April 2004Focus Audio Signature FS-788 Loudspeakers
by Doug Schneider
Anyone who reads my reviews knows that I evaluate many stand-mounted two-way monitors -- speakers that I believe can offer tremendous value provided that a buyer is willing to give up deep bass. Small speakers cant go deep, but they can do everything else, sometimes shockingly well, and all at a fraction of the price of much larger designs that are more expensive to build. A great example is Focus Audios FS-688 (originally $2600 USD per pair, now $2990). They are beautifully made and exquisitely styled, use high-quality parts, and are able sonically to take on contenders costing quite a bit more -- just not in terms of bass.
But Im not oblivious to the fact that some people do want a reasonably deep bottom end and they might well want a speaker that doesnt require stands, either. That is precisely what Focus Audios next step up from the FS-688, the FS-788, offers. Priced at $5100 per pair, the FS-788 is a floorstanding two-way design thats built with the same attention to detail as the FS-688, but it can deliver bass of which the FS-688 can only dream. As I found out, the 788 is everything the 688 is -- and then some.
Standing 40" tall, 9" wide, and 11" deep and weighing 55 pounds, each FS-788 is a tall column that seems solidly built. The cabinet is constructed from MDF, and like all of Focus Audios Signature-series speakers, the 788s come in drop-dead-gorgeous real-wood veneer. The review sample came in piano burr oak, a finish that will make the speakers stand out in any listening room. Other finishes include piano walnut and piano black, both darker finishes that may help the speaker blend more discreetly into a room's décor.
One thing I didnt notice with the FS-688 but did with the FS-788 -- most likely because theres a lot more veneer on the FS-788 to look at -- is how well each pairs veneer is matched. Dart back and forth between each speaker and youll see surprisingly similar wood markings. Focus mentions in their literature about how they match the components to close tolerances -- this obviously includes the veneer as well.
As with the FS-688, the FS-788 uses the Scan-Speak Revelator tweeter -- reportedly one of the more expensive tweeters available. And also as with the FS-688, the FS-788 uses an Eton woofer with Nomex and Kevlar cone materials, and is ported on the rear. The 788s woofer is 7" in diameter, though, while the 688s is just 5 1/2".
Focus Audio says that the crossover transitions between the tweeter and woofer at about 2kHz -- a relatively low figure intended to take advantage of the bandwidth capabilities of the tweeter and make a smooth transition in terms of dispersion from driver to driver. In their product literature, Focus focuses on the quality of the crossover parts and, as with the drivers, close tolerances are maintained for each speaker -- something I can believe based on my experience with the FS-688s. When we had those speakers in for measurement, we took the opportunity to measure both speakers to determine if there were any performance differences. While I cant say that FS-688 has tighter speaker-to-speaker tolerances than any speaker weve measured, because we often only have one on hand due to logistics of getting speakers to the NRCs lab, I can say that of all the speaker pairs weve measured, the FS-688s ranked at the top in terms of matching.
Focus Audio states the 788s sensitivity as 86dB (1W/1m) and the impedance as 8 ohms. The company recommends amplifiers rated from 20 to 350Wpc.
Functionally and cosmetically, theres little to quibble about, but "little" doesnt mean "nothing." I do have a couple of small gripes. First, while I like the attractive way Focus Audio recessed the dual sets of high-quality Cardas binding posts on the back of the FS-788, I found them recessed too far, giving me a bit of grief getting even rather pliable spade-lug-terminated speaker cables like Nordost Valkyrja connected. Eventually, I did manage to work them in, but it was the result of a bit of pushing, prying, and bending. My other gripe involves the grilles -- the same thing I complained about with the FS-688. Given the FS-788's obvious attention to detail and stunning woodwork, I found it a tad disappointing to see a standard cloth-around-an-MDF-frame grille thats peg-attached to the speaker. To me, thats a typical grille on a not-so-typical speaker. Today many companies are doing quite novel things with magnets and other ways to more attractively attach the grille, and I would have liked to see something like that on Focus Audios Signature-series speakers.
System and setup
Focus Audio specs the FS-788s -3dB point as 35Hz, indicating fairly generous bass output. Therefore, I wasnt scared to pull the speakers way out from the walls -- I left about five feet of space behind them, and there was about two feet to each side wall. Toe-in was a slight 10 degrees -- a figure not set in stone, and more dependent on room interaction and listening position than anything.
I powered the 788s with Zanden Audios Model 600 integrated amplifier. This tube-based integrated is only rated at 30Wpc, but it was sufficient in my smallish room. However, if you have a fairly large room -- say, 15' x 15' or greater -- Id recommend a more powerful amplifier. The FS-788s have the bass output to fill a reasonably large room, but they are not the most sensitive speakers in the world, so it will take a bit of power to get them sounding their best.
