The latest arrivals on my desktop are the most convincing nearfield monitors I’ve heard
… And so the saga of the desktop audio system continues: it’s amazing how, freed from the need to keep it quiet or compete with other systems in an office, I’m finding myself listening to more music while I work than ever before.
In the old days I was unfortunate enough to sit right beside a glorified iPod dock pumping out Spotify non-stop, which I thought had kind of put me off background music for good; now, freed to listen to what I want when I want, the music is brought to the foreground, and I can enjoy it again.
Some ancient jazz lovingly remastered? A blast of piano or a full orchestra? Maybe even some of the stuff I listened to when I was at school, when it was a mark of your standing to be seen with the latest Genesis, ELP or Yes album under your arm, and the small record shop opposite the school gates did a brisk business with us sixth-formers, our pockets lined with Saturday job cash?
With a well-stocked NAS drive and the means to access it provided by my trusty NaimUniti, every day is a voyage of discovery. Or rediscovery. Or self-discovery. Or something.
And the speakers on my desk are growing. For a long while now the weapons of choice have been the little Neat Iotas, standing on some studio foam wedges to give them a slight upward slant, thus reducing bass boom and giving better treble alignment. However, along the way I’ve listened to the likes of the Ruark MR1s and the Simple Audio Listen with surprisingly effective results.
The latest arrivals have proved the most addictive of the lot, however: a chance remark when I was returning the Focal Easya system after its Gramophone review led to the arrival of a pair of the French company’s CMS 50 active pro monitors, a Naim NAC-N 172 XS preamp/network music player and a custom-made cable set to run between the Naim’s preout DIN socket and the XLR inputs on the Focals (RCA phono ins are also provided).
I’d never heard the CMS 50s before, nor was I entirely familiar with the whole pro side of the Focal range, aside from casting covetous eyes over the menacing-looking SM9 studio monitors last time I was down at the factory for the launch of the company’s Aria speakers. So I was keen to see what the midrange model in the company’s more affordable studio monitor line-up could do: the CMS 50 sells for £480 – though you can find it with a useful few quid off in the usual pro shops – compared to the £2300 of the SM9,
The rest of the CMS range comprises the smaller CMS 40, at £320, and the £640 CMD 65: all those prices – as is the way of the world in the pro market – are for a single speaker.
What do you get for your money? A hefty for its size – 7.7kg – loudspeaker, its cabinet constructed from damped and braced aluminium, finished in black powder paint with a subtle ‘metalflake’ sparkle finish.
The drive units are Focal’s own 13cm Polyglass mid/bass unit, stiffened with minute glass spheres on the surface of the cone, and its aluminium/magnesium inverted dome tweeter. These are powered by 80W and 50W of Class AB amplification respectively, and the bass is tuned using a slot-shaped port below the woofer.
The speakers come with metal grilles fitted over the drivers, but these are easily removed using the tool provided – well, it’s just a little metal hook you put through one of the holes on the grille and hoik it off.
The tweeter grille has a little phase plug at its centre to optimise dispersion, so when the grille is removed you can fit a supplied ring, complete with a plug at its centre – it just pushes into place.
Also in the box are a decoupling table stand, a set of four rubber feet and two height-adjustable feet to allow the speakers to be tilted up or down as required when used on a desk or atop a mixing desk. In addition, mounting points are provided on the rear of the speakers for industry-standard K&M and Omnimount fixing kits. On my desk, I just used my usual foam studio wedges to give the speakers a bit of upward tilt – you can buy a pack of such wedges online for around £20-30, or you could probably make your own.
Controls are as simple or as complex as you’d like to make them: there’s a power/standby switch bottom left on the front of the speaker, and a volume control with clipping indicator (in case you go entirely crazy and overdrive them!) bottom right. Just use those, and you can just plug in mains and signal cables and away you go – I set the speakers’ volume control to maximum, and used the volume adjustment on the feeding device (of which more in a while) to control the level.
