Fulton Musical Industries Model 80 & "J-Modular" loudspeakers
It's a little walnut box with a black grille, containing an ordinary-looking 6" woofer and two 2" cone tweeters that look suspiciously like those little Peerless jobs that give many dynamic systems their high-end spit and sizzle. The only thing that's unusual about the FMI 80s is their sound.
Since our initial listen to the 80s, the manufacturer sent us a later, "improved" version and took the original ones back. The new ones (starting with serial number 18583) have better low end and a smoother and more-extended top, but they don't have quite the aliveness of the originals. There is still of enough of that elusive quality, though, to suggest that some comparisons with our Class A–Recommended speaker systems might not be such an outrageous idea. We made such comparisons in course of our tests, with some rather remarkable results.
Of course, for $89 each, nobody can expect the FMI 80 to be a state-of-the-art speaker. And it isn't. To begin with, they aren't very impressive as bass reproducers. The low end of a stereo pair rolls off rapidly below 60–80Hz, depending on the room and the speakers' locations in it, and they are rather heavy through the mid-bass region when placed for maximum low-end range (on the floor near a wall). But the bass they do produce is surprisingly (for their size) tight and detailed. They do not have as much overall focus and middle-range detail as a couple of systems we've heard—specifically the KLH Nines and the Magneplanars.
Neither do they have the liquid transparency or the high-end airiness of the KLH Nine, or the vastness, of the EPI Macrotowers. They don't have the gutsiness of the big Altec or JBL systems, the richness of the IMF systems or the authority of the Infinity SS-1. But at listening levels below loud-loud (which we define as around 95dB SPL), and with suitable program material (about which more later), the 80s proved to be more musically natural than any of our Class A–Recommended systems, and were, a very close second in this respect to the almost legendary Quad electrostatic. At $89 each, they must now be considered the best buy in loudspeakers today.
Against the Dyna A-25
In view of the fact that we made that same statement about the Dyna A-25 speakers some time ago (in the issue dated "Summer 1968"), it is enlightening to compare them. They are not similar in sound, and in fact, do not even do best with the same kind of amplifiers. The FMIs were designed to be used with tube amps and they sound at their best when so used. The Dynas seem to do best with solid-state amps, so we made our comparisons with one of the best-sounding amplifiers of each variety that we had on hand: an Audio Research Dual 75 for the Fultons and a Citation 12 for the Dynas (footnote 1).
On direct comparisons, the differences between the speakers were immediately obvious. Overall balance was remarkably similar, but there the similarity ended The Dynas went somewhat lower, but did not seem to go out as far at the top. The Dynas sounded subtly zizzy at the high end, while the Fultons sounded smooth. The Dynas sounded somewhat rich, while the Fultons were raw when the music or the recording was that way. But the most noticeable difference was that, while the Dynas sounded very good, the Fultons sounded real. Our subjective response curves (fig.1) show how both systems sounded to us.
The 80s are not entirely without coloration, though. There is a very mild bump in the response at 300Hz, which adds a trace of drumminess to the sound when the speakers are off the floor, and causes a moderately heavy mid-bottom from some recordings when the speakers are on the floor near a wall. There is also what sounds like a broad response rise centered at around 1.5kHz from a lot of commercial recordings, but the fact that it was absent from others, as well as from tapes we made ourselves, suggested that the speaker was merely reproducing what was on the recordings themselves.
Stereo imaging from the 80s is good but only moderately so. Center-image specificity is rather vague, and the sound tends to hop from side to side as you move across the listening area. Imaging as well as specificity are best with the speaker axes parallel rather than converging, although parallel aiming tends to reduce the effective listening area. Best results, with optimum imaging, specificity, and listening area spread, are with the speakers slightly above or below ear height. This also produces the largest apparent source size, giving the impression of two truly vast systems, with some sounds seeming to emanate from beyond the "stage" width of the speakers.
We mentioned that the 80s seem to sound best with good tube-type simplifiers. In fact, the best sound we got from them was with an Audio Research Dual 75. And if the idea of driving a pair of $89 speakers with a $1000 amplifier strikes you as absurd, all we can say is, no other amplifier can make the 80s sound that musically lucid and real. On the other hand, one moderately priced tube amp, the Dyna Stereo 70, works superbly with the Fultons, and the combination Will put out very respectably clean signals at levels up to around 92dB SPL, which is more than loud enough for most listeners.
All of the solid-state amplifiers we tried—including the Citation 12, Crown DC300A, and Dyna Stereo 120—yielded less musically natural sound than the Stereo 70.
In short, these are fantastically good speakers for the price, at least for classical-music listeners. They do not, however, have the qualities that many rock enthusjasts demand—the "sizzling" highs, the thunderous bottom, and the ability to project sounds right out into the room. But within the range that they span, the sheer naturalness and musicality of the 80s are surpassed (slightly) by only one other system we know of—the Quad full-range electrostatic.
By now you are probably wondering why in the name of Heaven have we devoted this much space to a report on a pair of speakers speakers with no low end and an imperfect (ie, not-as-good-as-e1ectrostatic) high end? The reason is that, as of this writing, FMI is working on a bass extender for the Model 80 (or any other bass-shy speakers), which will include a crossover network for the extraordinary RTR ESR-6 electrostatic tweeter.
We heard a pair of 80/ESR-6 combinations some time ago, used in conjunction with the bass panels from a Magneplanar Tympany III system, and were a bit taken back to find that they outperformed the Magneplanar's own middle and high-end screens. The Magnep1anars djd have somewhat more definition, but by comparison with the "life" of the FMI/RTR combination, the Magneplanar sounded almost lifeless—a big, rich reproduction versus the next best thing to the original sound.
If FMI's own woofer is as tightly detailed as that of the Tympany III, with the extra octave of low-end range that Fulton claims to be striving for, the 80s could well become the basis of a trul state-of-the-art system for use in all but the largest listening rooms. And that, people, is why we did a three-page report on a $90 speaker system.
Incidentally, these speakers make ideal monitors for on-location recording, when you can hole up in a room behind the stage or at the rear of the auditorium, where the speakers won't feed back to the mikes. They are eminently portable (you could attach handles to them) and, except for the deep-bass limitation, good enough to tell you almost exactly what your mikes are picking up, with better stereo staging than you can ever get from headphones.
Footnote 1: Within its power capability the Citation 12 is actually somewhat more transparent than the Crown DC-300A, and it does not overdamp the low end of the A-25 as do amps with as high a damping factor as the DC-300A. FMI informs us that the Crown D-60 (which we haven't tested) sounds even better than the Citation.