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Positive Feedback ISSUE41
The Neoteric Listener
...Explores the World of a Desktop Audio System from
For slightly less than an ounce of pressed aluminum, my iPod Nano sure makes a racket. I'm not talking about the welcome blitzkrieg of the Dickies' "(I'm Stuck in a Pagoda With) Tritia Toyota" blasting holes through my eardrums during my evening jogs. No, I'm referring to brouhahate that inevitably arises between those who see this portable media player as either digital deliverance or audio philistinism. Typically, the topic escalates from a discussion on the relative merits of sampling rates to tepid-pitched sniping (not too much full scale shouting in the audiophile set) about a society technically savvy but culturally bereft. Whatever. Personally, I like to stir things up by saying "And what about the influence of the iPod on compression in modern recordings!" and then watch everyone really gear up, but that's just me.
Rather than the flashpoint of some music reproduction schism, my Nano is a daydream device that enables me to pretend I'm somewhere, someone, something else, and avoid facing the halting misery that I call exercise. I enjoy its ability to provide a soundtrack for an auto documentary that, except for an occasional pratfall or misstep in something nasty, requires a bit of auditory magic to enliven the daily ritual. The smashup of Wagner or the opening chords of "Cinnamon Girl" help alleviate the humiliation of watching an endless parade of small children and elderly women easily pass me by in the local 10k "run." Media players of all stripes, of course, provide similar virtues for shutting out the annoying intrusions of real life (insert visual facial image here), but only the iPod confers style-setting cachet on the quest to hermetically Seal off the world. As a musical experience, my Nano, like the mp3 player, Walkman, and am/fm radio before it, offers the usual revelations that occur when you jam tiny speakers next to your eardrums. I notice instruments or vocals that I hadn't before, and there's nothing like an endorphin/auditory pleasure cocktail to make you appreciate the power of music to transcend the inescapable reality of groaning calves and a grumpier back. Hyper-fitness and hi-fidelity are two separate obsessions, however, and most of my attempts to hot-rod iPods into performance machines inevitably end up in the convenient-but-crummy trash heap. Like three-legged dogs and drunken ex-roommates, the Nano stays out on the porch.
All that changed, however, with my introduction to the Focal XS 2.1 multimedia system. Consisting of a powered subwoofer and two satellite speakers, this desktop audio system enables you to dock the iPod of your choice (and with eight adapters supplied, you've got a lot of choices) turn on the playback using the slick remote, and let the good times scroll.
Sounds good, but does it sound good?
Although the XS is a desktop system, it is so cool looking, with its black piano gloss finish and satellite silhouettes resembling a cross between Wall-E and Nipper the RCA dog, I didn't have the patience to start unplugging printers and wrestling computer desks. So, I commandeered a couple of end tables and a good piece of shelving and turned the Focal XS into a de facto second system. Plug, plug, plug, click and all systems were go. The incredibly easy set up is fortunate, the Spartan manual (laconic in English, though possibly more expansive in the other eight languages) is less so. At any rate, I pressed play, listened, and quickly realized that the XS doesn't work well at any rate. Not at just any bit rate, at least.
Imagine my disappointment when I heard Dean Martin singing as if he had a cold and accompanied by a band playing behind the kitchen door. The Focal system was supposed to be the perfect complement to a cozy New Year's Eve with my special someone—I'd spent the previous evening putting together the consummate canciones compilation for mi inamorata—and I was beginning to curse the time wasted dragging titles. Before I let it sour my entire 2009 (I'm more than capable of such petulance, by the way), I did some checking. Sure enough, this track came from one of my older 128 kbit/s mp3 files that I had added to iTunes long ago. Loading Dino in at Apple Lossless speed, I swapped out the offensive track at the new Obama rate (and don't gimme no flac about .wav and 196 and all those other autobahn record-breaking files). The difference was not only audible (and I'm usually pretty skeptical about these things) but absolutely striking. The real Chairman of the Board was in fine fettle, mellifluous and clear, and the band was once again back on stage.
Before I really started to evaluate the Focal XS, I had a quick listen to Martin's "Memories Are Made of This" played on my system of an Arcam CD82 compact disc player, Arcam A85 integrated amplifier, and Tannoy Eyris I speakers. Then, I clicked the title on the Nano to hear how the Focal compared. Ok, maybe it was a silly experiment with predictable results (Tannoy/Arcam Tech ran roughshod over University of Focal by three touchdowns and one drop kick), but it's my party and I'll try if I want to. Clearly, the Focal XS is not going to supplant even my modest system, nor should it at roughly a quarter of the price. But just because it doesn't win the "triomphateur" medallion doesn't mean that it has to spend all of its days providing background music for creating spreadsheets and listening to jazz noodlings on NPR. Besides, I needed a jukebox musical enough to disguise my idiosyncrasies as "taste" and the balloons were already inflated. Armed with my passion playlist, a bottle of sparkling cider, and a lemming's worth of apprehension about the future (2008: The new 1958!), I clicked on the iPod and opened the door to let in my beloved, nerve-wrackingly exacting, party guest.
