It’s complicated, but the loudspeaker company we know as Focal turned forty this year. In the late 1970s, Jacques Mahul was working for Audax, Europe’s largest driver manufacturer, when he decided to strike out on his own—the first product sold by JMLabs was equipped with Audax drivers. Soon thereafter, though, Mahul started producing his own woofers and tweeters under the Focal name, and these became wildly popular with a host of other high-end loudspeaker-makers. Tears were definitely shed when, in the early 90s, Jacques Mahul entered the automotive-speaker market and no longer had the capacity to keep supplying drivers to other audiophile manufacturers without compromising quality. If you wanted Focal drivers outside of the 12-volt world, you’d have to buy a JMLab loudspeaker. In 2001, Mahul began phasing out the JMLab name and started branding his loudspeakers for home use as Focal. Complicated, right?
Focal has long used Kevlar, a strong and heat-resistant synthetic fiber developed in the 1960s, in its drivers for automotive applications. The characteristic yellow color serves an important branding function, apart from any sonic advantages. (Until recently, Bowers & Wilkins also employed the material, though Focal’s drivers have a composite Kevlar and fiberglass tissue structure as opposed to the British company’s approach, which was to coat the aramid fibers with a resin and then bake them.) Focal also employs Kevlar in the M-shaped tweeter diaphragms of their automotive designs, a construction also found in Focal’s best headphones. Neither the Kevlar cones nor tweeters have ever been used in a Focal home loudspeaker—until now. The Spectral 40th, one of several products released this past year to honor Focal officially reaching middle-age, affirms that the company’s driver fabrication and high-end speaker design are fully integrated activities.
The Spectral 40th is a handsome tower loudspeaker that stands about 45″ tall, increasing another ¾” when the supplied spikes are screwed in. The speaker is nearly 12″ across at its widest point and 16 11⁄16” deep when the extension of a single pair of five-way binding posts is included in the measurement. Each speaker weighs 101.4 pounds. The enclosure is built with MDF, which Focal maintains provides the density and stiffness that best controls cabinet resonances and vibration. The “Gamma Structure” of a thick front baffle, extensive internal bracing, and curved panels are features of Focal’s Sopra and Utopia product ranges, as well. The front, rear, and top surfaces have a black high-gloss finish with the base a matte graphite black. Walnut side panels complete the luxurious appearance of the Spectrals.
The top-most driver in this three-way design—the crossover frequencies are 280Hz and 2.7kHz—is a 6½” single-skin K2 cone. Below that is the 111⁄32” inverted dome Kevlar tweeter. In the middle, vertically, of the nearly two-inch-thick front baffle are a pair of 71⁄16” double-skin K2 sandwich woofers and, closest to the floor, a flared circular port. Another port opens from the back of the Spectral 40th, a manifestation of Focal’s Powerflow multiport technology that serves to limit driver compression inside the cabinet and improve bass performance. Each speaker is provided with a grille to cover the midrange cone and a second, larger one that protects—or hides, depending upon your point of view—the pair of bass drivers. For both, black cloth is stretched across a precisely molded plastic frame that conforms to recesses in the front baffle and is held firmly in place by substantial metal pins and rivets. It’s probably a good thing that so much attention has been given to the design of the Spectrals’ grilles. If you’ve got them set up in a space shared with a non-audiophile, those yellow circles staring out at the world may not be a big hit.
In my 15′ by 15′ room—a hallway off one of the side walls ameliorates any standing-wave problems, with ceiling height ranging from 11′ to 13’—the Spectral 40th loudspeakers ended up pretty close to where my reference Magico S3 Mk2s live, as well as most other speakers here for review, ported or sealed-box. They performed well when roughly 8′ apart center-to-center, about 2′ from the front wall, and 10′ from the listening position. They were canted in towards the sweet spot. Associated components for this evaluation included Pass XA60.8 monoblocks for amplification and an Anthem D2v for control, D-to-A conversion, and DSP room correction. For digital playback, I used either an Oppo BDP-103 transport or the Baetis Reference 2 music computer. The occasional LP was spun on a VPI Scoutmaster equipped with a JMW Memorial tonearm and Sumiko Bluepoint EVO III cartridge, the signal brought up to line level with an ARC PH2 phonostage.
The Spectrals acquitted themselves honorably as my day-in and day-out loudspeakers, in place of my usual Magico S3 Mk2s—though not for their first week. It continues to astound me that some PhD-level audio authorities—people I respect—maintain that the need for speaker systems to break-in is a “myth.” Brand-new, right out of the box, the Focals’ sound was mechanical, lacking in dimensionality, and uninvolving. It took about 150 hours of playing music for the sound to flesh out, more than that to reach what I felt was full potential. I’m not saying the Spectral 40th is a perfect loudspeaker—is there such a thing?—or even the best at its not-inconsiderable price point. Just that one needs to hear a pair that has fully “matured” to judge fairly.
