Fulton Musical Industries Model 80 & "J-Modular" loudspeakers The "FMI Cult"
In our editorial in this issue, we touched on the subject of reference loudspeakers and some ramifications thereof. Stereophile has on occasion been accused of heading an "FMI Cult," and to that we can only reply "Mea culpa." We have been promoting FMI speaker systems, and since we have recently been getting some flack from readers about our obvious pro-FMI biases, it behooves us to explain why we have ridden the FMI horse for so long, and why we feel it is now time to dismount and take a cab for a while.
We have met FMI's Robert Fulton many times, and found him a charming, if sometimes maddeningly unpredictable, gentleman. That aspect of the matter is irrelevant insofar as evaluations of his products are concerned, but as far as we're concerned, if you're going to like a manufacturer's products, it makes things easier if he isn't an irascible sonofabitch. What impressed us initially about Robert Fulton the man, though, was his intense dedication to serious music, and his rather remarkable ear for reproduced sound.
Unlike most designers, Fulton came to high fidelity out of music, rather than to music from high fidelity. Before he was into loudspeakers, he was making trumpet mouthpieces—an occupation for which there is practically no technology as such: Only craftsmanship. The quality of a trumpet mouthpiece can be judged only by its sound, and while trumpets, like violins, may sound different and still sound "good," the only way to judge the good from the unacceptable is aurally.
Mr. Fulton has been aptly described as a "seat-of-the-pants" designer. Although obviously well-versed in the technical end of audio, he prefers to use cut-and-try methods to obtain the sound he wants. The crossover network in the J-Modular system, for example, is probably the most complex ever devised for a speaker, and some aspects of it are incomprehensible to (and thus belittled by) most other speaker designers. But Fulton doesn't design by the book, nor by accepted practices; he does what he has to to produce a certain sound from his speakers, and he judges them with an ear that is usually more perceptive of the correct timbres of musical sounds than that of any other mortal we have met.
When he started exploring the field of loudspeaker design, he came into it at a time when other designers were still trying to wring deeper and smoother bass and higher and smoother highs from their devices. The middle range, which encompasses probably 90% of all musical content, had been pretty much neglected, with the result that all those loudspeakers with their thunderous bottoms and razor-sharp highs had an intervening range which either squawked or snarled or sounded like the ambience of an empty rain barrel. And the characteristic timbres of virtually every instrument in the orchestra were colored accordingly.
That is why the first FMI speaker we ever heard, an early Model 80, came as such a pleasant surprise. It had no deep bass and no high highs, but what it had in between was a more natural—a more realistic—representation of the real sounds of real instruments than any speaker system we had heard before. It was probably the first time we fully realized that fidelity could mean something other than wide frequency range and low distortion. The fact that we gave the 80 an enthusiastic report in the magazine despite its obvious deficiencies puzzled and confused those of our readers who react mainly to the highs and lows in live music (and offended most of those who haven't the foggiest idea of what live music sounds like).
And a derisive report in another magazine, by a reviewer who was clearly also oblivious to such things as accurate musical timbre, seemed to set a battle line of sorts between the "pro-FMI" and "anti-FMI" factions.
But what Fulton was doing with his loudspeakers struck a responsive chord in many audiophiles. The 80 rapidly became one of the most popular small speaker systems among listeners who were aware of its existence and attuned to the sound of live music. Interestingly but not surprisingly, it had little appeal for listeners with no associations of live-music experience, but the reactions of those who did were positive and, eventually, fiercely loyal. The FMI 80 touched them in a way no other speaker system had, and when FMI announced other, costlier speakers, there was a ready-made market of 80 owners prepared to assume that the bigger FMIs would be just as musical as the 80 but with more highs and lows.
When we reviewed the 80, we did find a couple of relatively minor things to complain about. (Although one of them was not the 12kHz peak that another reviewer claimed to have heard.) And Mr. Fulton responded by redesigning the speaker. He is still redesigning it, on what now appears to be a 4-month cycle.
And when other FMI models started appearing, those too became subject to an endless series of modifications until it became obvious to us that, until we could go from typewriter to post office with the magazine in a month or less, it was virtually a waste of time to review FMI's speakers because they were changing faster than we were publishing. Thus, by the time a report got in print, the speaker reviewed had more often than not already been obsoleted by a later, "improved" version.
