Focus Audio Signature Series Model FS68SE Loudspeakers
|Focus Audio Signature Series Model FS68SE Loudspeakers|
|An Inspired Muse|
Before you met me-I was a fairy princess
I caught frogs and called them prince and made myself a queen.
Before you knew me-I traveled around the world
I slept in castles and fell in love because I was taught to dream.
I found mayonnaise bottles and pocked holes on top to capture Tinkerbell.
And they were just fireflies to the untrained eye but I could always tell.
I believe in fairytales and dreamers dreams like bed-sheet-sails
And I believe in Peter Pan and miracles and anything I can to get by…
– Lori McKenna, “Fireflies” from Pieces of Me [Gyrox Records]
Sitting in the rear orchestra seats of Boston Symphony Hall on a recent Friday afternoon, I sat on the edge of my seat listening to the stately march that begins the slow second movement or “Allegretto” of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. I had read in the program notes that Beethoven led the premier of this Symphony at the University of Vienna in December, 1813. According to the reports of that concert, Beethoven literally flung himself into the air from the podium on the Symphony’s loudest sections (the only ones he could hear) and all but crept under the podium on its stately slow movement. The Allegretto starts with a soft, slow march in the cellos that gains momentum as it spills forward into the violins, violas and woodwind sections. It was on those very first stately notes struck by Principal Cellist Jules Eskin that I understood perfectly the wonder of hearing music live in a place like Symphony Hall, where the lone cello carried its beautiful, harrowing march within a suffusion of natural air and space. Eskin’s cello was not superimposed on a blacker than black background. On the contrary, the air inside Symphony Hall was alive and far from black and silent, and served actually to cradle the cello’s tone in its broad, airy depth. The space surrounding the cello served to lend it a relaxed halo, enhancing its natural tone and making for a deepening of its true harmonic pitch and structure. Maybe this was what is meant by the term “Bloom,” defined as the impression that individual instrumental images are surrounded by a halo of air. According to Robert Harley, bloom gives a soundstage a more natural, open and relaxed feeling. Harley points to another term of art, “Action,” describing the sense of bloom expanding outward into space from an instrument, the way the cello expands into space as the instrument gets louder. [The Complete Guide To High End Audio, 3rd Ed. p.54]. All I know is that when the Allegretto came to a slow, soft conclusion in the cellos again, I was held transfixed by how the Hall’s ether held the natural suffusion of air and space, cradling this live performance and lending it such expressive power.
I have come to think of this sonic priority of mine captured in the image of a Firefly. Nature’s nighttime is filled with currents of air-not a dark tomb of blacker than black quiet by any means. Moreover, if you have been fortunate enough to observe a Firefly’s glow at night, it is a glow which casts light outward and then fades slowly back into the surrounding night. A Firefly’s glow silhouetted at night is not like an artificial flashlight beam that goes on and off precipitously. Rather, it illuminates ever so briefly, and then naturally fades back into the surrounding firmament. We enjoy the magical sighting of a firefly only within the context or fabric of the surrounding night air, the enveloping wind moving trees or the blowing of meadow grasses in the dark. This is similar to what I heard in Symphony Hall, as the beautiful and stately notes of the cello were enjoyed within the suffusion of natural air and space that cradled those notes and served as the background within which those notes decayed slowly and naturally. Now when I listen to new components or complete audio systems, one of my priorities will be to listen to see if I hear, and to what degree, my “Firefly Element” being conveyed on particular recordings which contain such spatial clues.
