Brent has been a professional audio journalist since 1989, and has reviewed thousands of audio products over the years. He has served as editor-in-chief of Home Theater and Home Entertainment magazines, contributing technical editor for Sound & Vision magazine, senior editor of Video magazine, and reviews editor of Windows Sources magazine, and he also worked as marketing director for Dolby Laboratories. He's now on staff at Wirecutter.
Like many current-model speakers, the Fluance HFF is made in China. But there's often a big difference between speakers that are designed by engineers at big-name speaker companies then built in China and speakers that are designed and built in China then sold under the brand of a U.S. importer. The HFF was designed in Canada, a country whose name is, in the audio business, literally synonymous with "well-designed speakers."
Fluance's original tower speaker, the XL7F (which I reviewed three years ago), showed what can go wrong when companies buy speakers lock, stock, and barrel from an OEM (original equipment manufacturer). The product looked amazingly nice for its $499/pair price, and its drivers were decent, but its crossover points and slopes seemed randomly chosen and thus reduced the speaker's performance. The XL7F managed to sound okay, and it played very loud for the price, but I knew it could have been better with just a few different parts and an extra choke.
At $699/pair, the HFF carries a slightly higher price tag, but anyone who's familiar with the technical aspects of loudspeakers will know at a glance that it's a superior design. It's a three-way model, the configuration that most speaker engineers consider optimal for a tower speaker. Starting at the top, there's a one-inch silk dome tweeter, a five-inch glass fiber midrange, and two eight-inch polypropylene cone woofers. The crossover points are 530 Hz between the woofers and mids and 2,600 Hz between the mids and tweeters--all reasonable and rational choices. (The crossover slopes aren't published, but my measurements gave me some insight into them, which I'll share shortly.)
The look is big, black, and bulky, but the fit and finish are nice. The drivers have trim rings to hide their screws, and the grilles attach magnetically. On the back, above the vents for the woofers, are biwirable speaker cable binding posts that wouldn't look out of place on an $8,000/pair speaker. Thick metal posts bridge the two sets of binding posts when the speakers aren't biwired. Each speaker rests on sturdy metal outriggers that help prevent tipping. In fact, this $699/pair speaker looks more expensive than most of the speakers I've reviewed for HomeTheaterReview.com, almost all of which have been at least twice as costly.
The only place where cost cuts are obvious is in the MDF panels that make up the speaker. The front baffle is spec'ed at 1.4 inches thick, so it's pretty sturdy, but the rest of the enclosure seems less so. Removing the jack panel on one speaker showed that the MDF is relatively thin and not especially dense, and the hollow "thunk" I heard when I knocked on the side suggests that the cabinets aren't heavily braced inside.
Even after I attached the outriggers and gave the HFFs a thorough examination, nothing suggested a potential problem or a crippling compromise. So let's find out what they sound like ...
I used the HFFs with my usual stereo rig, which consists of a Classé CP-800 preamp/DAC, a Classé CA-2300 stereo amp, a Music Hall Ikura turntable, and an NAD PP-3 phono preamp, plus an Audio by Van Alstine AVA ABX switcher for level-matched comparisons. For movies and TV, I used a Sony STR-ZA5000ES AV receiver. I used Wireworld Eclipse 7 interconnect and speaker cables.
The speakers sounded good in the same positions where I normally put my Revel Performa3 F206 tower speakers, so I left them there for most of my listening. I did move them a few inches closer together for a while to tighten up the center imaging, but they sounded good both ways--which placement is best is just a matter of opinion. Both speakers were pointed straight at my listening position. As I'll explain shortly, the treble was a little on the soft side with the grilles off; because using the grilles would make the treble sound even softer, I leaned them in a corner and never used them.
It was clear to me from the first notes of "Mr. Tambourine Man" from Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home album that the HFF basically has its act together. Dylan's voice has a nasal, reedy character that can sound thin and shrill through some audio systems, but with the HFF it sounded clean and natural. I got the essential character of his voice, with a nice, smooth midrange and no shrillness at all. His acoustic guitar and harmonica had the same smooth character, with no extra edge or bite added to create a false sensation of "detail."
I liked the HFF's ability to create a natural, compelling sense of space, which it exhibited clearly on my ancient vinyl release of jazz organist Jimmy Smith's The Sermon. Although The Sermon was recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, the most famous jazz recording engineer of all time, it's a pretty weird-sounding presentation. Smith's Hammond organ stretches across the soundstage, while the drums stretch from the right speaker to roughly where a center speaker would sit if there were one, with the guitar appearing to come from right where the kick drum would be. Soloists, including trumpeter Lee Morgan and tenor saxophonist Tina Brooks, appear hard in the left channel. Despite the peculiarities of the recording, the HFFs gave the recording a nice sense of depth; I actually could sense the positioning of the snare drum behind the cymbals.
