March 15, 2009
Focus Audio Prestige FP 90 Loudspeakers
Near the beginning of Hunter S. Thompsons Fear and
Loathing in Las Vegas (book or movie, take your pick), theres a scene in which
Dr. Gonzo tries to pinch out a line of cocaine from a salt shaker while traveling in a
convertible at highway speeds. Common sense (of which there is none in this tale)
suggests that this isnt a good idea.
Well, as expected, the coke goes flying out the back of the
car in a big white cloud. Dr. Gonzo looks over at Raoul Duke and screams, "Did you
see what God did to us?"
I experienced the exact same flush of anger a short while
ago, on New Years Day, when, hungover as all get-out, I reached down to lift the
cueing arm on my turntable, and instead ripped the cantilever right off my then-brand-new
Shelter 501 Mk.II cartridge. There was no one else in the room to even remotely blame, and
I fell to my knees and shrieked with pain and rage. Its like backing your car into a
concrete pillar -- you want to blame someone else, but . . .
These thoughts swirl through my head this bright, sunny
Saturday morning as I sit here listening to my backup Shelter 501 Mk.II via the subjects
of this review -- the Focus Audio Prestige FP 90 speakers -- after now discovering
that my dearly beloved and much used Roksan Shiraz cartridge is finally and completely
pooched. I came down this morning to clear my head with some music and, no matter what I
did, the Roksan just didnt sound right. So I gave in to reality, installed the
second Shelter, and got to it.
The Shelter sounds really nice and all, but its no
Shiraz, and these speakers make that fact clear while still letting me enjoy the lesser
cartridges sound. Its a bittersweet moment for sure. But Im getting
ahead of myself, neh?
The look of Prestige
Focus Audio is an interesting, clever, and ambitious
company. For a number of years now theyve produced speakers with absolutely stunning
looks and absolutely stunning sound. Yeah, I hear you: Plenty of companies out there make
damn fine speakers -- what makes Focus Audios so special? Well, the Prestige
FP 90 ($9495/pair USD) is the third Focus Audio speaker to have visited my system,
and while each has sounded different from the others (though within a distinctive familial
balance), all have brought me closer to the music, sounding extended, rich, and detailed,
and never -- not ever -- fatiguing. My first experience was with the delicious, verging on
over-the-top Signature FS-888. Next was the coffin-sized Master 3, which, despite its
outrageously large cabinet, still managed to sound rich and easygoing. I could have lived
happily ever after with either.
Of late, Focus Audio has been filling in the gaps in their
product lines. Theyve introduced several new lines of more affordable speakers, and
now comes the FP 90, which sits just above the Signature FS-888 and just below the
Master 2.5, which the FP 90 somewhat resembles.
At first glance, the FP 90s resemblance to Focus
Audios Signature and Master speaker series is evident. Using the same Eton 9"
Hexacone woofer and 5.5" midrange as the Master 3, but with only half the number of
drivers, the FP 90 deviates from its close cousins by employing a 1.125"
Scan-Speak Revelator ring-radiator tweeter, which is dominated by a central, nipple-like
As with every other Focus Audio speaker Ive seen in
the flesh, the FP 90 is superbly finished. The piano-black lacquer is deep and
flawless, and the recessed binding posts are inset into the rear panel without a seam in
sight. Same with the rear-firing port, which seamlessly blends into the speakers
rear. If the piano black is a bit too Death Star for you, an extra $800/pair gets you a
striking ebony wood-grain finish.
At a reasonable 43" high, the all-black FP 90
didnt dominate my room, but this speaker is not small. Its stout and weighs 88
pounds, and rapping the panels elicited only a series of dull thuds: with its
2"-thick MDF front baffle and 1"-thick sides, this is one solid, well-braced
cabinet. Focus Audio claims a frequency response of 25Hz-25kHz, +/-3dB. Focus also claims
that the FP 90, with an impedance of 8 ohms and a sensitivity of 87dB, is reasonably
easy to drive. Sure enough, my Audio Research VT100 tube amplifier seemed quite
comfortable feeding the speakers from its 8-ohm taps.
What are you packing?
My system has been uncommonly stable for the past few
months, as Ive got pretty much everything right where I want it -- a rare pleasure.
