Michael Murray - An Organ Blaster
It's well known by my friends that I am an absolute organ music junkie. There are few types of music that can more easily separate the wheat from the chaff. A speaker that isn't capable of great dynamic range, excellent low end extension and sheer output will usually sound quite flat when a quality organ recording is played - especially without a subwoofer. In this case, I stuck to my track of choice - Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor, which is a powerful bombastic track that meanders from the lowest registers of the organ all the way up to the top. When a speaker is capable of truly reproducing the organ, it is a very intense and unforgettable experience. My experience with other speakers (including my daily drivers - Paradigm Studio 100's) had always been enjoyable but to quote Bill Dudleston, gave more of a "they are here experience" than the "you are there" experience.
While previous listening sessions with other speakers had always evoked strong memories of my time in cathedrals in Europe and left me very satisfied - I had never imagined that a loudspeaker was capable of bringing tears to my eyes in the first minute I listened to it. I'm sure most of you have a very personally relevant piece of music that impacts you, whether it's a prom slow dance tune or the song from your wedding. I have several of these - but one of my most visceral and meaningful listening experiences to date has been with the pipe organ playing Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor in a large German cathedral. I was prepared to experience a dynamic and forceful presentation given the sheer displacement on these speakers. What I was totally unprepared for was to have the organ reproduced with such incredibly effortless authority while still sounding absolutely authentic.
True to Bill Dudleston's vision, once I closed my eyes I was no longer in my theater room. I was 30 yards behind Michael Murray in First Congregational Church as he produced a wall of sound, enveloping me in Bach's musical genius. This was not just a pair of speakers reproducing a recording - this was music! Acoustic Alchemy - The Very Best Of
You've seen this album appear on every review I've done - and for good reason. There are very few pieces of music I'm more intimately familiar with. Listening to this album on the myriad speakers I have had in my room - I have a very good idea of what the best can reproduce and what the worst leave out. Being the creature of habit that I am, I started off with Playing for Time - a track full of typically difficult to reproduce components. There's a lot of cymbal, string bass and close-mic'ed acoustic guitar - all elements that are hard to reproduce. I was particularly interested in this track because many speakers suffer reproducing the string bass or the cymbals, with only the rarest examples doing everything well.
True to my experience with organ music, the sound with Playing for Time was rich, textured and authentic. I was hearing all the details - the sounds of the pick sliding over the string, the plastic impacting the top string on the attack. The ride cymbal is used to great effect in this track and it was amazing to hear the difference the ribbon tweeter on the Focus SE's made fleshing out the sound - the shimmer was more full, extended and authentic. Having spent many hours on a stage right next to the drummer, I'm very accustomed to jazz cymbal - and this was the real thing.
Impressed as I was by the detail of the sound, the mids were full, expansive and about as perfect as I've ever heard in a loudspeaker. The bass line was conveyed with weighty authority but not a hint of muddiness - a truly impressive feat. Most floorstanding loudspeakers by design suffer at least some degradation in bass performance as extension increases, a function of displacement and woofer size - but not so with the Focus SE's. The dual Aura 12" woofers are fantastically controlled - yet still deliver impressive performance all the way down to 21Hz. Above & Beyond & Gareth Emery pres. OceanLab - On A Good Day (Metropolis) - Extended Mix
I know it may be a cardinal sin to listen to electronic music on high end speakers in some circles, but I believe that certain stuffy publications that focus on classical, light rock, jazz and almost nothing else ignore the listening habits of most music lovers. I have very few acquaintances that are purist audiophiles and listen to nothing but classical SA-CD recordings - that said I have a lot of friends who have diverse musical tastes spanning the entire music industry. Personally, I'm a massive electronic music lover and really enjoy a speaker that is capable of reproducing the massive dynamics these tracks can deliver along with some serious bass.
Once again the Focus SEs did not disappoint. The haunting vocals and pulsating bass in this track accompany a catchy synth melody. The use of spatial effects in trance tracks is a great test of a speaker's ability to image well, and in the case of the Focus SEs - the term holographic truly applies. This is the only stereo loudspeaker I have ever heard that literally caused me to turn my head and check whether the surrounds were active. With the Focus SE's - sound doesn't just come at you, it surrounds you. TrondheimSolistene - Divertimenti
For those of you reading this from your baby sealskin couch as you sip a 1993 Chateau Latour Pauillac, I apologize for not getting to the classical stuff sooner. I know that my review is utterly invalid without 900 dollar interconnects or at the very least some reference grade tube amps, but please take heart, because this is your sort of music.
