A friend recently complained that I get so excited about every new component to come along that it’s almost as if I’ve never heard a decent stereo before. My first thought was to suggest that this person complain instead to the TAS editors for sending me so much cool stuff to review. But then I decided I could do one better—invite my friend over for a listen to the Focus Audio Master 3 loudspeaker and see if he could come up with a reason why I shouldn’t be excited. It didn’t take but a few minutes for my surprised visitor to admit that the Master 3 was, indeed, one of the most well-balanced and musically expressive loudspeakers he’d ever heard. With no apologies for my enthusiasm, I’d have to agree.
In addition, the Focus Master 3 is simply a gorgeous speaker, with the kind of impeccable build-quality that will withstand the scrutiny of even the pickiest among us. (As well it should, with a window sticker of $20,870 per pair.) The piano-black finish couldn’t be any sexier than a man in uniform, and I love the midheight, easy-access silver/rhodium biwire binding posts ’round back. When it comes to eye-candy, these speakers are seriously hot.
Standing five feet tall and weighing in at 175 pounds each, these beauties can’t be spirited into the house unnoticed, but once installed, the slim profile and small footprint of the Master 3s make them less imposing than you might think. While my 14-foot by 20-foot main listening room seemed a perfect fit for this speaker, a slightly smaller space might work just as well. But don’t hold me to that, as I’ve not tried it. I’m just guessing based on a bottom end that never showed the slightest hint of bloat or flab, and probably wouldn’t overwhelm given a few less feet of width or length to work with.
Before doing any serious listening to the Master 3, I’d recommend allowing plenty of Sue Kraft break-in time and installing the spikes. Fresh out of the box and without being anchored to the floor, the imaging of this speaker leaves a lot to be desired. A week or so of 24/7 playing time helped, but it wasn’t until I enlisted the aid of a friend to help me get the spikes in place that the imaging finally came around. The Master 3 is voiced with the spikes installed, so if you hear a pair that doesn’t sound quite right, before passing judgment make sure it is properly anchored. The improvement is quite dramatic.
Once broken in, nailed down, juiced up, and bi-wired with the Vitus Audio Andromeda speaker cables, I heard what has to be among the most beautifully lush and fleshed-out, lifesized and inviting midranges in all of high-end audio. Although I’d highly recommend the bi-wiring part, you might need to find a more affordable cable than the Andromeda at $5865 per 2.5m pair. I doubt many in this hobby have pockets that deep—and if you do, and are currently single, give me a call. All I can say is that this stuff is, by far, the most seductive wire I’ve ever heard. I call it the no-going-back cable that unfortunately, has to go back as I can’t afford it. It will be downright painful to part with. But thanks anyway to Kam at Focus Audio for allowing me to give it a try.
Getting back to the Master 3, image lines weren’t necessarily soft, but perhaps just a bit diffuse, leaning this speaker towards the warmer, more forgiving side versus the similarly priced B&W 800D. In a side-by-side comparison, the superior accuracy of the 800D was most evident in the upper frequencies. When I listened to a 20-bit remaster of Count Basie’s “Freckle Face,” from Basie Big Band [Pablo], percussive brush strokes were a bit slurred and hazy through the Master 3. The 800D’s improved clarity, focus, and extension on top were able to more accurately (and remarkably) capture and articulate the essence of a brush having individual wires or strands. And while the trumpet and trombones may have been smoother via the Master 3, next to the 800D they lacked a bit of the leading edge luster that makes a horn sound like a horn.
In defense of the Master 3 (which I really like), images were by no means homogenized or run together. I lived with this speaker for nearly two months and enjoyed every minute. But I knew before I even did the comparison that the pinpoint accuracy of the 800D would be tough to beat—and I was right. On the very complex Sheffield Labs CD The Usual Suspects, images were impressively life-sized and sufficiently wellplaced with the Master 3. But again, next to the 800D, the superior specificity of images had each note and instrument literally “popping” from the soundstage.
