Active digital loudspeakers have long been a tough sell. Audiophiles have avoided them because active speakers don’t give them the opportunity to tune and upgrade their systems by swapping out different amplifiers, DACs, and cables. Dealers have largely shunned them for the same reason; the active digital speaker is for many customers the off-ramp of the high-fidelity highway, not just another lane.
But active speakers, and especially active digital speakers, have some tremendously compelling technical attributes. Consider that the active digital speaker’s crossovers are implemented in the digital domain and can realize slopes that are near-impossible with capacitors and inductors—not to mention exhibiting perfect phase response. Also consider that in an active loudspeaker the power amplifiers are connected directly to the drivers with no transparency-robbing passive components in the signal path. Finally, the amplifiers and drivers are designed as a single system; the amplifier designer knows the speaker’s characteristics, and the speaker designer knows what amplifier will be powering that driver.
There’s one final advantage of active digital speakers—they are entirely self-contained, with no need for amplifiers and garden-hose-thick speaker cables. Just connect a source and AC power, and you’re in business.
This last attribute, coupled with the increasingly digital nature of music delivery, may give active digital speakers new life. Many music lovers crave the simplicity and domestic friendliness of powered speakers. Moreover, the opportunity to integrate wireless connection in the speaker allows a listener to create a whole-house audio system without installing a single cable in the walls.
The Danish speaker-manufacturing giant Dynaudio has made a big bet that the time for active wireless digital speakers has come. The new Focus XD Series is the first line in a broader move into the category. The three XD models include the two-way stand-mount Focus 200 XD ($7000), the floorstanding Focus 400 XD ($11,000), and the top-of-the-line Focus 600 XD ($13,500) reviewed here. The 600 XD is a tallish, slim floorstander with dual 7" woofers, a 5.5" midrange, and a soft-dome tweeter. The speaker’s digital nature is writ large on the rear panel—no binding posts here, but instead RCA jacks for the digital inputs and outputs, and a variety of controls. Among these are a three-position treble boost/cut switch (flat, boost, cut), and a rotary knob that adjusts the bass balance to accommodate room placement. A USB port is provided for firmware upgrades.
In practice, you connect a digital source to one 600 XD, and then run an RCA cable from that 600 XD’s digital output to the other speaker’s digital input. If you don’t run this cable between the speakers, the speakers will connect to each other wirelessly. In wireless mode the sample rate is limited to 96kHz. Wired connection supports all sample rates up to 192kHz. You can also go full wireless with the addition of Dynaudio’s wireless Xeo Hub, a small box ($299) that accepts inputs from all sources and then wirelessly sends the selected signal to the 600 XD. The Focus XD Series is compatible with up to three independent wireless hubs for multi-room installations. Connected to the Dynaudio Xeo Hub wireless transmitter, the Focus XD’s fully-wireless sample rate is limited to 16/48, while via the forthcoming Dynaudio Connect wireless transmitter it can be set to 16/48 or 24/96. An analog input is also provided, and offers three gain settings. Keep in mind that analog signals are immediately converted to digital.
You interact with the 600 XD through an LED display built into the top corner of the cabinet and a hand-held remote control. The display is a column of LEDs that flash, blink, move in patterns, and change color to indicate the speakers status, such as the selected input, mute, turn-on, etc.
Outrigger feet provide additional stability. These feet contain spikes that can be fully retracted into the feet, or extended to improve performance (depending on the floor surface). The 19mm-thick MDF cabinet is finished in real wood veneer (walnut or rosewood), or satin lacquer (black or white). To reduce standing waves, the rear of the cabinet is slightly narrower than the front. The grilles attach magnetically. Overall, the Focus 600 XD is an attractive package.
The 600 XD was easy to set up and get working. I have, however, a couple of complaints. First, a row of LEDs is inadequate to convey to the user the selected input, status, etc. On many occasions I was baffled by the cryptic patterns of moving LEDs and had to look their meanings up in the owner’s manual. An alphanumeric display, even a rudimentary one, would be welcome. Dynaudio says that it considered an alphanumeric display, but that at a typical listening distance of 4m, the characters had to be excessively large to be legible. It maintains that the LED patterns are more easily read over long distances. Second, the volume control settings are too coarse; one click up or down on the remote control’s volume buttons results in a too-large increase or decrease in listening level. (A forthcoming firmware update will address this issue and offer smaller incremental steps in the Focus XD volume control.) Third, the retractable spikes in the feet aren’t long enough to go through thick carpet and padding. After I’d finished writing this review, Dynaudio informed me that it makes available longer spikes for the outrigger feet.
Having criticized the display and volume control, I must praise to the highest degree the 600 XD’s rear-panel bass-adjustment knob. This control allowed me to set the perfect bass balance for each speaker independently. One of the speakers was positioned near a sidewall, and the other was adjacent to an open hallway. Adjusting each individually, I was able to achieve a bottom end that was full and satisfying, but without the common room-induced bloat. I suspect that this control doesn’t just adjust the bass level, but rather engages in DSP a contoured filter that attenuates energy at precisely the frequencies most likely to be boosted by typical placement in a room. The treble balance was, incidentally, just right with the tweeter adjustment set in the flat position.
