The past seven years has seen rapid proliferation of the iPod dock market. Unfortunately, while many of the products have succeeded in following the Apple aesthetic, rarely is there substance behind the flash. Is the entry by Focal merely more eye candy or is there something more compelling? The XS 2.1 distinguishes itself by offering something beyond your typical iPod speaker dock.
- Design: 2-way Shielded
- Drivers: One 0.75″ Mylar Dome Tweeter, One 3″ Paper Cone Midbass
- Power: 2 x 30 Watts
- MFR: 150 Hz – 20 kHz ± 3 dB
- Dimensions: 12.6″ H x 3.5″ W x 5.9″ D
- Weight: 2.2 Pounds
- Type: Ported
- Driver: 6″ Paper Cone Woofer
- MFR: 39 Hz – 150 Hz ± 3 dB
- Power: 70 Watts
- Dimensions: 10.2″ H x 9″ W x 14.6″ D
- Weight: 18.5 Pounds
- MSRP: $599
Gerard Chretien, the general manager at Focal, took some time with me to discuss his approach to design and the development. The XS 2.1 has its roots in the Solo 6 Be powered studio monitors. The Solos have garnered quite a reputation in the pro-audio field, notably with mastering engineer Dave Kutch who has worked with artists Natasha Bedingfield, Erykah Badu and Alicia Keys to name a few. During the development of the Solos Gerard was approached by one of the engineers on the project for a set of critical ears. While Gerard never indicated to me why he connected the Solos to his iMac in the first place, ultimately that was how he tested the Solos.
During this time Gerard realized what many of us have; the computer can provide a good delivery mechanism for both music and video. A question naturally arose following up his listening experience with the Solos and his iMac, “Why can’t multimedia speakers sound this good?” This lead to Gerard issuing a challenge to his team, design a multimedia speaker that replicated the sound of the Solos, but at a multimedia speaker price point. Note the challenge was to design multimedia speakers, and not an iPod dock. The dock was originally included to facilitate charging and simplify setup, as opposed to being an integral part of the overall design.
The challenge Gerard presented was significant given the constraints and the available technology. While near field audio is well defined, largely by studio systems, the design concepts are not always transferred appropriately for consumer products. One of the major issues that arise for near field systems is surface boundary effects. Conventional home audio is commonly designed with the assumption that the user will seek to minimize (or optimize) the effect of boundary surfaces. i.e. move the speaker adequately away from the wall. Near field audio necessarily assumes close proximity of boundary surfaces to the listener. The constraint comes from the speakers resting on a surface at which the listener is seated. The most common near field audio example of which is the sound engineer at the mixing console.
The average computer setup closely approximates a studio setup with regards to speaker location, and boundary conditions relative to the listener. Given the cost constraints, and initial design decision to have a sub/sat system, the XS deals with the surface boundary by elevating the speaker on the integrated stands. It might seem like a long explanation for a rather inane design feature, but it only serves to emphasize Focal’s attention to the design. In a multimedia context, the added height also serves to align the audio and video. Focal even went so far as to coin the term Visual Sound Coincidence or VSC.
Although the relative proportions of the satellites and stand are such that they don’t seem very large, I was struck at first by the relative size of the speakers. This leads to another constraint that Gerard placed upon his design team. The satellites have a low enough frequency range as to limit localization of the woofer module. There is definitely something to be said for well integrated sub/sats as compared to hearing all the bass coming from under your desk. The curved satellite cabinets, while visually appealing also help diffract the sound coming off the back of the drivers.
The final driver design and configuration was arrived at after nearly twenty different prototypes. The final design has a slight emphasis to brighten the 2-4 kHz range; this is intended to compensate for some of the degradation in compressed music. Gerard emphasized to me that the sound is achieved through acoustic design and not digital processing of the signal. Cost constraints limited the range of materials available for the driver, this lead to lower design pressure limits within the cabinet. So while the speaker grilles are permanently affixed, it would be safe to assume the tweeters are most certainly not made of beryllium as in some of Focal’s other products.