The rest of my system consisted of the Zanden Model 5000 Mk IV DAC, Theta Data Basic transport, Assemblage D2D-1 sample-rate converter, i2Digital X-60 digital cables, Nordost Valkyrja speaker cables, and Valkyrja interconnects from the DAC to the integrated amp. All the electronics were plugged into an ExactPower EP15A line conditioner.
There are few pop/rock CDs that are as well recorded as Greg Keelors 1997 release Gone [Warner Canada 17513]. The first track, "When I See You," is a solemn, dark number that thunders into the room with an exceptionally deep-sounding drum recorded far back in the stage. The first time I listened to this track on the FS-788s, I knew that despite how much I liked the FS-688s, and even though theres a definite sonic family resemblance, the FS-788s have it over the FS-688s in almost every way. Where the 788s dont outright beat em, they at least meet em. In other words, everything thats special about the FS-688s is preserved -- the exceptionally sweet top end; as I note in my FS-688 review, the "rich, present, and natural" way the speakers have with voices; and the wonderful soundstaging characteristics. However, the FS-788s give you much more bass along with a room-filling sound that the FS-688s can only hint at, plus even more presence and texture in the midrange.
The drum sound on "When I See You" was reproduced with far greater depth and cleanliness than I ever thought my room would allow. The placement in the stage -- way, way back in a room thats seemingly quite large -- was effortless to discern. On this track, Sarah McLachlan next moves in on piano. The FS-788s render that instrument with richness and vibrancy, and without a hint of overhang or glare -- the FS-688s never sounded as big or grand as the 788s. Keelors thickly textured voice comes next, placed the farthest forward and dead center in the stage. As with the piano, theres wonderful richness and vibrancy in his voice, and not a hint of chestiness or an overly resonant quality. The stage was laid out with uncanny specificity; overall, the amount of detail and the ability to see "into" the recording impressed me greatly.
But then a good number of things impressed me about the FS-788s. They have a rich and grand character that imbues instruments like piano and drums with a large, lifelike, and realistic sound. I also found the FS-788s a tad warm, not a bad thing, since at the same time they don't sound fat, woolly or bloated.
Bass isnt in the down-to-20Hz range, so you cant call this a true full-range speaker, but its as deep and weighty as Id expect speakers with 7" woofers to be. The FS-688s go just so low and then drop off rapidly, while the FS-788s roll off far more gradually, making the their cut-off point rather difficult to discern by ear because so many factors come into play when reproducing bass in a real room. Im not exactly sure how low they go; in a bigger room theyll likely go even deeper than in my room. For me, the FS-788s go deep enough, and theres no way a listener is going to find them light-sounding. More important though is how the 788s deliver the bass -- with power and control. Fat, sloppy bass drains life from most music, and a kick drum shouldnt sound like a thumped beach ball. Down low, the 788s are weighty and quick.
This "control" holds true straight up through the midrange. Keelors closely miked voice can sound quite chesty on lesser speakers -- that extra resonance I mentioned earlier that tends to overemphasize and blur voices -- while the piano and drums can be overripe and become obscured in the mix. The FS-788s have a wonderful sense of urgency about them and can sound full and natural. They are never uncontrolled and congested, which surprised me. Some warmer speakers are also less detailed. Not so with the FS-788s -- theyre warm-sounding and highly detailed.
And the highs -- wow! Just as with the FS-688s, the FS-788s' extreme top end is exceptionally extended and sweet. These are the only speakers Ive reviewed that use Scan-Speak Revelator tweeters, and from what I can tell, this driver is quite spectacular. It extends to the stratosphere but never sounds dry, clinical, or etched.
Next I turned to another rather solemn, gravelly voiced singer -- Bob Dylan and his "Man in the Long Black Coat" (Oh Mercy [Sony 90316]), a cut that provides a good midrange workout for any loudspeaker. Producer Daniel Lanois captures Dylans nasally, raspy voice with a very present, sometimes-in-your-face sound. Some loudspeakers make this track sound too up-front and make what should be just raspiness into something quite nasty. The FS-788s, though, keep their composure, managing to sound highly detailed and never hard or edgy. If anything, there is velvety texture to their sound -- along with a little bit of upper-bass boost that helps add some warmth. Theyre a touch laid-back in the upper mids -- just a touch -- and where the male vocals seem velvety, female voices, like Ani DiFrancos, sound silky and sweet. The FS-788 sounds as though it was voiced to be pleasant rather than offensive, very much like the FS-688.
