Before reviewing the F208, I had already spent time with the M106 and M105 bookshelf models. My experience with them - and my high opinion of their vocal reproduction - led me to begin my evaluation of F208 with my toughest vocal tests: the live version of "Shower the People" from James Taylor's Live at the Beacon Theatre, Steely Dan's "Aja," and Ron Sexsmith's "Words We Never Use."
On "Words We Never Use", Sexsmith tends to sound too coarse or too dull through most audio gear. Set against this tune's sparse background of acoustic guitar, percussion, keyboard, and woodwinds, his voice sits atop the mix like a cherry on a cake, completely exposed. Through the F208, Sexsmith sounded just about as natural as I've ever heard him sound. The voice had no trace of edge or brightness, yet none of the natural resonance or very subtle sibilance in his voice was lost.
Steely Dan's Donald Fagen has another of those voices that seldom sounds just right; either the speakers make him sound too thin and reedy, or they mute his sardonic tone. When I played "Aja", the F208 seemed to nail his sound perfectly. It also portrayed Chuck Rainey's studio-slick bass line with an almost eerie perfection: an ideal mix of butt-shaking rumble and melodic precision.
By the time I got to Taylor's "Shower the People", I'd started to worry less about the voices and focus more on what else was going on in the mix - a luxury few speakers let me enjoy. I noticed especially how lifelike and fully embodied Taylor's acoustic guitar sounded. It was more like I was hearing sound emitted from a real spruce-and-mahogany box than from speakers. As the full band kicked in, I heard the sound spread naturally across the front of my room. The snare drum and cymbals seemed to be echoing off walls 20 or 30 feet above. (Yeah, I know that's probably fake reverb, but still ...)
The quartet of eight-inch woofers in the pair of F208s proved more than up to handling heavy metal, hip-hop, and the depth charges in the U-571 Blu-ray disc. I especially liked the natural sound of the movie dialogue, regardless of which actor or actress was speaking.
I then switched to the smaller F206, which is in many ways practically the same as the F208, yet in some ways very different. Where the F208's bass sounds full, satisfying, and effortless, perfectly counterbalancing the mids and treble, the F206 is fussier. It does have a little extra punch in the upper bass relative to the F208, but it doesn't have the larger speaker's deep bass extension, so you never get that oomph that the F208 easily delivers.
The smaller speaker has plenty of bottom end for jazz and folk, as well as most classical and pop music. For example, George Benson's ultra-groovy rendition of "Along Comes Mary" from Giblet Gravy had a just-right amount of bass, and every note of the hyperactive bass line sounded even, dynamic, and perfectly defined. For heavier rock, though, the F206 can sound a little lean; some recordings I played pushed the speaker into a slightly bright tonal balance. I noticed this on Julian Cope's "Planet Ride" from Saint Julian, which features blaring electric guitar, a hyped-up '80s-style snare, and Cope's slightly thin-sounding voice. Through the F208, the kick drum and bass guitar had ample oomph to counter all that treble energy. Through the F206, the balance got somewhat bright.
Of course, you could easily counteract this by adding a subwoofer. For music listening, adding a subwoofer to the F206 is a good idea. For movie soundtracks, it's mandatory, because there's just not enough deep extension to give a convincing portrayal of explosions and car crashes - but this is true of almost any relatively small tower speaker.
How'd the rest of the F206's sound sound? Basically the same as the F208 - just as neutral, just as natural. Unfortunately, I never got to do a direct comparison between the two, but my notes on all the above tunes read almost the same. If there's a difference, it's that the F206 has a tad more treble detail and a slightly heightened sense of air and space. Of course, that could be a psychoacoustic effect of the leaner tonal balance, too.
For me, it was difficult to find anything to dislike about the F208, but every audiophile's priorities are different. My first priority is tonal neutrality and, in my opinion, the F208 is above criticism in this area. However, I know that a lot of audiophiles consider a dramatic presentation - one that seeks to simulate a concert-hall ambience - is the number-one desire. A lot of manufacturers, especially those that specialize in electrostatic and planar magnetic speakers, cater to this craving, but the Performa3 speakers do not.
It's not that the F208 can't conjure up a convincing soundstage, but it's not the kind of soundstage that'll make you gasp at its depth and breadth. Super-ambient recordings, such as David Chesky's "Club Descarga" from The Body Acoustic, sounded great through the F208 (and F206), but a speaker like MartinLogan's $2,195 per pair EM-ESL electrostatic would have given me a more dramatic sense of envelopment. I've also heard a more spacious sound from some of the Heil-type tweeters found on GoldenEar Technology speakers or MartinLogan's Motion Series. Of course, whether you consider that heightened ambience artificial or natural is a matter of philosophical conjecture.
Comparison and Competition
I've tested several speakers in the low- to mid-four-digit price range in the last couple of years that I can compare with the F208 and F206.
Thanks to its phase-coherent design, the $3,999/pair Thiel CS1.7 delivers an incredible (and natural) wraparound ambience, but it can't approach the Revels' dynamics and bass response. I haven't tested Sonus Faber's $3,495 Venere 3.0, but I have reviewed and enjoyed the $2,495 Venere 2.5, and I expect the 3.0's dedicated midrange driver might clean up the squiggles I heard in the 2.5's mids. Still, I doubt either speaker can deliver the nearly colorless mids and treble that the Revels offer.
Another potential competitor I've heard - for the F206, at least - is GoldenEar Technology's $2,998 per pair Triton Two tower, which has that great Heil-type tweeter and bass drivers powered by an internal 1,200-watt amp. I prefer a powered bass section because of the adjustability, simplicity, and extra dynamics it delivers, and the spaciousness of the Triton Two might beat what the F208 and F206 can produce. However, to my ears, the Triton Two has a little bit of emphasis in the lower treble that's not there in the Revels.
At $3,849 per pair, and built with a similar degree of scientific and engineering rigor, the PSB Imagine T2 Tower might be the F208's closest competitor. The T2 Tower's dual 5.25-inch woofers can't approach the bass power of the F208's dual 8-inchers - and probably not the F206's dual 6.5-inchers, either. In terms of mids and treble, the PSBs and the Revels are all exceptional. I couldn't tell you which I'd prefer without comparing them side by side, and even then, I'm not sure I'd have a clear preference.
After years and years and years of evaluating and measuring speakers, I've become hyper-picky. I hear the slightest flaw - say, a "cupped hands" coloration caused by a slightly too-high crossover point or a bit of mechanical noise from a passive radiator on a deep bass note - and a speaker falls into the "nice, but ..." category for me. It may be quite good, even inspiring at times, but it's not perfect, so I could never buy it for myself.
Of course, I know I'll never find - or at least never be able to afford - the perfect speaker, but I think the Performa3 F208 and F206 are as close as I'm going to get. That's why I bought a pair. Which did I choose? I like the F208 better overall; I'd probably rate the F206's performance at 4.5 stars compared with the F208's five-star rating. Yet I chose the F206. That's partly because I already have a great Hsu Research VTF-15H sub I can use with it, and partly because I need something I can wrestle up onto my speaker measurement stand on occasion, and the F206 is 21 pounds lighter. And, I'll confess, partly because the F206 is available in white and the F208 isn't. Who's up for shooting a music video?
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