Dynaudio Focus 160 loudspeaker
I latched on pretty fast to Dynaudio's Excite X12, but I wasn't the first at Stereophile to discover that loudspeaker. That was Bob Reina.
John Atkinson, too, is big on this little speaker. Here's what The Chief wrote about it in one of his less guarded moments, for "Recommended Components" (October 2011): "A well-engineered speaker like this makes it hard to justify spending more on a bookshelf speaker unless you can afford one of the cost-no-object models." [Harrumph, harrumph.]
Okay, JA. A beautifully crafted speaker like this, from Denmark, at $1200/pair, may make it hard to justify spending less.
But what can you get if you're willing to pay Dynaudio more? Even if what you get is not quite "cost-no-object"?
Upping the ante
I heard about the Dynaudio Focus 160 last spring while I was in Germany, looking into Stein Music boxes, raw pork sausage, and other stuff. Introduced at the 2011 Munich show, the model created some buzz. Could this really be a high-end Dynaudio speaker for a moderate, less-than-cost-no-object price?
The Focus 160 (footnote 1) is about two-thirds larger in volume than the Excite X12. It's still a small bookshelf speaker13.8" (350mm) high by 7.9" (202mm) wide by 11.6" (294mm) deepand sounds best when sitting on a stand at least 24" high. The price is $2900/pair, and the available finishes are walnut, black ash, rosewood, maple, and black or white gloss lacquer (no upcharges for any of these). Figure another $500 or so for a good pair of stands. Dynaudio recommends their own Stand4 for the Focus 160, but you might already have a pair of suitable stands. I used the now-discontinued Triangle Boomerangs, which place the speakers about 25" above the floor.
The claimed frequency response is 40Hz35kHz, ±3dB, and just like me and you, the Focus 160 is ported in the rear. Its sensitivity is given as 86dB/2.83V/m and its nominal impedance as 4 ohms, which suggest that the Focus 160 is not the optimal speaker for use with flea-watt tube amps.
What, me worry? I went ahead and tried one anyway: the Allnic T-1500 single-ended-triode tube amp, rated at 12.5Wpc. To make matters seemingly worse, my review sample of the Allnic lacked a 4 ohm tap (a factory-installed option). I decided to wrest from it the best sound I could.
Surprise, surprise. I did indeed wrest good soundunless I cranked the volume way up. At some point, the soundstage collapsed. Then the amp audibly clipped. Bass went blah, then blip. Blame me.
Anyway, I needed a solid-state amp to run the speakers in with. (Mike Manousselis, of Dynaudio USA, had sent me a factory-fresh pair of Focus 160s with no hours on them.) I turned to my LFD Mk.IV LE integrated amp, rated at 60Wpc into 8 ohms and more into 4 ohms (not specified).
As expected, the LFD got a tighter grip on the Focus 160's 170mm mid/woofer drivera new design that features a one-piece cone of magnesium silicate polymer (MSP) and other refinements, including things you might expect to find in the drivers of far more expensive, soak-the-rich models. Such as a 75mm "pure aluminum wire voice coil" and a black Kapton voice-coil former, along with "a new, more linear spider, while each mid/woofer is powered by a dual-stacked, more powerful Ferrite+ magnet system housed in a new die-cast aluminum basket frame." And so on. I quote Mike Manousselis. The payoff, according to Mike, is that these construction techniques achieve perfect control of the driver "even when playing music rich in dynamics or at higher volume levels."
One caveat. You need enough power.
The sophistication of its drivers is one reason the Focus 160 has it all over the Excite X12as it should, for 2.5 times the price.
When you pay more, you should expect more sophisticated drivers that a) sound more refined, and b) don't give up when the music gets goingie, when you push them hard. The benefit of better drivers is less sense of strain and more dynamic ease, even at low to moderate listening levels.
The tweeter, too, is newa 28mm-diameter soft dome based on the Esotar2, "Dynaudio's finest, most advanced tweeter, which was first used in the Dynaudio Confidence range," Mike told me. "In the Dynaudio tweeter design, a powerful, relatively large magnet system is mated to a fine, extremely lightweight yet large-diameter aluminum voice-coil." Lightweight compared to copper. This "allows for low distortion, high resolution, increased detail, and greater transparency."
