The Focus Audio Master II Loudspeaker
|The Focus Audio Master II Loudspeaker|
|Super Size Me!|
As you may have noticed, the trend in home audio has been the miniaturizing of all parts of the playback chain. Advancements in technology, particularly the evolution of digital applications, have resulted in high-powered loudspeakers with a fraction of the footprint of their analog counterparts of similar power ratings. This has also allowed the growing number of powered speakers and subwoofers to increase their efficiency while eliminating the clutter of outboard amplifiers. The benefits of these advancements can be debated as to whether they have led to true improvements in performance or are simply lateral moves resulting in added convenience.
There is one aspect in full bandwidth high-end audio however, where size borders on the non-negotiable, and that is the loudspeaker. Despite the claims of any given manufacturer’s small monitors behaving like larger floor standers, the end result is typically creative tweaking and tuning of frequency response in the mid-bass that in part, will give the impression of greater weight, frequency extension and authority. Since the speaker is as much a mechanical device as an electrical device, the unyielding law of physics prohibits, at least as the state-of-the-art allows at the present time, for a small driver no matter how creatively implemented to truly perform like a larger driver.
I have had some pretty large speakers in my room, but when the subject of this review, the Canadian-born Focus Audio Master II arrived, I realized I had been swimming in the shallow end all along. Standing 6ft. tall and housing two 11” Novex/Kevlar Hexacone bass drivers per side, I had a funny feeling that I was in for something all together different than what had come before.
Along with the two bass drivers comes two 5 1/2” Novex/Kevlar Hexacone midrange drivers and two 1 1/8" specially coated Revelator tweeters with non-resonant chamber damping. The bass sections are ported and the system is bi-wireable. Despite the Master II’s 6ft. height, the footprint is rather slender and manages to feel perhaps not as imposing as I had anticipated. While the speaker’s 220 lb is not exactly what I would call fly weight, my old Talon Firebird are half the Master II’s size, weighs nearly 25% more.
I am a stickler for build quality and the folks at Focus are nothing if not fanatical craftsman exhibiting a great deal of pride in the fit and finish of their speakers. From the little FS688 book shelf monitor right up through the Master series, the word that best describes the over all quality is meticulous. Every edge, corner, facet and surface is perfect in construction and finish. My pair is a gloss black lacquer and came out of the crate without even one little hairline scratch any were on the lustrous gloss finish.
At this stage, I would qualify my recommendation of a speaker with these dimensions by suggesting them for larger rooms only. But after a recent visit to Clement Perry’s listening room and hearing the results he achieved with a 7’ 7” tall DALI Megalines in what can only be described as “a room of modest dimensions,” I’ve been forced to re-think that position. His diligent application of digital room correction and an ample use of room treatment yielded staggering results. My room, on the other hand, is 33’ x 60’ x 13’ and open to an additional 50’ of hallway. I also use the TacT room correction pre amp with great results, without which a very steep rise in the midbass leading to a pretty substantial suck-out in the mid band wreaks havoc on the sound. With the Virtual Dynamics Revelation interconnects and speaker wire wrestled into place andTact Audio's new Boz 216/2200 amplifier thoroughly broken in and ready for action, I began the break-in process which, in and of itself, needs some explaining
[above photo compliments of audiocircle.com]
I was informed by Phil Lam of Sonic Spirits, a Focus Audio dealer, that the Master II would require at least 500 hours of break in before it would come to life. Now I don’t know about you but I have grown skeptical of pronouncements of protracted break-in. I usually notice a transition from poor to 90% of what a given product will sound like when fully broken in within the 150-200 hour mark. The Master II was another story entirely.
At first blush, I had mixed feelings with a bent to the negative. Yes, the Master II produced an extended frequency balance with seriously deep if a touch plumy bass. Moving up through the upper mids and treble, the Master II’s presentation had great precision if a tad cold and hard in balance. “Ice cold, brand new speaker” I thought to myself, that’s to be expected. Things got a bit better at the 100-hour mark but remained tight and dynamically constrained. From this point the sound did not really change for at least another 300 hours. During that time I contemplated calling it a day sending the speaker back with a polite note of “Not for me” attached to the crate. Boy, am I glad I did not. Like taking a blow torch to a block of ice, the Master II’s cold, tight sound melted away revealing a deliciously warm, glowing and dynamically alive speaker within the duration of what seemed like only a couple of CD’s. I’m not certain you would be in for a similar experience, but I would make sure the Master IIs have at least 400-600 hours on them before you form an opinion.
