March 15, 2006

Focus Audio Signature FS68SE Loudspeakers


In March 2003, I reviewed Focus Audio's Signature FS-688 -- a great stand-mounted loudspeaker with surprisingly deep bass for its size, a rich and textured midrange, and such sweet highs that, for a time, it was the speaker that I judged the top end of all other speakers against. Yes, I thought that the FS-688 was impressive, right down to its build quality, and many people who bought the speaker wrote to me to tell me that they thought so, too. But there was a problem. Despite FS-688's great performance and jewel-like craftsmanship, I found it a tad expensive. In 2003, it was $2600 USD per pair, and today, with inflation and drastic currency fluctuations, the price is $3190.

Now, granted, the price didn’t stop many people from buying the ‘688. Those people who wrote in, after all, obviously had money and were happy to part with it. Still, despite their willingness and ability to lay down serious money on a fairly small speaker, many others simply couldn't do that -- at least until now. The FS68SE -- a speaker that Focus Audio is calling the "Tenth Anniversary Edition" of the original FS68 the company discontinued long ago and replaced with the FS-688 -- is just $2050 per pair and gives you pretty much everything the ‘688 did.

Focus on Focus

I could cut and paste the description of the FS-688, as it's pretty much a description of the FS68SE. The dimensions and weight are the same -- as in exactly the same: 13"H x 7"W x 10"D, about 20 pounds each -- and both speakers are available in piano burr maple, piano burr walnut, and piano black finishes. The recessed all-copper binding posts and sculpted port on the back are the same. Even the woofer is the same -- a 5 1/2" Nomex/Kevlar Hexacone driver from Eton -- and so are the specifications: 86dB sensitivity and an 8-ohm nominal impedance.

The only differences between the ‘68SE and the ‘688 are the tweeter and the crossover. The ‘688 has a Scan-Speaker Revelator tweeter, the company’s best, whereas the FS68SE has a Scan-Speak D2905, which is a step down from the Revelator. The crossover has been altered to accommodate the different tweeter, and instead of using MultiCap capacitors in the network, as the ‘688 does, Solen capacitors are used in the ‘68SE's crossover. According to Focus Audio, MultiCap’s tolerances are tighter, making their caps quite a bit more expensive than Solen's.

Obviously, the speakers are almost identical-looking, too -- almost. With the grilles off, you can see that the D2905 tweeter looks different from the Revelator, and because the D2905 performs a little differently, Focus found it better to offset it to one side (for normal listening, the tweeters should be on the inside), whereas the Revelator was mounted in the horizontal center.

My only complaint about the FS68SE’s fit’n’finish is exactly the same as for the ‘688's. The grilles are mounted with the age-old pin-and-hole method, whereas many companies today are doing whizzy things with magnets and other ways to attach the grilles.

Review system and speaker setup

Focus Audio lent me some 24"-high Foundation stands, which are some of the very best I’ve used, and also some of the most expensive I’ve encountered at $1100 per pair. Focus bought the UK company some time ago and have been making their stands to the exact specifications on this side of the pond. The stands are heavy and dense, and I suspect that some people who opt for an expensive set of minimonitors might choose stands like these. On the other hand, I suspect many won’t have that kind of cash lying around just for speaker stands; obviously, there are plenty of other options available.

I used the FS68SEs in my very large listening room with my typical gear: Stello DA220 DAC connected with an i2Digital X-60 cable to a Theta Data Basic transport, Blue Circle BC3000 preamplifier, Stello M200 mono amplifiers, and Nordost Valkyrja interconnects and speaker cables. Toward the end of the review period I substituted the Blue Circle and Stello electronics for a DK Designs VS.1 Reference Mk II integrated amplifier, which worked nicely as well.

Focus on sound

Although it’s been some time since I’ve had the FS-688s in my system, my memory and listening notes, and the fact that I’ve heard the ‘688s many times in other locations, all lead me to believe that it and the FS68SE sound as similar as they look. Most everything I said about the ‘688s can be echoed here: super-tight deep bass (for a small speaker that is), great texture in the midrange, and superb highs, although not quite to the super-sweet standard of the Revelator tweeter used in the FS-688. That’s said, although it doesn’t quite match the ‘688 in the high, high highs, the FS68SE is a knockout minimonitor and can stand tall with Paradigm's Signature S2 and the PSB's Platinum M2 -- two reference-grade stand-mounted speakers that cost about the same price.

Recently, I discovered two new artists who have something in common -- the Portuguese language. I learned of Mariza, who was born in Mozambique but was raised in Portugal, when I happened upon a live concert she was putting on in an old church near where I live. She sings a spine-tingling type of music called fado, and after that concert I ran out and bought her latest album, Transparante [Times Square Records TSQ-CD9047], which captures her voice superbly. The other is Seu Jorge, a Brazilian musician whom I discovered while shopping for CDs at a store in Las Vegas. His The Life Aquatic Sessions Featuring Seu Jorge [Hollywood Records 2061-62576-2] was playing in the store, and after I’d heard about half of the songs, I said to myself, "This is great. I’ve got to buy it." Sessions features 14 David Bowie songs, all sung by Jorge -- in Portuguese!

The FS68SEs re-created Mariza’s music in my room so well it was eerie. In fact, the sound was startlingly reminiscent of what I heard in that church. The FS68SE, like the ‘688, sounds much bigger than it looks, filling my room with an enormous soundstage that had excellent left-to-right spread and an impressive sense of depth.

