June 1, 2007
Focus Audio Master 3 Loudspeakers
The problem with audiophiles (what -- theres only one?) is that we dont know when to stop when weve got it good. I doubt that theres one of us who hasnt had his system right -- where -- it -- sounds -- great -- and then changed something. Not because it could be improved -- no sir, we all know deep down that the Next Best Thing probably isnt all its cracked up to be. Instead, the thought of that next change brings on The Fever. We all instinctively strive for that component which will do the impossible: bring the deep-down satisfaction that another part of us knows can never be achieved by possessing an inanimate object.
So you might have the absolute dream system right there in your room, and yet, odds are youll sell a component, bring in something new -- and screw it up to high heaven. Its like a scene from an Ibsen play.
Reviewers have the same problem, but new gear is pushed into our systems whether we want it or not. There I sit, grooving to fantastic tunes, positively reveling in the wonderfulness of the system (not really my system, unfortunately) . . . and then Ive got to box up a component and replace it with a total unknown. Is it any wonder Im so poorly adjusted?
Right now, Im not feeling sorry for myself. Instead, Im ruminating on when things sounded great because Im listening to a pair of speakers from Focus Audio -- the Master 3 ($22,360 USD per pair) -- and theyve made me think of Focuss Signature FS888 speaker ($8770/pair), which I reviewed for SoundStage! in 2005. I remember that when I had the FS888s in my system, I had it right. I repeatedly remind myself that when I decide to retire my aging Hales Transcendence Fives, the FS888s will rise to the top of my short list. The Signature FS888s could easily make an honest man of me, and few speakers that are even remotely affordable could do that.
So, damn straight -- Im happy to be experiencing another Focus Audio speaker, this time one that was designed from the ground up as an all-out assault on the state of the art.
As the photo accompanying this review shows, the Focus Audio Master 3 does not blend in. Its big, and a pair of them will dominate a room. If spousal approval is a factor in your speaker-buying decision, be prepared for a pitched battle. Their piano-black lacquer -- which is really nice -- does somewhat mute the Master 3s tendency to overpower a room, but at 64"H x 11"W x 17.5"D and weighing 175 pounds, its still a very large speaker and youll need several people to move one around. The Master 3 has an even bigger brother, the Master 2, which is very similar on a slightly larger scale, with bigger woofers. Theres also a little bro, the almost reasonably sized Master 2.5, which Doug Schneider recently reviewed for SoundStage! in February.
Some aspects of Focus Audios Master line are familiar carryovers from their Signature line. Both lines employ top-notch drivers: 1 1/8" Scan-Speak Revelator tweeters, and, from Eton, Nomex/Kevlar Hexacone woofers and midrange drivers. However, the Masters are three-way speakers, whereas the Signatures are two-ways. The smaller Master 2.5 is a little more conventional in having only three drivers, with the tweeter over the midrange and the midrange over the woofer. The Master 2 and 3 have two of each driver, in a vertically aligned W-M-T-T-M-W configuration. In the case of the Master 3, its the two Revelator tweeters, two 5.5" Eton midrange drivers, and two 9" Eton woofers. The paired tweeters shouldnt alarm those who think this means that the Master 3s treble wont emanate from a point source; the two Revelators are wired identically and are set close together, which means that their output should closely mimic that of a true point source.
The drivers are doubled to produce higher output levels and lower distortion, though these come at a bit of a price. Doubling up the drivers means that the speakers overall impedance is lower. The Master 2 and 3 are rated at a nominal impedance of 4 ohms, the Master 2.5 at a more conventional 8 ohms. However, with all its drivers, the Master 3s sensitivity is rated at a higher-than-average 90dB/m/W.
With its vestigial grille off, the Master 3 is anonymous -- no markings or insignias are visible on the front of the speaker to identify its brand. Its a light-sucking monolith that instead radiates elegance and menace. I really like that. Around back is a nameplate identifying the maker and model, and two sets of juicy rhodium-plated binding posts. As in Focuss Signature line, the Master 3s ports blend seamlessly into the cabinet, a nice touch that speaks volumes about the high level of carriagework for which Focus is famous.