Listening for pleasure, if you can imagine that, I feel almost like a normal human
As always, my long-suffering Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 handled
preamp duties, receiving its signal exclusively from the AQVOX Phono 2 CI phono stage. The
Pro-Ject RPM 10 turntable long ago made an honest man of me. Why should I cheat now? The
Shelter 501 Mk.II cartridge ended the review period, after my poor, dear Roksan Shiraz had
faded into the night.
Amplification was handled solely by the Audio Research
VT100, which received signals from the SFL-2 via Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval balanced
interconnects, which also fed AQVOX-to-preamp signals. Power cordage was via Shunyata
Research Taipans, and a Shunyata Hydra Model-6 power conditioner kept out the goblins of
AC-line contamination. Speaker cables were Acoustic Zen Satori.
Creamy n nice
Ha! Heres synchronicity for you! I was just going
over an old review of mine, gathering some component info for this review, and guess what?
While rereading my SoundStage! review of the AQVOX phono stage, I noticed that I
made mention of Back to Back: Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges Play the Blues (LP,
Verve/Classic MB VS-6056). Guess what Im listening to right now? I hadnt had
that album out of the rack in about a year, and all of a sudden Im listening to it,
writing about it, and reading myself writing about it. Its probably explainable by
string theory or something of the like.
Well, anyway, Back to Back is one swell album.
Classic Records has mined this swinging Ellington phase for all its worth, and God
bless em! This loping, grooving session exemplifies everything that was just so right
about the Prestige FP 90. I know my analog front end and all-tube system imparts
some richness to the signal, but Im also very familiar with its foibles, and I have
to say that I just love it when a speaker settles in to work with that
system. The FP 90 had a delicious, open, extended yet creamy top end that wasnt
lacking in any way, yet failed to impart a scrap of edge to the music. Back to Back is
recorded quite hot, and theres tons of air on the cymbals, and loads of spit on the
very top of Hodges sax. Somehow, the FP 90 presented all of this activity in a
reasonably accurate way, never dulling or rolling off the treble, while at the same time
scrubbing the signal clean of any grit, edge, or harshness.
Such treble witchery is a neat trick that Id heard
before, through Focuss Signature FS-888, and I clearly remember having been
impressed by how extended yet relaxed that speaker sounded. As I stated back in 2005, the
FS-888s highs may not have been exactly neutral -- in some ways, they sounded more
prominent than may be ideal -- but they were absolutely delicious. The Master 3 was
slightly more neutral, and the Prestige FP 90 fell right between them: perfect for
late-night listening, as I discovered. There was still a very slightly tubey, euphonic
sweetness to cymbals, as on Art Blakeys ride on "Venitas Dance,"
from Kenny Dorhams Afro-Cuban (LP, Blue Note/Classic 1535), but make no
mistake: the FP 90s highs made for an absolutely glorious before-bed
experience. And that was all for that evening.
Another lovely sunny morning, and more from my Blue Note
buffet, with Wayne Shorters Speak No Evil (LP, Blue Note ST-46509) up and
spinning. Freddie Hubbards crisp, clear trumpet on "Witch Hunt" projected
forth from the FP 90s with almost spooky presence. Just a bit to the right of center,
the FP 90s presented the bell of the trumpet with crispness and brass: not too
forward, and certainly not recessed into the soundstage. The Eton midrange driver was one
quick little guy, tracking the horns without overhang or smear.
I switched over to Ella Fitzgeralds Clap Hands,
Here Comes Charlie! (Verve V/V4-4053) for another descent into midrange richness.
Ive listened to this album for nearly a decade now, and Ive heard it through
numerous speakers. But seldom has it sounded as correct, as natural, as it did
through the Prestige FP 90s. Midrange clarity and tonal accuracy are, to me, the
biggest contributors to imaging and soundstage acuity. When a speaker gets the midrange
right, as the Prestige FP 90 did, the rest of the audiophile checklist just seems to
fall into place. With Fitzgerald singing "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the
Most," I had the whole shebang -- every reason for having a good stereo, wrapped up
in one neat package with a bow on top. Her voice hung right there, head-shaped and -sized,
right between the FP 90s. The midrange was rich, fleshed out, and agile, without ever
crossing the line into bloat. What more could I ask for?
