Focal • Electra 1008 Be Loudspeakers

by Chris Thomas | January 20, 2011


Back in 2003, Focal (JMlab at the time) introduced its Beryllium inverted-dome tweeter for the Utopia II line of speakers. For the company, things would never be quite the same. Prior to this, Focal designed and produced a very decent tiered range of speakers, but the breakthroughs made in the manufacturing process with beryllium, that most elusive of materials, really changed the whole ballgame. When fitted with the tweeter, the new Utopia speakers displayed speed, resolution and extension through the midrange and treble that made them sound fresh, dynamic and exciting, and the company as a whole embraced this new image. High-frequency units that could match this range of qualities were -- and are -- quite scarce, and most are rather esoteric devices.

Where bookshelf models were concerned, the Micro Utopia made a huge impact. Here was a very compact and affordable speaker with a sense of open and articulate musical communication that would respond to quality sources and amplification like few speakers in its size and price ranges. As you upped the ante at the front of the system, the Micro could continue to provide satisfactory answers to musical questions and not run up against the performance wall that had always led unremittingly to the path of expensive upgrades and the inevitable increase in speaker size. I used the Micro Utopia for many years, and it still remains one of my favorite speakers. But there were and are bigger Utopias too, each incorporating that same tweeter along with several other progressive developments to the cabinet, drivers and crossover.

We are up to Utopia III now, a range of speakers running up to a model costing nearly $200,000. Investment in research has been considerable, and the diminutive Micro has given way to the more imposing and expensive Diablo Utopia. So, slowly but surely, some of the technological know-how has drifted down to the Electra range, and the stand-mounted 1008 Be under consideration here features not only that particular Beryllium suffix but also a host of other design aspects originally associated with the Utopia range.

The two-way 1008 Be became the latest beneficiary of the larger Beryllium tweeter in Focal's Infinite Acoustic Loading (IAL) configuration. The pure-beryllium, inverted-dome tweeter is identical to that found in the Utopia range. Its dome is 27mm; it used to be 25mm. Infinite Acoustic Loading has bought with it a startling and useful extension downwards in bandwidth. By opening the space to the rear of the dome, allowing it virtually infinite air volume, the resonance frequency, which is always a limiting factor in tweeter design, has been pushed way down. By utilizing this driver, Focal was able to lower the crossover point to 2200Hz, so frequencies normally handled by a relatively heavy midrange/bass driver that would also be working with very low frequencies are now dealt with by this remarkable tweeter.

For the listener, this is certainly a good thing, although there are a few caveats along the way. It is good because it has resulted in a speaker of notable transparency and speed, but the catch is that it throws a magnifying glass on the rest of the system through the crucial midband, and this will certainly expose system inadequacies. So this Focal speaker is, like its more costly Utopia brethren, a somewhat unforgiving design that positively demands the right source and amplifier to make it sing properly, although it should be noted that "right" doesn’t necessarily mean "most expensive." Price and quality do not always go hand in hand.

The 16.5cm (6.5") midrange/bass driver has a "W" composite cone. Developed in 1995, this is a laminate design where internal foams of different thicknesses are constrained by glass coats, again of varying dimensions and weights. The foam density and the number of coats employed are different for each driver and are used to shape the driver's response curve. The cone is extremely light but very rigid, and the outer edges are now cut with a laser, making the critical joint between the cone and surround much more consistent and accurate. I know from my visit to the factory that Focal engineers are particularly proud of this innovation, and it is yet another process adapted from the Utopia III development program.

Focal believes in the "build ‘em solid, build ‘em heavy" school of thought when it comes to cabinets. They want the amplifier’s power to move the drivers and not the cabinet, so the 1008 Be is a solid and heavy speaker with a massive curved baffle for the midrange/bass driver and a large matching aluminum-alloy housing for the tweeter. The cabinet sides are cunningly shaped to minimize the frontal reflective area, and the speaker has a tapering enclosure to nullify interior standing waves. At the bottom rear you will find a slotted port and a pair of 4mm WBT connectors that can also be used to accept bi-wire speaker cables by sliding the second set of plugs sideways into the binding posts.

The cabinets are certainly beautifully finished. When I visited Focal a couple of years ago, I was amazed at the detailed construction that each cabinet undergoes before passing on to the paint-and-finish shop, and this speaker illustrates that perfectly. The cabinet shop is located in a collection of buildings in the Burgundy region; it was founded as a furniture manufacturer in 1939 and is run by a fine gentleman who still builds individual and truly exquisite bespoke pieces of furniture by hand. It is several hours away from the main Focal factory, meaning that the cabinets have a lengthy road trip before they become loudspeakers. But Focal accepts this inconvenience (and expense) because of the quality of the work. And being quintessentially French, there is always tradition to consider.

So what we have is a classic two-way stand-mounted design with a twist provided by the implementation of that special tweeter. Focal can supply very decent high-mass stands too ($895 or $1195/pair depending on the model). The stands are an excellent visual match, as they mirror shapes and design hints from the speaker itself. The speakers can sit upon four small rubber dimples or be screwed to the stands. I have a slight preference for the tethered option, but as with all things audio, a little experimentation is firmly recommended.

