Focal Electra 1037 Be loudspeaker Page 2
While some speakers' speed and almost colorless neutrality seem to flatter particular musical genres or even specific instruments, the Electra 1037s complimented all of them. Recordings of closely miked acoustic guitars; or of solo oboe, violin, or piano; or of lush massed strings or brass ensembles; or of female vocals or small jazz ensembles; or of grunge—every well-engineered recording that made its way onto the turntable or into the CD player was handled with equal effectiveness. The only exceptions were recordings of pipe organs, which need a speaker's deep-bass response to extend below 30Hz; and live recordings, which require ultra-low-frequency response to capture the ambience of a large venue.
But such limitations are not the same as faults. The Electra's designers wisely chose to let these limitations remain exposed rather than try to cover them up with sonic sins of commission. Rather than have an elevated or fattened lower midbass, the 1037 Be seemed to extend down smoothly to the limits of its low-frequency response and then just stop. But if you think that the 1037 Be therefore sounded lean or bass-shy, that was hardly the case. Low bass was there when it was called for, and wasn't when it wasn't.
The result was a nimble, fast, extremely well-textured foundation that gripped, held, and supported everything above it, rhythmically and tonally. Recordings of solo piano—such as Lydia Artymiw's performance of Schumann's Humoreske in B-flat Major, Op.20 (LP, Chandos ABR 1029), simply recorded in a highly reverberant space—unfolded with smooth, evenhanded sonic precision across the breadth of the keyboard, free of resonant hot spots; in soft passages, the lower octaves never faded into the reverberant ooze.
The Electras' macrodynamic capabilities, while very good, couldn't match the explosiveness of my Wilson MAXX 2s—hardly surprising, given the Focals' smaller size and far lower price. When pushed, the 1037 Be simply ran out of steam without losing its composure. The 1037 was at its most revealing at the lower end of the dynamic scale, producing the small, subtle dynamic shifts that give recorded music that all-important breath of life. Credit the rigidity and low mass of the drivers for that, along with what appears to be a very stiff, well-constructed cabinet. Greater macrodynamic detail can be had, but only by spending a lot more.
The 1037 Be's upper-octave performance was as smooth and well-behaved as it was below, producing effortless, unforced, grain-free detail, high resolution, and subtle but spectacular transparency (footnote 1). Still, my addition of a pair of Townshend Audio supertweeters (reviewed by Art Dudley in November 2004, Follow-Up to come) indicated that the last vestiges of air and extension were beyond the 1037 Be's abilities. However, as a complement for the bottom end, the Focal tweeter's voicing was probably ideal.
I had no complaint about the 1037 Be's performance in the midrange, where its combination of speed, suppleness, and velvety smoothness free of even a hint of congestion produced unforced, uncolored vocals, and believable instrumental textures and tonality rivaling those of the most impressive loudspeakers at any price that I've heard. The sound of Norah Jones' voice on her latest album, Not Too Late (LP, Blue Note/Classic 3 74516 1), recorded all-analog and mixed to ½" 30ips tape, was eerily real. When she whistles on one track, it was real.
The picture painted by the Electra 1037s was somewhat smaller than that produced by some other speakers of similar size, with good but not expansive stage width and somewhat limited height. Moving the speakers farther apart to get a wider soundstage tended to dissipate the coherence of the center image, while changing the rake angle did nothing to increase stage height.
Overall, though, the Focals' picture was proportionally correct. Within the stage, images were solid and very well focused without being too sharply etched, and were of proper size. While I'm used to the MAXX 2s' much larger, deeper, and especially taller sound picture, the Electras' smooth yet detailed, always solid presentation never failed to engage me.
That a company can design and build outstanding drive-units does not guarantee that that company can make great loudspeakers. Over the years, though admittedly under less-than-ideal show conditions, I've never walked away from a Focal-JMlab demo with a great deal of enthusiasm. In the early years, I thought the company's bigger speakers sounded too bright and falsely "airy." Even the latest version of the Grand Utopia Be, which I heard in the company's own huge, well-treated listening room, while exquisite on top and in the mids and able to deliver the full weight and dynamic capabilities of the finest symphonic recordings, sounded overstuffed on the bottom and too full in the midbass, though I understand why others might like such a sound.
The Electra 1037 Bes were a different story: a pair of attractively modern-looking, beautifully built, moderately priced (by today's high-end standards) loudspeakers that seemed to deliver a seamless, coherent, faultless presentation in terms of tonality, harmonics, and rhythm, with limitations only at the extremes of frequency, dynamics, and soundstaging. I never found them too bright or too dull, or too lean, or too anything. The few "not quite enoughs" were omissions so far out of range that I could easily ignore them.
The Electra 1037 Bes remained in my system for almost three months, yet try as I might, I couldn't find a seam in the speaker's frequency balance. I'm certain that, at least in my room, it produced the smoothest, most coherent frequency response of any speaker I've reviewed, and especially of any model that extends down into the 30Hz region. The result was among the most convincing and believable expression of instrumental harmonics I've heard.
The Electra 1037s had limitations at the extremes of frequency and dynamics, and their soundstaging was less than expansive. If I had to assign any negative attribute to the Focal's overall presentation, it would be that it was on the somewhat dry and reserved side. But if you crave real detail, accurate instrumental timbres, rhythmic certitude, utter transparency, overall coherence, musical believability, and—especially—a speaker that, while it might not bowl you over on first hearing, over the long run will keep bringing you back to the listening room, and keep you happy and enthralled through every listening session, I can't imagine a better $11,000 candidate than the Focal Electra 1037 Be. When the design expertise that went into this loudspeaker is applied to a refreshing of the top of Focal's line, watch out.
Footnote 1: It was immediately apparent that the 1037 Be's beryllium tweeter was noticeably faster and more resolving than the titanium one Focal sells to Wilson Audio Specialties for use in Wilson's MAXX 2. (Wilson Audio remains the only other speaker maker to which Focal continues to sell drive-units.)