The cabinets and supporting infrastructure, too, have received significant attention. Assembled from multiple layers of MDF, the cabinet walls vary in thickness from 1" to 2". Inside, the drivers are wired with silver, and the crossover components themselves are all of top quality. The Master 3 reposes on a plinth thats finished to match the speaker, the plinth standing on four sturdy-looking spikes that I made sure rested on coins (all heads up for better sound!) to prevent them from puncturing my wood floor.
Despite the Master 3s two 9" woofers and the speakers claimed low-frequency extension of 25Hz, Focus claims that the speaker isnt designed to overwhelm the listener with cannon-fire bass of the 1812 Overture variety. Instead, the Master 3s mandate is to charm and seduce the listener by serving the music. The FS888s achievement of this admirable goal was one of the qualities that so endeared me to it way back when.
The four large woofers of a pair of Master 3s do point to the need for a largish room, though, as do the speakers overall scale. My 13.5 by 15 listening room opens up to another entire floor. So far, no speaker has been able to load the room to the point where the bass becomes oppressive, and the Masters were no exception. Strangely enough, I became aware of the speakers interaction with the room only in the midrange and treble, where I could hear a slight overloading that definitely wasnt coming from the speaker. While this interaction never interfered with my enjoyment of the music, my room is probably at the bottom end of the Master 3s recommended working volume. You should give these speakers plenty of room to breathe.
While the Master 3s proved quite easy to place, they did turn out to be quite sensitive to small changes in position. I ended up with the speakers about 30" out from the front wall and 36" from the sidewalls. Even though the Master 3s are rear-ported, their proximity to the front wall didnt result in boomy or inappropriately elevated bass.
The Master 3s drew current from a number of different amplifiers, including my own Anthem Statement P2, Ayres V5-xe (review forthcoming), Conrad-Johnson Premier 12 monoblocks, and an Audio Research VT100. Preamp comings and goings were almost as frequent -- my own Sonic Frontiers SFL-2, Song Audios SA-1, and the Ayre K5-xe (review forthcoming) took turns feeding the amps. Phono preamplification was handled exclusively by my own Ayre P-5xe. Cartridges alternated between my Roksan Shiraz and Shelter 501 Mk.II.
Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval interconnects carried balanced signals, and Acoustic Zen Matrix handled single-ended duties. Power cords included Shunyata Research Taipans and Cardas Hexlink 5 cables plugged into Shunyatas Hydra Model-6 power conditioner via my dedicated AC line. I used Pro-Jects own supplied interconnect to join the RPM 10 turntable to the Ayre phono stage.
Despite my rooms somewhat tight confines, when I sat back and let that relaxing, involving Focus Audio sound wash over me, the Master 3s instantly took me back two years and put a smile on my face. Once again I found myself wondering how Focus can manage to get their speakers to churn out such extended, precise treble while producing not the slightest amount of listener fatigue. An extreme example: Ive been on a serious Tom Waits bender lately, and its been driving my friends witless. "Ill drive!" I say, but no one wants to ride with me because they know Ill bludgeon them with some abrasive Waits song. Im so misunderstood -- I think Ill paint my fingernails black. So these days I listen to Tom Waits more assaultive music alone in my basement. Right now, Real Gone [Anti- 86678] is blaring out, annoying the neighbors and scaring the cat. "Hoist that Rag," by its very nature, is a sharp, serrated weapon of a song, and the Master 3 revealed it as such, in all its anger. Marc Ribots crisp, pure guitar tone burst forth from the speakers with an almost visible halo -- an almost physically refreshing mist. As I observed with the Signature FS888 two years ago, Focuss implementation of Scan-Speaks Revelator tweeter is something of a landmark in high-frequency reproduction. However, I did note that the FS888s highs were somewhat exaggerated back when, sounding a bit larger than life.