Plenty of adjustments
However, the Focals also offer a range of adjustments to the rear of the speaker, enabling them to be tailored to give a flatter response wherever they’re used, or adjusted for use with a subwoofer such as the matching CMS Sub, selling from around the £650 mark and packing a 27cm Polyglass bass driver and 300W BASH amplifier.
The 12dB/octave high-pass filter, for use with a sub in the system, allows the speaker, has 45Hz, 60Hz and 90Hz roll-off settings, while an LF shelving filter allows frequencies below 450Hz to be boosted by 2dB, or cut by up to 6dB to compensate for positioning. There’s a similar HF shelving control, operating on frequencies above 4.5Kz, allowing a +2dB setting for use when the room soaks up treble, and -2dB or -4dB in overly bright sounding locations.
Almost there: the speaker also has a ‘desktop notch’ filter, to compensate for reflections when used on a desk or console, and allowing a cut of up to -6dB centred around 160Hz; and finally there’s an adjustable input level, with positions for +4dBu, 0 and +10dBv. The first of these is best suited for use with pro equipment, the last with domestic sources, but as with all these settings there’s no harm in experimenting.
‘Hours of harmless fun’ just about sums up the fiddlability of the CMS 50s, which combine the simplicity of active speakers with a huge range of adjustment – who said going active meant an end to tweaking? While the speakers sounded pretty good straight from the box – they’d been run a little before I received them –, I spent a day or two going through the whole ‘yes, it’s different, but is it better?’ thing before finally settling on my preferred filter positions.
Not much point in telling you what I ended up with, as in just about every room and position the settings will vary, but suffice it to say that with the speakers on the wedges I didn’t need the ‘desktop notch’ filter.
As already mentioned, a Naim NAC-N 172 XS network music preamp was supplied with the speakers for testing purposes, but for initial run-in and ‘getting to know them’ time I hooked the Focals into the DIN preout of my original NaimUniti, now knocking on five years old but updated a couple of times along the way. A few days down the line, and having had the NAC-N 172 XS ‘cooking’ on my main equipment rack, I took out the NaimUniti and slotted in the preamp, and – well, I’m not sure it made much difference.
Mind you, the NAC-N 172 XS has always been one of those products I didn’t quite ‘get’: to me it seemed neither fish nor fowl, to coin an old cliché, and while I could sort of see the logic behind it when it was launched, in that it showed Naim could include streaming playback in a range of products, I’m still not entirely sure why Naim bothered.
After all, anyone wanting to use it would also have to buy a power amplifier – well, until the emergence of suitable active speakers such as these –, and anyone with an existing pre/power Naim amplification system would of course need to replace their existing preamp with the NAC-N 172 XS.
In the latter case, Naim’s better-sounding entry-level network music player, the ND5 XS, would seem the better buy, although it is more expensive than the preamp streamer, at £2060 (or £2350 with the optional FM/DAB radio module) against £1695/£1975 for the NAC-N 172 XS.
In the former case, for use with speakers such as the Focals, perhaps the NAC-N172SX does start to make sense, but then with original NaimUnitis coming up for sensible money, and ex-demo UnitiQutes available for as little as £650, this may be a more cost-effective route. After all, you could have a complete used UnitiQute/CMS 50s system for less than the price of a NAC-N 172 XS or a current UnitiLite. Interesting, huh?
Mind you, if you wanted to go down the route known in some circles as ‘Mac and DAC’ – though of course you could just as easily use a PC –, you could combine the Focal speakers with Naim’s excellent DAC-V1, and use your computer as the control for the streaming, Internet radio and so on.
So, for the moment, 2009 NaimUniti into CMS 50s it is, and pretty splendid it sounds, too. Whether with iPlayer TV sound or high-resolution music streamed from my NAS devices via the Naim, there’s serious presence and power available from this all-day listening rig, along with the kind of bass slam and treble detail you’d expect from a much more expensive – and indeed bigger – system.
However loud I choose to play the system, it sounds almost superciliously under-stressed, staying clean and clear while providing a truly immersive listening experience, and with a very slight toe-in of the speakers, which are just over an arm’s length from my listening chair, and a bit under a metre apart, the soundstaging and focus are rock-solid, with fine width and depth.
