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Equipment Review

May 2005

Focus Audio Signature FS-888 Loudspeakers

by Jason Thorpe

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Review Summary
Sound "My first impression of these formidable speakers was one of correct bass, "the kind of bass response that, when you hear it, immediately registers as accurate, satisfying and proper." They "place instruments just slightly behind the speaker plane in an almost holographic manner." "The upper-treble region may be a little bit too forward to be absolutely neutral," but "there’s a refreshing effervescence to the FS-888s’ highs that is most endearing and very addictive."
Features "The FS-888 employs a 1" Scan-Speak Revelator soft-dome tweeter," which "crosses over at 2kHz to two 7" Eton carbon-fiber midrange/bass drivers." "With the FS-888 both 7" drivers handle the bass and midrange, so it’s really a two-way speaker with three drivers."
Use "The FS-888 is rather tall, and its tweeter sits significantly above ear level. Focus Audio says that they have optimized the speaker for this orientation, and that it should be set up to fire straight ahead, not tilted downward to fire directly at the listener." "The rear port necessitates placement well out into the room in order to avoid boominess."
Value "I can imagine discerning but shortsighted audiophiles overlooking the FS-888s in their hunt for long-term floorstanding speakers because they’re just not expensive enough."

A few years back when I was shopping for a new bed I encountered a dizzying maxim: a hard bed is good for the back. While this proposal seemed reasonable on initial examination, it runs counter to my empirical experience, which suggests that soft beds are more comfortable and better conform to the body’s contours. Sure enough, after lying on one of those pillow-topped miracles for ten minutes or so, I felt like I had returned to the womb.

While I was luxuriating in the soft embrace of this platform of love, a man and woman were evaluating a similar model right beside me. After lying for 15 seconds on that bed, the man stood up and declaimed that no, this wasn’t for him. "It’s too comfortable," he said, and walked off in search of something more ascetic.

I’ve met a number of audiophiles like that man. They don’t seem to glean much pleasure from listening to music. It’s almost as if they don’t trust a system that’s enjoyable. They want sound that's knife-edge sharp and dry as a bone, as if these traits mean that an audio system is somehow more accurate and therefore better for your CDs, LPs and ears. They’re not listening to music -- they’re atoning for their sins.

Such people would hate Focus Audio's FS-888 speakers.

More caviar!

So then what type of person would love the FS-888s, which are the top-of-the-line offering in Focus Audio’s Signature series? Music lovers, that’s who. This small, under-the-radar company located just north of Toronto has been quietly cranking out delicious-looking and -sounding speakers for over a decade, and each time I’ve heard them at various audio shows, I’ve sat there for much longer than I originally planned, seduced by the speakers' enveloping, involving way of presenting music.

In their high-gloss (and I mean really high-gloss) burr-oak finish, the $8190 USD FS-888 speakers wouldn’t look out of place in a stately English home. I’d imagine that the Queen Mum would approve of the appearance of this speaker, and if not, the grainy walnut or deep piano-black finish options might do the trick. Think Connolly leather, Cashmere wool, and Rolex chronometer. When you touch or handle any of these luxury products, you intuitively know that they cost a lot of money. You also know that, should you have the free cash, you’d definitely purchase them. It’s the same with the FS-888s. They’re a rich truffle.

There’s nothing overtly tricky about the speakers in Focus Audio’s Signature line. Instead of trying to re-invent the wheel, Focus Audio seems to have decided to push the conventional rectangle-with-three-drivers concept as far as possible. The FS-888 employs a 1" Scan-Speak Revelator soft-dome tweeter, which has an aura of exclusivity about it and is quite expensive. This tweeter crosses over at 2kHz to two 7" Eton carbon-fiber midrange/bass drivers. While most speakers of this configuration would be considered two-and-a-half-way designs, with one driver playing only bass and the other playing bass and midrange frequencies, with the FS-888 both 7" drivers handle the bass and midrange, so it’s really a two-way speaker with three drivers.

