Skeptical Audio

A little time with some little speakers....

Audio is a very personal thing. Simon will tell you all about measurements and the best way to build a speaker and arrange a room. Lewis will tell you all about audio theory and why my extensive Super Audio CD collection doesn't sound any better than CD, audio engineering differences aside.

I'll tell you what I like, what I don't like, and please take it with a pinch of salt and maybe a little hot sauce.

I've been spending a bit of time with a pair of Focal Electra 1007Be bookshelf speakers in a nearfield scenario, temporarily (I think?) replacing my Bowers & Wilkins 805S bookshelves, which have been the staple of my favourite system and my reference up until now. And I observed something very interesting about these speakers and about speakers in general.

Mastering and mixing is everything, and the tools that engineers use can often affect the output. As a photographer, I can definitely tell you that all I have is my (calibrated) LCD screens to tell you how well the colours are going to work out, and even then, I have no garantee that you're going to view my images on a display that's anywhere near as accurate as my display is. If printed, what if it's viewed under halogen light, vs warm or cold LED or - heaven forbid, fluorescent cold-white, which has the colour rendering index equivalent of listening to Dire Straits Brothers In Arms on an iPhone speaker.

Lowest common denominator make a difference to a point, but if an engineer is removing harshness caused by the B&W Nautilus tweeters, or produces music that sounds a bit dull to compensate for the bright sounds of a pair of Beryllium tweeters, then you're going to get a different experience to what the artist intended.

My B&Ws are well known to put you right in the action. They're punchy, they're lively - although they miss the mark a little on soundstage compared to the Focals - but what I love about them, is they're so easy to listen to and how most types of music sound great on them. The tweeters are very forward, which some may find fatiguing especially if paired with sub-optimal amplification. Spinning Dido's "No Angel" album on them is a favourite of mine. The album was mixed in Abbey Road studios, which was kitted out with the B&W Nautilis 800s at the time. One track on the album, however, was not, and it sticks out like a sore thumb.

But my greatest surprise moving to the Focals is one band called the Vaudeville Smash, a Melbourne-based funk/soul/yacht-rock outfit who really need to be seen live, but their studio albums have always come off a bit dry on the B&Ws, whereas the Focals brought them to live. Here I was, listening to the same CD that I'm intimately familiar with and it sounded like a whole new recording. The saxophone was real, the percussion filled the room... all the things that just felt a bit withdrawn on the B&Ws.

This shouldn't come as a big surprise, given I saw a video of some of their recent stuff being recorded and monitored on - guess what - a pair of Beryllium tweeter equipped Focal studio monitors.

This really goes to show that what the music is mixed and mastered on - and how - can not only have a profound impact on how the end result will sound, but what equipment may lend itself to that particular piece.

I like how much space the Focals add to the music and the added detail on the high end. They miss the mark a little bit elsewhere, though, but overall they sound more balanced. I found that, to my ears, something was missing especially when it came to female vocals on the B&Ws that the Focals bring right on top. I'm hearing things I haven't heard before in music. Lyrics that have always mystified me but now come out clearly, especially on some mixes I've been listening to on high rotation for a number of years. Anything with vocals, piano-backed acoustic, really shines.

After my glorious experience there, I was expecting more from the Above & Beyond Oceanlab 'Sirens Of The Sea' collaboration. Justine Suissa's vocals will melt even the coldest hearts on the right equipment, but with the Focals, her vocals come through a bit nasally, a bit over-detailed and miss the smoothness I'm used to on the B&Ws, if that's ever a thing. The placement of the ports on the back of the 1007Be vs the fronts of the B&Ws also take a hit to the low end unless I'm standing in the corner of the room, so I'm relying more on a subwoofer to fill in the lower parts on the Focals.

Perhaps I'll give the newer 805 series a listen someday. I keep daydreaming about the 805D3 every time a pair come up secondhand, their latest Diamond tweeter equipped allegedly-speakers-in-another-league equivalent to the 805S's. I'd be more inclined to move to them, price aside obviously, if there was a tonally matched centre. I have the 805S's matched with an HTM4S, which has the same tweeter and midrange drivers but arranged slightly differently to retain the tweeter on top so you don't have any weird off-axis stuff going on. The 805D2 has the HTM4D. The D3 series saw no revision of the HTM4 SKU, with the expectation of up-selling me to a larger centre, which makes me feel like they've neglected my use case - near-field, space constricted listening in surround. If you haven't experienced surround in a tonally matched system, it's something I recommend everyone do with their favourite multichannel piece.

But for now, I'll spend a few more days with the Focals in place of the B&Ws on the main system to see what other gems I can re-discover. I feel they're more similar to the B&Ws than different and represent great value if you can get a decent pair secondhand. Right now, I'm spinning Sarah Mclachlan's Surfacing album on them which is sounding beautifully on-point; a pleasant surprise compared to my experience with Oceanlab before.

If anything, this has highlighted the importance of modern tweeter design, so I'm warming to a pair of 805D2 or D3's sometime in the future.