to discern the vibrations from the strings. The fact that the FP88 SE could communicate this level of detail and bass presence without making me aware of which driver was doing the work tells me that someone at Focus Audio spent a lot of time making sure that the crossover, drivers, and tweeter integrate exceptionally well. The result is a very well-balanced speaker that many dedicated fans of two-way, stand-mounted speakers just might want to give a listen to.
Curious to hear how the neutral character of the FP88 SEs would handle pop fare, I cued up the Northern Pikes’ “Things I Do for Money,” from The Northern Pikes 1984-1993 (CD, Virgin 48219 2). In the past, I’ve found that detail-oriented speakers like the FP88 SE can sound slightly bright or even edgy when playing inferiorly recorded music: they can begin to showcase flaws in the recording that then detract from the listening experience. Not surprisingly, I noticed additional background noise with the FP88 SE, which is a less forgiving speaker. I did note a larger soundstage than what I’m used to hearing from my KEFs, as well as a more accurate bottom end and a slightly less colored midrange, but these were more relative differences of comparison than absolute performance characteristics of the FP88 SE.
I’ve lived with Focus Audio’s Prestige FP88 SEs for almost three months now, and have struggled to find any areas of genuine concern. The only requests I have for the next edition of this model would be: hidden magnetic grille mounts, especially with such a nicely finished cabinet; and position the binding posts closer to the floor. Those of us with large, heavy, banana-terminated cables cringe when we see the perpendicular load of nearly 3’ of our favorite cable being put on our connectors.
I compared Focus Audio’s Prestige FP88 SEs with my KEF XQ40s ($5500/pair), though the comparison was hardly fair. The FP88 SE costs $2300 more per pair, and bested the KEFs in every audible way, with one exception: off-center image specificity. One of the advantages of the KEF’s coaxial Uni-Q driver is that it offers a very wide, evenly focused soundstage from a greater number of off-axis listening positions, thus minimizing the narrow sweet spot that’s characteristic of more traditionally configured speakers with a tweeter atop a midrange or mid/woofer. In this respect, the XQ40 is better than the Prestige FP88 SE.
A fairer comparison was with B&W’s new 804 Diamond ($7500/pair). Having spent time with this speaker and owned its predecessor, the 804S, I’m pretty sure that the 804 Diamond and FP88 SE will appeal to different people for different reasons, as they have completely different sounds: the 804 Diamond is warmer and lusher. I found the B&W very inviting, and easy to pair with just about any quality amplifier -- it sounded good with whatever I played through it. The 804 Diamond was also more forgiving of poor recordings. Its diamond tweeter is a real gem in that it always pulls its weight while never drawing attention to itself. The Prestige FP88 SE was the more detail-oriented of the two, with slightly better image focus and a more neutral-sounding midrange.
The FP88 SE also had an easier time communicating to the listener the recording’s intended atmosphere, and created deeper soundstages with greater ease. Although significantly improved over the former model’s, the overall bass performance of the B&W 804 Diamond couldn’t quite match that of the FP88 SE -- but I’m not sure it was intended to. Focus Audio has gone to great lengths to design a mid-size speaker that can keep up with larger designs in the bass and perform well in larger rooms, and to my ear, they’ve succeeded. By contrast, B&W’s 804 Diamond is much easier to set up in smaller rooms, and requires less space between it and the wall.
And in form factor, these two speakers could not be more different. The B&W 804 Diamond is a three-way design housed in a curved enclosure that breathes through a front-firing port, and its diamond tweeter occupies a separate, tube-loaded enclosure atop the cabinet. It comes finished in Cherry, Rosenut, or Gloss Black, and has no plinth. The Focus Prestige FP88 SE is a two-way design in a basically rectangular box that breathes through a large rear-firing port, and its soft-dome tweeter and mid/woofers share the same cabinet space. That cabinet comes in a single finish, and stands on an attractive matching plinth.
In the end . . .
Focus Audio’s Prestige FP88 SE performed commendably with just about every recording and component I could find. Its finish is superb, its chamfered edges add a level of masculinity and character to its appearance that nicely offset its rectangular footprint, and I’ve always appreciated that Focus finishes its speakers’ plinths to match their cabinets. Inside, all components and the crossover design are new for this SE edition, and their resulting performance checks all the right audiophile boxes.
If you’re in the market for a speaker of modest size that offers full-range performance, you need to audition the Prestige FP88 SE. I think Focus Audio is really on to something here, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
. . . Aron Garrecht
- Preamplifier-processor -- Rotel RSP-1098
- Amplifiers -- Rotel RMB-1095, Integra DTA-70.1, Bel Canto REF 150
- Sources -- Rotel RCD-1055 CD player, Oppo BDP-95 universal Blu-ray player
- Power conditioner -- Rotel RLC-1040
- Cables -- Analysis Plus Copper Oval-In interconnects and Black Oval 9 speaker cables, Transparent High Performance digital cable
- Speakers -- KEF XQ40, B&W 804 Diamond
- Subwoofer -- JL Audio Fathom f112
Focus Audio Prestige FP88 SE Loudspeakers
Price: $6800 USD per pair.
Warrant: Five years parts and labor.
Focus Audio Inc.
43 Riviera Drive, Unit #10
Markham, Ontario L3R 5J6
Phone: (905) 415-8773
Fax: (905) 415-0456