The Master 3 retained the ease and extension of Focuss Signature line while being a touch more restrained, just a little more natural. As such, the Master 3 is the more neutral speaker; indeed, my long-term listening left me with an overwhelming impression of an exceptionally sweet treble (although sweet doesnt really describe Tom Waits) that didnt editorialize or otherwise intrude on my listening experience. A case in point was Charles Munch and the Boston Symphonys recording of dIndys Symphony on a French Mountain Air [LP, RCA Living Stereo/Classic LSC-2271], which features some exceptionally pure piano tinkling away in the foreground, symbolizing -- I guess -- that clean French mountain air. The Master 3 managed to highlight the highest notes of the piano and the ting of the triangle in the most delicious manner, while remaining completely free of the slightest etch or grain.
Listening to the high frequencies -- and indeed, to all music -- through the Master 3s was a wonderful experience, in large part due to the utter relaxation engendered by Focus Audios implementation of the Revelator tweeter. When I sat down in front of the Master 3s, especially when playing well-recorded classical music, I could feel my shoulders drop and my jaw unclench. That doesnt happen very often.
There was more good news lower in the frequency range. The Master 3s 1 1/8" Revelator tweeters hand off to its 5.5" Eton midranges in an utterly seamless manner. In that same work by dIndy, the violins snapped into focus with the requisite bite, and with that lushness for which RCAs old Living Stereo recordings are famous. The piano dances with the massed violins for a short while, and the overtones of both instruments remained separate in space, without the slightest smearing. The Master 3s midrange was respectably neutral -- Focus has refrained from overtly recessing the midrange in order to simulate depth.
Swapping over to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman [Impulse! GR-157], the Master 3 passed the acid test that is Johnny Hartmans voice. Through the best speakers, Hartmans voice manifests itself as a physical head right there between the cabinets; through lesser transducers, he mushes down into a boomy blob. That head, therefore, should not extend downward to a bloated chest. As I noted earlier, the Master 3s did interact with my room somewhat, which resulted in a tiny bit of chestiness in certain passages, but I was able to somewhat ameliorate that effect by piling up an obscenely large tower of cushions at each first-reflection point. While this helped with the midrange in my room, the cushions looked ridiculous, and I removed them after ensuring that the problem was indeed my room and not the Master 3s. Still, even with that slight lower-midrange hump, Hartmans gravy-rich baritone was almost perfectly proportioned, each word hanging in space with an almost supernatural corporeality.
Despite their monstrous cabinets, the Master 3s threw a satisfyingly large soundstage, with perfectly proportioned images appropriately located in three-dimensional space. David Byrnes richly atmospheric Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Music from the film "Young Adam" [Thrill Jockey thrill 133] is one of those rare audiophile bonbons that isnt acoustically recorded but that still manages to cast an absolutely huge soundstage. The Master 3s put everything perfectly in its place: the piano took center stage, just a bit forward of the plane of the speakers, while the violin was clearly slightly rearward. Every cymbal stroke was rendered as a distinct event and portrayed with an almost sensual richness (that tweeter again!) that made me shake my head in pleasure and surprise. The only fly in the Master 3s imaging ointment -- and one of the only flaws of any kind that I found in these startlingly good speakers -- was that there definitely was a narrow and well-defined sweet spot. While the Master 3s imaged quite well off axis, the picture clearly snapped into focus only when I sat smack-dab in the middle of my couch.
Boy oh boy, Im all over the place in this review: Tom Waits, Coltrane and Hartman, dIndy, David Byrne. Well, the Master 3 encouraged those sorts of juxtapositions. It wasnt a one-trick pony that favored one type of music over all others. No sir, the Master 3 was neutral enough to let me get the most out of any form of music, and had the power to play just about all of it at realistic volumes.
