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.
Along with the guitars being appropriately-sized and placed realistically within the soundstage, the inner detail audible throughout was incredible; with nuances, such as the grooves of the strings themselves, easily discernable. Krauss’ vocals had body and soul, not to mention tremendous focus, providing a sense of palpability and dimensionality that I’ve heard from costlier speakers such as my Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamonds or Revel Studio2s, but never via a speaker costing as relatively little as the 1038Be’s. Krauss’ upper register was smooth, with copious amounts of air without a trace of sibilance, a testament to the 1038Be’s new Beryllium tweeter. While not a bass-head’s tour de force, the low midbass and bass found in “Paper Airplanes” was both articulate and taut and deep enough, on this particular track, to not require a subwoofer. The soundstage was one that began at the 1038Be’s baffle and recessed from there, which was nice. At high volumes, it didn’t change its layout nor lose its composure.
Smitten by the 1038Be’s way with female vocals, I cued up the track “Easy Silence” from the Dixie Chicks’ album Taking the Long Way (Sony). Natalie Maines’ vocals were haunting in their realism and tone and repeatedly gave me goosebumps. More impressive was the 1038Be’s ability to present singer Martie Maguire and Emily Robison’s backup harmonies with such fervor. The small bells that chime sporadically throughout the track had a true sense of three-dimensionality as they sparkled along the outer edges of my room, both side to side and front to back. Again, I was impressed by the 1038Be’s vertical scale, clearly reproducing Maguire’s violin from a standing position, one that was audibly higher than the speakers themselves.
Both “Paper Airplanes” and “Easy Silence” showcased the 1038Be’s overall neutrality, managing to be both articulate -okay, fast – without sounding lean or overtly energetic. There was weight to the vocalists’ bones without a trace of artificial warmth or midbass manipulation. Likewise, the bass was firm, taut and deep, while retaining the midrange and tweeter’s agility, though for full-range performance, the 1038Be will likely require a subwoofer. Nearly all truly high-end speakers at this range do.
Wanting to throw a bit more at the 1038Be, I cued up Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” from her album The Fame Monster (Interscope). Via the 1038Be, the synthesized bass notes simply retained more of their detail and speed when compared to every other speaker I had on hand during my review period. The bass was again deep, though when I added my subwoofers to the mix, it was clear that the 1038Be wasn’t capturing everything. Still, what was registering was firm, articulate and detailed. Early crescendos revealed that the 1038Be’s were unflappable in the dynamics department, retaining all the focus, detail and musicality I’d heard in previous tracks, despite far more musical information being throw at them. Even with peaks in excess of 105dB, the 1038Be never sounded muddy during any of the track’s more spirited moments. The 1038Be’s soundstage performance is one that is solely reliant upon the recording itself, which may sound like a bit of a “duh” statement, but I promise you, some loudspeakers image and/or throw a soundstage that is not entirely accurate to the source material. The 1038Be’s’ soundstage during “Bad Romance” was nothing if not three-dimensional, enveloping me and my listening position with a surround sound-like performance, which is what I expected from this track.
Wanting to test the explosive capabilities of the 1038Be, I cued up Maroon 5’s album Songs About Jane and the opening track “Harder to Breathe” (J Records). The opening drum solo, especially the snare drum hits, was visceral in ways that can only be described as violent and palpable. While the 1038Be’s explosive nature was never in question (for me at least), it’s ability to play at live levels with such confidence and composure was something I was not expecting. So many speakers seem to have a window in which they sound their best. For the 1038Be, that window might as well be floor to ceiling, for I could not tax them at the extreme nor find a lesser volume where they weren’t equally engaging. The 1038Be’s grip on the musical signal was again showcased in this track, evident in the more intelligible auto-tuned backup vocals. Beyond simply being able to reproduce every note and nuance, the 1038Be’s command of the entire presentation is what I found to be truly remarkable, for instead of excelling at a handful of sonic traits, be it coherence, midrange performance, high-frequency air, etc., the 1038Be proved to be one of the more solid all-rounders I’ve ever encountered.
Despite having only a pair of 1038Be’s on hand for my review, I did throw a couple of Blu-ray discs at them, with my Noble Fidelity L-85 LCRS in-ceiling speakers acting as rears. The same attributes the 1038Be brought to the table for music were present and accounted for enjoying favorite movies as well. During my demo of Iron Man 2 on Blu-ray (Paramount), nothing, and I mean nothing, phased the 1038Be’s. Dialogue was crystal clear, with a presence that was void of coloration or sibilance. Action sequences were exciting and visceral, though still nicely nuanced and dimensional throughout the front half of my room. Bass was firm with solid impact, though for movies, you’ll want and probably have a subwoofer. My only gripe against the 1038Be’s Blu-ray performance wasn’t against the speaker itself, but in the pairing of it with my Noble Fidelity in-ceiling rears, for the two sound nowhere near the same. This isn’t a knock against either the 1038Be or the L-85 LCRS – they just don’t sound good together, which is why I would say that anyone considering buying a pair of 1038Be’s as part of a larger home theater setup should probably invest in comparable Focal branded side and rear channels as well. I would have even suggested pairing the 1038Be’s with a Focal sub had I not achieved such terrific results with my JL Audio Fathom f110s.
