Sep 21, 2012

Focal XS Book: Review

One of the things that reviewers often do - and I'm guilty of this at times as well, is starting off with a bunch of background info on the product before getting into the meat of the review itself.  This time around I'll spare you the reader, that agony and just get to it.
Because of my previous experience with Focal's other monitors I'd almost expected the little XS Book pair to sound like a scaled-down version of one of Focal's professional near-field monitors.  Well, they do and they don't.

Right off the bat these little dynamos sound "boxy", for lack of a better term.  And logically they should; the drivers are in a physically small-ish enclosure with not much airspace internally to push around.  Ah, but if you take that as the overall impression you'd be missing out on the real powerhouse the little gems really are.

Yes indeed, they do have a narrow-sounding resonance that's akin to the boom-boxes of the 80's.  (Those of you who didn't grow up with either 8-track or cassette tapes as a primary method for listening to music won't know what the hell I'm talking about.)  And like any desktop-sized monitors they do have their own sonic fingerprint that you'd have to adjust to especially if you're used to listening to flat, near-field monitors.

But after you break in the drivers the XS Book really opens up, most especially in the ranges handled by the tweeter.  And with the front-firing port you don't need these to be mounted near a wall to have PLENTY of bass reinforcement.  In fact, even at mid-volume levels your desk will most definitely be vibrating to the point that you'd risk having a laptop hard-drive start skipping if it were on the desk.  That's heavy-duty SPL's, my friend.

Overall the sound is definitely well-rounded, musical, with plenty of low-end to fill out the airspace near your ears and, once broken in the tweeters are bright and airy without being shrill.  Do these sound like $1500 monitors?  Of course not, if they did Focal would have transcended even what Bose can't do, which is make small, sub-5" inch monitors sound like big ones.

The main driver is 4" inch, the tweeter is aluminum (with some Focal-proprietary materials behind the main tweeter face that makes it more organic sounding), the crossover is at 3 Khz and the pair is rated at 55hz-22khz.

A few items of note:

One reviewer said that he found unusually high instances of floor noise, "white noise" or hiss as it was referred to with no input or "idle".  I can tell you that ANY self-powered speaker will exhibit some audible floor noise at idle, even those costing thousands of dollars, but you have to be in an extremely quiet environment to hear it.  The source of the floor noise is the built-in amplifiers that live inside the speaker housing and, because of their uber-close proximity to the drivers themselves it's nearly impossible to shield out ALL the RF energy caused by the amps doing their job.

Floor noise in the XS Book was not noticeable at all to me in my home office when it was totally quiet around me.  However if I put my ear close to the tweeter - is in about an inch away, I could hear the customary "hiss".  More than totally acceptable, the floor noise in the XS Book is actually less than some high-end active monitors I've tested. (look at my review of ANY M-audio monitor).

Also, the grilles that come with this pair have a very thick plastic wire-frame on the inside which unfortunately blocks quite a bit of the audio output from the tweeters; you need to REMOVE the grilles if you want to hear all the goodness the tweeters are capable of.  Not sure why Focal felt it necessary to make the interior grille framework so thick and wide.

A few niggles I didn't like:

There is no "OFF" switch.  Right, once you connect power and turn it on the first time all you can do is put the units to "SLEEP".  Which also leaves you with the totally ridiculous white LED in low-power mode to remind you the speakers are sleeping.  Totally unnecessary and very, very annoying, to have this semi-bright LED glaring in your eyes.  Again, there's no logic to this lack of a true power switch and it's something very "Apple-like", where they leave a light on to tell you the unit is "off".  ugh.

Also, the instructions that come with the unit...well, there are no instructions per-se.  There's a diagram that shows you what parts come in the box - in various languages - and arrows to show you where to connect the various cables, the volume dial and the not-so-real "power" switch.  That's it.  Nothing about proper setup, break-in period... nada.

That's really disappointing because Focal is known worldwide as a top-notch provider of high-end professional audio equipment, so for this unit to be left out in the cold with no owners manual to speak of is very odd, to say the least.


The Focal XS Book is extremely well built with solid enclosures, superb craftsmanship, comes with high-quality cabling (every type you'd need) and most important, they're one of the best non-2.1 desktop monitors I've ever heard.  In fact, this is probably the BEST stereo pair desktop-sized monitors I've heard, period!

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