Even after several decades of reviewing, I am still struck by the fact so many different approaches to speaker design can produce outstanding sound quality. The choice between dynamic, ribbon, and electrostatic speakers is as hard as always, and combinations of dynamic and ribbon or electrostatic speakers into various hybrids get steadily better. Moreover, speaker designers make steadily better use of new technology and measurement methods without converging on one approach to sound quality. The way in which a given designer and company actually listens, makes musical choices, and “voices” their speaker is just as important now as it was in era of far less sophisticated measurements, drivers, and enclosures.
The Legacy Focus SE is a good case in point. It came in for review at a time when I use the Quad 2905 and modified Vandersteen 5A Carbon as references. Both are radically different in design features and technology from the Focus SE. Moreover, I have recently been listening to Wilson and Thiel speakers, and a friend’s Magnepans. In theory, one design approach should have clearly stood out. In practice, everything depended on how well a given design approach was executed, and what really became clear was how good today’s choices have become, and how much choosing between them depends on your own taste.
Moreover, the more I experiment with speaker placement, front-end electronics, and speaker cables, the more it becomes clear that the listening room is as important a component as the speaker, and how difficult it is to predict exactly how well a really good speaker will perform with a different mix of components. No one can be serious about audio without realizing how scarce really good high-end dealers are becoming, or how difficult it is to seriously audition a wide range of speakers, but it is a fact that a reviewer cannot be a partner in creating a truly good system, only an advisor.
The Legacy Focus SE is a case in point. It is an outstanding speaker in its price range, but you really need to hear it to fully understand how it is compares with its competition in the $7000–$15,000 range. It is “voiced” differently from any of its competitors I’ve heard to date, but in ways that help bring out the best in a wide range of music. As with all of its competitors, the choice of this particular sound character and set of nuances is going to be highly personal. I suspect, however, that even very experienced audiophiles are likely to be both surprised and impressed with its blend of the deep bass and massive dynamic energy that is typically the province of large dynamic drivers with ribbon technology.
A Different Set of Design Features and Goals
Bill Dudleston, the designer of the Legacy Focus SE, is justifiably proud of the result, and has done an unusually good job of putting his design goals into words. The accompanying sidebar is an excerpt from a longer paper that Bill sent to me, and helps you to understand the rationale behind each key design choice. These excerpts only cover a small part of Bill’s narrative, which includes a lot of useful detail on room interactions and setup, and far more detail on the interaction between his design choices and music. Even the excerpts, however, show the passion behind his design choices and the intent. In fact, I wish far more designers made a point of explaining why they made such choices and how they were intended to affect sound quality.
Trying to Put Sound in Written Words
And here we come to the core of this review: How the Legacy Focus SEs actually sound. First, let me begin by saying that I expected to hear far more irregularities in frequency response and differences in sound quality because of the differences in the driver technology. I didn’t. In fact, the integration of the 1" dual-pole, neo-ribbon, folded-Kapton-diaphragm tweeter and the 3" dual-pole, neo-ribbon, Kapton-diaphragm midrange with the two Rohacell-reinforced silver-graphite mid/woofers and two 12" aluminum-diaphragm, rubber-surround subwoofers produced both smooth frequency response and timbre and very coherent and consistently musical sound, while preserving the speed and life you’d expect in the best ribbon designs. Believe me, I’ve heard enough complex mixes of drivers to listen hard for problems. I went through a wide range of my tougher, brighter recordings to see if they would flag some problems or anomalies in the music—create problems with soprano voice, solo violin or massed strings, or flute or clarinet.
More importantly, the Legacy Focus SEs produced exceptional upper-midrange and treble life and air with demanding but very good recordings like Sharon Bezaly’s performance on Mozart Flute Concertos [BIS], Marianne Thorsen’s on Mozart Violin Concertos [2L38sacd], and Martin Frost’s on Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Quintet [BIS]. They did equally well with the Alan Civil/ Neville Marriner recording of Mozart’s four horn concertos on Pentatone, and the very demanding and original Kuijken Kwartet performance of a transcription for string quartet of Mozart’s Requiem, where the opening passages are extraordinarily moving with the right speaker.
