October 15, 2009
Focus Audio Signature FS8
Anyone whos visited a major audio show
cant help but notice that many loudspeaker companies make ugly speakers. Focus Audio
is not among them -- even if their products didnt sound good, theres no
arguing that Focus speakers make beautiful pieces of furniture. But Focus speakers
arent just pretty faces; in my experience, theyre as easy on the ear as they
are on the eye.
The FS8 ($2900 USD per pair) is the second Focus Audio
model Ive reviewed in the past few months. I was keen to review it because, in its
basic layout and cabinet design, the FS8 is very similar to Focuss FC7, which so impressed me last April. While the
bargain-priced FC7 ($1400/pair) is a member of the companys Classic line of
entry-level products, the FS8 is the top model of their more expensive Signature series.
They have similar shapes, but there are many differences
between the Classic and Signature speakers, not least the latters better-quality
drivers and crossover components. The most obvious visual difference is that the Signature
line comes only in a mirror-like black lacquer that Focus says is 1mm thick. Lacquer is a
thin material that must be built up a layer at a time; its not hard to imagine it
taking days to complete the finishing of a Signature cabinet. The result is worth the
effort: the FS8 is gorgeous.
Its also a very solid speaker that weighs 50 pounds.
The FS8s cabinet is rear-ported, which enhances the speakers high claimed
sensitivity of 91dB/W/m, and features two pairs of binding posts to permit biwiring or
biamping. Focus says that the FS8s polyester-lacquer finish contributes to the
enclosures lack of any notable resonances. Whereas a solid rap with a knuckle on the
FC 7 elicits a sharp crack, rapping the FS8 produced a much duller sound -- any
energy transferred from finger joint to cabinet was quickly dissipated. Thats a very
good indicator that the FS8s cabinet will have minimal effect on the sound, and
leave its reproduction to a very capable set of drivers.
One criticism I had of the Classic FC 7 was that while it
produced deep bass with ease, those low frequencies werent controlled as well as I
would have liked. At the time, I speculated that the Classic FC9, the FC7s bigger,
dual-woofer brother, would probably address that issue handsomely. So should the FS8,
which has two woofers of its own: 5.5" Nomex cones made by Peerless. Although these
drivers are quite a bit smaller than the FC7s single 7" unit -- or the FC
9s twin 7-inchers -- they should be more than adequate to reproduce low bass. And
because theyre smaller, the 5.5" drivers should also exert excellent control.
However, with a claimed frequency response of 40Hz-25kHz, ±3dB, the FS8 is clearly not
designed to simulate earthquakes.
Atop the FS8s cabinet, which measures a tidy
38"H x 7.5"W x 10"D, sits a Scan-Speak Revelator tweeter. The Revelator is
a fascinating design that, to me, offers the excellent responsiveness of a good metal-dome
tweeter while producing softer, more natural trebles that are never harsh. One of the
secrets of the Revelators success is its dual-ring structure: the inner section
provides the lightning-fast reaction time of a metal dome, while the outer ring gives the
Revelator its characteristic wide dispersion pattern. Readers of my review of the Classic
FC7 may remember that I quoted fellow Soundstage! Network reviewer Roger Kanno, who said
that the tweeter used in the FC7 "images like crazy," even well off its axis.
The Signature FS8s tweeter is a more refined version of the design used in the
excellent FC7 -- it had a lot to live up to.
Both my reference system and my listening room changed
during the course of this review. Two Simaudio Moon models -- an i3.3 integrated amplifier
with optional USB D/A converter and a CD3.3 CD player -- took over reference duties from
my own Simaudio Moon i5.3 integrated and Benchmark DAC 1 Pre. The new Moons were fed power
by, respectively, Synergistic Researchs T3 and T2 mains cables, while
Synergistics Tesla Tricon USB cable fed the bit-perfect audio tracks stored on my
laptop to the i3.3s internal DAC. The CD3.3 was linked to the amp with TARA Labs RSC
interconnects fitted with Crystal Cables Bridge. Speaker cables were my usual Supra
Cable Ply 3.4/S, which I continue to use because it sounds so clean and neutral.
My room changed more dramatically because I moved. No
longer confined to my old basement cell (15 x 12), I now listen to music in a
huge 35" x 15" living room. My observations here are of hearing the Signature
FS8s in the new space, with some references to the old, smaller room when necessary.
