If you work in a purpose-built, acoustically-treated studio in which room anomalies are at a minimum, then the acclaimed Focal SM6 series of monitors (Tape Op #60, #61) is a first-class choice. However, if you work in a tiny bedroom, a vast loft, a low-slung basement, an oddly-shaped attic, an editing cubicle, a semi-converted office, or any other space that was not designed with acoustic accuracy in mind, then the new Focal CMS line of monitors might be up your alley. These are speakers that were designed to flexibly adapt to just about any situation, offering the user the versatile mounting configurations, EQ'ing capabilities, and input routing options needed to compensate for less-than-perfect monitoring situations.
The CMS 65 is a two-way, bi-amplified active monitor with a 6.5" polyglass woofer and an inverted 1" aluminum-magnesium driver powered respectively by 100 Watt and 60 Watt Class AB amps, all housed in a curvaceous, die-cast aluminum cabinet with a rugged, black powder-coat finish. On the front are a volume control with a clipping LED and a standby switch with a status LED. On the rear we find a power switch, an IEC power jack, a balanced XLR input, and an unbalanced RCA input. Also on the back is an elaborate set of EQ filters. In fact, let's just call it a four-band EQ that includes a 12 dB/octave high-pass filter (bypass, 45, 60, 90 Hz); LF and HF shelves (flat, -4, -2, and +2 dB); and a setting at 160 Hz called the "desktop notch" (flat, -2, -4, -6 dB). The latter is designed to take care of the bumps caused by reflections from flat surfaces like desks and tables. There is also an input sensitivity switch (+4 dBu, 0 and -10 dBV). That's a lot of control, making the CMS 65 the kind of speaker you could mount just about anywhere and adjust to achieve the most accurate monitoring possible. This level of control is especially important in rooms where anomalies are a given.
The CMS 65 includes threaded mounting holes on the back that conform to various mounting kits from K&M and OmniMount-handy for so many situations. There are also threaded holes on the bottom of the cabinets, into which one inserts feet that then sit inside a rubber isolation mat. One can also thread in a pair of spikes to tilt the speakers forward or backward as needed given the listening position. The bass port is a front-panel laminar-flow design, which makes mounting the speakers against a wall far less problematic than mounting speakers with rear ports. Removable grilles are included for both the woofer and tweeter, though it's recommended that one remove them for the best sound. However, in a number of installation situations that come immediately to mind, I can certainly see leaving them on.
Clearly we have a speaker aimed at adaptability and flexibility, and in no way was Focal looking to offer a direct alternative to their other line of professional monitors (the SM series) which are aimed at use in controlled, purpose-built studios. However, as one can expect from Focal, sound quality was still the most important factor, and when I consider the vast feature set combined with the price ($1700 street for a CMS 65 pair, $1100 for a CMS 50 pair), the sound of this speaker blows me away, and easily blows away similar models from other manufacturers.
One of the problems I have with speakers in this class and with these features is that they often compensate for their own shortcomings with hype. By hype, I mean scooping the mids and sweetening the lows and highs-a disco smile that can sound really good but totally works against our efforts to make recordings that translate onto other systems. The idea that you have to learn the inaccuracies of the speakers and then adjust while mixing just isn't the case with the CMS 65s. They are flat and transparent -no hype. The lows are clear and punchy, the mids smooth and balanced, the highs clear and honest, and overall you get a deep and wide soundstage that stays consistent across the frequency spectrum. And in true Focal style, these speakers present a ton of detail without being harsh. Simply put, Focal has built a speaker that inhabits a class without exhibiting so many of the undesirable and hyped characteristics of that class. It's as if the CMS 65s have shed the veils that seem to be draped over other monitors like them.
In my use, I had the CMS 65s mounted alongside my Focal SM Solo6s and was using them as a secondary monitor while mixing. The CMS 65s were equally as loud as the Solo6s and had enough headroom to reach my SPL tolerances before distorting. It's hard not to make comparisons with the Solo6s, so let me just put it out there that the Solo6s are a more dynamic, open and clear sounding speaker with a noticeably taller frequency response. With a price tag of $2400 street and virtually none of the features that make the CMS 65s so versatile, one would hope this to be the case. However, the CMS 65s easily held their own for mixing, and after a brief period of acclimation, I was able to get excellent results mixing on them without having to do any guesswork; they really are transparent and accurate.
I encourage readers to seriously consider their listening environment when choosing speakers. If you are in a less than ideal listening environment, then it makes sense to consider getting a speaker with a versatile EQ and other features that will allow you to compensate for your real and imperfect world. If you need to run unbalanced signals, mount them in odd paces, or expose them to any kind of physical abuse, the CMS 65 and its little brother CMS 50 give you those features without sacrificing clarity. These speakers are arguably the best in their class, and I expect to see them cropping up in real world studios everywhere. ($950 MSRP each; www.focalprofessional.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.