These are all recordings that seem to be close-miked and have the sound you expect when listening near to the performer. While the Focus SE had more energy in the presence region than I typically hear with cone drivers, it struck the right balance between an exceptionally revealing and life-like reproduction of the lead soloist or instrumentalist, and the slight hardness I’ve heard with a number of other very good speakers.
The Focus SE revealed but did not harden Judy Collins’ voice or exaggerate her occasionally stressed sibilants. They gave a slightly forward, but very live, character to the slightly-too-closely-miked bands on Jennifer Warnes’ The Hunter [Private Music]. They gave the same life and air and exceptional detail to the complex mix of instruments and sounds in Bruce Dunalp’s About Home [Chesky] and The Rhythm of Wings [Chesky], and to the somewhat exaggerated (but very listenable) presence and crowd effects in the Jazz at the Pawnshop series (now available on HDtracks), and did so without reducing the slightly reticent midrange and weak bass that make this series seem more “live” than real with the wrong speaker.
While tape hiss and mixes of pink and white noise are not high on my list of casual listening, they do spotlight changes in timbre and upper-octave response, and listening again failed to exhibit any of the emphasis or spotlighting that occurs with some ribbon drivers and hybrids.
What the Legacy Focus SEs did with all of these various sources—analog and digital—was provide the kind of speed and resolution from the lower edges of the upper midrange up that is customary in better ribbon and electrostatic speakers, with the difference being that the Focus SEs blended almost seamlessly in speed, detail, and timbre with the two mid/woofers to create the kind of apparent point-source imaging that Bill Duddleston described in his comments on his design goals, and in a response to my questions about why he chose this specific group of drivers and how he blended them together.
One can endlessly argue the theoretical merits of point source, line source, or dipole dispersion, but the key is how well any given driver configuration is actually able to reproduce exceptional musical life and air, and a very stable mix of imaging and soundstage. The driver configuration in the Focus SEs does not have the apparent scale of a line source and is more directional, but the imaging is a bit more stable and defined. The Focus SEs do not have the “big hall sound” of a properly placed dipole speaker, but they do offer more apparent detail in a natural musical form than full-range diploes, and they are far easier to situate vis-á-vis the rear wall than a full-range dipole.
Moreover, the drivers’ height from the floor, their placement, and dispersion combine to provide exceptionally good integration of the soundfield at just the right listening height. The Focus SEs are tall enough so you do not get a trace of “balcony” effect—the feeling you are looking down at the performance. Driver radiation pattern and integration help make the speaker disappear, and the Focus SEs manage to both maintain a relatively wide listening area and do a very good job of limiting the impact of sidewall, floor, and ceiling reflections and interactions. I was impressed, as I have been with a number of recent speakers, with how much more precise and revealing the soundstage can be with modern speakers if you really experiment with placement and toe-in, and with creating the best listening position with no objects that interfere with the sound path.
The Legacy Focus SEs are more sensitive to toe-in and listening distance, however, than a number of other speakers— possibly because of their speed and detail in the upper octaves. Toe-in is easy; you simply follow the manual. Listening distance is more a matter of taste. You do not need to sit at listening distances much beyond four feet, but I normally place my speakers along the long wall of my room. This cuts the distance to the listening position but sharply reduces sidewall reflections and sonic blur. With the Focus SEs, however, nearfield listening distances (4–8 feet) can appear to make music sound as if it is coming from close to the front of the hall. At greater listening distances—and this will be room-dependent— timbre and detail come closer to a more mid-hall sound. This happens with most speakers with realistic life in the upper octaves, but it is more apparent with the Focus SEs than usual.
You will need to experiment and find the placements that best provide the set of musical illusions you are listening for— particularly because the Focus SEs are good enough to reveal about as much detail as any speakers close to their price range, and I should stress that any reasonable listening distance will avoid the hardness some speakers have with nearfield listening. You will, however, find that the closer you get to the speakers, the narrower the ideal listening position or “sweet spot” will be.
