Focal's professional monitors have become quite popular in recording studios over the past several years, from their smaller 2-way systems like the Solo6 Be [Tape Op #60] to larger 3-way systems like the SM9s [#108]. Since I'm constantly looking to stay on top of developments in midfield monitors and have always liked the SM9s, I jumped at the chance to check out the new, larger model Trio11 Be for this review.
The first thing I noticed when unpacking these monitors – besides their good looks – is that they are definitely sized like a midfield; they are pretty darn big – too big to place upright behind the meter bridge in our room. But that didn't end up being a problem, since they can be oriented either upright or on their sides without sacrificing imaging (the entire midrange/tweeter assembly can be easily rotated). Placing them on their sides in our control room made them seem appropriately sized for their purpose, and of course the size is great for the low end – more about that later.
Since we did our testing in an RFZ (Reflection Free Zone) control room with a large API 2448 console [#130], we wanted to make sure that there were no funky console reflections. So, by placing the Focals on their sides atop motorized Sound Anchors stands, we were able to move them up and down to optimum height positioning and minimize console reflections. This also allowed us to easily move them out of the way of our ATC monitors for quick, level-matched A/B comparisons. In this way, both the Focals and our ATCs were in the absolutely correct position when monitoring either one.
The Focal Trio11 Be is 25-inches tall when standing upright, but less than 14-inches tall when placed on its side, which makes it perfect for the engineer's ear height without interference from the console meter bridge. I personally do not recommend putting any monitor on the meter bridge if you are going for accuracy. Just behind the console on solid stands minimizes reflections and is acoustically better overall.
The drivers (all made by Focal) are a 25 cm (10-inch) subwoofer, a 13 cm (5-inch) midrange driver (that Focal calls a woofer), and a 2.5 cm (1-inch) inverted dome tweeter. The cabinet is ported in the front, which is better than rear porting for use in the front of a control room since any sound energy that comes out of the rear of a cabinet will hit the front wall and return to the listening position out of phase from the direct sound. An interesting feature that Focal has been offering in their larger monitors is the ability to turn off the subwoofer and listen in two-way mode (which they call focus mode). This feature, present in the Trio11 Be, is super useful, as it allows you to hear the bass more like a Yamaha NS-10 size speaker, without requiring an additional pair of smaller speakers on the meter bridge. This is not only a money saver, but a great idea for reducing diffraction. An additional pair of small speakers around the meter bridge is never a good idea acoustically, all other things being equal. The implementation is nice – if you have provisions in your monitor controller for small/large monitor switching, you can run both sets of wires to the Trio11 Bes and switch between large and small in the normal fashion. It really is like having two pairs of monitors in the footprint of one.
The Trio11 Be is an active 3-way design in the true sense, meaning there are active crossover networks onboard, as well as three separate power amps: 300 W for the subwoofer, 150 W for the mid, and 100 W for the tweeter. The crossover frequencies are 280 Hz for the LF/MF, and 2.4 kHz for the MF/HF. The amp for the tweeter is Class AB, while the low and mid amps are Class G, said to offer the sound advantages of Class AB along with the efficiency of class D. This is plenty of power to drive the monitors cleanly to a very high volume level.
The XLR input is electronically balanced and adaptable to either +4 dBu or -10 dBV sensitivity. There are EQ adjustments on the rear panel for low and high frequency shelving (+/-3 dB from 35 to 250 Hz and +/-3 dB from 4.5 to 40 kHz respectively), as well as low mid cut/boost, +/- 3 dB at 160 Hz, Q factor 1. This is a lot of control, and although we did not need to engage them to achieve flat response in our RFZ test room, I can imagine that in less accurate rooms these controls could be life savers – especially the bass and low mid controls. The low mid control can sometimes help with low frequency buildup from large console surfaces.
Focal's pure Beryllium inverted dome tweeter did indeed exhibit excellent dispersion characteristics as the highs seemed even when I walked around the control room. This can be helpful when evaluating low frequencies, because if the highs are changing on you as you walk around it can make proper evaluation of low frequencies all that much trickier. The high end on the monitors is quite smooth, and I didn't feel any ear fatigue even after a long listening session.
Stated frequency response in 3-way mode is 30 Hz to 40 kHz +/-3 dB, and this checked out exactly when we measured it on the low end; we measured flat at 31 Hz and down about 3 dB at 30 Hz, just like the specs said we would. In 2-way Focus mode the subwoofer simply drops out, while a low-pass filter reduces frequency response from 40 kHz to 20 kHz on the high end to better simulate the sound of small speakers.