Steely Dan's "Cousin Dupree" sounds big on almost any system, but the whistling behind the vocal in the bridge sounds ultra-mega-spacious on the right speakers. And that's just the way it sounded through the HFFs, with the whistle appearing to come from maybe 20 feet behind the vocals in a large, hard-surfaced performance space. I also noticed that the bass line sounded even and melodic, something that's often difficult to achieve with tower speakers, which can't be positioned for optimum bass because they have to be positioned for optimum mids and treble.
The presence of Justin Bieber and, apparently, no acoustic instruments makes Major Lazer's hit "Cold Water" unlikely material for audiophiles, but I'm going to guess that someone buying a $700 pair of speakers might want to spin a few pop hits on occasion. If they try this through the HFFs, they'll like what they hear. Recordings like this are engineered to sound big, exciting, and reverberant, and the HFFs get that 100 percent right for two reasons: the nice sense of spatial depth that the speakers convey and the combined air-pushing power of four eight-inch woofers (which, BTW, have the same combined radiating area as a single 16-inch subwoofer).
Those big eight-inch woofers make a subwoofer optional. As I suggested before, you won't get the precise control of the bass that you would with a subwoofer, but there's enough bass extension and output to convey the impacts of action movie soundtracks. When I watched Thor: The Dark World, streamed through a Roku Stick and Amazon, I often pined for a comprehensible plot, but I never once pined for more or louder bass.
As I look through my listening notes on the HFF, I see the phrase "nice balance" appear over and over again. It has a few subtle colorations, which I'll describe below; but, as with most classic budget hi-fi products, its sins are of omission rather than commission. Basically, you can play any music through the HFF, with just a decent stereo receiver driving it, and it'll sound quite good. No part of the audio band sticks out from the rest, and the speaker has no performance anomalies that make it fussy about positioning or acoustic treatment. It's one of those speakers that just works, which I consider especially important in this price range.
Click over to Page Two for Measurements, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
On-axis: ±5.0 dB from 37 Hz to 20 kHz
Average 30° horiz: ±4.7 dB from 37 Hz to 10 kHz, ±6.1 dB to 20 kHz
Average 15° vert/horiz: ±4.5 dB from 37 Hz to 10 kHz, ±4.7 dB to 20 kHz
min. 4.5 ohms/1.1 kHz/-3.8, nominal 7 ohms
Sensitivity (2.83 volts/1 meter, anechoic)
The first chart shows the frequency response of the HFF. The second chart shows the impedance. The computer that runs my LMS analyzer broke down as I was putting these measurements together, so I am temporarily unable to present charts with average responses. In the meantime, I've presented a chart showing the response at 0° on-axis and 10°, 20°, 30°, 45°, and 60° off-axis. Ideally, the 0° curve should be more or less flat, and the others should look the same but should tilt down increasingly as the frequency increases.
The response of the HFF is pretty flat overall, although there's a definite downward tilt in the tonal balance. (Translation: more bass, less treble.) That's likely a choice rather than a flaw. The only real anomaly in the response is that roughly two-octave-wide dip in the treble, centered at about 11 kHz. It's reasonable to speculate that this is why, as you'll learn later in the article, I found the treble to sound "polite." Adding the grille has only mild effects on the sound, but it does reduce treble energy an additional -1.5 dB or so from 6 to 8 kHz and 12 to 15.5 kHz.
Close-miked measurements of the woofers and midrange driver told me more about the crossover. It turns out there's a lot of overlap between the woofers and the midrange. Above the 530 Hz crossover point, the woofer response rolls off at about -10 dB/octave, suggesting a first-order (6 dB/octave) electrical crossover. Below 530 Hz, there's not much roll-off on the midrange driver, only about -4.75 dB/octave, which a much sharper rolloff below 90 Hz. This is a place where an apparent cost-cutting move did impact sound quality; with a steeper crossover here (which would raise the parts cost), the midrange driver could play louder with less distortion, and the woofers would stay out of the midrange where they don't belong. The midrange transitions to the tweeter with a roughly -27 dB/octave low-pass roll-off, which is more in keeping with common practice.
Sensitivity of the HFF is a little on the low side at 84.7 dB (measured at one meter with a 2.83-volt signal, averaged from 300 Hz to 3 kHz), which means the HFF should hit 100 dB with about 32 watts. Impedance is about average at seven ohms; so, as long as your amp can put out about 50 watts per channel, it shouldn't have much problem driving the HFF.