As I grew comfortable with the sound, I began to search for ways to fine tune the speaker. At the suggestion of the folks at Focus, I gave the latest wire offerings from Audioquest a try. This combination resulted in an unusually high level of synergy. And no wonder, the Master II is wired internally with Audioquest. I have tried the Audioquest with my latest arrival, the Von Schweikert Audio VR7 with similar success. I will have plenty more to say about both of those products at a future point and time.
With 200 watts of Boz power going into the Master’s relatively friendly 92-dB, 4-Ohm load, I concluded the sound needed more “oomph” (That’s the technical phrase I believe). Adding an additional power module allowed me to bi-amp the Master IIs effectively sending 200 watts individually to both the bass and mid/treble. What was a transparent if a tad laid back presentation began to really put the rubber to the road and gave a sense that the Focus Master II was operating closer to its full potential.
So what does this potential add up too? First, the size of images and the overall dimensions of the stage and defined space moved me closer to a sense of realism and tactile presence than I had experienced before in my system. At the same time, individual images remained focused with great certainty. This was the most pleasant surprise. Large speakers with a complex driver array often suffer from bloat in the bass or some non-linearity in frequency response due to crossover miscalculations that disrupts the illusion of a live, organic event. The Master II’s drivers blended together seamlessly. In concert with a fully fleshed out harmonic structure, the picture was simply richer, denser and more colorful without the over emphasis or exaggeration of image size or loss of precision.
Another thread woven into mix is the Master II’s ability to track extremely subtle inflection of dynamic shading and change in tonal color. Listening to Nancy Wilson’s “Guess Who I Saw Today” from, I Wish You Love [Cema CDL57425] put these traits in plain view. Through the Master II, the song became a true work of art. Here ability to turn a phrase, control her vocal dynamics, and shape the emphasis of the lyrics is fully realized through the Master II. The result is sitting in rapt attention, hanging on every note, savoring the performance. And even when you know the twist coming at the end of the song, it’s like hearing for the first time, every time.
The ability to render individual instruments in real time, capturing a complete sense of shading, detail and color is only the beginning of what a great speaker should be able to accomplish. What separates the truly great from the merely good is the speaker’s ability to fully realize all these traits with multiple instruments playing simultaneously. For instance, a horn blowing hard mid stage to the left should not conceal or mask any of the dynamics, texture, transients or decay of a piano rear to the right whether the piano is gently accentuating the melody, pounding away furiously or teaming up with the bass with a little left hand action. When a speaker gets this right, the effort to mentally sorted out the musical lines evaporates, creating great complexity all the while relaxing the body and freeing the mind to explore the music. The greater the complexity, the greater the challenge a speaker faces to keep the illusion of a live event in tact. The Master II, I’m happy to report, added this accomplishment to its list of virtues. This is a large speaker with fleet feet so to speak. Imagine Shaquille O’Neal performing Singing in the Rain with the dexterity of Gene Kelly!
Being the worshiper of the deep nether regions that I am, I want to applaud the Master II’s bass performance. As stated in my introduction, there is no substitute for properly implemented large diameter drivers. The ability to charge a room full of center of the earth, articulate and pitch perfect bass was thrilling. With just a dash of equalization added to the room correction, I was able to dial in the low frequencies eliminating any sense of bloat or heavy handedness. That said, I must confess to indulging my low-end lust by boosting the EQ a few dB’s on a hand full of my favorite bass spectaculars.