The subwoofer module is vented, with a downward firing 6″ woofer. The amplifiers are all housed within the woofer module. The amplifier is a traditional Class A/B design, with a large transformer. The integrated dock also houses an auxiliary 1/8″ stereo analog input, a USB digital audio input, and an IR receiver for the included remote. The XS uses a Burr-Brown DAC for the USB signal. I was curious as to why Focal did not pull the digital signal from the iPod. Apple does not permit digital output from the iPod in its dock design guidelines and will not grant the “Made for iPod” designation for docks with digital outputs. Depending upon the model of iPod, the quality of the DACs can vary quite significantly. Following the original design intention of the XS, however, the USB digital input will always provide the highest quality signal to the amplifier. I will say, however, with my 4th generation iPod, it was too close for me to call between the Wolfson in the iPod and Burr-Brown in the XS.
Setting up the Focal XS 2.1 is rather straightforward. The woofer module houses the speaker and power connections with the inputs present on the dock base. The left channel speaker connects to the woofer model using a standard RCA plug. The plug is integrated directly into the speaker module and is not user-replaceable. The satellite itself is not powered, and the RCA connection is used to deliver a standard speaker level signal as opposed to a line level signal. The right channel and dock are connected using an 8-in DIN connector.
As might be expected with a proprietary connection, this is not user replaceable. Speaking with Gerard, this represented a tradeoff between configurability and cost. The addition of removable cords and connectors would have resulted in increased cost, with little real benefit over the cables used by Focal. Power is supplied to the woofer module using an ungrounded, detachable IEC power cable. The only adjustments on the woofer module are for line voltage, and a knob labeled woofer gain. It is labeled gain, but the knob controls the crossover point for a shelf EQ. The EQ controls the level of bass sent to the satellites with an EQ slope of 12db/octave. The optimal EQ setting depends upon the amount of room loading available to the woofer module.
While the primary input on the XS is intended to be a digital USB signal, the presence of the dock lends itself to standalone operation as well. I spent time listening to both the iPod input and USB input on the XS. The mp3s I used for playback were encoded at a minimum bitrate of 192 kbps with a variable bitrate. With my encoding settings, the average bitrate for most of my files exceeds 220 kbps. I tested the system with both CDs, and mp3s to see if the XS could reveal slight differences between the two.
Right out of the box, the XS was quite bright and actually bordered on being a bit harsh in the highs. Burning in the speakers for a couple days made drastic improvements to the overall presentation from the speakers. The speakers maintained a sharp image, while presenting a very smooth sound.
Norah Jones – Come Away With Me
The soundstage was dramatically broader than I had initially anticipated. While there are certainly claims on the market of room filling sound from a tiny box, the XS does it with aplomb. As might be expected with satellites, the imaging is exceptionally clear, with the vocals and instruments clearly placed on the stage. Most notably, the sub/sats were remarkably well integrated. Norah came across very consistently throughout her range, which present a challenge for undersized sats and mismatched woofers. The bass was also well presented by the woofer, with minimal localization. Comparing playback from the CD and the mp3, I would say the bass might be a bit tighter off the CD, but it was pretty close. As I mentioned earlier, comparing mp3 playback off the iPod and through Burr-Brown DAC was a draw for my ears. I would wager some of the more recent iPod models might not fair quite as well, as the DACs were an early casualty to cost reductions.
Eric Clapton – Unplugged
Again, the XS did a remarkable job in recreating the soundstage. It was always clear what parts were being played by whom, which isn’t an easy task. On Signe and Tears in Heaven, in particular, the guitars are reproduced exceptionally well. Clapton’s vocals are also well serviced by the XS. A few tracks with some piano accompaniment seemed a little bright, but not distractingly so.
The iPod dock market is certainly filled with a multitude of products, which by-and-large are aesthetically differentiated. Focal comes to this niche with a product that not only meets the aesthetic requirements typically associated with the market, but also class leading audio performance. It might be more fair to say the XS establishes a new class of performance for multimedia speakers in general. The sub/sats are exceptionally well integrated, and deliver a pure sound that aims to stay as true to the source as possible.