Focal Electra 1007 Be loudspeaker Page 2

It's music that matters, of course, and good grief, how this speaker loved piano music. I slid Emanuel Ax playing Brahms' Handel Variations and the two Op.79 Rhapsodies (CD, Sony Classical SK 40486) into the Ayre C-5xe universal player. The freedom to the sound of the piano on this recording was reproduced pretty much in full measure by the Electra. The highs sounded airy, the midrange clean and uncolored, and the lows relatively weighty for a small speaker. I worked on the master of Robert Silverman's new recording of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations (Stereophile STPH017-2) while preparing this review: not only did the Focals allow me to hear deep into the recorded acoustic—in the transition between Variations 24 and 25 I heard a faint shout outside the concert hall of which I had been previously unaware—but the sound of Bob's Steinway reproduced with a vivid, almost full-range character that was addictive. While this speaker is relatively small, what it had in the way of low frequencies was generously balanced, in turn balanced by the combination of smoothness and airiness in the highs.

At Home Entertainment 2005, Robert Silverman had performed Debussy's La Cathédral engloutie, from the composer's first set of Préludes, which I had recorded using a pair of DPA cardioid mikes. The deep tolling in the piano's left-hand register, which represents the ringing of the cathedral's bells far beneath the waves, was reproduced in almost full measure via the Focals—although the speaker also let me clearly hear the low-frequency breakthrough from the XM Radio room next door!

I reached for a CD I hadn't played in 10 years: Jacques Rouvier's performance of these same Préludes (Denon 38C37-7121), which had been a favorite of mine in the late 1980s. This is one of the few CDs in my collection mastered with pre-emphasis; the Focals allowed me to appreciate not only the generous sweep of Rouvier's playing in The Drowned Cathedral, but also how dry and anonymous the surrounding acoustic was—or how poorly the early digital technology (it was recorded in 1984) had preserved that acoustic.

This triggered another search in the recesses of my CD storage, this time to find "Water Music" of the Impressionists, a 1979 collection of piano works performed by Carol Rosenberger and recorded by Stan Ricker using a pair of B&K measurement mikes (Delos D/CD 3006). Released in 1983, this was one of the very first CDs I bought: while its sleeve proclaims it to have been recorded with the late Tom Stockham's SoundStream system, I am left wondering how it was transferred to CD, as the SoundStream recorder ran at 50kHz rather than CD's 44.1kHz. However it was done, it still sounds superb, and particularly so through the Focals (though with a little more hiss than I remembered). La Cathédral engloutie sounded significantly richer than in the other recordings. Some of this was due to Carol Rosenberger doubling the lowest "tolling bell" notes with a 16Hz C made possible by her Bösendorfer's extended keyboard (97 notes vs a standard concert grand's 88), but it was also due to the Electra's rather rich upper bass.

You get the idea: the Focal Electra 1007 Be and piano recordings are a match made in heaven—or France, at least. But enough Debussy—what about more universal types of music? The orchestral strings on the Naxos Vaughan Williams SACD were presented within a wide, deep soundstage, and solo instruments—such as the oboe and viola that open In the Fen Country—were presented with all the fragile tangibility of the real thing. The contrast of their small images with the cinematic orchestral climax that follows a few minutes later sounded almost exaggerated, so cleanly did the Focals present the recording's dynamics. Antony Michaelson's clarinet in his performance of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto (on K622, SACD, Musical Fidelity MFSACD017) sounded just as I remember it sounding at the sessions in London's Henry Wood Hall, its rich hollowness—or should that be hollow richness?—coming across unfettered by any editorializing from the speaker.

Stereo imaging was accurate and stable, though centrally placed images—Michaelson's clarinet, for example—were a little wider than they had been with the Snell LCR7 XLs. Image depth was also not quite as deep—but the little Snells excelled in this area. The Focals were certainly no slouches in the sonic holography department.

It was perhaps its ability (once it had been broken in) to play rock music loud that most surprised me about the Electra 1007 Be. I had the preamp volume well up, playing some chamber music, then put on "Righteous," from Eric Johnson's Live from Austin TX (CD, New West 6084), and forgot to back off the volume control. The sound of Johnson's chiming Stratocaster and his rhythm section in full afterburner blew me back in my seat, but the sound was rockin', with no hint of dynamic compression.

Compared with the Snell LCR7 XL, which I originally thought was the same price as the Electra 1007 Be (the Snell is actually 50% more expensive), the Focal speaker sounded significantly richer, deeper, more brilliant, more airy, and more expansive. It didn't have quite the same holographic imaging as the American speaker, nor was it quite so transparent in the midrange, but it could play louder without strain.

Which did I prefer? The Snell is more of a monitor, the Focal more of a music-lover's speaker, though I admit that this is rather a false distinction. Both speakers can do both tasks with the right kinds of music. During the preparation of this issue, I preferred whichever speaker I was listening to at the time. But the Focal will probably be of more universal appeal, given its more extended low frequencies and slightly wider capability of dynamic range.

With its black-and-aluminum front baffle, gloss-black top, and polished wooden side cheeks, the Focal Electra 1007 Be is a fine piece of furniture, and its appearance is matched by a grain-free, transparently balanced sound that allows the music to communicate very effectively. Its rich, brilliant character works optimally with naturally balanced recordings, and source components and amplification that are not themselves bright or tipped-up in the highs.

The Focal's upper bass is a bit exaggerated in absolute terms—whether this will be an issue or not will depend on the owner's room and taste in sound. Focal does supply foam plugs to turn the Electra into a sealed-box design if it is to be used close to the wall behind it or if the upper bass is found excessive in a particular room. I felt the plugs made the treble sound a bit excessive, however, by damping the bass. Even with its ports unblocked, the 1007 Be can occasionally be a bit relentless with overcooked recordings, especially before the speaker is broken in. But fed high-quality program and driven by a muscle amp, the Electra 1007 Be will convey the musical message in a most satisfying manner. Highly recommended.

US distributor: Audio Plus Services
PO Box 3047
Plattsburgh, NY 12901
(800) 663-9352