Thursday, 18 June 2015

Focal Alpha 50, 65 & 80 — Review and Comparison


Not long ago I purchased a pair of the new Focal Alpha 80 monitors. Before I took them home I tested the whole range at 4Sound’s showroom in Trondheim. Here’s what I found:





About the range


Focal are known mainly for monitors for the high-end marked, so the anticipation was great when they launched three new monitors in the affordable end of the marked. The range includes a 5-inch, a 6,5-inch and an 8-inch. All have Focal’s own ‘polyglass cone,’ which is a made from a composite material that gives it its name. The material is supposed to stiffen up the membrane and improve the performance. All the models also share the same inverted dome tweeter. The basic design is known from the pricier SM6-range and the SM9. In ascending order the Alpha-range sport a solid 55W, 75W and 140W of power. The latter being on the current frontier for an 8-inch, two-way system at this price.

As always for my monitor-reviews I’ll leave the tech-specs brief and rather get on with the testing. For more technical information I’ll refer you to Focal’s own web-page and recent reviews particularly by Sound on Sound Magazine. At the end of my own review I will comment on the articles both from SoundOnSound and MusicTech, since some of our opinions differ and some coincide.

How do they sound?


The monitors had a distinct family-sound across the range as could be expected. At the showroom, the staff had already crowned the Alpha 65 their favourite. This is consistent with several reviews by Sound on Sound, where they tend to favour mid-sized 6- to 7-inch drivers (or indeed 5 inch systems) over 8-inch drivers, in two-way systems. The reason is that many people feel an 8-inch driver with a 1-inch tweeter creates too much space between bass and treble, which leaves something missing in the middle. The point is true, but the back of the medal also has a shiny front-side. I actually tend to favour 8-inch drivers for their capacity to “unfold” everything from the bass and up through the middle. Think of it as a Chinese fan: the more you unfold it the bigger it gets. With a bigger membrane you create a space for the bass and “unfold” the mids—you get more resolution and more sense of space between the low downs and central elements like vocals.

I had compiled a CD of tracks ranging from R’n B to Rock, and the speakers were switched trough a Mackie Big-Knob for quick A/B testing. Here’s my track list:


For the tracks containing low bass the Alpha 80 proved an instant success. On Mariah Carey’s “Fly Like a Bird” it created an impressive space between the lows of the bass and the highs of Mariah’s voice. The sound was accurate and the full spectral range of the monitors made it really enjoyable listening! On tracks with prominent vocal layering (‘Playa Playa,’ ‘I'd Like To’), the Alpha 80 provided a present, open and spacious vocal-sound. This would make them an excellent choice to mix vocal harmonies on. The next one in line to impress was the Alpha 50. It had a clear and present vocal sound and managed to deliver far deeper lows than what you’d normally expect from a 5-inch speaker.

If the Alpha 80’s bass can be characterised as ‘deep,’ the Alpha 65’s keyword is definitely ‘punchy.’ Dream Theater’s ’Never Enough’ has lots of punch and made the Alpha 65 stand out as the winner. For those familiar with the Dynaudio BM5 mkii, the real treat in the their bass is the punch they pack—they never went very deep. A great reference track for me on the BM5 is Dream Theater’s ‘Just Let Me Breathe.’ The Alpha 65 reminded me of that vibe. The Alpha 80 on comparison does not deliver the same low-end punch (this may be one of the places where ‘something is missing’ like discussed above), but they go down deeper. The 4Sound staff favoured the Alpha 80 as an EDM-monitor (as I believe many will), but I would like to challenge that notion. I would rather choose a pair of punchy Alpha 65s for EDM-production. And flying in the face of all convention I would further prefer the Alpha 80 for mixing vocals and recorded instruments because of its spacious sound and great separation between highs, mids and lows. Opinions will differ on this, so I encourage you to seek out a well stocked show-room or to read multiple reviews for the best overview.