Mike told me that the crossover is based on stuff Dynaudio learned from their Consequence Ultimate Edition, the consequence of owning which will set you back $70,000/pair and probably require you to own a McMansion with a Great Room. I love Dynaudio's names for its ranges. Focus. Consequence. Confidence. I have confidence in Mike Manousselis.
Like almost all stand-mounted loudspeakers, the Focus 160 is "most ideal for small to medium-sized rooms," Mike advisedunless you want to fill in the bottom end with a subwoofer or two, which I felt was unnecessary in our living room and in my listening room. These speakers illustrate the rewards for living small and the penalties for living large.
Before I got down to some serious listening, I set up the Excite X12s again, to refurbish my feeble aural memory.
You can think of the Excite X12 as a smaller-scale Focus 160, without as much bass extension, and without the ability to play as loudly or resolve as acutely. If some very cheap speakers ($300/pair or less) can give you a taste of the High End, the Excite X12 gives you a generous appetizer. The Focus 160 gives you a main course, albeit smallsomething like the tasting menu at New York City's Le Bernardin, my favorite restaurant. (That's where my dough goes; not to hi-fi.)
I took the Focus 160s upstairs to meet my Quicksilver Silver 88 mono tube amps. Line stage was the Conrad-Johnson ET3. A Musical Fidelity M1CDT CD transport into a [ta-daah] Musical Fidelity V-DAC II upsampling D/A converter, for $349. I'm danged if I'd now spend more for a DAC. But for speakers, I might spend ten times as much. Then I can buy another DAC next year. For $349.
The Quickies are rated to deliver 80Wpc into 8 or 4 ohms (they have separate 4 ohm taps). Having owned them for nearly three years, I know these tube amps deliver surprisingly tight, powerful bass (for tubes). They also deliver the harmonic textures of a great tube ampsomething that solid-state, even at its best, cannot fully emulate.
I tried the speakers in the nearfield, about 5' from my listening chair and spread far apart, just the way I used the ProAc Tablette Anniversary speakers last month.
Yes, the Focus 160s could do the up-close thing, and their driver outputs still integrated. I found, though, that I preferred the speakers about 4' from the front wall and maybe 10' from my listening chair. That way, I retained most of the soundstaging (the focus changed a little, but it always does) and was able to extend the bass response and achieve a more convincing and pleasing tonal richness. The sound had greater visceral impact than when the speakers were up close. (I'm not sure that any speaker can image the way a pair of ProAc Tablette Anniversarys can. You can almost use them like headphones and listen through, rather than to, them.)
The Dynaudios offered exceptionally spacious sound, with extraordinary low-level resolution of ambient information. When a recording allowed, I could hear more of the recording venue than I could with just about any other speaker I've had in my listening room. The midrange and treble were exceptionally smooth and sweet. The highs were exquisitely extended, too, but never etched. I noted none of that tipped-up treble so often favored by audiophiles. (And certain cable manufacturers.)
I think this is what Dynaudio's driver technology can achieve: a finely detailed, very dynamic, and, at the same time, nonfatiguing sound. I've visited enough factories and spoken with enough loudspeaker designers to know how they sweat over the most minute details. I also know how computers and measurements can take them only so far, at which point the human ear, culture, the designer's own harmony with the music, his own vibes, take over. You can't fake this or move it to Chinaalthough no people are so passionate about good sound than the Chinese. When truly great Chinese hi-fi emerges (and it will), will it be boutique, like the finest Japanese?
Of course, you need sturdy stands. You need good cables and interconnects; mine came from Audio Art. In a larger room, at louder listening levels, you could probably use a more powerful (100150Wpc) solid-state amp, to get the best from that magnificent midrange/woofer.
Once again, Dynaudio has done it. Can you justify spending any more than $3000 on a pair of speakers?
Or any less?
Footnote 1: Wes Phillips reviewed the earlier Dynaudio Focus 140 in May 2006.Ed.