Coming in from watching fireflies circling around leaving their luminescent trails as they decay in the soft night air, let’s turn our attention to one magnificent Firefly Effect speaker, the Focus Audio Signature Series FS68SE. This monitor speaker speaks with one voice, clearly challenging the definition of a monitor design in offering the kind of robust, open presentation that one would expect only from a much larger floorstanding design. The FS68SE is a creation of the talented engineering team at Focus Audio, celebrating their Tenth Anniversary in designing loudspeakers. It consists of a two way design combining one 1-1/8” specially coated ferrofluid soft dome tweeter with a second 5-1/2” Nomex/Kevlar Hexacone woofer with a specially designed heat pipe configuration. According to its talented designer, Kam Leung, the proprietary heat pipe configuration serves to reduce distortion at high volume and improves its phase coherence. The FS68SE incorporates a crossover frequency at a relatively high 2.5kHz with a proprietary design using high purity litz copper coils and polypropylene/polystyrene capacitors. Kam says that the drivers and crossover components have been selected to achieve a very close tolerance to achieve a stable soundstage and sharp images. The FS68SE is rated at 85dB with nominal impedance of 8 Ohms. I found it sung best with a good amount of power behind it, like the Mark Levinson 383 solid-state integrated rated at 150W into 8 Ohms or the hybrid tube design Pathos Logos integrated, rated at 110W at 8 Ohms. The FS68SE’s cabinet is solidly built with 1 inch thick multilayer MDF with internal damping materials chosen carefully to lower unwanted resonances. Cardas bi-wire binding posts are provided, offering excellent and flexible connectors. The rock solid build quality of the FS68SE would make any Tenth Anniversary celebrant proud. My pair came in an astonishing deep purple finish, called Piano Finish Tiger Eye. Burl wood veneer is dyed in a deep purple color and then more than 10 coats of high build polyester are applied. Finally, the finish is polished to a high gloss mirror quality on top, which results in one of the most beautiful wood finishes I have seen in a speaker line. The Piano Finish FS68SE is a genuine museum piece to the eye, making a robust artful statement to any listening room.
Speaking of robust, this speaker boasts not only its gorgeous looks but also its sonic qualities with glorious abandon, capturing my heart from the beginning of our time together. One caveat: like in most human relationships, those sonic qualities took some time to reveal themselves, so be prepared for a lengthy break-in period for things to really open up to reach their full potential. What we have here in the FS68SE is a new amphibian: a monitor design that breaths like a much larger floorstanding design, at home in larger room environments than its size and design would indicate. Its most cherished virtues were its openness and sheer power of presentation, with globs of natural, Firefly Effects cradling real instruments within a natural halo of spacious air and ether.
First, lets step into the arena of Texas blues and witness how the FS68SE captures the blistering opening solo ofStevie Ray Vaughan on “Texas Flood” from the album of the same name [Epic SACD65870]. The cut begins with a sheer wallop of slow blues chords set over Tommy Shannon’s articulate bass lines. Utilizing the ML 383 driving the FS68SE, I was treated to an expansive soundstage of suffused air within which Vaughan’s crackling slow blues and staccato bent notes were perfectly rendered in space and time. I had never heard this kind of openness and energized air surrounding Vaughan’s pyrotechnics from such a small monitor, and I was viscerally transported to the claustrophobic recording session. Coherence in this speaker was staggeringly good, showcased by the tumulus cut, “Testify,” where Vaughan ventures off into a blues foot race with his compatriots coursing over screaming treble notes. The natural splashes of Chris Layton’s cymbals and Shannon’s quick, driving bass lines were captured by the FS68SE as one piece of the musical fabric in this power trio onslaught.
Switching from a small studio environment to an expansive live recording venue, one road to sonic nirvana involves hearing Joni Mitchell fronting her incredible band assembled at the Santa Barbara County Bowl in September, 1979, recorded on her live album,Shadows and Light [HDCD version Asylum 704-2]. Listening to “Dan’s Solo” into “Dreamland” through the FS68SE transported me into the visceral center of this concert, with absolutely no electronic artifice separating me from the experience. The FS68SE placed Don Alias’ congas within that special envelope of live air lending a wonderful alive quality to each tap of hand to drum, reverberating out into the expansive stage with wonderful natural decay. When Joni begins her vocal duet with Alias on “Dreamland,” her voice is rendered beautifully with clear, pure and fragile treble tone, made even more natural because the FS68SE cradled it in an abundance of charged air. This entire recording is magnificent music making, and holds many gems of spatial clues that the FS68SE mines to perfection. From the soaring vocals of Joni to the guitar colors of Pat Metheny and the fat, deep bass lines from the incomparable Jaco Pastorius, the FS68SE was in its element. The FS68SE played lithely to very high volume before there was even a hint of congestion, even with Joni and her band kicking it into high gear with the added complexity of Michael Brecker’s searing sax and the soaring Persuasions adding a cappella treats on “Why Do Fools Fall In Love.” Speaking of the Persuasions, the FS68SE did a splendid job recreating the midrange and treble magic of this vocal group on Chesky’s great disc, The Persuasions Sing The Beatles [Chesky JD220]. There was a small sacrifice on upper vocal extension and detail, but the FS68SE more than made up with its special gift of a halo of air around the Persuasions, allowing their semicircle formation in this Church recording space to be uniquely rendered. I never felt that the FS68SE lacked dynamics or bass extension in offering such visceral listening experience, even in my largest listening room (31’ by 12’). The FS68SE filled both my small and large listening spaces with a natural, open and dynamic presentation augmented by its special gift of that great “Firefly effect” for such a diminutive speaker design.
