Focus Audio Signature Model 88 loudspeaker Wes Phillips, April 1998
When John Atkinson reviewed the three-way floorstanding Focus Model 88 loudspeaker last June (Vol.20 No.6), he was impressed with their, ah, focus, excellent stereo imaging, dynamics, and superb bass extension. Indeed, at least in his modestly sized, rather damped room, they verged on being overgenerous down below.
I was interested in hearing the speakers in my own room, which is larger and livelier than JA's, and asked Focus if they'd mind leaving the 88s in Santa Fe until I could audition them myself. They were willing, but mentioned that they'd made some changes to the design that went to the heart of JA's misgivings. By changing the value of some parts in the crossovers, Focus felt they had tamed the "overgenerous" bottom end while maintaining the speaker's exemplary extension. Perhaps, they inquired, I'd rather hear the new version? How could I refuse?
The first thing I noticed about the Focus was how nifty it looked in its black piano-lacquer finish—the speaker has a formal, elegant mien quite out of keeping with practically everything else in my living room. However, the two of them blended in about as well as big speakers can.
From the start, the 88 sounded impressively clean and uncolored. It did not romanticize, editorialize, or elide, but had a crisp articulation that revealed everything that lurked within a mix, no matter how densely layered. And, lest you're wondering, it had deep, taut, fast, tuneful bass, and lots of it—but no more than seemed to be in the source material to begin with.
If power corrupts, what does bass do? Well, it tends to funkify me. I pulled out disc after disc with booty-juicin' stuff bubbling up from down below. On Kip Hanrahan's Conjure: Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed (Pangea PAND-42135, CD), the song "Jes' Grew" rollicks along on a bedrock established by not one but two of the most distinctive jazz electric bassists: Steve Swallow and Jamaaladeen Tacuma. The Focus 88's bass was deep, physical even, but extremely revealing of tune and nuance. It separated the lines of the two bassists so that each part was distinct and unblurred, and readily differentiated between Swallow's round, organic-sounding Gibson hollow-body and Tacuma's ringing, punchy, upper fretwork on his Steinberger.
The 88 also did a marvelous job of portraying Billy Hart's precise timekeeping on trapset, while deftly sorting out (and keeping in proportion) Puntilla Orlando Rios' percussion. Taj Mahal's vocals were given the weight and heft appropriate to such a big man, and saxophonist David Murray let rip a searing tenor solo that practically rent the very fabric of space and time—and the Focus 88 wasn't fazed a bit, sorting everything out and reporting on it honestly (footnote 1).
In recording after recording, I had much the same reaction: this speaker was unflappable. Throw big, complex music at it and it sorted it out and played it back honestly. Play a small, simple ensemble and it reflected that too. The Foci's soundstaging was holographic and detailed. And I couldn't overload them—at least, I wouldn't want to be in the same room with them anywhere close to their limit.
But I must say that I found the Focus 88's presentation somewhat on the forward side. It wasn't bright, and it sure wasn't etched or bleached—just closer than I prefer. Of course, "voicing" is the most intensely personal kind of predilection; many listeners will find the Focus 88 just right in this regard.
While at CES '98, I met Dutch recording engineer Jos van de Broek. One of his recordings, the Yuri Honing Trio's Star Tracks (Jazz in Motion 9920102), has become the newest denizen of my "most-played pile." Their version of Sting's "Walking on the Moon" personified the Focus 88's strengths. The speakers' soundstage is spacious and absolutely life-sized. Out of black silence, a tattoo on the drums rings out. Silence again. The bass sounds a heartbeat—lubdub, lubdub, lubdub..., its sound hitting the studio wall. Another crackle of rimshots. Then, deep and rich and huge, the bass sounds that E string, DUM dumdedummm... Then the sax joins in, all pinched, brassy tone. With just three instruments, an entire world is created...and it's perfect for as long as the song lasts.
Focus is to be congratulated. While preserving oodles and oodles of bass power and extension, the new Model 88 does not suffer from the excess of it that JA experienced in his audition. But they've managed to preserve the accuracy, soundstaging precision, and uncolored honesty he admired. This bespeaks a consistency in engineering and vision that is altogether rare. I'm glad I got to spend time with this speaker.—Wes Phillips
Footnote 1: I was present at Eurosound Studios back in 1983 when Murray recorded that shattering solo. He nailed it first time out, but was convinced he could do better. Producer Kip Hanrahan was down to only a few blank tracks left on the tape, so Murray suggested he rerecord on the same track. Fifteen takes later, Murray conceded defeat: "We should have kept that first one." Hanrahan grinned. "I never threw it away—it was too perfect. I dumped a doubled track. After all, if you'd come up with a better solo, it would have been worth it." That was the night I discovered what a producer does to earn his paycheck.—Wes Phillips