In terms of recording quality, it's hard to beat this album. Taking full advantage of Blu-Ray's lossless audio, this is a stellar recording with stereo and surround mixes of each track. I generally listen to the stereo mix as the multichannel places you several feet forward of the conductor - a very involving but less authentic sound. In the case of the stereo mix, the listener is in the prime seats above the orchestra. This is an extremely nuanced orchestral recording that has an incredible amount going on at any given point in time. As anyone who has heard a string orchestra can attest, the string bass played with a bow is a superb sound, though it is often poorly reproduced by most subwoofers. In the case of a full range speaker like the Focus SE, that no longer becomes a concern.
Yet again it appears that Dolby is doing everything it can to prove that TrueHD is not the inferior codec, and they've made another compelling argument with Super 8. The lossless 7.1 channel track is authoritative from the start, with crystal clear dialogue that is perfectly level matched with the remaining channels regardless of activity. The mains are brilliantly engaged to deliver an extremely deep immersive soundstage with excellent spatial imaging, though perhaps slightly less so than Transformers. Surround activity is ample when called for and well integrated with the mains while LFE content is but substantive and articulate. The train wreck scene in particular features some truly demo worthy material that is sure to make our resident bass-heads rejoice.
Overall this is a superb release that very nearly measures up to Transformers - though it focuses less on action. Comparing the best moments of Transformers to Super 8 I would say that Transformers is marginally better, if only because Super 8 at times exhibited slight sibilance in the high frequencies that wasn't present in Transformers. I doubt that many of you will notice it as it is a very high frequency issue, but take not in the train wreck scene and some later action scenes for some slight harshness in the upper range of your hearing. Surround pans and overall immersiveness is also slightly better in Transformers but make no mistake, this film would easily have been a 5 star reference title prior to our scale changing, and is well worth a listen. Kung Fu Panda 2
I'm a huge fan of the sweeping, epic oriental scores that accompany Kung Fu Panda films and in this case Hans Zimmer delivers in spades. The score is at times bombastic and dominates the scene and at others is subtle to the point if disappearing - none the less no detail is ever lost. Surround use and activity in this mix is superb with great directionality and spatial detail while low frequency content is authoritative but rarely overbearing. Dialogue is crystal clear and easily intelligible throughout the film. Overall this is a wonderful presentation that deserves high marks for its authenticity. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Transformers: Dark of the Moon is the current reference title when it comes to Blu-Ray audio quality. I decided to use this title as I had done extensive listening with my own personal system and had a great frame of reference for making comparisons.
Here's my original review of the disc's audio on my personal system:
I was pleased to note that Transformers: Dark of the Moon features a 7.1 channel Dolby TrueHD lossless surround mix rather than the more typical DTS-HD MA we see so often. Regardless of format, this is one of the most engaging, nuanced and well realized surround experiences I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. The opening seconds as the Paramount logo shows on screen feature an impressive surround pan as a transformer sound effect literally engulfs the room. From this start forward there is nothing imperfect about this mix - surround content is aggressive, superbly positioned and spatially accurate. Action scenes are nothing short of ridiculous with some of the most accurate tight and controlled use of VLF content I've ever witnessed. This is not a boom contest, and this is readily apparent as no one sound drowns out the rest - instead every channel and component of the mix works with the others to create what can only be called a benchmark in surround audio.
Unlike the vast majority of surround mixes where a huge front soundstage is thrown with little respect given to spatial queues in the left and right channels, Transformers: Dark of the Moon features the most spatially immersive audio I have every heard on a Blu-Ray. Not only are sounds localized to the correct channel; they are precisely located in both the y and x axes. What is truly unique about this mix is that depth is clearly given great attention; the precise proximity of any effect whether it be an explosion or the visceral impact of two Transformers is perfectly resolved - objects moving toward the viewer on screen clearly do so sonically as well, and the result is absolutely spectacular. VLF content is precise and authoritative without being boomy or distracting - this is punch you in the gut bass with some serious ULF content as well. However you look at it, this is a reference quality mix that is near impossible to fault - from dialogue to atmospheric content to surround localization there is not a single thing done wrong here. Reference.
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