Focus Audio claims that the second-order crossover has extremely high-quality parts, all point-to-point wired with AudioQuest wire and joined via silver solder. I didn’t open up the FS-888 in order to verify this, as the thought of putting a screwdriver anywhere near this beautiful speaker was horrifying indeed. According to Focus Audio, the FS-888 is 90dB/W/m sensitive, and its impedance is 4 ohms. These figures point to the FS-888s being reasonably easy speakers to drive, but I did find that they appreciated a chunky amp in order to sound their best.

That this is a dense box is immediately apparent the first time you try to move it by yourself. It’s 85 pounds and it does not cooperate. The front baffle is constructed of 2" MDF, while the sidewalls are 1" thick, and there are numerous cross-braces in the horizontal plane and one in the vertical. According to Kam Leung, the designer of the FS-888, Focus Audio had experimented with additional damping materials, including lead sheet and bituminous compounds, but found that these deadened the box so much that the resulting sound was sterile. Instead, he preferred to keep the cabinet just slightly resonant, which, he believes, helps retain the emotion and expressiveness that have become Focus Audio hallmarks.

Make yourself at home

At 46"H x 9"W x 14"D, the FS-888 is rather tall, and its tweeter sits significantly above ear level. Focus Audio says that they have optimized the speaker for this orientation, and that it should be set up to fire straight ahead, not tilted downward to fire directly at the listener. On the horizontal plane, I found that a little bit of toe-in firmed up the imaging nicely.

The FS-888 can be a bit fussy to place. While there were no problems in my larger room, when I brought the speakers down to my smaller room that houses my reference system, I had some difficulties, as the rear port necessitates placement well out into the room in order to avoid boominess. However this requirement was at odds with the dual midrange/woofers’ desire to integrate farther away from the listener. Too close to the listening position and I got a lower-midrange resonance. Too far away and the bass ended up somewhat heavy-handed. All this points to the need for a room no smaller than my 14'x16' basement, as in my larger room I had no such boundary issues. I was able to get superb sound in my smaller room, but positioning options were limited.

System-wise, I initially drove the FS-888s with a Threshold SA5000/e power amplifier, but netted increased bass tightness and midrange delineation by upping the wattage via the Anthem P2 Statement amplifier. While the Threshold had no problem driving the FS-888s, the switch to the P2 was definitely worthwhile.

The rest of the main-floor system consisted of my Museatex Bidat DAC, which directly drove the Threshold amp and was fed by a Toshiba SD-3750 DVD player. Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval comprised all signal cablage. Power cords here were GutWire Powerclef2s, which were plugged in to the GutWire Maxcon Extreme conditioner.

Once dragged down to the basement, the FS-888s were fed by the aforementioned Anthem P2, which in turn received its signals from either an FT Audio LW1 passive or Blue Circle BC3000 active preamplifier. The source was a Pro-Ject RPM 9 turntable mounted with a Shelter 501 Mk II cartridge. This low-level signal was amplified by either an Ayre P-5x phono preamp or my own Sonic Frontiers SFP-1 Signature phono stage. Cabling in this system was mixed, varying among Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval balanced interconnects, Acoustic Zen Satori speaker cables, and a hodge-podge of power cords, none of them glamorous.

Is that luxe? No, it’s deluxe

Occasionally when you first listen to a piece of equipment, it makes a clear announcement. When I set the FS-888s up in my larger room, my first impression of these formidable speakers was one of correct bass. This is the kind of bass response that, when you hear it, immediately registers as accurate, satisfying and proper. It belies all considerations of fat, or lean, tight or sloppy. While tilting slightly to the warm side of neutral, the FS-888 wallops out accurate low frequencies that are either delicate or thundering, depending upon what the music warrants. I’d wager that the low-end of the FS 888 is remarkably free of distortion. That’s the way it sounded to me, anyway.

My physiotherapist (it’s a long story -- don’t ask) is a huge Frank Herbert fan, and talking to her about Dune prompted me to re-read the entire series of six books. I recently finished the last one, and from there I made a small leap and pulled out Synchronicity by the Police [A&M 3735]. I’ve loved the title track since I first heard it, and there is no doubt in my mind that "Tea in the Sahara" describes Paul Atreides, the most prominent character in the early books of the Dune series. There’s some delightfully articulate bass on this track, and the ‘888s dug in deep and crisply reproduced it -- right down to the open E -- while still fleshing out the body of the instrument. This speaker’s bass responds to electric bass and kickdrum with a whip-crack sensation of effortless acceleration.