Yet we continued to use the FMI J-Modular as our standard for equipment testing because: (1) It was, shortcomings notwithstanding, the most musically accurate and natural-sounding speaker system commercially available that could be used for full-range testing of power amplifiers (ie, biamping tells nothing about how an amplifier handles highs and lows simultaneously); (2) It was an extremely revealing speaker, and thus showed marked differences between input sources of varying quality; and (3) It was easier to leave them set up in the listening room than to schlep them back and forth between there and the storage area every time Mr. Fulton arrived with his latest modification.
Most of the modifications effected improvements in the sound. A few did not, but those were immediately remedied, occasionally on the spot. ("Oh, you don't like that brightness? That's easy to fix.") And off comes the back panel again—how many times can those screws be pulled without stripping their threads?, we often wondered—the room fills with the sweet incense of soldering flux, and another update becomes the "absolutely finalized version of the system." We lost track years ago of the number of times we had been assured that there would be no more modifications.
But through it all, the essential musicality of the FMI midrange prevailed, despite increasingly-obvious indications that the state of the art in midrange reproduction had long ago surpassed the Model 80, which still served as the pivotal midrange of the J-Modular system. In our previous listening room, the middle range of the J-Modulars always sounded recessed and reticent. We excused that only because, in other listening rooms, we had heard the same version (as ours) of the Js almost come to life.
We did feel, and still feel, that the Js at their best were a little loose at the low end, soft at the extreme top, and deficient in midrange detail and focus. But along with that musical naturalness through most of their span, they were also very revealing of imperfections in source material (which was ideal for our purposes), and astonishingly realistic when the source material was virtually perfect.
But every honeymoon has to come to an end. We had been growing increasingly irritated with the constant changes, and increasingly embarrassed by the repeated frustration of publishing interim reports on speakers which, when our readers got to audition them, had been changed since the report was written and no longer sounded the way we described them. FMI was, in effect, creating a credibility gap for us, and an "independent" audio publication without credibility is like a politician without a party. The latest change in the Js—which will undoubtedly be a previous change by the time this sees print—was in our opinion a large step backwards, an error in judgment which, on Mr. Fulton's past record, we find surprising. The J system, as of this moment (June 27), is shrill, heavy, and—quite an accomplishment with electrostatics—almost totally devoid of extreme high end.
That the latest modification resulting in this sorry state was done when we were right in the middle of our first batch of preamplifier tests was a further source of irk to us, but since we allowed the mod to be made at that time (assuming that, like previous ones, it would improve things), we can only blame ourselves for the disruption it caused. We were, however, forced, for the first time for some years, to retire the Js from our listening area and, temporarily, move the site of our final preamp tests to the home of one of our associate listeners. (Previous findings were, incidentally, verified there, which is one reason we are so smugly self-confident about their veracity.)
As we said, the latest problems with the Js will almost certainly have been ironed out by the time this sees print. And if yours were recently modified, resulting in excessive brightness (or inadequate lower midrange) and dull high end, it is our feeling that Mr. Fulton should undo his efforts at no cost to you, for it was a mistake for which you should not be held responsible. To those readers who, after having compared our comments about the Js (in "Recommended Components") with the way they now sound, were wondering if we had finally flipped our judgmental lid, we can do no more than to offer the foregoing explanation of what happened.
We are not dismissing FMI's speakers from future consideration. The 80s and l00s are still superb for their respective prices, unless these too have been goofed up unbeknownst to us. (New ones come in here and go out of here faster than we can get to them. Several went by un-auditioned.) But we are serving notice, to our readers and to Mr. Fulton, that we cannot use Stereophile as a newsletter for reporting every update of every model of FMI speaker system. We will accept one of each, once per year, for a conditional report (conditional on that speaker remaining unchanged at least until the report is published). And that is all.
Meanwhile, the best we can do is urge you, if you're looking for speakers, to audition whatever versions of FMIs are currently in your dealer's store. Listen for the characteristic sounds of the instruments you are most familiar with, and judge the speakers accordingly. They used to excel in that respect; they probably will again. Meanwhile, we are living, almost happily, with a pair of those dinky little Rogers BBC LS3/5as over a pair of the new M&K "Monitor 2" woofers, until such time as we find something better for fullrange amplifier testing. We just wish they'd play louder...—J. Gordon Holt