Not only able to fill large-sized rooms, the ‘68SE has quite amazing bass. It isn’t just deep, but super tight, too. There’s an impressive sense of wallop that few small speakers of this stature can match. Playing Mariza, for example, there’s plenty of grunt, growl, and control from the low notes. The ‘68SE delivers bass with an iron grip.

The mids, too, have that same sort of control, which makes a rich, resonant voice like Seu Jorge’s sound marvelously textured and splendidly real. His rendition of "Changes," for example, is very closely miked and so rich-sounding it’s almost dripping in the air. The ‘688SEs project the voice at the center of the stage with so much authority that sometimes I swore I was listening to a speaker that stands five feet tall, not a little one just over a foot and in need of stands. The sense of space the FS68SEs create, the bass they deliver, and the presence in the mids they project make them a reference-grade small transducer.

Finally there’s the top end -- something I wouldn’t have much to quibble about if I’d never reviewed the ‘688. See, the top end of the ‘688 is so sweet and pure that it spoils you to the point that little else measures up. I have no idea what Scan-Speak is doing with that Revelator tweeter, but all the speakers that I’ve heard that use it sound fantastic. While the ‘68SE’s tweeter doesn’t quite reach the same level, if I had to put a number on it, I’d say it's 95% there. If I had to put it into just a few words, I’d say that this tweeter gives you almost everything, but doesn’t have quite the sweetness and effortlessness of the Revelator. The ‘68SE’s tweeter is clean- and clear-sounding, but it just doesn’t have the purity and the last bit of air that the ‘688’s tweeter has. Sorry, you don’t quite get everything for $2k, but you do get very close.

In fact, the FS68SE gets you so close that I hardly have any quibbles. But, as with anything, one can always pick a nit or two. My first caveat has to do as much with any pricey two-way as it does with the ‘68SE itself. Basically, just because a small two-way is built with cost-no-object detail, as with the FS68SE, don’t expect the world from it. These are still smallish speakers, and despite the fact that they sound bigger than the look and have bass that will bowl you over for their size, they still can’t move the massive amounts of air that a like-priced floorstander can. For example, I could rattle off a half-dozen $2000 floorstanders you could buy tomorrow that can cause your insides to quiver because of the way they deliver bass and their sheer output capabilities. The FS68SE is a gentler speaker.

The second caveat has to do with the ‘68SE’s sensitivity. Although it seems to be a relatively easy speaker to drive, I noticed that the ‘68SE sounded better as I increased the power I gave it. I was cranking the pair of ‘68SEs with Mariza and Seu Jorge to get that big, rich soundfield I described, and I was putting a fair bit of power behind them. Their sensitivity seems somewhat lower than average, and I’d say you’d be best off driving them with an amplifier of reasonably high power to get the best out of them. In my mind, 50Wpc would be a minimum, and 100-200Wpc would be ideal. Both amps I used deliver about 150Wpc.

S2 and M2

Whereas most small two-ways I listen to don’t quite measure up to the price/performance standard set by Paradigm’s Signature S2 and PSB’s Platinum M2, the FS68SE does. Quite simply, you’d be hard-pressed to say any one of the three speakers are out and out better than the other two across the board. They’re all good, and they’re all a little different.

The S2 and M2 are both a little more sensitive, so they can play louder with the same amount of power, but that will not be of consequence if you have an amplifier of sufficient power. Where the S2 can still squeak ahead performance-wise, though, is in the highs. Its tweeter is on par with the Scan-Speak Revelator. The S2's maximum output is a little greater than that of the FS68SE, and the same is true of the M2, although all three speakers will play to sufficient levels for most listeners.

Where the M2 delivers the goods is in head-to-toe competency. It has many prominent strengths and no glaring flaws. The M2 is like a conduit for the music -- neutral as anything, and as revealing as most any speaker you can buy. It’s the speaker I often go back to in order to establish a sonic reference point. The M2 has a sense of exactness about it.






The FS68SE’s strength is its super-tight and punchy bass -- even if both the S2 and M2 can go slightly deeper -- and the richness it portrays from the bass up through the mids, which both the S2 and M2 don't achieve. There is something almost "tubey" to the FS68SE’s sound, and I quite like it. I think it’s what accounts for the rather grand sound it has. Of the three, the FS68SE sounds the most lush, which gives it a slightly more romantic character.

The S2, M2 and FS68SE are all built and finished exceedingly well, which is precisely what you want when you’re spending what they cost. None trades aesthetics for sound quality, or vice versa.

Which speaker is right for you? These are three accomplished minimonitors, and, having heard them all at length, I'd have a hard time picking one over the others, even with their differences. Maybe you'll have the same problem, and maybe you won't.

Conclusion

Focus Audio was wise to bring out the FS68SE, tenth anniversary or not. Their FS-688 is certainly great, but it's too expensive for most people, and that's where the FS68SE fits in perfectly. It has a big, rich sound that competes with the very best out there, including its much more expensive bigger brother, the FS-688. It is going to thrill those who dreamed of getting some '688s, but just couldn't afford them. While the FS68SE is not quite the '688, it's not very far off, and it doesn't cost nearly as much either.

There's no doubt which of the these two Focus speakers I'd get -- the FS68SE. For more than $1100 less and with pretty much the same performance, the FS68SE establishes itself as the high-value performer in Focus Audio's impressive product line.

…Doug Schneider
das@soundstageav.com

Focus Audio Signature FS68SE Loudspeakers
Price: $2050 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

Website: www.focusaudio.com 

 


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