When my sister-in-law visited my wife and me a few months ago, she was captivated by the sound of my stereo. Like most people, Daryl had no idea that music could be reproduced with such lifelike fidelity. Her enthusiasm was, however, tempered by the realization that such a system, composed at the time of a pair of Lansche No.7 loudspeakers ($107k) driven by a Rowland Corus preamplifier ($13,600) and 725 monoblocks ($29,800), was so outside the realm of what she could afford that it might as well not have existed.
I quickly assured her that she could get the essence of that musical communication in a system she could afford. No, the system I would recommend wouldn’t have the bass extension, dynamics, transparency, and resolution of mine, but a carefully chosen and set-up entry-level audio system would allow her to more deeply connect with music than anything she had previously experienced in her home.
After considering her living space, lifestyle, and budget, I suggested Focal’s Bird all-in-one package. This $1199 system, which won our Product of the Year Award in 2012, includes an amplifier with an integral down-firing woofer (the “Power Bird”), a pair of satellite speakers, and a wireless dongle to stream music from a portable device to the Bird. The Bird can be purchased with one of three satellite speaker sizes (Little Bird, Bird, and Big Bird, priced at $995, $1199, and $1495, respectively); I suggested the middle-sized Bird satellites.
Because she lives half-way across the country, Daryl set up the Bird herself. She positioned it for convenience, sitting on a shelf with the speakers next to each other and facing away from the couch. She liked the Bird’s sound, form factor, and, especially¸ the ability to stream music wirelessly from her iPad. But the “wow factor” just wasn’t there.
When my wife and I visited and I saw how the Bird was set up, I realized that the system was capable of much more than it was delivering. Daryl’s friend Mark had the idea of mounting the system on a half-height wall across from the couch. The Power Bird can be mounted vertically on a wall, as can the satellite speakers. The arrangement provided the potential for creating a perfect sweet spot on the couch, and the wall would provide bass reinforcement for the satellites as well as for the woofer mounted in the amplifier chassis. An AC outlet on the wall, coupled with access to the back side of the wall (via a descending staircase), sealed the deal.
I temporarily set up the system with the satellite speakers on top of the half wall so that I could easily move them to find the right distance between them. Too far apart and the center image becomes diffuse; too close together and the soundstage width is needless compromised. After I found the best placement Mark and I mounted the Bird’s satellites to the wall with the supplied hardware. We concealed the speaker cables by drilling holes in the wall and running the cables on the back side of the wall, and then hiding the cables in a stick-on cable channel. Painting the channel the same color of the wall made it less intrusive. The Power Bird was mounted vertically over the AC outlet, leaving an installation with no visible wires.
I then fine-tuned the satellites’ toe-in and rake angle, and adjusted the woofer level on the Power Bird. I brought along some of my reference CDs that I ripped to Daryl’s iTunes library. While I was at it, I optimized her iTunes settings for better sound, including selecting Apple Lossless encoding rather than the default AAC.
The resulting sound quality far exceeded even my own expectations. In addition to a warm and full tonal balance, the satellites and the woofer integrated beautifully, with no discontinuity at the transition. The treble was remarkably smooth, and the midrange was open and uncolored. As a result, the Bird didn’t produce the listening fatigue that plagues many entry-level systems. The hardware on the wall was replaced by a fully developed soundstage that made centrally placed images hang in space between the speakers. Daryl was thrilled beyond measure; the look on her face as she listened for the first time in the sweet spot was worth the effort. I have no doubt that music listening will become more central to her life. During the next few days of our visit the Bird filled the house with music, and everyone was thrilled.
Although I was familiar with the Bird from hearing it at Focal’s factory 18 months earlier and from reading Chris Martens’ review in Issue 218, you don’t really get to know a product until you’ve had the kind of hands-on involvement I’ve just described. I learned that the Bird is not only capable of real musicality, but that it is also superbly engineered in every way. The way the parts fit together, the flexibility in mounting and swiveling the satellite speakers, and even details like the ability to run the speaker cable invisibly inside the satellite mounts were all carefully considered.
My experience with Focal’s Bird shows that high-performance audio comes in all shapes, sizes, and price points. Daryl asked incredulously how such a modestly priced system could sound so good. I explained that, unlike mass-market systems that are designed by engineers with no experience with true high-performance audio, the Bird was created by guys who also design some very-high-end loudspeakers. They have engineering chops, of course, but just as importantly they bring a different, high-end aesthetic to the table. Their approach centers on high performance—and not on creating products cynically designed for maximum profit with little regard for the way the purchaser enjoys music.
If you have a friend, neighbor, or relative who wants a good-sounding, unobtrusive, lifestyle-friendly, and affordable music system, Focal’s Bird is hard to beat. But do them a favor and add your own set-up expertise so that the Bird can really soar.