And I don’t mean “popping” as in being forward. I mean “popping” as in being so precise and distinct as to immediately catch the ear. The Master 3 does have a delightfully spacious, roomenveloping presentation that can actually be quite intoxicating at times. But the tradeoffhere is looser imaging, and a speaker that doesn’t exhibit the same exemplary control as the B&W 800D.
In addition to its luscious midrange, there were a host of other qualities I found almost as alluring, including a broad, floorto-ceiling soundstage, vigorous dynamics, scads of detail, superb linearity, and excellent top-to-bottom tonal balance. And did I mention the flab-free and fleet-footed bass response? Listening to one of my longtime favorite Telarc discs, Pomp & Pizazz, I had to pop the hood on the McCormack DNA- 500 amp to see if there might be a nitrous bottle hidden inside. And what’s really cool is that the Master 3 “comes to life” at very reasonable volume levels—a definite plus for those who have to worry about disturbing the neighbors. You wouldn’t expect such a large speaker to be so lively at lower volumes or disappear so easily, throwing a massive and three-dimensional soundstage. While the McCormack DNA-500 had a bit more speed and bass extension—and isn’t exactly chopped liver when it comes to smoothness and musicality, either—switching to the Levinson Nº436 monoblocks I have in house for review brought the Master 3 to absolute ecstasy, with a level of refinement and sophistication seldom heard in the world of transistors. Listening to my latest obsessive favorite, the self-titled CD from Nickel Creek [Sugar Hill Records], the endless layering and beautifully sculpted images were enough to give me a case of the warm fuzzies. I can recall thinking on more than one occasion during this review that I didn’t think solidstate could get any better.
While the Master 3 may not possess the hallmark imaging of a speaker like the B&W 800D, I still have a hard time finding fault,
as its performance couldn’t have been better balanced or more sonically pleasing. Once the speaker is properly set up and paired with the right components, that coveted midrangeto- die-for awaits, along with your very own “wall of sound” and a fleet-footedness to rival the best. Never mind the drop-dead gorgeous looks and meticulous build-quality of this speaker. At $20k we’re talking some serious money, but at least in my view, this is a serious speaker that justifies the asking price. My audiophile cohort actually summed it up quite well after his listening session that day when he said, “What more could you ask for?” This one will be a real heartbreaker—and backbreaker—to return. TAS
Inside the Master 3
The Master 3 is the entry level of Focus Audio’s Master Series lineup. The flagship Master 2 tips the scales at over 220 pounds and sports a pair of 11" Nomex/Kevlar Hexacone bass drivers versus the dual 9" units of the Master 3. According to Focus Audio designer Kam Leung, this is the main difference between the two models. I was curious as to the reason for the use of dual tweeters, as I believe only one other company (Dynaudio) uses this configuration. Kam was quite helpful in answering all my questions, so I’ll let him explain in his own words: “One of the significant configurations of the design is to have double tweeters. What I have found is that most of the large speaker systems have very good dynamics in the midrange and bass, but lack the piercing force at live performance levels for the high frequencies. With a double-tweeter configuration, the voicecoil of the tweeter travels less distance and stays well within the linear portion of the magnetic field. The result will be much less distortion and more dynamic headroom (less stress). This is essential for accurately portraying micro and macrodynamics. The tweeter we are using is a special version of the Revelator from Scanspeak of Denmark, known for its detail and musicality.”
Rounding out the driver complement are two 5.5" Nomex/ Kevlar Hexacone midrange drivers from Eton of Germany. The heat pipe (similar to a phase plug) is an exclusive Focus Audio design built by Eton to enhance the linearity and openness of the midrange presentation. Crossover components have been selected by audition. The capacitors are high-current Multicaps, and the inductors heavy-gauge Litz-wound air coils. They are soldered point-to-point using silver-content solder and connected to the drivers with silver wiring. The cabinet is internally braced to reduce resonance, and all acoustic-damping materials are carefully selected and positioned for optimum sound quality. SK