Because the Signature FS8s immediately followed the
Classics FC7s in my system, I had fresh memories of how the Classics performed in the old
house. As the two models share the same overall shape and use a tweeter from the same
Scan-Speak family, I positioned the FS8s just where the FC7s had been and . . . nope, that
wasnt going to work. Clearly, the FS8s were not carbon copies of their less
I mentioned above that the FC7s tweeter is a
dispersion champ even with little toe-in, but the FS8s tweeter was a different
animal. It was instantly obvious that the FS8 didnt have the FC7s way-off-axis
treble performance, so in the next few days I experimented with varying degrees of toe-in,
trying to find their happy spots. Eventually I found that toeing the speakers in about 10
degrees did the trick.
The "trick" in this case was a disappearing act.
While the FS8s sounded great when listened to directly on axis, I could easily detect
their physical positions with my eyes closed. But with the 10-degree toe-in the speakers
faded into nothingness, offering the kind of disembodied, holographic sound that digital
signal processors strive for but never really achieve. Treble energy was definitely of a
different character than with the FC7s, the FS8s Revelators offering a more subtle,
refined sound. Attacks and decays seemed accurate down to the millisecond, with nary a
shimmer lasting too long, or the leading edge of a sound dispersing too quickly.
Despite the fact that the smallish FS8s had to fill a large
volume of air in my new home, they provided admirably deep bass that seemed to belie
Focuss modest claim for their low-frequency extension. Placed 3 out from the
front wall and 3 from the sidewalls, the speakers twin 5.5" woofers
offered solid, punchy bass at 41Hz (E1 on the double bass), as evinced by Ray Brown,
Christian McBride, and John Claytons acoustic thunder on Superbass 2 (CD,
Telarc CD-63483). Despite the great mass of my solid-wood coffee table, there were moments
during the trios cover of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" when I wondered if it
would begin sliding away from me. The FS8s were equally adept with pounding rock, such as
"Murder City," from Green Days 21st Century Breakdown (CD, Reprise
517153), and "Rock n Roll Train," from AC/DCs Black Ice (CD,
Columbia 739238) -- and were absolutely lifelike playing the "Drum Kit Test" on
Ray Kimbers Isomike Recordings 2005B test disc. I enjoyed the last track so
much that I played it several times in a row, wishing each time that it was longer than 90
In the all-important midrange, the Signature FS8 continued
to wow me. "It Never Entered My Mind," from Carol Kidds Dreamsville
(FLAC download, Linn Records 24/96 Studio Master), is a beautifully simple recording that
sounds good on pretty much everything, but becomes compelling and moving on gear like
this. Kidd never seems to raise her voice much above a whisper, yet imbues songs with more
emotion than a Shakespearean tragedy -- subtleties beautifully resolved by the Signature
FS8s. Male vocals were reproduced with much the same brilliance; once I thought I could
even make out some words sung by Bob Dylan.
The more speakers I listen to, the more I realize that not
every company seems to know how to integrate speaker drivers into a cohesive-sounding
whole. Focus Audio, however, is one that does -- their Signature FS8 was a model of tight,
seamless integration. When they were set up correctly and powered by quality electronics,
it took a lot of concentration for me to discern where one driver left off and the next
one took over. The spec sheet tells me that the FS8 has a crossover, but Ill be
darned if I could hear it.
Focus Audios Signature FS8 is a killer speaker by
almost every measure: It looks fantastic, it sounds wonderful, and its price is something
many can afford. In very large spaces -- such as my new living room -- the FS8 may need
some reinforcement at the lowest frequencies, but it still packed plenty of punch with
double bass and kick drum, which will be more than enough for most listeners. There are
many speakers that cost $3000/pair or thereabouts, but few offer the combination of build
and sound quality found in the Signature FS8. This speaker is easy enough to recommend
that Im tempted to urge you to just go out and buy a pair without bothering to
listen to any of its competitors. But do go out and listen to what some other
speaker makers think is worth $3000 -- then youll know how great a speaker, and how
tremendous a bargain at $2900/pair, Focus Audios Signature FS8 really is.
. . . Doug Schneider
Price of equipment reviewed