As for midbass and deep bass, the two 12" aluminum diaphragm, rubber-surround subwoofers are well-named in that they really do go low. They reached the very bottom octave as well as any speakers close to their size I’ve worked with. These are not, however, “power woofers.” They are very controlled and match the rest of the sound in detail and apparent speed. There was an exceptional lack of any peak towards the end of their bass response, perhaps because it goes so far down that is really not audible at realistic listening levels.
At the same time, no matter how I placed the Focus SEs, they did not become bass-heavy or warm; they always sounded fast and detailed in the midrange and highs and stayed a bit tighter and more controlled in the bass than most competing speakers. Given the fact that every speaker involves some trade-offs in these areas of performance, I prefer the ones in the Focus SEs. I want bass detail and control in the lowest bass notes, rather than the illusion of bass power produced by some kind of peak or overhang of bass notes.
I don’t have any concerns about the Focus SEs’ ability to really dive down into the depths. I haven’t heard any speaker do better, and only a handful of rivals provide the same degree of deep bass realism and power in my listening room. One problem with some hybrids is that they try to “balance” the speed and detail of ribbons and electrostatics with a warm or slightly bass-heavy dynamic woofer or subwoofer. This can be impressive at the start, but it wears with time; you can hear the speaker imposing itself on the music. The Legacy Focus SEs did not have that problem, even with as flat and revealing an amp as my Pass Labs 160.5s. Their slightly “forward” character with the Pass Labs XA160.5s also shifted to mid-hall with my Cary CAD 120S MKII tube amp. You will need to blend your overall mix of components to taste.
Setup and Compatibility
The Legacy Focus SEs were neutral enough that the basic sound character you hear is like that of your front end, power amplifier, and speaker cables. I should note, however, that the exceptional bass response I mentioned only came through with a solid-state amplifier with a relatively high damping factor; the bass was less tight with even a relatively powerful tube amp. (Legacy recommends amplifiers with damping factors of 40 and above.) The Focus SEs also proved to be more sensitive (or more revealing) of the way a given front end reproduces depth than some competing speakers. “Neutral” is always relative, and as is the case with many good speakers, you will need to be careful to blend them with the right amp if you want a given mix of nuances and sound character.
The Focus SEs sound slightly different bi-wired, but the improvement—if any—is likely to be limited, and the cable you like now is likely to sound good with them. The two rear adjustment switches that tailor the bass for room interaction, and slightly reduce upper octave output can help. They are, however, moderate in effect, and adjusting the bass control for room and placement effects will be dependent on the room, as the treble control produces only a relatively subtle drop in the highs.
The Legacy Focus SEs were somewhat less placement and room-dependent than most speakers in terms of bass performance. As is the case with every other really good speaker, however, getting the very best mix of bass performance, soundstage realism, and imaging requires a lot of practice and experimentation. This isn’t just a matter of getting the right listening distance, as I touched upon earlier. Don’t just accept a mere “very good.” Keep moving them until they sound “great.” I definitely recommend using their spikes. The cabinets are relatively inert, but they sound better firmly anchored to the floor.
This is an excellent speaker with unique bass performance for the price, and outstanding sonic nuances throughout its entire range. If I have any reservations about recommending it, they are the same I’d apply to almost all of today’s best speakers in their price range. You are paying for both outstanding basic performance and a set of nuances that will be highly personal, and at least slightly system and listening-room dependent.
In an ideal world, the choice of a high-end component would mean that audiophiles could easily go from hearing about a great new product, to reading reviews to get some background, to going to a local dealer who would be able to demonstrate it in depth. In practice, for many audiophiles the choices is more one of relying on reviews or word of mouth or sheer luck.
I really wish that wasn’t the case. The irony of today’s choices is that they have improved to the point where it is getting harder and harder to use words to describe the full range of differences between them. I have no reservations about the Legacy Focus SEs. I don’t think you can possibly go wrong with them, but they are yet another example of how important good dealers really are, and how important access to them is in making the best choices.
