Shortly after completing the review of the Focal 1027S floorstanders for issue 59, a pair of the (£1,000 more expensive) 1027Be model arrived. These sat very happily indeed in my system, for many months. Their revealing nature made them ideal reviewer’s tools, their lucidity, transparency and sheer musicality made them a joy to have at the noisy end of my system. A review was never forthcoming, but they informed my view on virtually everything else that passed through my hands from then-on.
Now they have gone, replaced by the Electra 1028Be. Visually, virtually identical to the speaker it replaces, this is nevertheless quite a different beast. The changes are comparatively subtle but, in musical terms, very significant. The beryllium tweeter is replaced by a variant with a slightly larger diaphragm, similar to that found in the current Utopia models, but the key difference is in the porting of the bass units.
Let’s back-track a bit, as there’s no point discussing what’s changed if one is not at least somewhat conversant with what went before. In the 1027 models, the –S variant had a single, rear-firing port and the –Be version a single, downward-firing port which vented, rather in the manner of a flatulent penguin, between its feet. The analogy refers to the configuration, not the sound, by the way. The 1028Be has both ports, but the downward-firing port is now modified by a horizontal web which extends between the feet, about a centimetre from the floor. According to Focal, the new porting arrangement is not to augment the bass, but to control it. The ports are not tuned primarily for output, but to improve the loudspeaker’s impedance in the lower bass and therefore present an easier load for amplifiers.
The outgoing 1027 models have a wonderfully even and coherent sound, each driver integrating particularly well with the others, but in the lowest couple of octaves the 1027Be could still get a bit headstrong, unless your amp was very powerful or particularly grippy. To be fair, particularly in the later versions of the 1027Be with precision-cut bass driver cones, this only ever manifested itself on particularly bass-heavy material, where the results could get a tad fruity or slightly boomy on occasion, but the overall levels of musical communication still remained well-above the norm for the price. In the new model, these matters have largely been consigned to the past. If I had to sum up the performance of the Focal 1028Be’s in one phrase, I would suggest that they behave more like a small two-way standmounter with added bandwidth.
That presents, to my mind, something of an ideal compromise. You get the fleet-footedness, vitality and pinpoint imaging of a well-designed small loudspeaker, with the scale and authority of a full-range design. If you are already familiar with the sound of the 1027Be, first impressions on hearing the 1028Be are likely to include the notion that the bass is lighter. Dismiss that thought quickly from your mind. The bass on the 1028Be reaches just as low and digs just as deep as that of the earlier model, as any moderately extended listen makes abundantly clear. There is, however, somewhat less of it, in much the same way that Baby Bears’ porridge had less heat than Daddy Bear’s. Accepting Focal’s explanation, the reduction in bass weight, if not depth, is largely down to the easier amplifier load.
This also manifests itself as faster and more tuneful bass, with better textures and timbral subtlety. Plucked double-bass, for example Reynaud Garcia Fons on ‘Berimbass’ from Arcoluz (Enja Records: ENJ-9478 2) is not only agile and tuneful, but one is acutely aware of the stunning quality of the instrument and the way it is played, all of which brings me back to the analogy of a two-way floorstander with added cojones.
Bass performance alone, of course, does not a fine loudspeaker make. I have commented before on the phase-coherent approach adopted by Focal in their crossovers. If you have heard any good single-driver speaker design, for example pretty much anything by Eclipse, one thing which can hardly fail to strike home is the immediacy, solidity and stability of the sonic picture. Any compromises, in bandwidth for example, are quickly forgotten and forgiven, because the musical message is in the coherence of the signal: the timing, the almost total lack of smear, overhang or delay within the sound. These are artefacts of the reproduction process we scarcely notice, until they are taken away. And the one ace a single-driver design has up its sleeve is the lack of a crossover. One is apt to assume that the audible effects of a crossover will mostly be in a lack of integration between drivers and, to a large extent, that is probably true. But integration isn’t simply a matter of rolling-off one driver smoothly as the next kicks in; as Focal understand only too well, it is vital to preserve the phase relationships in the signal as far as possible across the entire frequency spectrum. This is a relatively controversial topic from a psychoacoustic standpoint; we may not perceive phase directly (making this very difficult to test under laboratory conditions, which makes some dismiss the topic out of hand), but the ear-brain system seems to be remarkably sensitive to it and if the phase relationships in a musical signal are not treated with care, the brain refuses to be fooled.