Here's how I did the measurements. I measured frequency response using an Audiomatica Clio FW 10 audio analyzer with the MIC-01 measurement microphone, and the speaker driven with an Outlaw Model 2200 amplifier. I used quasi-anechoic technique to remove the acoustical effects of surrounding objects. The speaker was placed atop a turntable that elevated it three inches off the ground. The mic was centered on the tweeter axis and placed at a distance of two meters from the front baffle and a pile of denim insulation was placed on the ground between the speaker and the mic to help absorb ground reflections and improve accuracy of the measurement at low frequencies. Bass response was measured by close-miking the woofers and ports, then scaling the port responses appropriately and adding that sum to the woofer responses. I spliced this result to the quasi-anechoic results at 220 Hz. Results were smoothed to 1/12th octave. I made measurements with the grille off except as noted. Post-processing was done using TrueRTA software.
The HFF is a really good speaker for $699/pair, but don't go thinking it's a $3,000/pair speaker for $699. It does have three shortcomings that aren't evident in better, costlier speakers.
First is that the treble is a little on the polite side. I rarely found myself craving more highs, but many audiophiles do like to hear a little more treble than the HFF will give. The speaker has that classic soft-dome tweeter sound (it's clear, but in no way dazzling), which some audiophiles love and some don't. Probably because of this softer response, while the HFF sounded spacious, I didn't hear the fine resolution of spatial details and positioning that I've heard with costlier models.
Second is a slight cupped-hands coloration, which made Cecile McLoren Salvant's recording of "What's the Matter Now?" sound as if she had a hand ... well, not cupped around her mouth, but maybe one hand cupped a couple of inches away from her mouth. (Perhaps it's a result of the half-inch-deep recess the midrange driver sits in, or the fact that the woofers are active well up into the midrange.) I'm particularly sensitive to this coloration because I'm a hardcore speaker geek; I'm not sure most listeners, even most audiophiles, would even notice it, but you know, it's my gig to point out these things.
Third is that the upper bass isn't as tight as what I heard with the more expensive models I compared with the HFF. On pianist Tsuyoshi Yamamoto's recording of "Honeysuckle Rose," there was plenty of bass, and as with the Steely Dan recording, the pitch definition was solid. But the drops--subtle off-beat accents that double bassists throw in to keep things interesting--didn't have the punch and impact they do with some other speakers, particularly those with smaller woofers. The HFF's eight-inch woofers handle everything up to 530 Hz, and at those higher frequencies they don't have the "speed" and definition of a good 6.5-inch woofer.
Comparison and Competition
Using my Van Alstine AVA ABX switcher, I pit the HFF in different groupings against three other tower speakers, all far more expensive: the $3,500/pair Revel Performa3 F206, the new $2,000/pair Revel Concerta2 F36, and the $11,495/pair Monitor Audio PL200 II. (Sorry, I didn't have anything in the HFFs' price range to which I could compare them.) While all of the more-expensive models sounded better overall, the HFF didn't commit any real errors. It simply sounded like a less costly speaker. Its treble was less smooth and clear, its midrange revealed a bit of cupped-hands coloration, and its bass didn't sound as precise.
Tower speakers are mostly a $1,000/pair-and-up category, so the models to which the HFF could be fairly compared are few. They include the $379-each Elac Debut F6, the $415-each Monitor Audio Bronze 6, the $349-each Klipsch R26F, and the $399-each Polk RTiA5. None of these speakers packs a driver complement as robust as the HFF's; at the most they have dual 6.5-inch woofers compared with the HFF's dual-eights. The HFF also has nicer fittings, although all of the competitors listed above are smaller and sleeker.
How do they compare sonically? The only ones I've heard are the Elac and Monitor Audio models. Neither is quite as muscular in the bass as the HFF; if you want to play stuff loud or listen to a lot of hip-hop or heavy rock, the Fluance is almost certainly your best choice of the bunch, although the others will likely have better upper-bass and lower-midrange definition. When it comes to the sound of the mids and treble, my guess (since I didn't have a chance to compare the speakers directly) is that the midrange might be kind of a toss-up, with the Elac and Monitor Audio models sounding a little more open, and I'd probably have a slight preference for the more vivid treble of the Elac and Monitor Audio models.
The HFF has to be considered one of today's best values in a tower speaker. There are certainly reasons to spend more, and there are speakers at this price you might prefer if you're willing to sacrifice some bass response for midrange and treble clarity. But if I had to pick a "best tower in the $700/pair range for most people," the HFF would be the first one to come to mind.