While the bottom most octaves can be considered a Pagan delight, it is the midbass that presents a speaker as complex as the Master II the real challenge. To illustrate the Master II’s performance here, I will use an unusual choice, at least as far as audiophile reviews go. If I had to pick an all-time favorite band that would accompany me through eternity, it would be the Beatles. I don’t think I have ever seen the Beatles referred to in 17 years of reading reviews. True, they are not known for audiophile quality recordings, but there are more than enough sonic nuggets to be found throughout their discography. Without getting into a historical recount of the band’s massive contribution to popular music, Abbey Road is my sentimental favorite. Here is a collection of songs that represents the collaborative genius of four increasingly disparate musical psyche’s, all held together by the deft touch of Sir George Martin’s producing prowess and counsel. While John Lennon obviously possessed the social and intellectual gravitas of the band, Paul’s knack for writing a pop melody proved a perfect counterweight. Lost in that dynamic is Paul’s bass playing. Though sadly underrated, I would go so far as to say Paul McCartney is the best bass player popular music has ever produced. Possessing the ability to edit his playing down to the most essential, often least obvious path without losing site of the melody, Paul was able create a truly unique presence within a song without ever overwhelming or calling undue attention to himself. With the Master II in the chain, all this becomes easier to recognize and appreciate. From the all-time feel good song “Here Comes the Sun” to the ballad “Something”, a song I would have given anything to have written, the mid-bass of the Master II, being neither overly dry and tight, nor overtly ripe, manages to highlight the notes without seeming to do so as a result of an imbalance. Those used to speakers with a leaner or richer balance will either love the Master II’s balance or find the midbass too prominent. It all depends on which direction your musical compass is pointing you.
The mid band was absolutely convincing. Perfectly neutral? Totally uncolored? I don’t really know what that is. I can say that I never had to question the timbre and harmonic signature of any instrument or vocal from a great recording. If there is a trait to put a finger on it could possibly be a leaning to the warm side. In concert with the Master II’s transparency and speed, this impression had no downside at all. It simply made the Master II more, rather than less, engaging. Of course mismatching components or wire with the Master II and whatever warmth there may have been could easily vanish leaving you with a very different impression of the Master II.
Perhaps some of this impression of warmth could be the result of what is a silky, extremely smooth, edge free and brilliantly integrated treble. The dual soft dome Revelator tweeters were the perfect choice to complete the Master II’s palette. I often get the feeling, especially concerning tweeters, that they are chosen by spec, price, or pedigree rather than by artful consideration. It becomes clear that these speakers were designed with great fondness for music as well as technical competence.
As for soundstaging and imaging, I could not spot any anomaly that would cause undue distractions. Width, depth, and height were simply wider, deeper, and higher than I have had in this room. What is often called pinpoint imaging becomes a bit rounder, larger but not overly round or diffused. I have heard sharper focus and tighter imaging, but it often strikes me as unnatural, more of an artifact rather than serving to communicate any relevant musical information. One really cool test of a speaker’s ability to image and control the soundstage is the opening track, “War Heads” from Extreme’s Three Sides to Every Story [A&M 31454]. After a drill sergeant barks orders to what sounds like his four-year-old son, a thumping heartbeat begins outside of the right speaker. And not just a little bit outside, I’m talking about 15’ outside of the right Master II. The previous record was around 8’. Then a jet performs a left to right fly-by, again, starting 10’ outside the left speaker to 15’ to 20’ outside the right speaker. There is also a helicopter that flies overhead and hovers 6’ behind the listening seat. Granted, this is all contrived using what must be some form of “Q-sound”, but nonetheless, a great example of the Master II’s imaging capabilities.
At $27,000, the Focus Audio Master II fills a unique spot in the high-end speaker landscape. Not expensive enough to be considered the ultimate reference, that place is occupied by Focus Master. Yet when I consider the sub $30K price point, I’m hard pressed to find another speaker I would confidently put up against the Master II. My old reference, the Talon Firebird at $33K was thoroughly surpassed in nearly every way by the Master II. I can easily imagine the same fate befalling other more popular and costly designs as well.
At the core of the Master II’s success is its ability to musically engage the head in equal measure to the heart. A balance rarely struck regardless of price. Enormously power full, extremely clean, grain free and open, with a welcome ethereal cast of natural warmth all wrapped up in a lovingly executed cabinet, this gentle giant fulfills the high-end promise broken all to often in this hobby, the promise of music.
Frequency Response: 20 Hz - 25 kHz +/- 3dB
Sensitivity: 92 dB/1 Watt/1 meter
Nominal Impedance: 4 Ohms
Recommended Power: 50 - 1000 Watts per channel
Drivers : Two - 1-1/8" specially coated Revelator tweeters with non-resonant chamber damping; Two - 5-1/2" Nomex / Kevlar Hexacone midrange with heat pipe and polymer voicing coating; Two - 11" Nomex / Kevlar Hexacone woofers with polymer voicing coating
Termination: Silver/Rhodium bi-wire binding posts
Size: 71" x 13" x 18" (H x W x D)
Weight: Net weight 220 lbs each
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