March 15, 2009

Focus Audio Prestige FP 90 Loudspeakers


Near the beginning of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (book or movie, take your pick), there’s 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 isn’t 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 Year’s 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. It’s 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 didn’t sound right. So I gave in to reality, installed the second Shelter, and got to it.

The Shelter sounds really nice and all, but it’s no Shiraz, and these speakers make that fact clear while still letting me enjoy the lesser cartridge’s sound. It’s a bittersweet moment for sure. But I’m getting ahead of myself, neh?

The look of Prestige

Focus Audio is an interesting, clever, and ambitious company. For a number of years now they’ve 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 Audio’s 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. They’ve 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 90’s resemblance to Focus Audio’s 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 phase plug.

As with every other Focus Audio speaker I’ve 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 speaker’s 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 didn’t dominate my room, but this speaker is not small. It’s 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 I’ve 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 being!

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! Here’s 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 I’m listening to right now? I hadn’t had that album out of the rack in about a year, and all of a sudden I’m listening to it, writing about it, and reading myself writing about it. It’s 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 it’s 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 I’m 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 wasn’t lacking in any way, yet failed to impart a scrap of edge to the music. Back to Back is recorded quite hot, and there’s 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 I’d heard before, through Focus’s 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-888’s 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 Blakey’s ride on "Venita’s Dance," from Kenny Dorham’s Afro-Cuban (LP, Blue Note/Classic 1535), but make no mistake: the FP 90’s 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 Shorter’s Speak No Evil (LP, Blue Note ST-46509) up and spinning. Freddie Hubbard’s 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 Fitzgerald’s Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! (Verve V/V4-4053) for another descent into midrange richness. I’ve listened to this album for nearly a decade now, and I’ve 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 90’s 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 speaker’s overall character that I generally didn’t notice just how correct it sounded. Clean bass that’s free of distortion often doesn’t grab the attention, and there was an element of that in the FP 90’s sound. Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert (2 LPs, ECM 1064/65) is a torture test for bass: the piano sometimes sounds as if it’s 20’ tall, and any overhang in the upper bass is immediately noticeable. Via the FP 90s, the overall scale of Jarrett’s piano wasn’t 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 Zappa’s an acquired taste, but once his music gets under your skin, it’s like an itch you just can’t 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 didn’t 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 O’Hearn. 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 -- I’ve painted a picture of the perfect speaker, right? It wasn’t that simple. While the Prestige FP 90 was a fantastic, enveloping, delicious-sounding speaker, there were a few warts you should know about.

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 90’s tweeter never changed when pushed, and the speaker was capable of cranking out some serious volume without becoming harsh or brittle. It’s just that, above a certain point that was much louder than I care to listen to, the speaker’s 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. I’d always rather have good bass than more bass, if that’s the choice, and there’s 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 isn’t the last word in planet-smashing control.

But no matter . . .

I found so much to admire in Focus Audio’s Prestige FP 90 that I’m comfortable giving it my unconditional recommendation. The two caveats listed above are me really reaching for something bad to say -- don’t we reviewers have to say something negative about every product in order to retain our credibility?

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, it’s 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.

Focus Audio
43 Riviera Drive, Unit 10
Markham, Ontario L3R 5J6
Phone: (905) 415-8773
Fax: (905) 415-0456


footer.jpg (5527 bytes)