Saturday, 1 September 2012

The Focal SM9 Joy Continues...


Focal SM9
A few days on and well I was continuing to be amazed by these Studio monitors and am being drawn even more to the music – at the time they were nearing the upper end of the 20 hours initial running in period at medium to higher volumes that is recommended to get them loosened up – and while I have not perceived any major shift in the sound ‘quality’ the music (as opposed to the ‘system’) they just seemed to get more compelling the more I listened!

Listening to The Eagles, “Hotel California”, in 24bit/192kHz resolution I’ve never heard the drums sound like they did on the title track – you can feel the tautness of the drumhead, feels like the drum kit is right beside you in the sense of the ‘realness’ and texture of the sound…

Focal Electra 1038 Be
People often say this, but I mean it’s actually really like the drum is right there beside you – and more importantly it’s not a tiring or fatiguing sound… Listening to Daniel Galván’s “The Desperate Kingdome Of Love” (a P J Harvey cover off “Bad Covers Of Very Great Songs”) you fell like you are literally in a little room with him, with the pop filter in front of the mic, and everything, exactly as depicted on the album cover!

On Eleanor McEvoy’s “Yola” (16bit/44kHz FLAC ripped from SACD) some subtle bass has appeared (on the first track), something not obviously apparent on any system I’ve heard it on (it may have been there if you listened closely, but it wasn't 'apparent' if you know what I mean). Discussing with a friend, who’s system is capable of the same and more of what the SM9’s are, our conclusion is it’s wind (i.e. breath) on the microphone just prior to lyrics, starting usually with the letter “P” – its an idiosyncrasy of how Eleanor sings and pronounces ‘P’ words (probably expelling an usually deep breath or such when pursing her lips for the ’P’)… Something that’s never been so clearly revealed to me previously on any system I’ve heard. Here I heard it instantly (i.e. I wasn’t looking for it, it was just readily apparent)… This is symptomatic of the sound with most recordings, the sound is both effortless and revealing, the clarity is impressive, and you listen to the music not the system - it actually sounds to me like you are present at the moment of recording…

A notable feature as noted above is the ‘clarity’ of the sound – it’s literally crystal clear… And I don’t mean in a pure neutral uncoloured sense, which it kind of is too, but in the sense it’s so easy to hear, easy to listen to, effortless, untiring, the music just ‘fills the space’. There is so much undiscovered detail and wonderful depth to the sound, yet it’s not harsh or fatiguing, not brash or boomy (as for example some excessively bright cables or amplifiers can induce) – it’s just there. Some telling effects for me are that (a) I can now hear lyrics really clearly on some songs that in the past I never could understand exactly what the singer was singing without a lyric sheet, and (b) the music fills the whole house! Alright you do tend to end up inadvertently listening at higher volume levels but the thing is that just about the entire audio spectrum permeates the house – not just dull thumps of bass or particularly powerful bursts of midrange or loud vocals – standing upstairs you hear the music clearly, and while not the same as being in the room it’s still crystal clear and effortless, and the vocals are clear and understandable...

Focal Utopia Maestro
It will of course still be several hundred hours before they reach optimum performance, due primarily to the time it takes to run in the Beryllium tweeters. Meanwhile Alison Krauss and Union Station‘s “Paper Airplane” (at 24bit/96kHz) – an absolutely fantastic album at any time – just comes even more to life, the clarity and detail, the texture of the strings on “Dust Bowl Children” is just stunning – and when you consider the relatively low cost of these speakers versus more traditional passive speakers, it really is something you would really struggle to get anything better for your money… Mark Knopfler, “Sailing For Philadelphia”, comes into his own, you really begin to appreciate the extraordinary effort he puts into every one of his solo recordings.

For those familiar with Focal you are getting a sound (sonically) that's similar to the Electra BE 1028s and 1038s and the entry level Utopias, i.e. a classic Focal sound. A friend of mine is a bit of an expert on the Focal range, and he believes "the drivers are superior to the one’s in the Electras’, and that the tweeter is a neodymium motor assembly as opposed to having a conventional magnet (as it does in the Electras), although it uses the same diaphragm. The voice coils may be identical, but looking at the specs on them I suspect not, as the neo-magnet motor has different electrical specs. The tweeters are of course truly unique and worth more than their weight in gold if you need to replace them! The midrange driver on the SM9s’ has a larger voice coil than the Electras' – which can be seen by the size of the centre pole. This means higher power handling, but also more force being able to be applied, so less dynamic compression. It’s unclear if this has a multi ferrite magnet on it, but as it appears to be the same driver as used in the higher spec Utopia Diablo speakers, it quite possibly has."

"The bass driver is again totally different, with a multi-ferrite motor assembly and a large voice coil (possibly 65mm). Similar to the Focal Car Audio 8" driver, which is very similar to the drivers in all the Utopia line (except the EM bass drivers). The Electras' may still have strengths over the SM9's in some areas, principally looks and compatibility with the maximum number of source components, but for the money and the fact they are passive not active it's hard to compare them for value for money. If you are a valve person, the SM9's may not be for you, as even if you can live with a valve preamp, the long cable runs that may be required might make things a bit tough on the glassware." In the Focal range, you world need to look at the Maestro Utopia's to gain any notable improvement over the stunning but workmanlike SM9s, and within my more limited experience of Focal I am compelled to agree!

They may not be the most beautiful speakers in existence, but these SM9s' just keep continuing to impress...

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