Focus Audio Signature Model 88 loudspeaker Page 2

It took me quite a while to find the best positions for the Model 88s in my room, which, at around 3000ft3, is somewhat smaller than Focus recommends. The entire bass range, while clean-sounding, was generally elevated above the midband level; if the bass was not to sound too boomy, the speakers needed to be farther away from room boundaries than the B&W Silver Signatures that usually fill my room with sound. And even then, it was essential to use the spikes to preserve the low-frequency definition. (While the Focus 88 has two sets of speaker terminals for bi-wiring or bi-amping, it is not possible to fine-tune the woofer balance or its integration with the midrange by reducing its level or experimenting with its electrical polarity. Unusually, one set of terminals feeds the tweeter, the other the midrange unit and the woofer. Given my druthers, I would have split the feed into woofer and midrange/tweeter.)

Once I'd found their optimal placements, it was possible to hear how low these speakers went. The bass warble tones on Stereophile's Test CD 3—I filtered these in the mastering so they are much cleaner-sounding than those on our earlier two test CDs—were reproduced at full level down to 25Hz, without any wind noises from the port. Only on the 20Hz warble tone did the output fall and the woofer cones start to unload. I dragged out my "bass spectacular" recordings. Pipe organ sounded majestic. Bass guitar had gutbucket weight. Even with the speakers driven by the 30W Pass Aleph 3, the monstrous bass drum on EMI's 1977 recording of Elgar's Coronation Ode (re-released on CD in 1987 with the 1969 Boult Kingdom, EMI Classics 7 64209 2) was reproduced with awesome power, the sound lighting up the reverberant acoustic of King's College Chapel, Cambridge.

However, when I put "Le temps passé" from Michel Jonasz's La fabuleuse histoire de Mister Swing (French Warner Bros. 2292 42338-2), which admittedly has overcooked bass, in the Levinson transport, the little Pass Labs lost control of the Focus's low frequencies, the sound degenerating into a blurry boom. These speakers really require solid-state muscle for their exaggerated low frequencies to remain tight; for most of the rest of my auditioning I used a Mark Levinson No.332.

When it came to the midrange, the Focus had no identifiable colorations. However, it is voiced to have a somewhat forward character, which added an excellent sense of realism, of presence, to recorded voice and saxophone. No "mid-hall" speaker, the Focus 88 was superbly revealing of small details of recorded balance. When you make your own recordings, there are always small differences in tonal quality, of the quality of the ambience, between tapes made on different days even when everything is the same. These were revealed so clearly on the big Focuses that when it came time for me to edit the masters of Stereophile's new Rhapsody recording (STPH010-2—see "The Rhapsody Project" elsewhere in this issue), I almost exclusively used these speakers to judge the quality of each crossfade between different takes. If the splice sounded seamless on the transparent Focus 88s, I could be sure it would be acceptable on more forgiving loudspeakers.

These speakers also offered accurate, tightly defined stereo imaging. Dual-mono sources produced a narrow central image that was stable with frequency; ie, it didn't "splash" to the sides at some frequencies. This was also a help in the editing of Rhapsody: slight soundstage differences either side of an edit point go unnoticed on headphones, due to the reproduction's in-the-head character. They will also be obscured by speakers that broaden and smear individual soundsource images within the sonic picture. But on the Focus Model 88s I could hear even the slightest "gear-change" effect if the soundstages didn't match exactly. Image depth, however, while good, was not as great as I have heard from some time-coherent speakers.

Overall, the treble was superbly clean and free from grain. However, the combination of a forward balance and exceptional clarity was unkind to recordings that themselves were rather grainy. Musically, I am a big fan of the series of recordings Hyperion has been releasing of Matthew Best conducting the UK's Corydon Singers. I recently found in the secondhand bins at a local CD hut their 1987 performance of Bernstein's Chichester Psalms (CDA66219). I bought the disc for the Bernstein, a favorite work since I first heard it live. However, the standout piece on this disc is Samuel Barber's Agnus Dei, his 1967 unaccompanied vocal arrangement of the famous Adagio for Strings, which was recorded with a wide dynamic range.

At moderately high playback levels, you could marvel at the feeling that while every voice was identifiable within the soundstage, they still blended into a luminous-sounding whole. And the Focus speaker's bass character reinforced the bass line without adding boom or excessive bloom. But as the scoring swelled and the sopranos added a high descant, the sound acquired a little bit of an edge. Was it due to the fact that this disc is one of the few in my collection to have been pre-emphasized? Or was the Focus 88 adding a little presence-region bite? I suspect the latter, as this characteristic was a constant in my auditioning. While naturally balanced recordings—the superb new Brahms Symphony 4 from Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBC Music MM56) comes to mind—were reproduced with a musically satisfying presence, the sounds of more upfront classical and solo piano recordings had a little too much of a good thing, which made me reach for the volume control.

Overall, however, the cleanliness and clarity of the Focus's presentation had me playing recordings at higher levels than I was used to with the B&W Silver Signatures. The 24-bit solo drum recording I made at the same time as the Rhapsody sessions has immense dynamic range; despite the rather distant miking, the kickdrum punched forth from the Focus speakers in a very satisfying manner. And the cymbals on the 96kHz version, recorded in parallel with the 44.1kHz version, simply sounded real.

The Focus Signature Model 88 is undoubtedly expensive, though its discreet profile and piano-black finish hardly scream "high perceived value" at passersby. Yet it offers high-quality sound, with excellent stereo imaging, clarity, bass extension, and dynamics. Balanced a little on the forward side, and with low frequencies that will be overgenerous in smaller rooms, it nevertheless sounds eminently musical. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Focus 88s. You will too.

Focus Audio
43 Riviera Dr., Unit #10
Markham, Ontario, Canada L3R 5J6
(905) 415-8773