On Oh Mercy, I again couldnt help notice how good the FS-788s are at laying out a soundstage -- in fact, its something you just cant miss. The width of the stage wont necessarily knock you out -- things stay at the speakers or between, with no out-to-the-side phasey things going on -- but the image specificity and the depth of stage will. This was a strength of the FS-688s, and it repeats itself to the letter with the FS-788s. On "Man in the Long Black Coat," Dylan kicks in on harmonica, and like the drums on Keelors album, the instrument is placed way back in the stage with pinpoint precision. The depth of stage and the sense of space were a snap to discern. Theres no closing your eyes and imagining the stage with the 788s -- any recording that has a well-defined soundstage was reproduced with astounding precision.
Obviously, the FS-788s impressed me, but as much as there is to like about the FS-788s, sigh, I have to let you in on a secret: Theyre not quite perfect. But heres another secret: There isnt a speaker in the world that is.
First, as I said before, the 788 isnt a true full-range speaker -- not that this revelation should surprise anyone. Full range, in the audiophile world, means bass to 20Hz. The FS-788s dont offer that, nor did I ever expect them to with a single 7" woofer. They have tight, controlled bass starting from an octave or so above that, and this impressed me enough. In fact, in my room the FS-788s' low end was just about perfect. But if you want even more bass, the company makes the dual-woofered FS-888. Second, the FS-788 isnt a pinnacle of absolute neutrality. Although, most certainly, the FS-788 is not wildly colored by any stretch of the imagination, I do hear a bit of a rise in the upper bass/lower mids -- something that I believe contributes to the warmth and fullness that this speaker conveys. Its also a touch down in the upper mids, making it a bit laid-back, although certainly not rolled off in any way in the extreme highs. The FS-788s deviate slightly, but they sound darned good the way theyre voiced.
Speakers like the FS-788 have to satisfy two audiophile requirements: appearance and sound. Make no mistake about it, when youre paying thousands for speakers, part of what you pay for is the way the speaker looks. Of course, the speaker should also sound as good as it looks. The most recent competitor I've had in my listening room was Veritys Tamino X3 -- a gorgeous-looking and beautifully constructed close-to-full-range speaker thats priced at $6000 per pair. Its a logical competitor to the FS-788.
Appearance-wise, these two speakers are quite different. The Tamino X3, with its truncated-pyramid enclosure, is more slender and far less visually obtrusive. It appears designed to blend with décor rather than stand out from it like the FS-788. Taste, obviously, will dictate which will be more suitable for you. I liked the look of the FS-788, but overall I preferred the unassuming and graceful appearance of the Tamino X3 -- they have visual elegance that few speakers can match. And despite the fitnfinish quality of the FS-788, the Tamino X3 is even more polished.
When it came to sound, though, the FS-788s worked far better in my room. The Tamino X3s, with their rear-firing woofer, have serious weight down low -- more so than the FS-788s -- but they also sounded a bit fat and tended to overload my room. The Tamino X3s may have needed more space, whereas the 788s were ideal.
The midrange was more of an apples-to-oranges thing. The FS-788s are a touch laid-back, but the Tamino X3s seem more laid-back still. As well, the Tamino X3s were a touch dry in the mids, where, as I mentioned, the FS-788s have a velvety sound thats almost lush by comparison. I preferred the balance of the 788s, at least in my room. The Tamino X3s can cast an impressively large soundstage -- perhaps even larger than the 788s', particularly when it comes to width -- but the 788s were more exact with their image placement.
The top end, though, is where I found a clear winner. To my ears the FS-788s tweeter beats out the Tamino X3s quite handily -- I made the same observation in my Tamino X3 review when I compared them to the Focus Audio FS-688s (remember that the 688 and 788 share the same tweeter). The high frequencies from the FS-788s, as well as the 688s, sound cleaner, sweeter, and more detailed than those of the Tamino X3, which sounds drier and not quite as clear by comparison.
In the world of speakers I tend to frequent -- minimonitors and inexpensive overachievers -- $5100 is a lot of money to spend. But I love this range of speakers because I find so many that justify their price more easily than higher-priced models. However, I can understand full well why someone would buy the FS-788s. In fact, the FS-788s are speakers I could easily live with -- and I dont say that often.
The FS-788s are considerably more expensive than the FS-688s, but they represent a clear step up in a number of ways. In my room, the FS-788s delivered just the right amount of tight, well-controlled bass, possessed a deliciously vivid and textured midrange, and showed high-frequency airiness and sweetness that are among the very best Ive heard. When it comes to soundstaging and imaging, the FS-788s, like the FS-688s, are what I judge others against -- theyre that good. And lets not forget that the 788s look quite stunning with their scrumptious real-wood veneer, which is important at this price point.
Yes, $5100 is a lot of money to spend on any single piece of audio equipment -- particularly for a two-way speaker -- but if you want striking looks and great sound, the Focus Audio FS-788, to my eyes and ears, delivers.
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