But just to be sure, I took a deep breath and rammed Mr. Bungles California [Warner Bros. 47447] into the CD player. This complicated music could easily be used as a blunt instrument with which to club baby seals to death, and Management has officially forbidden me to play it at hi-fi shows while Im displaying Ultra Audio ID. Anyway, I jumped ahead to "Goodbye Sober Day" and cranked up the volume as loud as I could stand it. This track blends a Zappa-esque musical jumble sale with operatic leaps and Tibetan prayer chants, and Mike Pattons percussive vocals proceeded to batter me backward in my chair as the Master 3s rendered every musical squarewave with the kind of authority Ive experienced only at live shows. Lord only knows what the neighbors must have thought. The Master 3s are possessed of outrageous dynamic range, and while they can play stupidly loud, they don't fall apart at low volumes. And unless your room is absolutely huge, I cant imagine youll have much need of the larger Master 2, at least not if you value your hearing.
As intimated earlier, the Master 3 was not about bass bombast. Rest assured, it did have plenty of bass (itd be surprising if it didnt, considering the size of the cabinet and woofers), but this speaker wasnt a braggart. When the music contained low-frequency information, the Master 3 reproduced it -- boy, did it ever -- but that LF info was always in proportion, always presented in context. In fact, a casual listen might lead you to think the Master 3 even a touch lean, or at least bang-on neutral down in the bass. Thinking that would be a big-ass mistake. The Master 3 produced ample bass, all right, but it was tight, well-controlled, accurate bass that I would think is exceptionally low in distortion. All of that bundled together in the same speaker resulted in low frequencies that were thoroughly satisfying over the long term. There was no overhang, no boom, just the perfect amount of richness to ensure that these speakers left my attention solely on the music.
Ray Browns Soular Energy [Pure Audiophile PA-002] is an acoustic jazz-bass extravaganza -- one of those light, breezy sessions where swing is paramount and it doesnt sound as if they were getting paid by the note. I guess because Brown is the leader, his double bass is recorded waaaay up front -- this recording verges on the unlistenable through any speaker with a tendency toward boom or bloat. The Master 3 reproduced "Easy Does It" with appropriate weight verging on the overly ripe, but thats the way this track should sound. This is quality bass, and its not often that a speaker can produce enough of it.
I think by now youve got the impression that I really enjoyed the Master 3. Well, I sure did. However, the Master 3 doesnt merit a blanket recommendation. Although I may be stating the obvious, you should make certain that your entire system is beyond reproach before you purchase a pair of these speakers. While Focus Audios Signature FS888 is also an exceptionally good speaker, I found the Master 3 far more revealing of the quality of ancillary gear. About halfway through the review period I swapped out my Anthem P2 for a pair of Conrad-Johnson Premier 12 tube monoblocks and was absolutely startled at the resultant difference in sound quality. While the P2 is a phenomenal amp -- and not just for the money -- the additional refinement of the C-Js was immediately obvious. A later switch to an Audio Research VT100 was just as audible, if not more. If you invite the Master 3s into your home, youd better set aside some extra cash to ensure that you can fine-tune them to your satisfaction.
If you want to experience the Focus Audio sound with a minimum of fuss, I suggest that you first look into their Signature line. But if youve got the nerve -- not to mention the long green -- theres far more performance, and consequently more musical satisfaction, lurking in their Master series.
Theres one more potential caveat to consider before you race out the door to purchase your own pair of Master 3s. In the hunt for higher resolution that the Master 3 does indeed provide, it sacrifices a little of the Signature lines easygoing nature. While in no way abrasive or ruthless, the Master 3 is not quite as silky-smooth as the FS888. In my opinion the Master 3 is the more neutral speaker, less overtly smooth and rich, while retaining a healthy dollop of that Focus Audio richness -- but if youre looking for a rich chocolate truffle of a speaker, the Signature line might be more to your palate.
But still -- really -- the Master 3 is a bold move on Focus Audios part, and in my opinion its paid off big time. At $22,360/pair, its very expensive, but its also very, very good. If youve got this kind of cash to spend and are looking for a large speaker that will sound great, play loud, and has possibly the most endearing top end of any speaker made, you really must audition the Focus Audio Master 3.
Focus Audio Master 3 Loudspeakers
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