Review: Focal JMlab Focal XS 2.1-Channel Multimedia + iPod System
As economic conditions remain bleak, $600 iPod speaker systems may well become even rarer than they already are: though companies have made a number of attempts to reach above the $300 mark, and then, above the $400 and $500 marks, a certain trend has repeated itself over and over again with such accessories -- they rarely deliver enough of an advantage over lower-priced alternatives to justify a premium. Geneva Lab's Model L and XL speakers were once exceptions, as was Bowers & Wilkins' Zeppelin, and now French high-end speaker maker Focal JMlab is taking a stab as well.
The Focal XS system ($599) is different from its predecessors in one major regard: it’s designed not as a standalone audio system, but rather as a three-piece audio system that bridges the audio gap between an iPod and an iMac. It was specifically designed to complement the look of the 2007/2008 aluminum iMac, giving you two silver aluminum-suspended black satellite speakers that can be placed on a desk next to a computer monitor, and a large standalone subwoofer unit made from matte and glossy black plastics, accented in front by a silver plastic rim. From the front, each component is mostly black with at least a little silver, a visual balance that is consistent with Apple’s most recent design cues; the satellites each have fabric grilles and glossy plastic bases.
While the left speaker base contains nothing but a Focal logo, the right speaker contains an iPod dock, power, and volume buttons, plus a rear button that shifts between audio sources and synchronization functionality. You can control the system’s power, volume, and docked iPod tracks through an included six-button Infrared remote. Thick, nicely jacketed cables run from the speakers to the subwoofer; USB, aux-in, and power cords are also included.
We’ve spent the past month using Focal XS alongside a 23” Apple Cinema Display, which also matches the speakers, as have the 2008 aluminum MacBook and 2006-2007 aluminum MacBook Pros we’ve tested it with. Various iPods have passed through its dock, including iPod nanos, classics, and touches of different generations, as has the iPhone 3G, the latter of which brings up the infamous not made for iPhone nag screen, but still works fine for audio unless it’s in EDGE mode. Pressing a button on the back of the dock enables the iPod or iPhone to become a data slave to a computer connected via USB; otherwise, the iPod and your computer share the audio connection to the speakers, with the iPod charging off of Focal’s power cable. A hidden rear button isn’t our preferred way of toggling audio and synchronization for an iPod- and computer-ready speaker system—it’s actually quite inconvenient if you’re reaching over a desk—but at least the feature is there.
The good news about Focal XS is that we liked how it sounded right out of the box: this is a balanced, high-quality audio system rather than a cheap set of boom and tizz speakers. Each of the satellites includes 3/4” and 3” drivers, while the subwoofer packs a 6.5” bass-reflex driver, with combined amplification of 130 Watts. While this particular speaker configuration isn’t extraordinary for the price, Focal clearly has used high-quality parts; thus, the system does a good job of performing music and other audio at low to average volumes, and screams at higher ones, with the down-firing subwoofer not surprisingly providing a little sub-sonic physical oomph to accompany its sonic bass waves.
But this bare description requires some added quantification that isn’t entirely in XS’s favor. When we test audio systems, particularly ones that are computer-centric, we operate from the assumption that users aren’t looking for speakers that sound great only when they’re turned up to ear-splitting levels. Rather, ideal speakers sound great at average, ear-safe listening levels, and continue to perform well even when they’re turned up. It’s here that Focal XS falls into the “good but not great” category, and since Focal hasn’t included much in the way of user-adjustable controls—both Geneva Lab and B&W let you tweak the bass and treble levels to your preferred balance—you’re pretty much stuck with the balance the company has chosen, no matter what.
Focal XS’s default mid-volume audio balance can be stated as follows: the system performs clean, detailed mid-treble, midrange, and mid-bass sound, with a little less treble than we might have expected, and certainly less true bass than some users will like. Most of the time when it’s in use, this is not a system that sparkles or rattles; it is a neutral presenter of sounds and music. While the company does include a subwoofer adjustment knob on the sub’s rear, which brings the bass level up from a level of zero, the effect of turning it to its maximum at average volume levels is merely to add back as much low-frequency sound as many less expensive speakers include without a subwoofer. There is no thump, no heft, and no body to the bass at average levels; it is tight and evident, but not full.
This changes when the system is turned up. Every press of the digital volume button adds further power, with the bass in particular rising to create a strong presence. Here, it’s apparent that the rear subwoofer knob isn’t just there to turn the bass from on to off, but to modulate what is otherwise a potentially overpowering quantity of low-frequency sound. In our view, leaving the knob at full is the right way to go, but those preferring more balanced audio will turn it down a little.
In our view, this is a problem. Turning the knob down to, say, 75% in anticipation of using the system at higher volumes will further reduce the bass performance at normal ones. Companies such as B&W, Harman Kardon, Bose, and others have found ways to maximize their drivers to produce their signature equalized sounds at various levels, but with Focal XS, you might find that you’re not getting all the low-end performance you want at average listening levels. At a lower price, this might be forgivable, but for $600, it strikes us as an issue.
That having been said, the Focal XS speakers can be viewed in another, more charitable way. They look so nice and add so much audio horsepower to a Cinema Display, an iMac, or other metal-clad computer system that you can view them as $300-$350 speakers with a fairly steep design-related price premium. At normal listening levels, they add enough to the average computer setup that you’ll be impressed by the clarity of whatever your machine is putting out, and when you’re in the mood to watch a movie or enjoy music at especially loud levels, the system will deliver more than enough power to satisfy you. Though we think that most users would be better-served by speakers maximized for lower-volume listening, Focal XS is a strong enough option on looks and high-volume performance to merit our general recommendation, even for the $600 price. We prefer the adjustability and high art styling of the Zeppelin and Geneva Lab models, but as a high-end hybrid computer and iPod speaker, this is a nice option.