Never underestimate the modest two-way loudspeaker. For decades it has embodied the high-end credo that less is more—that design minimalism, impeccably executed, can draw a listener ever closer to musical reality. Even in an era of multiple-driver systems and subwoofers, sometimes of stupefying complexity, a basic “two-banger” like the Focus Audio FS 78SE remains a speaker to reckon with.
Originally conceived as a purist two-way, the FS 78 has been reimagined by Focus in an SE (special edition) version to celebrate the company’s 10th anniversary. With sonic performance in the tradition of classic mini-monitors like the Rogers LS3/5a or the ProAc Super Tablette, the 78SE does a disappearing act straight from the playbook of these legendary giant killers. It has uncanny focus and dimensionality, delivering complex soundstage cues and an excellent sense of orchestral layering, while its resonance-free cabinet creates a veritable launching pad for transients and microdynamic contrasts.
The speaker’s primary character was illuminated on cellist Pieter Wispelwey’s performance of the Kol Nidre [Channel Classics SACD]. The dark, almost chocolate resonance of his cello was beautiful and distinctly natural, imbued with depth and tonal complexity.
The FS 78SE creates a warm, black-velvet ambience that gives acoustic-bass lines a pleasant hint of extra fullness without reducing punch. It scales orchestral works impressively (though at only 38" tall not fully), and without bloat or flab. On the Wispelway recording, the speaker’s colorations are few and of the subtractive variety rather than a noxious additive mixture.
Vocals revealed the subtle but discernibly laidback nature of the SE’s upper midrange. On “Black Coffee” [Too Damn Hot, Linn], Claire Martin’s voice settles deeper into the soundstage, as if you were sitting a row or two farther away; nonetheless, the FS 78SE’s mids came across as more than a little romantic, even sweet, despite the added distance. During “The Nearness of You” [Come Away With Me, Blue Note], Norah Jones’ vocal is intensely personal—with an intimacy that makes it seem as if she’s singing just to you. The piano sound is lush and resonant; the Focus’ reproduction of the volume of the instrument’s body provides the weight that defines a concert grand.
Although the FS 78SE is laced through and through with a mini-monitor’s DNA, it possesses a critical difference that the minis of yore more often than not lacked—bass response and bass dynamics. (I’m not factoring in the engineered-in 80–120Hz bass “bump” that often warmed these li’l screamers up.) The Focus Audio’s low frequencies are refined and extended, with well-controlled response into the mid-30Hz region. But the bass is not overly controlled in a way that homogenizes pitch and duration. Its resolution of timbres brings acoustic-bass lines alive; tympani have impact without sacrificing pitch; and trombones have the presence and gravitas heard in live performance, not merely the transient blat from the horn’s bell.
Even at excruciatingly high levels the speaker doesn’t completely collapse into incoherence from the impact of an explosive drum kit, such as the one on Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Comes” [American Idiot, Reprise]. Instead, it thickens a bit, like chocolate pudding, losing just a bit of articulation.
In comparison to moderately-sized three-ways, like the ATC SCM35 and the Revel Performa F32, the FS 78SE’s SPL limits are not as high. When asked to snap off some serious 90dB+ levels during the shotgun drumming on Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” [Brothers In Arms, Warner 45rpm LP], the 78SE lost a bit of definition and some of the snare’s crackle. Port artifacts and overhang, which are nearly unobservable at lower levels, became more intrusive, clouding tonality and dynamics in the mids. Still, this is a speaker that conveys an audio footprint much larger than its physical one. And unless you flog it like a galley slave it does a darn good impression of having a couple extra drivers up its sleeve.
My only minor reservations are the 78SE’s subdued tonal and dynamic personality in the two octaves or so above middle C, which creates an inconsistency between the speaker’s warm midrange and its wham in the lower octaves. During Tom Waits’ “Take It With Me” [Mule Variations, Anti-] there’s the sensation of a lush, vibrant piano in the octaves beneath middle C; however, a slight dip just above that point heightens detail while reducing the weight of each note’s fundamental and thinning its accompanying harmonics. This energy dip in the lower presence range reduces the impact and reverb from the snare in “Black Coffee”—the body, the rounded fullness of the “can” of the instrument, was less defined. On a different passage of the Kol Nidre, the FS 78SE gave up some liquidity and bloom in the upper mids, shaving a bit of the vibrancy off the bow. Like the acoustic muting that occurs when one too many heavy curtains are hung along the walls, there are moments when soundstages sound over-damped.
Okay, so it’s not perfect. But believe me, you can pay a lot more and hear a lot less. Give the FS 78SE a medium to smallish room and music that fits in its comfort zone, and you’ll discover a speaker that can convey musical detail like few others in this class.
Design and Build
Like the original FS 78, the SE is a two-way floorstander of bass-reflex design and modest dimensions. Don’t let the unassuming black-wrapper looks fool you. The cabinetwork is tight, inert, and braced and buttressed like a cathedral. Materials include a two-inch-thick MDF front baffle and one-inch-thick panels throughout. The review pair was finished in a high-gloss piano-black as deep and lustrous as a pool of oil.