The 600 XD’s bass performance was outstanding—full and weighty yet agile and articulate. Kick drum was reproduced with a lifelike sense of suddenness and impact, and equally fast decay. This dynamism allowed it to cut through the acoustic or electric bass lines, conveying the music’s full rhythmic drive. Louis Belson’s fabulously recorded kick drum on Duke Ellington’s Duke’s Big 4 [JVC XRCD] was startling in its depth and transient speed. You wouldn’t expect bass like this from a fairly compact loudspeaker. Moreover, the bottom end had surprisingly iron-fisted grip and precise articulation. By comparison, most speakers at this price in ported enclosures sound slow and flabby, the result of woofer overhang. The 600 XD also conveyed a great sense of swing and rhythmic drive. To hear all these qualities in spades, listen to Ray Brown’s bass playing on Soular Energy (96/24); the 600 XD beautifully revealed the instrument’s dynamics, tone color, and pitch, along with a realistic sense of body.
I attribute the 600 XD’s superlative bass to the speaker’s design: the dual woofers, each of which is driven by its own 150W Class D amplifier (which excel in bass and dynamics), the sealed enclosure, and the fact that the integral amplifiers’ outputs are connected directly to the woofers’ voice coils with no large inductors in series, as is virtually universal in passive speakers. The amplifiers can exert better control over the woofer when there’s no inductor in the signal path. The output stages of the amplifiers were specifically tuned for the drivers. In addition, the ability to dial-out the room-induced bass bump, independently for each speaker, vaulted the XD 600’s bottom-end performance to another league. Passive speakers of this size and price (and those without the DSP bass-contour adjustment) fall short of the 600 XD’s bass performance in every way.
Another musical advantage apparently conferred by the 600 XD’s active digital design was its outstanding dynamics, and not just in the bass. Across the spectrum, the Focus 600 XD conveyed the transient nature of music with immediacy and life. Drums had lively impact and power, and the percussive nature of piano was beautifully portrayed. It helped the 600 XD’s overall dynamic coherence that the bass didn’t lag behind the rest of the spectrum on either the leading-edge impacts or on decays. It all added up to a dynamically compelling presentation.
The overall tonal balance was quite neutral, with very low coloration. The midrange was flat and smooth, with excellent rendering of timbre. DSP crossovers allow the designer to realize a perfectly flat frequency response, a quality that goes a long way toward creating a musical loudspeaker. The Focus 600 XD also had a good sense of presence and immediacy, particularly through the midrange. Consequently, vocals took on a palpability that was quite enjoyable. Ella’s gorgeous voice on “Moonlight in Vermont” from Ella and Louis sounded natural and present, but with just a hint of added sibilance.
The top end was open and extended, with a good balance between resolution and smoothness. On hi-res sources, the 600 XD sounded “big” in the treble—that is, the presentation was the antithesis of closed-down or confined. Coupled with the excellent soundstaging, the 600 XD produced an expansive sense of space and dimensionality.
Finally, I connected the output of my analog front end (Basis Inspiration, Air-Tight PC-1 Supreme, Simaudio 810LP phono-stage) to the Focus 600 XD’s analog inputs. The sound was still excellent, but overlaid by the typical characteristics of digitizing an analog signal—a slight loss of resolution, dimensionality, and timbral smoothness.
Dynaudio has looked into the future and seen the dawn of a new era for active wireless digital loudspeakers. For listeners who crave simplicity, elegance, and ease of use, the Focus 600 XD offers all that and more. Rather than ask music lovers to trade sound quality for convenience, as is so often the case with “lifestyle” systems, the 600 XD actually offers technical and sonic advantages not possible in traditional passive systems of this price. A case in point is the 600 XD’s spectacular bass reproduction, which is the direct result of Dynaudio’s active digital technology.
If the idea of a wireless, self-contained audio system built into a pair of speakers is appealing, the Dynaudio Focus 600 XD is an excellent choice. The 600 XD is so good that even audiophiles who may have dismissed active digital speakers out of hand will discover the manifold merits this technology offers.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Three-way floorstanding active wireless digital loudspeaker
Drivers complement: 7" woofers (2), 5.5" midrange, 1.1" soft-dome tweeter
Crossover: 270Hz/3.1kHz, 24dB per octave, linear-phase, implemented in DSP
Integral amplification: 150W x4 (per speaker)
Digital input: Wireless (up to 96Hz/24-bit), SPDIF (up to 192kHz/24-bit), three-zone grouping
Digital output: SPDIF on RCA jack
Analog input: Line-level on RCA jacks, three gain settings
Tone adjustments: Treble (three settings), speaker position (continuously variable)
Firmware update: USB
Finishes: Rosewood, walnut, black satin lacquer, white satin lacquer
Dimensions: 8.4" x 43" x 13.25"
Weight: 59.4 lbs. each (net)
Price: $13,500 per pair
DYNAUDIO NORTH AMERICA (U.S. DISTRIBUTOR)
1825 Elmdale Ave.
Glenview, IL 60026
MacBook Pro running Pure Music: Berkeley Alpha USB Converter; Aurender W20 music server; Auralic Aries wireless bridge; Shunyata Sigma AC cords; Shunyata Triton AC conditioner