Focal Electra 1037 Be loudspeaker
The sound kept pace with the new look: from warmish, comfort-food rich to faster, leaner, low-fat nouvelle. The 1000 Be series brought Focal to the attention of a new segment of the audio enthusiast marketplace and, according to the company, the handsome, floorstanding 1027 Be ($7995/pair), enthusiastically reviewed by Sam Tellig in Stereophile in November 2005, quickly became a best-seller. (John Atkinson favorably reviewed the stand-mounted 1007 Be in June 2006.)
Focal's new Electra 1037 Be ($10,995) is essentially a larger, more powerful 1027 Be, with the latter speaker's basic architecture and components. Both are three-way, bottom-ported designs, and both feature Focal's exclusive 1" inverted beryllium-dome tweeter with Infinite Acoustic Loading (IAL) enclosure and 6½" W midrange cone. In place of the 1027's two 6½" W cones, the 1037 features three 7" W drivers, which should result in improved bass extension, dynamic capabilities, and sensitivity.
The Electra 1037 Be's stack of three woofers necessitated a 6" height increase over the 1027, to 49", though the 1037 is only 1" wider and 2" deeper. Still, it weighs almost 40 lbs more: 112 lbs each. The result is a tall, graceful, imposing, wedge-shaped structure with stained redwood side cheeks, glossy, black curved baffle, recessed drivers, and flush-mounted grilles. It's probably the most attractive-looking speaker Focal has produced.
Last summer, when Canada-based American importer Audio Plus Services found out I was attending Milan's Top Audio Show (on my own dime), they invited me to make a detour (on their dime) to visit Focal in France, before flying on to the UK for the Hi-Fi News show at Heathrow Airport.
My first French stop was the Roman-built village of Bourbon-Lancy, home of the Guy.HF woodworking and cabinetmaking factory, where Focal's furniture-quality speaker enclosures have been built since Focal was founded in 1980. By 2001, Focal was accounting for 95% of Guy.HF's output, and so bought a 49% stake in the company from longtime audiophile and cabinetmaker Jean-Paul Guy, whose father, Emile, had founded the firm in 1945.
Next day, I went to Focal's company headquarters in St. Etienne, with a side trip to an off-site facility where they make their proprietary W cones from a light, stiff sandwich of aircraft-grade foam and glass fiber, the latter impregnated with a bonding agent. Focal claims this results in the lightest, stiffest, best-damped cones in the business. (How Focal came up with this idea (it involves yachting) and how they worked for years to bring it to fruition are stories that should be told, but not here.) Focal is vertically integrated: its speaker designers can specify the precise mass, rigidity, and damping factor required for a particular drive-unit cone, vary these by changing the thickness of the glass fiber, and then produce the actual cones—all at this same facility.
Then came a tour of the main factory, where Focal assembles by hand its premium drivers; makes all of its crossover networks and aluminum, titanium, and beryllium inverted-dome tweeters; and where a semi-automated driver-assembly production line, designed and built-in house, lets Focal continue to build drivers for its lower-priced lines in France instead of outsourcing them to China, as most companies have done.
Assembly, testing, and boxing of the finished loudspeakers also take place in the main factory. To eliminate customer confusion, the parent company, Focal, is in the process of dropping from its products the JMlab brand (named after company founder Jacques Mahul, who remains its president).
Electra 1037 Be specifics
The 1000 Be series uses what Focal calls Advanced Gamma® cabinet construction, in which wooden side panels, varying in thickness and radiused where they meet the curved front baffle, create an enclosure with nonparallel sides. This inhibits standing waves and creates a low-diffraction environment for the tweeter, which is incorporated into a curved, self-contained aluminum structure that matches the front baffle's contour.
The midrange driver and the three woofers are set back into recesses in the baffle. Two grilles whose curves match the baffle's contour are mounted flush with the surface of the baffle to create a clean, integrated appearance. A removable wire mesh puck, held in place by concealed magnets, protects the tweeter.
The midrange drive-unit operates between 230Hz and 2kHz. While extending this driver's range to the more typical 2.3kHz or 2.7kHz region (or up to 4.8kHz, in the case of the Peak Consult El Diablo, which I reviewed in May) has the potential to improve the system's tonal and phase continuity by having a single driver generate the key instrumental and vocal fundamentals, beaming occurs as the crossover frequency rises and the cone diameter exceeds the sound's wavelength. Beaming results in an overpolite, "mellow" sound caused by the speaker's inability to deliver enough presence-region frequency energy off axis.