You're hitting on 18? You don't hit on 18!
For four hours or so, my girlfriend and I snacked on oriental rice crackers, played cards, and enjoyed the Focal New Year's Eve concert, as she gave me black jack lessons in preparation for the big, big money I would be bringing home from CES. First off, the powered satellites easily handled the handclaps and disco fills that open Rose Royce's "Car Wash" (all-time great party kindling). While it's true that this was just a party of two, the timing was good enough to keep our hands drumming on the cards in between shuffles, and isn't that good enough? The subwoofer wasn't enough to make me break out the silver glitter platforms and matching space helmet, but Lequeint "Duke" Jobe's groovacious bass was tuneful and nicely balanced. The Focal also made nice work of the shimmering vibraphone that graces the Supremes "Baby Love." No many how many times I hear Diana Ross in her prime (and that's many, many, man!) her voice is always riveting, and it's easy to overlook the wonderful architecture laid down by the Funk Brothers in the dense mix of the Holland-Dozier-Holland classic. But there were the handclaps panned hard right, spot-on horns, and the solid rhythm of footsteps (Mike Valvano's in the studio, and ours at home). Similarly, the XS turned out a get-back-jack version of Stevie Wonder's "Boogie On Raggae Woman," with harmonica wailing, electric piano providing essential fills, and moog synthesizer blatting out a bass line of blissful-fulfillingess that could only be found in the genius's mind …and a million summertime parties in the 70s. As the two-step dance party continued on with The Cars "My Best Friend's Girl," the XS had no problem faithfully producing the opening chords of Ric Ocasek's Jazzmaster or his supergeek lead vocals. Elliot Easton's Telecaster chimed beautifully during the fills and the clarity of the Focals helped me to recognize how much the lead was an "homage" to George Harrison's playing on the Beatles cover of Buddy Holly's "Words of Love" (hey, rock n' roll is all stolen finger-paint, so no worries).
Honey, suicide kings and one-eyed jacks aren't wild in black jack…
Turning to prettier things, the Focals' presentation of the opening piano notes of Norah Jones's "One Flight Down" had a slight brightness that I don't usually hear, but the overall sensation was enjoyable, and the breathy loveliness of her voice was, if not as thrilling as I have heard it different systems, still a superb experience. In fact, the XS handles women's voices well, on-pitch and largely devoid of any unpleasant shrillness. The lilting sadness of Emmylou Harris's voice on "Too Far Gone" was almost too convincing for the occasion. Similarly, the dying echoes of the piano pedal on Satie's "Gymnopedie" made me look up from my equally bleak blackjack hand but, whereas the latter only signaled futility, the former evoked a wistfulness of emotion that is one of the joys of music reproduction. Not to overstate the ability of the Focal to overwhelm the senses, of course, but the fact that it has enough in it to divert one's attention to a musical passage in time is impressive in its own right.
The only chips left are in the dish…
Some final thought on the Focal XS as a stand-alone system. First off, these things are definitely fussy about speaker placement. For me, they're wallflowers of the first order. After all, they're designed to be placed on desks or in cabinets, and they do provide considerably more presence and heft with their backs to the wall. Push them out in space and the imaging and soundstage (which is fairly sharp and convincing, considering the physical limitations of size) dissipates, and the subwoofer buries itself in its shell almost completely. My girlfriend was impressed by the overall attractiveness of the Focal XS as a complement to the room's décor. However, the Focal XS comes wrapped in protective plastic sheeting, and I quickly discovered why. My house collects dust like a drive through Tombstone, and it took some care to preserve the stunning aesthetics of the XS. Also, the adapters supplied require some practice to remove and insert, so be nice to the person with long fingernails in your house.
As 2009 beckoned, my girlfriend realized that she had cleaned me out and there was still time for her favorite DVD, so I unplugged the Focal (did she really call Paul McCartney singing "I Will" old people's music!), and returned it to its rightful place on my computer desk. I had learned too valuable the lessons: The Focal XS made for a mighty fine jukebox, and I make a mighty lame black jack player. I think I'll just enjoy listening to music and stay away from anyone who makes money playing cards at CES, thank you.
Dell-lightful, Dell-licious, Dell-lovely…
The next few days, I spent time playing my favorite internet radio stations, iTunes, and audio book selections on my computer. Do I really need pristine versions of Dr. Demento rebroadcasts or the brain injury non-sequiturs produced by my attempts to confuse Pandora (Yoko Eno! Incredible String Doo-Dah Band!)? Yes, I guess I do. All of it sounded great. All right, so the internet radio is pretty mediocre, but I love spontaneity and variety in music, and it's easy for me to overlook flaws in free entertainment. Somewhere, there's someone who wants to enjoy listening to excellent music when working and playing on the computer, while still being given the option of a perfectly adequate bedroom or kitchen set-up. If that person is you, you're in luck, for the Focal XS is well worth the relatively small outlay of cash required to have high quality sound only a mouse click away.
For more about the ability of the Focal XS to handle DVD and phono duties, see Victor Chavira's insightful review.
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