The French company Focal has dominated the audiophile speaker market since its inception in the 1970s. Today, Focal helps to form what I consider to be a vanguard of studio monitor designers who are quickly catching up with the ever-increasing resolution, bandwidth, and dynamic range of modern audio by systematically reducing distortion-and the resultant coloration-generated by amps and speakers. With the Solo6 Be model, Focal has aimed to bring their cutting-edge technology to a reasonable price-point ($2000 pair, street). The Solo6 is an oddball in the Focal line of professional studio monitors for appearing so traditional-a smallish rectangular cabinet with a round tweeter mounted above a 6.5" woofer and a bass port across the bottom of the cabinet. However, the Solo6 Be packs in most of Focal's innovative designs, and it's good to know that they've cut no corners with this speaker to meet the price point.
The cabinet consists of 19 mm MDF panels with internal braces with real red veneer on the sides. At 24 lbs each, they're hefty for their size. On the back panel are the XLR input jack; IEC power cord socket; +4 dBu or -10 dBV operating level switch; and recessed high and low frequency contour pots set at 5 kHz and 150 Hz respectively, offering plus or minus 3 dB of adjustment for room tuning. The tweeter is an inverted beryllium dome. At an astonishing 25 microns thick, it is capable of reproducing frequencies up to 40 kHz at a velocity nearly three times that of titanium. Focal designed this tweeter to avoid the comb-filtering that results from non-concentric tweeter and super-tweeter pairings. A generous 100 Watt Class-AB amplifier powers the tweeter. The woofer is made with Focal's W-Cone technology, a foam core sandwiched between two thin woven-glass tissues. The W-Cone provides an unprecedented stiffness-to-mass ratio that, to my ears, results in far less coloration of the low-end signal. If these woofers have a signature sound, it's a distinctive lack of distortion. The 150 Watt BASH amp that powers the woofer is the only component not built at the Focal factory and is licensed from Indigo. BASH amps have been designed to accommodate the heavy work of delivering the power needed at frequencies as low as 20 Hz while staying cool and small enough to work in an enclosed speaker. (To learn more, visit www.bashaudio.com.) So, while not looking all that tricked out at first, the Solo6 Be obviously packs in a lot of innovative, proprietary technology that sets it apart from other monitors in its class.
Like many independent producers and engineers, I work in both larger commercial studios and my own studio. These days, I mostly work at my studio in Brooklyn, where I have been working on a pair of ADAM P11As, and at Mavericks Studio in Manhattan. Last winter, Mavericks installed Barefoot MM27s (see my review in Tape Op #58). The accuracy and reach of the MM27s seriously raised the bar for what I expect out of a pair of speakers. Rumor had it that Focals could sound close to the Barefoots, especially in the low-end detail and overall transparency. I was very curious to learn whether the Focal Solo6 Be, a speaker considerably smaller and less expensive (about the same size and price as the P11As), could deliver the kind of sonic information I'd come to expect from a studio monitor. If so, I might have found the perfect counterpart to the Barefoots for my own studio.
One benchmark question I now use when determining the transparency of monitors is, "How different do different records sound from one another?" The way I see it, if records sound similar in color, tonality, frequency response, stereo imaging, and/or depth of field, then something is consistently coloring-and homogenizing-the sound with its own sonic characteristics. According to the theory, the greater the difference between the sound of two records, the more accurately the speaker is representing the recording. Listening to a bunch of records through the Focals immediately revealed one very important thing; the unique sonic character of the low-end on different records was very easy to hear. Kick drums and bass guitars had as much detail in texture and color as the highs and mids, and not just the string and fret sounds of the bass, or the attack of the kick drum, but the contours of the low frequencies. One way to describe it is that I could actually hear the lack of distortion in the low end, which meant that I could hear what was really on the record. Even at high volumes, the low end was distinctly undistorted. Another great surprise is that if you turn the Solo6s down to a whisper, the low-end impact stays intact and sounds full-range. This consistency at different volumes made it possible to monitor quietly for longer periods of time, without worrying that the low end had strayed-good news for any eardrums. The "different records test" showed off the detail and transparency of the Solo6's mids and highs, too. The tweeters sound airy, presenting the space and dimension around high-end sounds, but in no way did they seem hyped. The detail and clarity of the beryllium tweeter is uncannily well matched to the W-Cone, making for a very balanced, unified listening experience up and down the entire frequency spectrum. Different records certainly sounded quite different-for me an important factor in affirming the transparency of the Solo6 Be.