One of Focal's goals for the 1000 Be series was to move the crossover point down to 2kHz to avoid the beaming problem and to take advantage of the beryllium tweeter's fast response time in the critical 2–4kHz range. According to Focal (and Isaac Newton too, I'll bet), acceleration is inversely proportional to mass. Focal's tweeters of ultra-stiff beryllium are both thinner and of far lower mass than Focal's own aluminum and magnesium tweeters and, the company's literature claims, the highly touted deposited-diamond domes made by "others." Focal admits that, as a marketing tool, diamond is a boy's best friend, and that diamond domes are three times more rigid than beryllium—but they're also almost five times as heavy, and thus, Focal claims, have a far slower response time.
One way to get greater low-frequency extension from a beryllium tweeter would be to increase its mass, but that would be self-defeating. Instead, Focal's engineers incorporate a Poron surround (an inverted dome is much like a woofer), and place the driver in a small aluminum IAL enclosure that can be tuned to provide a near-infinite-baffle load. Focal claims that the combination of the very stiff beryllium tweeter and the IAL enclosure produces nearly flat response from 2kHz to 4kHz, along with improved definition and dispersion, lower distortion, and a drop in the tweeter's low-frequency resonance to 680Hz, obviating the need for steep filtering near the 2kHz crossover to the midrange driver.
The specifications Focal provided did show very low distortion in the tweeter's passband, and an impressively smooth high-frequency response that was virtually flat to 20kHz, with a high-frequency resonance just beyond 20kHz of low amplitude and narrow Q, followed by a steep rolloff and a response extending to around 40kHz. The tweeter's impulse response was equally impressive: very fast and well behaved, with a fast settling time. You'd think such measurements would indicate exceptionally smooth frequency response and uncolored sound.
Easy setup, riveting sound
Placed where virtually every other pair of speakers has worked well in my room, the Electra 1037 Bes immediately lived up to the high level of performance promised by Focal. Even the sorts of seams and bumps that jump out in my early listening to most speakers, but which often fade into the background over time, never showed up.
While the Focals neither plumbed the depths like nor produced the CinemaScopic soundstage of my reference speakers, the Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX 2s, they easily compensated for those minor acts of omission with top-to-bottom speed, transparency, resolution, and cohesiveness. The Electra 1037 Be was as fast and tightly sprung in the bottom octaves as it was in the middle and top ones. Its beryllium tweeter dispensed with "air" and "sparkle," replacing them with real detail I could hear way into the soundstage.
Transients were faster than sharp, approaching the ease, physicality, and true speed that lets you know, even from down the block or around the corner, that you're hearing live music, not a recording. And bass notes reproduced by the 1037 Be had equal speed, clarity, and cleanness, unmarred by cabinet "hangover" or bloat.
Cold colorations add grain, edge, and brightness. Warm ones produce chestiness, thickness, and rhythmic sludginess, as well as hoots, honks, and hollowness. The Electra produced no colorations, either cold or warm. Like the Audio Physic Scorpio, which seemed to just be and proved to have impressively flat in-room response (though many more problems when measured semi-anechoically, for what that's worth), the 1037 Be seemed to melt into the woodwork to become one with the musical universe of space and tonality, especially the latter.
Rhino's recent reissue on 180gm vinyl of Joni Mitchell's Blue (Reprise MS 2038) suspended a startlingly clear, compact apparition of Mitchell between the Electras. The solidity and three-dimensionality of her voice were matched by the delicacy, transparency, and effervescence usually produced only by ribbon, electrostatic, or planar magnetic drivers.
You don't want to hear any chesty residue weighing down the voice, but the subtle, low-frequency percussive taps slipped into the mix of "All I Want" should have texture and weight, and sound not at all brittle or cardboardy. The distinctive timbre of James Taylor's guitar should ring cleanly, with the strings and body given appropriate space. The Electras delivered it all with that track, as well as with "My Old Man": the piano's percussive character was in pleasing balance with its rich, woody, timbral overtones, while the wide range of expressive pressures in Mitchell's chording were effectively and subtly communicated.