Sidebar: Legacy’s Bill Duddleston on the Focus SE
The Focus speaker is named from the acronym Field Optimized Convergent Source. More than a decade ago I was confident, as were other front runners like Ken Kantor (who had left Acoustic Research to start up NHT), David Moran (from DBX) and Don Keele (the chief loudspeaker tester for Audio magazine), that the in-room power response painted a more accurate picture of what we were hearing from a loudspeaker than a simple, curved, spliced, nearfield measurement made at one meter distance.
We knew that reflections arriving within 5msecs of the direct wave-launch arrival will tonally influence the sound character as these arrivals become fused. Arrivals a bit later, 5–15 msecs, can affect the soundstage laterally while sounds arriving after 15 to 25msecs virtually tell us about the character of the room we are in; its size, reflectivity, the distance of the source, etc. Really late reflections, exceeding 25ms, impede clarity of the source and eventually become discrete echoes. That’s why they are minimized in most recordings, except for large orchestral works, organ, and chant pieces. Should we desire to hear dense echoes, we can add it in the mix. What we don’t want is reverberant density from the playback system.
The Focus SE works with the room. In its design, we made some generalizations about rooms, rather than modeling from an anechoic chamber. We assumed you have a floor, so we spaced the midranges to interfere most constructively (work together) at seated listener height, and most destructively where the floor bounce occurs. Focus SE exhibits less tonal shift from floor bounce in the upper bass and lower midrange because four drivers are contributing in the passband, two drivers are climbing in phase as frequency drops, while two drivers are falling in phase as frequency rises.
We also optimized the frequency response at 3 meters instead of the 1 meter distance that most manufacturers adopt. The 1 meter measurement looks good in a printout, but does not translate in the far field unless the transducer is a coincident source (coaxial with time alignment) or one with constant directivity like the Whisper. Even then, it is subject to proximity effects.
Sometimes what you want does not yet exist and you need to start from scratch. And since midrange frequencies are “where we live” in the musical spectrum, a great deal of work went into the 7" Rohacell-backed silver/graphite driver. What is so unusual about this cast-frame driver is that there is a hefty neodymium slug under the front phase plug. This improves transients, reduces distortion, and increases efficiency. This driver’s useable range extends over seven octaves. This minimizes the in-line components of the crossover network, thereby reducing power loss.
I received a sample of a new woven composite material made of graphite and metal fibers. Experimentation found we could alter the ratio of metal to graphite, and the type of metal strands, to balance the trade-offs of each material. Make the diaphragm out of too much metal and it would ring. Make it out of too much graphite and it would lose definition.
We found that silver strands sounded much better than aluminum, copper, or magnesium when woven with the graphite. After optimizing the silver-to-graphite ratio, we bonded the material to a thin layer of Rohacell for stiffness. We then worked to optimize the suspension. The real key is the remarkable motor structure on this thing. It is in essence a push/pull electro- dynamic motor. The reverting field generated by the front focusing magnet also concentrates the field normally straying from the pole piece.
The upper accordion-pleated ribbon tweeter is a third generation influence of Oskar Heil. New magnetic materials are applied to improve force factor, the diaphragm is the latest Kapton variety, and the front pole piece, acoustic slots, and back chamber are optimized for our applications. Like all of the drivers we use today, it is a proprietary house design. The larger ribbon operates below 8kHz and acts as a transition driver to the cone midranges.
SPECS & PRICING
System type: Six-driver, fourway loudspeaker
Tweeter: One 1" dual-pole, neo-ribbon, folded-Kapton diaphragm
Midrange: One 3" dual-pole, neo-ribbon, vapor-deposited Kapton diaphragm
Mid/woofer: Two 7" Rohacell reinforced silver-graphite cones
Subwoofer: Two 12" spun aluminum cones
Low-frequency alignment: Assisted 6th-order Butterworth, vented
Frequency response: 20Hz–28kHz +/-2dB
Impedance: 4 ohms
Recommended amplification: 10–500W
Dimensions: 15.5" x 55" x 13"
Weight: 195 lbs. each
Price: $8750–$9250 (depending on finish)
3023 Sangamon Ave.
Springfield, IL 62702