It’s usually considered a great compliment when a reviewer says that a speaker disappears, leaving only the music. While this is definitely an admirable goal for a transducer, the FS-888s go one step further. This speaker doesn’t exactly disappear, but this is an achievement of a different order, as its audibility is solely the responsibility of that wonderful tweeter. Time after time I shook my head in astonishment, as I’d catch myself noting an extra heaping of detail in the treble, delivered in such a way as to literally spray out high frequencies in a refreshing mist. That may hokey, but you really must hear it to believe it. There’s tons of musical information, with extension going on forever, but it’s presented in such a way as to avoid absolutely any sense of brightness. I ended up thinking of this as a tube tweeter due to the rich, dimensional, textured sweetness with which it presents images.

So yeah, I could hear the FS-888s when listening to music, but while this speaker does indeed have a distinctive character, it truly ends up serving the music. I found the most striking example of this on REM’s Automatic For The People [Warner W245055]. I’ve listened to and loved this album since it was released, both for the unassumingly intimate music and for the crystalline images evoked by the lyrics. Through the FS-888s, "Try Not To Breathe" took on a new immediacy, the cymbals presented with an almost granular realism that lent them a burnished glow. Every iota of every layer of harmonic overtone was exhumed by the FS-888s, and there was a ton of depth up through the top of the treble, this in a region that with other speakers only provides a bit of spice to the sauce of the midrange. Every strike of every cymbal became an event with its own distinctive position in space, and its own specific point in time.

The upper-treble region may be a little bit too forward to be absolutely neutral. In my experience, a speaker with an elevated treble tends to sound abrasive, aggressive, or just plain annoying, and hence just about right for the stiff-mattress crowd. I, however, have little patience with a rising treble. But with the FS-888s, for the first time in my experience, I thoroughly enjoyed a speaker with a prominent top-end. Rather than sounding colored, the FS-888s simply sounded extremely realistic, and they provided an almost surreal view of the recording. There’s a refreshing effervescence to the FS-888s’ highs that is most endearing and very addictive.

The midrange of the FS-888 ranks up there with the best I’ve heard. Especially with male vocals, these Canadian speakers are clear and uncolored. It may be only an unassuming Original Jazz Classics pressing, but The Tony Bennett and Bill Evans Album [Riverside OJC-439] is a wonderful-sounding record. I tend to forget about this LP, and end up only pulling it out every other year or so, but through the FS-888s it was a real treat. Tony Bennett’s unpretentious, unadorned tenor reached out from the speakers with an eerie, almost disembodied presence. There’s a distinct sensation of the original acoustic on this record and the FS-888s revealed it as a subtle halo around Bennett’s voice, forming a rounded image of a real person in a real room.

Up above I said that the FS-888s are audible due to the tweeter. This may be so, but it doesn’t interfere with their ability to project hyper-real images in an expansive, believable soundstage that’s completely independent of the speakers. These speakers never give the sensation of music coming directly from their locations. Instead, the FS-888s place instruments just slightly behind the speaker plane in an almost holographic manner. Images don’t suffer from that minimonitor pinpoint artificiality, exhibiting instead a fleshed-out, holistic roundness that’s far more realistic.

Classic Records’ new 200-gram pressing of Duke Ellington’s Piano in the Background [Columbia/Classic Records CS 8346] is one of the best-sounding, most engaging records I’ve ever heard. No kidding. Originally recorded in 1960, PitB is a snappy big-band session that fairly bristles with energy. You’ll be reading about this LP in an upcoming "Found on Vinyl" article, so I don’t want to let the cat right out of the bag just yet. Suffice it to say that you’ve just got to hear this album. Via the FS-888s, every instrument was kept distinct, not just in the lateral plane, but also depth-wise. But the main reason I shook my head with astonishment every time I played it was how the FS-888s took all of the disparate instruments and organized them into a cohesive, rocking, grooving whole. The slight bass richness, combined with that supernova top-end and delicate, uncolored midrange, energized the room and made each instrumental line into its own, distinct, riveting event.

