Focal has been with us for over thirty years, though I'm sure many view the firm predominately as a transducer company, supplying drivers to speaker manufacturers the world over, which then build fancy boxes around them before passing them off as their own - ahem, Wilson Audio. Truth be told, Focal does a lot more than just supply drivers to other manufacturers. In fact, they've backed off their OEM business as of late in favor of their own in-house ventures, which include automotive, home and pro audio products. Focal's home audio (formerly JM Labs) lineup of products is vast, ranging from desktop loudspeakers to cost-no-object floor-standing loudspeakers, such as their famous Grande Utopia EM. One constant among all the Focal loudspeaker lines is that they're made entirely in-house and manufactured to such a high standard that you begin to wonder how Focal manages to ship anything on time or on budget. For instance, no two Focal speakers are alike, nor do they share exactly the same drivers, for that would be lazy, and not ideal for every speaker. So instead of dealing with the differences in driver and cabinet construction in the crossover realm, Focal simply designs all new parts, thus creating a whole new speaker - even within the same line. In today's ailing economy, this business model sounds asinine, for Economics 101 tells you that that the more you make of item A, the cheaper it is going to be to produce, except if you're Focal. While Focal may offer budget components, they never feel as if they've been engineered to a specific price point, for even their Bird System at just under $1,000 manages to be higher-end than much of the competition.
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Case in point: Focal's Electra 1038Be (1038Be), which isn't cheap at $12,495. However, like the Bird system, the 1038Be does battle with speakers costing twice if not close to three times its price. Don't believe me? Focal's next floor-standing loudspeaker above the 1038Be is the nearly $30,000 Scala Utopia. That's quite a gap, considering nearly every other high-end speaker manufacturer offers a SKU or two somewhere in the middle, but not Focal.
As for the 1038Be, it's beautiful in every sense of the word, possessing a sculpted front baffle, with real wood faceted side panels and a floating glass top. The 1038Be's front baffle is rounded and sports a high-gloss piano black finish, which is divided about a third of the way from the top by a wide strip of brushed aluminum that surrounds the 1038Be's beryllium tweeter. The side panels are real wood and are available in four standard finishes: champagne, basalt, mahogany and black lacquer. Focal's champagne finish closely resembles that of other manufacturers' light cherry or beachwood, whereas the basalt is more akin to walnut, with the mahogany appearing almost cherry red. All of the finishes are stunning to behold and have a sort of matte or satin sheen to them, which comes off as feeling a bit more upscale than many of today's super-high-gloss finishes. The top of the 1038Be is accented with a floating piece of glass that has the Focal name etched into it. This small detail may seem trivial, but it solidifies Focal's attention to detail, for the coolest thing about the floating glass insert is that the etched Focal logo casts its own drop shadow, making the lettering appear three dimensional. The bottom of the 1038Be is equally unique, supported by two rubber-like legs that run the length of the speaker's side panels. The legs allow the 1038Be's port proper breathing room, lifting it off the ground a full three inches.
The back of the 1038Be is finished in the same piano gloss finish as the front baffle and is accented by a brushed aluminum plaque with the model details etched into it. Near the bottom of the speaker rests another aluminum plate, with the 1038Be's single pair of five-way binding posts resting dead center. All of these design cues and upscale materials help mask the 1038Be's somewhat large size. The 1038Be measures a little over 49 inches tall by nearly 12 inches wide and 16 inches deep. Not to be overlooked is the 1038Be's weight of 112 pounds ... each.
Behind the 1038Be's sculpted exterior rest five drivers: three woofers, one midrange driver and a tweeter, making the 1038Be a true three-way bass-reflex design. The 1038Be's three seven-inch bass drivers are stacked one on top of the other and recessed ever so slightly into the front baffle, so that with the grille on, the slight curvature isn't interrupted. Splitting the bass drivers from the single midrange driver is the 1038Be's one-and-a-quarter-inch pure beryllium IAL inverted dome tweeter. The 1038Be's new beryllium tweeter is an upgrade over previous Electra designs, which relied on an aluminum/magnesium tweeter. While the older aluminum/magnesium was phenomenal in its own right, the new beryllium tweeter is superior in every way: it's lighter weight, more rigid and able to play past 40kHz without break-up. Above the all-new tweeter rests the 1038Be's single six-and-a-half-inch midrange driver. The 1038Be's drivers are good for a reported frequency response of 33Hz to 40kHz with a sensitivity of 93dB into a nominal impedance of eight ohms, though the 1038Be can dip as low as 3.3 ohms. Focal recommends an amplifier with at least 40 watts on tap, though the 1038Be can handle up to 400 watts plus.
Unboxing the 1038Be is a job for two, or for your local Focal dealer. Thankfully, my wife was home when the 1038Be's arrived so removing them from their sturdy, cardboard boxes wasn't too difficult. Once they're out of their boxes, it's still best to employ the use of an extra set of hands when positioning the 1038Be in your room. I placed the 1038Be's roughly in the same place as my reference Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamonds. This put them approximately three feet off my front wall and four feet off the sidewalls, with nine feet between them. I toed them in so that the tweeters were aimed just behind my primary listening position.
Once they were placed in my reference room, I was able to take a step back and admire the 1038Be's for the first time. Some speakers look great in photographs, while others look great in person. The Focal 1038Be's look great in both, especially in their champagne finish. I connected the 1038Be's to my Pass Labs X250.5 amplifier via three-meter runs of Crystal Cable. For home theater use, I used my Integra DHC-80.2 AV preamp, and for two-channel listening, I utilized the preamp section of my Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2. Both were connected to my Pass Labs amplifier via Crystal Cable unbalanced interconnects. Sources included Cambridge Audio's 751BD universal Blu-ray player, Wyred 4 Sound's DAC-2 and my AppleTV, all of which were connected via Crystal Cable or Planet Waves HDMI cables where applicable.
Focal recommends a lengthy break-in process for the 1038Be's, between 50 and 200 hours to be exact. While I don't believe the break-in process need be that long, I did find that after a few days of solid play (four to six hours a day), the 1038Be's did settle in and sound noticeably better.
I began my evaluation of the 1038Be with Alison Krauss & Union Station's single "Paper Airplanes" (Rounder). The first thing that struck me about the 1038Be's performance was the scale in which it presented the performance, both vocally and instrumentally. What I mean by this is simple. Many loudspeakers confine a performance to a plane comparable to their stature -not the 1038Be.
Read more about the performance of the Focal Electra 1038Be on Page 2.