Focal mid and low frequency drivers use high-power magnets in order to control distortion at high levels of excursion. Their drivers also employ dual, symmetrically inverted spiders, for perfectly symmetrical excursion. The driver's "W" composite sandwich cone material is comprised of two separate glass tissue layers sandwiched around a foam core of variable thickness, creating a very light but rigid material that allows for fine control of the cone's damping. This combination of finely damped, very light moving masses and soft suspension is said by Focal to create the perfect balance of high sensitivity and low distortion.
To evaluate how the speakers sound, I start with The Beatles' "Come Together" test. (If monitors don't pass this test, what good are they?) As the intro kicked in, my immediate impression was very positive, and then on the first kick drum breakdown, I felt it – oh yeah, these speakers have nice low end! Not exaggerated or pumped up, just really there, and sure enough, down to 30 Hz, which is about all you really need. I found myself listening all the way to the end, just enjoying the tune, even though I had work to do.
All of the songs I normally use to check out low end sounded just as I expected. The acoustic bass on Diana Krall's "Temptation," expertly played by Christian McBride, sounded particularly solid and focused, as though he was playing right in the room with us. As we switched back and forth between the Trio11 Bes and the (more than twice as expensive) ATC mains, you could hear a difference in the bigness – soffited mains always sound bigger – but not all that much difference, and all of the frequencies seemed to be there in the Focals. Getting acoustic bass right is always an acid test for a monitor, and this tune convinced me that the Focals were not hyped in the low end, just flat and accurate, which is what you want. (You can goose it on the back if you absolutely must...) The lowest note on the 5-string bass (B0) came through loud and clear on Michael McDonald's "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me." This lowest B note is 30.87 Hz, and many monitors struggle to produce it with the same authority as the rest of the range, but with the Trio11 Be this note sounded as solid and real as any other note. Overall, I feel like mixing the bass accurately on the Trio11 Bes should be a piece of cake for a good engineer.
Moving beyond evaluation of the bass, we spent quite a bit of time listening to different vocalists with classic, recognizable voices for midrange accuracy. Singers included Lennon and McCartney, James Taylor, Mick Jagger, Bonnie Raitt, Beck, Tom Petty, Donald Fagen, Roger Waters, Paul Simon, Diana Krall, and others. Voices sounded realistic, if a little on the dry side, and generally at the correct level in the mix, though not quite as forward sounding as the ATC mains. Snare drums and electric guitars sounded appropriately "in your face", and the ability to mix vocal level against other competing midrange instruments like snare and guitar should be excellent.
Listening to jazz piano recordings of Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans, the Trio11 Bes sounded quite realistic and easy to listen to – a pleasant combination. The slight "dryness" as compared to the mains was still there, though more subtle. Moving to some Beethoven ("String Quartet No. 7" by the Alexander String Quartet), these monitors sounded beautiful and lush, and, at some point, I just had to pull myself away from listening to them. Focal as a company started out in the hi-fi business, and they definitely know how to make a very listenable speaker. To check out dynamic range we listened to Helene Grimaud playing Brahms' "Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor." The loudness difference between the softest solo piano parts and the loudest orchestral/piano passages is enormous in this piece of music, and the Focals handled it all with ease – no distortion on the peaks or noise in the quiet parts. Cranking them up on some loud rock music, they seemed pretty effortless and unconstrained up to a high volume level – very impressive for their size, with a noticeable lack of boxiness to the sound (Focal's very solid methods of cabinet construction and internal bracing certainly have something to do with this).
The owner's manual for the Focals leaves room for improvement. In particular, the diagrams showing set up positioning, speaker angles, and speaker/listener listening triangle are drawn in a confusing manner and should be ignored – there is better, more accurate info out there on speaker set up. The Trio11 Be side panels are finished in a natural dark red burr ash veneer while the central body of the monitors is black. They appear to be very rugged and should hold up under professional use for a very long time. The rear panel is where you'll find the sensitivity switch as well as an enable switch for the auto-standby mode.
Then there's the price. I was surprised when I learned that these monitors go for $8,000 a pair. That seems a little low to me, considering what they are, what they do, and how they compare to the competition. At this price, I think they will move a lot of them. If you are running a pro studio, or are just serious about mixing, you owe it to yourself to check out these monitors.