The Alpha 80 goes down to a whooping 35 Hz (entering into the lowest audible octave), and delivers a total of 140W. This makes it necessary for you to consider the size of your room. When I first set them up in my home, another member of the household thought there was a large motor vehicle standing outside on the road. Yes, they go deep! If you intend to use the Alpha 80’s as a lone pair of nearfield monitors you should be aware of the resulting implications. If you’re mixing for radio you’d do well with for instance a pair of Mixcubes on the side, or a way of rolling off the bass on your output (room correction software, bypassable eq. on master—either software or hardware). Personally, I might switch to a pair of headphones once in a while to scale down the size of my listening system.

I ran a speaker-test with a group of music-production students two years ago. We tested speakers from 300 Pounds to 3,000 Pounds a pair. The students felt Foo Fighters’ ‘Weenie Beenie’ sounded almost the same on all systems because of its limited bandwidth. ‘Alone + Easy Target’ gave a similar effect across the whole Alpha range. But just as with Dream Theater the Alpha 65s scored a few points extra thanks to their punch.

For the hip-hop track I can only say that bigger is better, and the Alpha 80 was the winner. For vocal clarity I also found the biggest to be the better. The Marion Kristina track was also favoured on the Alpha 80 and the 50 came second. For tracks where the vocal was central I found the Alpha 65 a little too fatiguing. There was a little too much mid-range and as a result I might have mixed lower vocals if I worked on them. On the other hand this makes the most important part of the track stand out if you like to work that way.

In the highs the speakers sound quite similar. The Alpha 80 was again the favourite since it had the biggest separation between highs and lows, and let the highs stand out alone without competition from the mids. The Alpha 65 also sounded open and clear in the top, but I perceived them as a little bit harsher than the smaller Alpha 50. Hence, also when considering the highs I would chose the Alpha 50 as the first runner up to the 80. The Alpha 50 are the least open sounding of the three in the highs, but it has a smoother and more comfortable sound to work on over time.

Technicalities


The eq. at the back of the cabinets has a +/- 6 dB bass and a +/- 3dB treble adjustment. I found these useful when adjusting the speakers to the room. On extreme settings I found the on-board eq. interfering too much with the character of the music so I used it sparsely.

On the pair of Alpha 80s that I bought there is a slight hiss. I could hear this on all the models at the showroom also, but not unless I put my ear close. As long as you’re playing music this is no problem, but if you’re sat in the studio writing it can be a little bit annoying. I have a power-switch for the speakers on my desk so I work my way around it. The hiss is not worse than what I’ve heard on other similarly priced speakers and it has no annoying artefacts that stand out, just a very gentle white noise. I’m extremely sensitive to these things, but it’s not very prominent on the Alpha-range so this shouldn’t be a problem for most. The speakers have a power-saving device that makes the power cut if they receive no signal for a while. When they receive signal again they wake up quickly. If I am listening on low volumes I occasionally have to turn up the volume a little bit to wake them up. This is no problem once you get used to it.

Conclusion


Focal has managed to create an impressive range of studio-monitors that re-defines the price-point. These stand out from the competition in power, depth and clarity. They are priced just above KRK Rokit, JBL 3-series and Yamaha HS and just below Adam AX and Eve SC. In a sense they’ve carved out a new price-point. I would not have bought a current 5-inch monitor priced below Adam A5X… until now. The power and clarity made the Alpha 80s my favourites, but next in line is the Alpha 50. For a 5-inch it goes surprisingly deep, sounds as open as you could hope for and has a good overall balance. Not to mention, it is also powerful enough to fill a decently sized showroom with power to spare. –A new affordable 5-inch that I’d be happy to recommend, that’s rare! The Alpha 65 has a punchy bass and a good overall performance. I rank them last of the tree, but there will be differing opinions in the press on this. Regardlessly, they are very capable monitors with lots of mids, punchy bass and better performance for your money than most of its competitors. They get my stamp of approval, and still has margin to spare.

Summing them up in one-liners:
Alpha 80—big sounding speaker with lots of clarity and impressively low register.
Alpha 65—all-rounder with punchy bass and wide appeal across genres.
Alpha 50—playing deeper and clearer than almost anything of its size at this price.

Big thanks as always to the helpful staff at 4Sound Trondheim’s big and hypnotic showroom! Big thanks also to Norwegian music producer Geir Simonsen for coming along as an extra pair of well trained ears.