It is never too late to discover the joys of a new recording label, like I did recently in discovering Dorian Records, with its venerable cornucopia of modern and ancient musical offerings. Taking up our theme of the FS68SE’s special gifts of surrounding halos of air around individual voices and instruments, Dorian presents several wonderful “Airs” or short pieces composed by Handel, Purcell and others performed by the New York Kammermusiker on A Baroque Celebration [Dorian 90189). The treble and midrange performance of the FS68SE was first rate on this recording. Individual strings were light, palpable and naturally drawn while oboe and other woodwinds were naturally integrated into the lovely flowing lines of the harpsichord. The bass drum in this small ensemble was also reproduced with nice attack and pitch definition, again part of the musical whole, not divorced or overwhelming the small string and wind ensemble. The key here again was the excellent imaging and coherence of this monitor speaker design, with the added gift of that wonderful suffusion of surrounding air around individual instruments. As for large orchestral works, the FS68SE handled all of the collective and individual dynamics and colors presented on those wonderful Living Stereo SACD’s with all of the swagger of a larger floorstander. (Indeed, the wonderful sonic clues that I find enhanced by great SACD recordings only heightened the enjoyment of the FS68SE with its gift for mining such clues). For example, listening through the FS68SE to the sinuous clarinet solo which opens Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue [Living Stereo SACD 82876] offered a cohesive whole of this musical moment, with clarinet full and woody winding its way through brass that was punchy and full of bite. Earl Wild’s piano was delivered velvety and smooth, cascading with that halo of air surrounding each individual run or trill. The Boston Pops Orchestra’s huge clash of cymbals and brass at the conclusion of Rhapsody rung all the way back to the last row of Symphony Hall in the FS68SE’s airy presentation.
A Robust Statement
Before I head back into the backyard to watch fireflies, let me conclude with comparing the FS68SE to some of my favorites below and above its price range: Silverline’s SR11 monitors ($1500) and Harbeth’s Super HL5 ($3895). The SR 11 really shines in a small listening space, whereas the FS68SE presents a more robust, deeper soundstage and shocking dynamic range for its size even in much larger spaces. The Silverline trumps the FS68SE in the areas of treble extension and last octave detail, but the FS68SE provides more spaciousness in the mids and down below, and lots more of that special halo of air around instruments and voices. The FS68SE also gives little away to the larger enclosure Harbeth HL5. I love the Harbeth’s special natural tone, accurate timbre and dynamic midrange, but the FS68SE brings a lot of these same qualities in a smaller enclosure with the assets of great imaging to boot. The HL5 is still my champ when it comes to my Firefly effect, but the FS68SE comes very close to the Harbeth in its special way with placing instruments in their natural firmament. I could live happily with any of these speakers.
Come and meet me out back by the Fireflies and we can compare listening notes under the night sky.
Frequency Response: 45Hz-25kHz + 3dB
Impedance: nominal 8 Ohms
Recommended power: 20-200 Watts per channel
Crossover Frequency: 2.5kHz
Termination: Cardas bi-wire binding posts
Finishes: Piano Black, Burl Walnut, Birdseye Maple, Limited Edition Purple Tiger Eye
Dimension: (H x W x D) 13” x 7” x10”
Weight: 20 lbs each
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Tel: (905) 415-8773
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