Once the Focals had reached their peak, bass was articulate and sufficiently extended for most music. The Spectral 40th impressed especially with the way it handled the dynamic aspect of music—what’s sometimes called “jump factor.” It may be a cliché, but these floorstanders are terrific “rock speakers.” This impression was particularly strong with live recordings, and once I’d heard Emmylou Harris’ Spyboy, I immediately reached for other favorites—Live at Leeds, Waiting for Columbus, Stop Making Sense. The Spectrals transmitted all the electricity and sense of occasion of these classics.
With a completely different stripe of music—believe it or not, concert harp repertoire—I encountered more evidence of the Focal’s jump-factor capabilities. The stereotypical view of the modern pedal harp is that it exists to contribute musical color and texture to set a mood—ethereal, mysterious or, with its signature glissando, ecstatic. In fact, the harp is supremely qualified as a solo instrument, having the widest range of any orchestral instrument (58Hz to 6.6kHz is typical), and, recorded by itself, low notes that are full and resonant and high ones that will test the transient speed of the best tweeters. I listened to The Healing Harp—one of the first CDs I reviewed for TAS, back in 1996—with Naoko Yoshino as the soloist on a Philips release, as well as recordings from Yolanda Kondonassis (Telarc) and Lavinia Meijer (Channel Classics), and was completely enchanted by the way the Focals put their instruments in my room. The hollow body of the harp, the sense of a vibrating string and, mostly, the crispness of the initial attack were reproduced with the kind of truthfulness that characterizes perfectionist audio at its best. I even succumbed to the new-agey meditations of the world’s most celebrated electric harpist, Andreas Vollenweider.
From the standpoint of tonality, the Spectrals were consistently accurate. It was always possible to tell a Stradivarius violin from a Guarneri del Gesù, and even to distinguish among individual instruments produced by each of these two Cremonese workshops. Yet the reproduction lacked the complete essence of real musical sound; I wasn’t fooled into believing I was hearing an actual violin when I closed my eyes. Imaging was quite good, but not top of the heap. On a PentaTone recording of the Storioni Trio playing Brahms, the three musicians were correctly situated and scaled; yet, they didn’t seem to be breathing the same air. Likewise, with Bernard Haitink’s reading of the first movement of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 15 (RCO Live), soft instruments—flute, glockenspiel—didn’t define the space of the Concertgebouw quite as impressively as they did with other transducers.
The Spectral 40th speakers revealed plenty of detail, even when there was a lot going on. With “Backrow Politics,” a trumpet feature on Act Your Age from Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, it was quite easy to make out rhythm guitar “chops,” soft secco interpolated trombone chords, and bongo fills in the background behind the exuberant trumpet. The Spectrals also maintained their poise with the most powerful specimens of power music—the heaven-storming conclusion of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony or the finale of the Saint-Säens Third, for examples.
While the Focal Spectral 40th is a thoughtfully designed and meticulously built product that delivers world-class sound, there are plenty of other floorstanding loudspeakers I’m familiar with around this price point that ought to be in the running, if this is your budget. These include PSB Speakers’ Imagine T3 ($7500), the GoldenEar Technology Triton Reference ($8500), the JWM Alyson AML II ($8500), Salk Sound’s SS 9.5 ($9995) and Magico’s A3 ($12,300). All are good values; all sound very different from one another.
My sense is that Focal’s Kevlar drivers are not on a par with the W-sandwich cones and IAL (Infinite Acoustic Loading) beryllium tweeters found in the Sopra and Utopia lines, or even the machine-made flax cones with a beryllium driver in the Kantas.
This should surprise no one: By having different product ranges, Focal is implicitly acknowledging that considered compromises have been made in its lower-priced models. Especially when one is making comparisons within a brand, you really have no reason to expect the $10,000 product to sound as “good” as the $15k or $40k one. But smart audio designers are forever devising ways to bring in a significant part of the performance of their premium products at a lower cost. John Bevier, Focal Naim America’s Director of Business Development, noted to me: “It’s an exciting time at Focal. Engineering has never been better, having been challenged by senior leadership to push the bounds of physics even deeper in future projects. I can’t wait to see what we invent next!”
Me neither. They say life begins at 40.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Floor-standing, three-way bass reflex
Driver complement: One 111⁄32” K2 dome tweeter, one 6½” K2 midrange, two 71⁄16” K2 woofers
Frequency response: 34Hz –30kHz (+/-3dB)
Low frequency point: 28Hz (-6dB)
Nominal impedance: 8 ohms
Recommended amplifier power: 40–300Wpc
Dimensions: 1115⁄16” x 453⁄16” x 1611⁄16“
Weight: 101.4 lbs.
108 Rue de l’Avenir
42353 La Talaudière, France
FOCAL NAIM AMERICA
313 Rue Marion
Repentigny, QC J5Z 4W8 Canada
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