Pinpoint imaging? Well, yes and no. The FP 90s took
the organic approach, presenting realistic images rather than the spotty localizations
that some audiophiles seem to enjoy. All the details were there, in a seamless spread from
left to right, with excellent depth projected in a grown-up, self-assured manner.
You want bass? Well, the FP 90s rated -3dB point
is 25Hz, and that spec sounds reasonable to me. The rear-ported FP 90 gave me deep,
reasonably well-controlled bass that blended in so well with the speakers overall
character that I generally didnt notice just how correct it sounded. Clean bass
thats free of distortion often doesnt grab the attention, and there was an
element of that in the FP 90s sound. Keith Jarretts The Köln Concert
(2 LPs, ECM 1064/65) is a torture test for bass: the piano sometimes sounds as if
its 20 tall, and any overhang in the upper bass is immediately noticeable. Via
the FP 90s, the overall scale of Jarretts piano wasnt distorted in the
least. Those heavy fundamentals were true to life and without exaggeration. Listening to
this album was such a pleasure that I just played all four sides twice over.
And so it went when I switched to something a little more .
. . gritty. Frank Zappas an acquired taste, but once his music gets under your skin,
its like an itch you just cant quite scratch. As Sunday day turned into Sunday
night and another workday approached, I dropped Sleep Dirt (LP, Discreet DSK-2292)
onto the platter and cued it up at levels the neighbors probably didnt appreciate.
"Filthy Habits" is driven along by a sinuous bass line from Dave Parlato that
runs up and down across about four octaves, and with such a big, round instrument stirring
things up, the FP 90s might have been expected to get a little out of hand. They
never did. Instead, I sat there transfixed as the next track, "Flambay," jumped
right in with an even busier bass line, this one from Patrick OHearn. The Focuses
tracked the music with aplomb, doling out rich, tight, deep bass that was wholly
appropriate to the music, and that blended seamlessly with the region above.
I know, I know -- Ive painted a picture of the
perfect speaker, right? It wasnt that simple. While the Prestige FP 90 was a
fantastic, enveloping, delicious-sounding speaker, there were a few warts you should know
First, about that crisp, engaging, sparkly treble: When I really
cranked up the FP 90s -- and I mean loud -- well, there was some kind of
inverse Fletcher-Munson trickery going on. Above a certain level, the highs seemed to get
louder more quickly than did the mids and bass. So when I wanted to really rock out, the
treble could get a bit much, a trifle bitey. The basic nature of the
FP 90s tweeter never changed when pushed, and the speaker was capable of
cranking out some serious volume without becoming harsh or brittle. Its just that,
above a certain point that was much louder than I care to listen to, the speakers
balance seemed to change, to favor the treble more than I was comfortable with.
A further consideration: The FP 90 was incredibly
tight, detailed, and accurate in the bass, but just as often as I wondered if any more
bass richness might easily screw things up, I found myself also feeling that I wanted just
a bit more bass slam for my nearly ten grand. Id always rather have good bass
than more bass, if thats the choice, and theres no getting around the
fact that the FP 90 had bass of excellent quality . . . but just a tiny bit more of
it might have been nice. This is definitely an issue of varying mileage; my room is a
serious bass-eater, and my nice, cushiony, tube-based system probably isnt the last
word in planet-smashing control.
But no matter . . .
I found so much to admire in Focus Audios Prestige FP
90 that Im comfortable giving it my unconditional recommendation. The two caveats
listed above are me really reaching for something bad to say -- dont we
reviewers have to say something negative about every product in order to retain our
Seriously, though, if I were shopping for speakers right
now, I have no doubt that a pair of Focus Audios would be on my short list. But which
model? The Signature FS-888? Maybe a bit too rich. The Master 3? Just a touch too big.
The Prestige FP 90? Well, its just right. Sign me up for a pair -- after I
scrounge up the money for a new cartridge.
. . . Jason Thorpe
Focus Audio Prestige FP 90 Loudspeakers
Price: $9495 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
43 Riviera Drive, Unit 10
Markham, Ontario L3R 5J6
Phone: (905) 415-8773
Fax: (905) 415-0456