One especially notable feature of the FS-888s is how very revealing they are to changes in partnering equipment. Perhaps it’s due to the clarity of the midrange and the extension of the treble, but I could immediately hear it whenever I changed anything in my system. This extreme sensitivity is, of course, a double-edged sword. When everything is just perfect, the sound will be so good that you’ll be rolling on the ground, kicking your legs in the air with glee. But should you insert a component of questionable pedigree, you may well notice some deficiencies. Don’t expect to hitch these thoroughbreds to a mass-market receiver and get full measure of what they can do.

Perfection is its own worst enemy

If I’ve made you think that the FS-888s are the absolute best, most perfect speaker in the whole wide world, I have to apologize. They’re not quite that good. However, if musical enjoyment is your only consideration, they are definitely up in the stratosphere right alongside the larger Magneplanars, which are also a sheer delight to listen to.

So what is it that drags them back down into the real world from the high pedestal upon which I’ve placed them? Part of what stops the FS-888s from being perfect is precisely what makes them so pleasurable to listen to. The bottom-end, while an absolute delight to my ears, is a bit too full to be considered completely neutral, and the same goes for the uppermost treble, whose luscious sparkle could be considered an additive, sort of like the cocaine in turn-of-the-century Coca-Cola.

So what the FS-888s lack is absolute, unadulterated, balls-to-the-wall neutrality. Big, fat, hairy deal. What this speaker gives instead is a delicious listening experience, which I feel is a fair tradeoff so long as you’re listening to music instead of measuring impulse responses on a ‘scope.

Direct comparison to my stalwart Hales Transcendence Fives ($6995 per pair when still available) showed that the Hales speakers certainly sound more neutral, but that the FS-888s are worlds more fun to listen to. Other than a slightly dry bass (my uncomfortable bed!), the Hales speakers don’t draw attention to themselves. Even the mid-treble, which is somewhat abrasive in contrast to that of the butter-smooth Focus speakers, is easily overlooked. One tends not to notice the Hales Transcendence Fives, as they simply present the signal and let you make of it what you will, while the Focus Audio FS-888s more readily draw you into the music.

The Hales speakers and the FS-888s both image well. Both speakers present crisp outlines with believable images, although the FS-888s depict those images a little closer to the wall behind them. Where the FS-888s pull far, far ahead is in how well fleshed out those images are, how beautifully they’re integrated into a living, breathing musical world.

Listening to the Hales speakers is like spending a day looking at landscapes painted by John Constable. There’s plenty of depth and realism, but they are not exactly exciting. Imagine staring for hours at these paintings and then turning around and coming face-to-face with Van Gogh’s Starry Night. While there would be no question that Constable got the details right, the sheer force of emotion and depth of meaning contained in Starry Night would rivet you to the spot and make you wonder why you’d been ogling dry pastorals for so long. That's what the FS-888s do -- amaze and astound.

Night music

Focus Audio may have painted itself into a bit of a corner by pricing the FS-888s at $8190 per pair. I can imagine discerning but shortsighted audiophiles overlooking the FS-888s in their hunt for long-term floorstanding speakers because they’re just not expensive enough. I mean, don’t you need to spend over $10,000 in order to get something worthwhile these days?

No, you most certainly don’t. While the degree of musical involvement that the FS-888s bring to the show may not be for everyone, I can confidently say that the combination of deep, tight, rich bass, an accurate, crystalline midrange, and incredibly extended sweet treble could likely be just the ticket for many music lovers. While the FS-888s' appearance screams luxury, their sonics whisper sophistication like the swish of the satin lining in Faye Dunaway’s nightdress.

I’ve had my soft bed for over six years now, and my back is just fine. I sincerely doubt that your soul will suffer any consequences should you decide to purchase the Focus Audio FS-888s and glean pleasure from listening to your music. There’s no such thing as too comfortable or too musical.

...Jason Thorpe
jason@soundstage.com

Focus Audio Signature FS-888 Loudspeakers
Price: $8190 USD per pair
Warranty: Five years parts and labor

Focus Audio
43 Riviera Drive, Unit #10
Markham, Ontario L3R 5J6 Canada
Phone: (905) 415-8773
Fax: (905) 415-0456

E-mail: contact@focusaudio.ca
Website: www.focusaudio.ca

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