Next, I checked out some of my recent mixes. I was relieved to hear that they sounded the way I had intended them to, though there were some new discoveries. Upon hearing one of my mixes for the Portland, Oregon band Time Farmer, I noticed that the ride cymbal wasn't carrying the excitement of the song as much as I'd thought, and the acoustic guitar seemed to have more to say in the upper highs; at the same time I could hear more subtle changes in the ride's overtones as the drummer changed his approach. There just seemed to be plenty of space in the stereo field for all the different high-end details going on. In the midrange, the snare on the same song had more of a lower-mid "poof" to it than I had thought, not quite cutting through the guitars. Rechecking it on other systems, this seemed to be the way it was translating-another indication that there's little hype in the high-end with these speakers.
Next, I tried remixing a Time Farmer song, aiming to add some dimension and groove to an up-tempo tune. I decided to soak some electric guitars in long delays running though an automated sweeping band-pass filter that fed a spring reverb. The idea was to add depth by building an almost subliminally shifting sonic backdrop. On the Solo6's, I was able to hear very subtle changes in both the band-pass filter's frequency and in the reverb tails, and I was really digging that inverted beryllium dome tweeter during this mix. To cajole the groove a bit, I played with compressors on the bass guitar, overheads, and a mult'ed snare track. Very subtle changes to the attack and release settings were easy to hear across the whole frequency spectrum. For rock, I tend to mix with an API 2500 bus compressor strapped to the mix bus, and I love the different sonic characteristics this unit can impart on a mix. Like the "different records test", the differences between the various compressor settings on the API were blatant on the Solo6s. In fact, I fiddle less with the API while working on the Focals because the settings I want to use seem pretty obvious after trying just a few different combinations.
With the Focals on hand, I had a chance to track and mix a tune with producer Art Hays. Tracking to tape at 15 IPS and monitoring on the Barefoots, we recorded a droning bass chord in D (fundamentals around 140 Hz and 300 Hz) and an un-muffled double-skinned bass drum tuned to resonate an octave below (at roughly 70 Hz). The low-end chord produced by the bass and kick drum coming off of tape was a rich, warm woof on the Barefoots, but as you might guess, this could be a sticky glob of low-end schmootz on less capable systems. This was a great test case for the Solo6s; if I could hear into that low-end situation clearly, I could hopefully EQ out some of the inevitable mush, while maintaining the resonant frequencies that made up the chord. While the Solo6s obviously didn't reproduce the same sub content as the Barefoots, the clarity in the low end was stunningly similar, which put a big smile on my face. Next, I tracked a Telecaster over the top of our rhythm section. The openness of the tweeters really spelled out where to place the mic in order to maintain the Tele's snap while steering clear of the harsher side of the tone. Again, the mix went swiftly and is translating nicely on laptops, ear-buds, and other real-world playback systems.
I've done a lot more mixing, tracking and listening on the Solo6s, and my impressions have remained consistently positive. (For more examples see the unabridged version of this review at www.farmelo.com.) Most significantly, the Solo6s have sped up and helped my mixing. When I can really hear what's up with the low-end tones, and the stereo placements are accurate, and the reverb tails are obvious, and the top end is wide open, it's just easier and more fun to mix. Similarly, spotting an issue and finding a solution is easier, faster and less worrisome. I'm thrilled with how changes in mix-bus processing are rendered, especially tonal changes from my trusted hardware units. Most importantly, music I've tracked and mixed on these speakers is translating positively on all kinds of systems in the outside world, a clear indication that Focal designed a killer studio monitor with the Solo6 Be. For the money, I don't know of another speaker with this kind of low-end clarity and overall transparency. I'm happily keeping them in my studio as the best complement to the Barefoot MM27s I've yet to hear. If you get a chance, definitely check them out. ($2190 pair MSRP; www.focalprofessional.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.