Play some close-miked quartet jazz and everything from the breathy solo trumpet to the gentle brushwork of the drummer sounds beautifully realised and without a hint of coloration; fire up some Southern boogie in the form of early ZZ Top and the stripped-down opening of Brown Sugar is suitably tinglesome, with both the voice and guitar zinging out of the speakers, before the track drops down a gear and goes from blues to Texas rock and the speakers really start shifting some air.
You could even park them on some conventional speaker stands and they’d fill even quite large spaces with music, even though Focal says they’re really designed for close-up listening at up to about 3m or so.
It’s thrilling stuff, but then the Focals prove to be the speakers that just keep on giving, whatever you choose to play. As you might hope of a speaker designed for studio use, the CMS 50 is both even-handed in its presentation and highly revealing, but isn’t so analytical that it makes all but the very finest recordings impossible to enjoy: rather it will reveal when the engineering has been all about maximum loudness and a radio-friendly sound, but will also make almost anything you play massively enjoyable while probably revealing details you hadn’t noticed before.
In fact, the clarity here is more akin to the close-up view of a recording you can get from a good pair of headphones, but without that closed-in feeling I get from all but the very best cans I’ve tried, and which to me sounds more artificial than even a slight amount of speaker coloration.
What the Focals do so well is keep things clean and without obvious speaker effects, deliver an open, airy picture of the music before you, and still retain excellent insight.
That they’re also a blast to listen to helps things along nicely, too – in fact they’re quite literally a blast when you work them hard at serious levels, sounding bigger, weightier and more assured than any speakers just on 29cm tall have any right to do.
And it’s not just that these speakers can rock: cue up some dramatic orchestral music and the Focals give massive orchestral weight without ever losing their grip on the subtle details, and hit those big Wagnerian attacks with real brute chest-thumping force. Just as it should be, in fact – and a whole load of fun into the bargain.
Listen to the slow-burn development of the opening of Das Rheingold, as the orchestra builds, the singers make their entrance, then the drama gets underway, and the sense of tension and impetus is established right from the start, so well do the Focals deliver the various instrumental and vocal strands while sweeping you away in the atmosphere of the whole thing.
Best of all, they do this whatever you play: spin up Ian Dury & The Blockheads’ Inbetweenies and the Focals revel in the edge to Dury’s voice and his slick wordplay, while ensuring the band stays as tight as a tight thing that’s just had a torque-wrench applied, Chaz Jankel’s piano upfront in the mix with its characteristic tone, and Norman Watt-Roy’s bass as sinuous as ever. Delicious stuff!
A taut, crisp way with rhythms; serious, punchy bass; a clean, clear presentation of voices and instruments; and that ability to go loud, keep their cool and keep driving all day (and night) – this is one of the most complete speaker designs I have ever auditioned, and deserves to be appreciated well beyond the studio environment for which it was originally intended.
As the old saying goes, what’s not to like?
Focal CMS 50
Two-way active monitor speaker | £480 (each)
Drive units 13cm Polyglass mid/bass, aluminium/magnesium inverted-dome tweeter
Amplification 80W mid/bass. 50W tweeter
Enclosure Reinforced/damped aluminium with front venting slot port
Sensitivity Adjustable, +4dBu / 0 / -10dBV
Inputs XLR, RCA phono
Magnetically shielded Yes, using magnetic cancellation
Volume Adjustable, -66dB / 0dB
High pass filter Full range, or roll-of at 45 / 60 / 90Hz (12dB/octave0)
LF shelving -4 /- 2 / 0/ +2dB
HF shelving -4 / -2 / 0 / +2dB
Desktop notch (160Hz) 0 / -2 / -4 / -6dB
Other controls Main power switch to rear, on/standby button on front
Accessories supplied 4 rubber feet, 2 adjustable feet, decoupling table stand, metal grilles for drivers with removal tool, phase optimisation plug
Finish Black powder paint
Dimensions (HxWxD, with feet) 29x19x20cm
Distributed in the UK by SCV Distribution
Written by Andrew Everard