Impressed doesn’t fully encapsulate how I feel about the Focal Electra 1038Be’s following my time spent with them in my home. As I said earlier, they are among the most neutral and engaging speakers I’ve come across. Top to bottom, the 1038Be manages to check all the appropriate boxes one hopes to tag in an audiophile and home theater loudspeaker.
Make no mistake: the 1038Be’s are exceptional loudspeakers, ones that could easily serve as a reference point for any audiophile or home theater enthusiast, even if someone with more than $12,495 to spend on a pair of loudspeakers. That being said, there are a few items I should point out that potential buyers need to be aware of, starting with the 1038Be’s grilles. The 1038Be’s grilles are non-magnetic and use a small cloth tab to facilitate their removal, for they sit completely flush with the front baffle when installed. It’s not that the grilles aren’t functional, or that the tabs are somehow noticeable, it’s just a bit wonky compared to some of the competition. I chose to leave the grilles on throughout my review period, as I have three dogs in my house, so this design choice was really one that didn’t affect me all that much. However, if you’re one to remove a speaker’s grille for listening and put it back when the speaker is not in use, the 1038Be’s grille design may become tedious.
The 1038Be’s binding posts rest a little over three inches above the ground, which may or may not provide enough clearance for some thicker reference-grade cables. I used Crystal Cable speaker cables, so this was less of an issue, but when switching over to my regular Transparent Reference speaker cables, the connection became a bit trickier, though still possible. Those using banana-terminated speaker cables need not be concerned.
Because of all the different materials and facets to the 1038Be’s industrial design, be prepared to clean the speaker regularly, for the high-gloss finishes showcase dust almost immediately and the glass top is a landing strip for fingerprints. The wood side panels are less prone to showcase normal day-to-day wear, though I would recommend investing in some light-duty dusting cloths in order to keep them looking their very best.
Lastly, for true full-range sound reproduction, the 1038Be is going to require a subwoofer, which adds to the bottom line a bit. Focal makes a wide range of subwoofers. The one most optimally paired with the 1038Be is the Electra SW 1000 Be, though I did not have one on hand during my review period. To compliment the 1038Be’s bottom end, I used JL Audio’s Fathom f110 subwoofer, which retails for $2,100. I experimented with the less expensive $649 Episode ES-SUB-12, though its matte finish did little to compliment the 1038Be’s beauty.
Competition and Comparisons
There are a number of loudspeakers priced between $10,000 and $16,000 per pair that seek to compete against the 1038Be, among them Revel’s Salon Studio2s. The Studio2 ($16,000 per pair) boasts a beryllium tweeter as well, though I feel the Focal 1038Be’s tweeter integrates better, for the rest of the drivers are far more agile and responsive when compared to the Studio2. Furthermore, the 1038Be is easier to drive than the Studio2, making it more suited for a wider variety of amps and electronics, whereas you need to spend much more on proper amplification in order to get the Studio2 to sing.
Another possible contender would have to be Wilson Audio’s Sophia 3, which does breach the $16,000 per pair threshold, but is still very much a part of the conversation, if for no other reason than to solidify the 1038Be’s value, for I consider the 1038Be to be outright better in comparison. The Wilson still uses a Focal tweeter, as it always has, but this is an older, non-beryllium model.
On the slightly less expensive side, I suppose you could draw some similarities between the 1038Be and Paradigm’s Signature S8 floor-standing loudspeaker. At $8,598 per pair retail, you might also seemingly call the S8 the better value, but I don’t. While there are clearly some similarities between the two speakers, I don’t consider them to be in the same class, for while the S8 does manage to compete against speakers twice its price, including some of the before-mentioned options, the 1038Be can do battle with some of the biggest names in the business, including Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamonds and Wilson Audio’s Sasha W/P.
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There’s no denying that the Focal Electra 1038Be floor-standing loudspeaker, at $12,495 per pair, is expensive. For many, or perhaps most, it’s even outrageous. So why do I consider it to be somewhat of a bargain? Simple: if it were my money and I was a well-heeled audiophile or home theater enthusiast in search of high-end nirvana, and my list of possible suitors included twenty-plus-thousand-dollar offerings, such as Wilson’s Sasha W/P or Bowers & Wilkins’ 800 Series Diamond, I think I’d choose the 1038Be and pocket the difference. For while both the 800 Series Diamond and the Sasha W/P may be better in their own unique ways, on overall performance, I truly don’t believe they best the 1038Be.
All three are fantastic loudspeakers, true benchmarks in their own right, but if given the choice of only one to call my own, I’m not sure I could walk away from the 1038Be. High praise, for anyone who has followed my reviews over the years knows how much I love my 800 Series Diamonds, but I was completely blown away by what Focal managed to pull off with their Electra 1038Be. Unless your budget or desire to spend more allows you to consider loudspeakers in a whole other realm – I’m talking true cost no object stuff – you should definitely audition the Focal Electra 1038Be before purchasing a more expensive loudspeaker.
In setting their relative cost low, Focal managed to raise the bar with the Electra 1038Be.
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