French loudspeaker manufacturer Focal recently introduced the mid-priced Alpha series of professional studio monitors, all of which feature a polyglass cone woofer, double front bass ports, and an inverted dome tweeter similar to the one used in Focal's celebrated CMS line - at about half the price of their CMS cousins. At $400 each, the Alpha 65, which sits in the middle of the line with its 6.5'' woofer, threatens to outclass every studio monitor near its pricepoint! Enchanté Focal... and merci beaucoup - I can actually afford to purchase this fine monitor!
My Alpha 65 pair lives in a bedroom-sized, untreated space a foot away from the front wall, which in my mind represents a common setup for many project studios. Surprisingly, I was able to nail the low end in my very first mix - well, maybe my second mix, after burning in the Alphas for eight hours, then adjusting the HF and LF shelving controls. My experience confirmed Focal's claim that the dual front port design "improves acoustic integration even in confined spaces or installed near a front wall." I found the ports to be very subtle for their relatively large size, and not obviously "porty" sounding, while contributing to a nice, deep, low-end punch.
More remarkable still is the Alpha 65's neutral, consistent lower midrange - between 200 and 400 Hz - even at variable listening levels. My impression is that the Focal's overall midrange is extremely honest, with just enough emphasis to make it easy to hear when the mix is not "gelling," but it's obviously clear when the mix is properly materialized. Guitars (both acoustic and electric) have never been such easy work for me. Reverbs and effect return levels are a snap to judge.
I must admit, I've never mixed with monitors with inverted dome tweeters, but my impression is that the listening experience here offered a perceptually even spread from the tweeter and woofer. The tweeter's wide dispersion seems to complement the woofer's sweet spot better than any nearfield monitor I can remember hearing. Ever since dinging the tweeter dome on one of my now vintage Genelec 1030A monitors, I'm reconsidering my relationship with standard dome tweeter designs in general. Tape Op's Gear Geek, Andy Hong - whom I always consult before gear shopping - gave me a short history lesson on inverted dome tweeters and how nearfield monitors came to be. The inverted dome tweeter was invented in the 1960s by Winslow Burhoe. Burhoe left Acoustic Research to found EPI and later Genesis Physics, both of which employed Burhoe's tweeters in their bookshelf speakers, which were popular household items during the '70s and early '80s, alongside other small 2-way speakers, including those from Henry Kloss-founded companies Acoustic Research, KLH, and Advent. Japan's answer was the Yamaha NS-10, originally marketed as a home hi-fi bookshelf speaker. The rest is history. (To understand the many benefits of the inverted dome design, I encourage you to visit the Focal Professional website.)
Monitors with pleated-diaphragm ("folded ribbon") tweeters (see LC's ADAM Audio review in this issue and Eli Crews' recent EVE Audio review [Tape Op #103]) have always been more attractive to me. I've worked on ADAMs a ton, and I'd really been won over by their non-fatiguing quality and dynamic highs. To my ears, the inverted tweeter design of the Focal Alphas may not offer quite the "anti-fatiguing" quality of folded ribbons, but it offers a wider sweet spot while maintaining a truer, more "brilliant" high-end. I was ever aware when the overheads overpowered the kick, snare, and toms. The Focals immediately revealed my abuse of additive EQ above 8 kHz, always nudging me towards a more tasteful, balanced mix.
Other Alpha features include subtle, yet effective, rotary HF (±3 dB at 4.5 kHz) and LF (±6 dB at 300 Hz) shelving controls; balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA connectors; a slick backlit logo; and a power saving Auto Standby mode (see Eli's review of the KRK Rockit 5 G3 [Tape Op #103]). Power-saving standby modes are now required in many countries in accordance with the One- Watt Initiative implemented by the International Energy Agency. I agree with Eli that this mandated feature may not seem intuitive at first, but it became "standard operating procedure" after a week of use - and it's just something we're all going to have to get used to. When the Alphas wake up from "sleep," audio fades in somewhat gradually over a few seconds, and it never seems abrupt or alarming at moderate listening levels. My only minor criticism of this monitor is that I've grown accustomed to the repeatability of dip-switch shelving controls, but the Alpha's range of adjustment is so subtle that it would be difficult to be more than 1/4 dB off between monitors, and tweakers can run sweeps and adjust by hand.
In practice, I'm making confident choices, my mixes are referencing beautifully, and after a mere two weeks, my efficiency doubled with the Alpha 65s. I'm enjoying my work again. Clients are happy and requesting fewer mix revisions. To quote French novelist George Sand, "Masterpieces are never anything but happy attempts." And happy clients in our industry are those that receive masterpieces - or masterful work - for a practical, mortal fee. Many of us struggle to reach and maintain a reasonable existence in this industry. Products that address the needs of the middle- class are always on the forefront of my radar. I'm excitedly raving about the Alpha 65s to everyone, as they sound at least twice as good as they cost. In addition to the 65 reviewed here, the line also includes the Alpha 50 and Alpha 80, with 5'' and 8'' woofers as you might have guessed. Keep an eye out on Tape Op's website, as I will be filling you in on my findings and opinions on these too. In the meantime, if you're in the market for two-way nearfields for under $1000 per pair, you must place the Alpha 65 at the top of your list!