Focal Speaker System Delivers A Light Touch

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Focal Profile 908 Speakers | $2999 each (bookshelf) | | www.audiomarketing.com.au
For: Sweet, refined sound
Against: Cheaper alternatives are available
Verdict: A distinctive upmarket sub/sat solution for movie and music listening
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The elegant-looking Profile range represents the mainstream middle-ranking family in posh French maker Focal’s (formerly Focal.JMlab) extensive lineup.

As is the way with such product hierarchies, the range benefits from the ‘trickle down’ effect, wherein components and technologies are derived from the top of the line models – in this case the renowned Utopia Be range, and the Electra lineup too, for which these are partial replacements. But of course, there are trade-offs when compared to the company’s flagship products.

While the Profile range is reasonably well-constructed, it lacks the tank-like solidity of the senior models, and predictably the pricing doesn’t allow the use of the Utopia’s signature beryllium dome tweeter. The bass and midrange units of the satellite speakers reviewed here all use Focal’s proprietary W-cone sandwich drivers – which are stiff, light and prevent much of the sound from inside the enclosures making its way to the outside world.

Description

The Profile 908s used in the four corners of this system are by no means large – clearly a  great deal of work has gone into making them easy to live with, while avoiding unnecessary compromise. The satellites are all big enough to fully cover the range above 80Hz, with the remote-controllable subwoofer filling the gap below. The mildly sloping front panels of the satellites allow them to be placed slightly lower, using shorter stands, than flat-fronted speakers, which gives them a high WAF (wife acceptance factor!). Of course, this won’t be much help if you want to place the centre speaker above the TV screen, where this advantage could become a liability.

There are some aspects of the range that aren’t user friendly. While the sub is a fairly chunky animal, its depth is limited, so in principal its footprint is quite small. But the reflex port is on the back and must be left unobstructed, which immediately negates the footprint saving. A few inches grace is usually enough.

Placement, then, is crucial. While Focal’s design team has gone to great lengths to produce an enclosure that is as near non-resonant as can be reasonably contrived (the front and rear boxes sport a near teardrop cross-section with a flattened front face to accommodate the drivers), we noted a trace of nasal mid-band colouration, which seems considerably worse if the speakers have not been fully run in properly and carefully.

The most satisfying box in the system is the centre Profile CC908. This is larger than its brethren, and has a broader frequency response than the vanilla 908 front pair. The thinking must have been to ensure that it’s man enough for the job when partnered with the larger floor-standing models in the range. It also benefits from being a true three-way design, with a vertically disposed midrange unit and tweeter. This means that off-axis response is near completely uniform, except near the lower frequency where the bass units hand over to the midrange, and there it hardly matters.

As it happens, this gloriously over-engineered speaker proves an excellent match for the smaller Profile 908s, giving the centre channel more body, depth and dynamics than any nominally better-matched centre speakers, even when using the same (usually 80Hz) crossover frequency. For this reason, the Profile 908 system is particularly good with dialogue, which sounds bold and vivid, with strong intelligibility even when the other channels are music- or effects-bound – try one of the battle scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl for example.

Performance

To get the most from it, this is a system that needs careful running in, and experimentation, when it comes to placement and toe-in angles – in general you’ll need to leave plenty of room around the satellites if they are to perform at their best. Loss of bass from the satellites when not used close to nearby walls is not an issue thanks to the subwoofer, which can easily be tuned to cover any mild shortcoming. The system also demands good-quality electronics (Parasound and Primare are popular partner brands), but if these basic requirements are met, you’ll find the Profile system unusually quick on its feet, with plenty of the attack and articulation necessary to allow resolution of fine detail, though power requirements are strictly average. Around 100W per channel in most rooms should be more than adequate.

We found that the two satellite designs mesh well together, and although all five satellites have a lean, quick bass rather than a heavy duty one, the SW908 has all the power and depth most users will need. It also offers enough control to fine tune the system for the overall tonal balance you prefer. Within reason you can make the opening battle scenes from Saving Private Ryan sound as mean as you like, without smearing detail.

Our advice, however, is to keep the settings for the sub (level and crossover frequency mainly) such that its contribution is not too immediately obvious on audition. A light touch is everything with this system, which errs (if you can call it that) on the clean, agile and listenable side of neutral, with a bass that is well integrated into the fabric of the sound as a whole. This makes it a particular good choice for music listening, especially with acoustic material.

Conclusion

As an upmarket sub/sat solution for both music and movie listening, this Gallic group has much going for it. If you like a sweet, refined sound, then they are well worth auditioning. Naturally you can find cheaper solutions from rival brands, but then you wouldn’t expect distinction like this to come cheaply.


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