Over the past decade, the French speaker manufacturer Focal has become one of the most respected monitor companies in the world; this is one of the brands that I see most often when visiting professional studios -- most often the flagship SM9 or the well-liked Twin6 Be (reviewed July 2008). With the SM9 costing just shy of $8000 per pair and the Twin 6 around $3000 per pair, both are definitely on the "pro side" of the studio market in both sound and cost.
A few years back the company introduced the CMS line, which initially featured the CMS50 (5") and the CMS65 (6.5"). Mike Metlay reviewed them in our July 2009 issue, and stated that the CMS line were Focal monitors "designed for smaller rooms and smaller budgets," although at $1100 and $1700 per pair these smaller footprint speakers still came at a significant price. After Mike's review, Focal also released the CSM40, with a 4" driver and an $850 per pair price tag.
Now Focal has premiered a new speaker line aimed at even smaller budgets, for musicians and project studios. It's called the Alpha Series and includes Focal's most affordable monitors to date: The Alpha 50, Alpha 65 and Alpha 80. The numbers correspond to each monitor's 5", 6.5" or 8" woofer diameter. It's worth noting that the Alpha 80 is Focal's only traditional 8" nearfield monitor.
Size and shape
I was sent two of the three models for review: the 50s and 80s. The first thing I noticed out of the box was that these are also Focal's lightest speakers to date! The Alpha 50 weighs 16.1 lbs. and the Alpha 80 is only 28.2 lbs. Compare that to the CMS65, which weighs 23 lbs. thanks to its metal cabinet, and the SM9 at a whopping 77 lbs.
Each model is dressed in dark gray/black and is constructed of vinyl-covered MDF on the top, bottom, front and back, with specially molded contoured plastic side panels. The woofers feature a polyglass cone similar to those on the CMS series and have a contoured laminar bass port. They also have 1" aluminum inverse dome tweeters that are recessed into a molded waveguide.
On the back of each model are a choice of simultaneously active XLR or 1/8" phono inputs and a conventional IEC power cable socket. There is a power switch with a red indicator LED, and the Alpha monitors feature an Automatic Standby Mode that shuts down the monitor after 30 minutes of no signal and then wakes the monitor up again when signal is present. In Standby mode, the monitors use less than 0.5W each.
All three models offer a 2-position level switch that boosts the output level by a significant +6 dB, and there are continuously variable bass and treble controls. Both employ shelving EQs with the treble set at 4.5 kHz with a maximum boost or cut of 3 dB, and the low shelf set at 300 Hz with 6 dB of cut or boost.
Specs and power
Each unit is bi-amped with Class AB amplifiers. The 50 has 35W for the driver and 20W for the tweeter ,and the 80 has 100W on the low end and 40W on the highs. The Alpha 50 boasts a frequency response of 45 Hz-22 kHz with a maximum SPL of 103 dB. The Alpha 80 has a response of 35 Hz-22 kHz with a maximum SPL of 109 dB.
Although I did not get to hear them, for the purpose of comparison the Alpha 65's specs include 70W on the woofer, 35W on the tweeter, a frequency response of 40 Hz-22 kHz , and a maximum SPL of 106 dB. By the way, all frequency response numbers given are spec'd out at a tolerance of +/-3 dB and all maximum SPL numbers are peak values at 1 meter.
I installed both units in my studio The Moss Garden and used a Drawmer MC2.1 (reviewed September 2013) for speaker switching. My room is professionally treated with bass trapping and absorbers from GIK Acoustics, and my speakers are decoupled thanks to Primeacoustic Recoil Stabilizers (reviewed March 2008).
After 24 hours of high volume break-in (luckily my studio is out in the country), I spent time auditioning many of my favorite speaker tester tunes from Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Steely Dan, audiophile recordings by Miles Davis, Nat King Cole, Arild Andersen (one of the best and deepest upright bass recordings ever on the ECM label), and more. After my ears became accustomed to the Alphas' sonic profile, I moved on to auditioning my own studio recordings, and finally got to work on two projects I am in the middle of mixing -- one is a an acoustic/electric ambient album, and the other is a heavy progressive band.
Not surprisingly, it was easy to tell that both monitors were cut from the same cloth, especially in the highs and the midrange. Of course the lows yielded the biggest differences due to woofer size, with the 50s being very focused and tight and the 80s having a much more dispersed sound.
Compared to my usual monitors, which tend to have a lot of highs and lows and a comparatively recessed midrange, the Alphas were much more forward and punchy, with a tighter soundstage. The Alphas' smoothness across the mids gives them a warm and full sound with an extended and strong low end. Initially I worried that the low end was a tad too boxy for my tastes, but that lessened dramatically and ceased to be an issue as the speakers continued to break in over several days of use.
Both models can get very loud without any noticeable distortion, and I was impressed how consistent they stayed from quiet to very loud. They are nice and full even at marginal mix levels of 40–60 dB SPL, meaning I could mix at comfortable volumes with out losing too much tone. They are also nicely non-fatiguing in the highs.
Many speakers offer some sort of low and high attenuation to tackle everything from bass buildup from less than ideal placement issues or to help tame piercing highs in overly bright rooms. Often, however, these are preset, minimal, overly specific, and often even cryptic.
In stark contrast to those less-than-useful options, the bass and treble knobs on the Alpha monitors are exceptionally simple and wonderfully effective. To bring the Alpha 80's high end more in line to what I was used to in my room, all it took was a nice 2.5 dB boost. I also found that lessening the low end by 1 dB helped to align the noticeable forward punch with my usual room sound. The midrange stayed the same, but after the tweaks, the Alphas sounded a bit more translatable for my room. Conversely, it was also quick and easy to push the lows for impressive chest-thumping client playback.
Thanks to the clear and very present mids, I found both sets of Alphas to be a big help for seating electric guitars and lead vocals. Distorted electric guitar sounds simply killer on the Alphas! The result is a speaker that's both exciting and exactingly detailed for mixing rock tracks.
Big sounding little speakers in a small space
My last test of the smaller Alpha 50s was in my office at my job as a Tech Director of a mid-size church. This room is where I mix down Sunday Worship services, prepare and edit podcasts, and track and mix dialog for video.
Unfortunately my office is in the same part of the building as the accountant and administrator, so cranking music is out of the question. I need monitors that are full and accurate even at very low levels. Here the Alpha 50s were simply exceptional; thanks to the easy and effective tonal shaping I think these may be the best small-format monitors I have ever used in this space. When I was able to crank the tunes after hours, filling the room was no problem either.
As with all monitors, you will need to get used to these speakers' sound in your space with your own preferred music styles. But the Focal Alpha monitors make the task easy by offering a sound that is full, even and rich, with simple and effective tone shaping to get the most out of any space, big or little. They offer Focal quality through and through, at the company's lowest price point yet.
Prices: Alpha 50, $299 each; Alpha 65 (not reviewed), $399 each; Alpha 80, $549 each
More from: Focal, www.focal.com