With a nominal impedance of 8 ohms, dropping to 3.9 ohms, and a healthy sensitivity of 89dB, the 1008 Be is easy to drive. However, installing the 1008 Be demands the sort of attention to detail that can elevate system performance at all levels. Its size means that it will most likely be found in homes with smaller listening rooms, but it does prefer some free air around it, especially to the side. Give the speakers at least one meter distance from the front wall if possible, although, despite the rear-facing port, I have had relative success with as few as 18". Corners, as one might expect, are a complete no-go. Toe-in and distance apart will certainly depend on the rest of the system, but I favor only marginal angles and more width than would initially seem to make sense. My advice is to make very small adjustments and don’t be surprised if it takes several days before you are happy with the speakers' positions.

As far as run-in times go, the word is patience -- and then more patience. New Focal speakers are notoriously uptight and somewhat unyielding, but they do respond to some fairly savage deployment of the volume control by loosening up over time. In other words, you should give them a good hammering and resign yourself to a couple months, rather than days or weeks, before you begin to hear them at their best. They are by no means unique in this respect, but the rewards are there and come in the form of a fast, open and very free-flowing rendering of the music.

Never shy through the mids and top end, the Beryllium tweeter soon establishes itself as the heart of the music. It brings serious attack and impact throughout its range and features remarkable extension and a feeling of air and space that is matched by few other high-frequency drivers, regardless of price. Personally, I have always felt that Focal runs this tweeter slightly hot where its stand-mounted models are concerned, and the Electra 1008 Be is no exception. Those seeking a smooth and somewhat politely balanced speaker should probably look elsewhere, unless they are employing a gentle tube amp with a benign, even rolled-off top end. The music is thrust into the room in a similar way as with the Diablo Utopia, but with notably less sophistication. I have been using the Diablo at home for two years, and both designs feature tremendous top-to-bottom agility along with pure pace and impact to keep you involved.

The 1008 Be had more low-frequency extension than I was expecting; that inert cabinet gives it plenty of stop-start coherence, even if it tends to sacrifice a little bass definition in favor of power and weight. It does manage the Focal trick of casting a broad, deep and very stable soundstage while projecting vocals and lead instruments to within a few inches of your nose. Even after the speakers are given an extensive run-in period, this presentation might still be a little sudden for some, but it is part of the big change that the Beryllium era has bought to Focal speakers. It’s a case of "never mind the closeness; feel the quality."

Add to this the lower crossover point and you will find a speaker that is more sophisticated and textural than any I have heard within its price range. The way it illuminates -- that is the right word -- the smallest of changes in terms of dynamic and pressure shifts, especially through the midrange and treble, and the transparent clarity it is capable of, bring an added dose of reality and an insight to the musicianship that I really enjoy. This also means that the 1008 Be simply craves as much quality signal as you are able to provide it with; too often, I fear, it will be connected to inadequate electronics and harshly judged. The system must be tonally well balanced. If it's too bright, you will find the tweeter unforgiving in extremis, as it will sound rather thin and even harsh. These are not qualities conducive to long, rewarding listening sessions. But within the Electra 1008 Be’s potential weaknesses also lie its greatest strengths, and the rewards are very well worth the effort.

The speaker's ability to bring a feeling of excitement and anticipation is notable, regardless of the music involved. If you like an out-of-the-box presentation, then put the 1008 Be on your must-hear list. I have had much experience with stand-mounted designs costing considerably more than the 1008 Be, but the more I listen and think about it, the more I hear hints of the Diablo Utopia ($12,000/pair). Where they both excel (it’s that tweeter again, I’m afraid) is the way they deal with the leading edge of instruments, be they plucked, bowed, struck or blown. That fraction of a second of impact when each instrument becomes energized, announcing its character, is so specifically dealt with and so articulate that it brings a musical eloquence all its own. Add to this the fact that the speaker is fast and can stop with as much alacrity and impact as it started and you will hear just how specific and informative the music can be.

The lower frequencies are less impressive, and this is where the Diablo Utopia really puts some distance between the two designs. The added sophistication of the Diablo's better midrange/bass driver and superior complexity of its cabinet makes for much more seamless integration, particularly around the crossover point, and the Diablo’s pitch resolution and tonal subtleties are in a different league. But the Diablo Utopia is more than twice the price of the 1008 Be, so compromises will always be felt where comparisons are made. But, as a package, the Electra 1008 Be is deservedly going to find many admirers.

The Focal range is almost bewilderingly large these days, and there is barely an existing audio or visual situation for which the company can't provide a speaker. That very interesting Beryllium tweeter is now at the heart of so much of what the company is about that it has produced a house sound that becomes instantly identifiable once you have heard it a few times.

The Electra 1008 Be is compact and easy to drive. Within its price range, it is extremely competitive, as it can provide a list of musical attributes coupled with superb in-house build qualities that price-wise are very hard to beat unless you have your cabinets fabricated in China. As part of a music-lover’s system, it needs careful consideration in terms of integration, but its exceptional musical potential is a challenge rather than a limitation.

Price: $4995 per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

BP 374-108 due de L'Avenir
42353 La Talaudière cedex
(33) 0477 43 5700

Focal UK
P.O. Box 4287
Coventry CV4 0BS UK
0845 660 2680

Audio Plus Services
156 Lawrence Paquette Industrial Dr.
Champlain, NY 12919
(800) 663-9352

Associated Equipment

Digital: Burmester CD 089 CD player/transport, dCS Puccini digital-to-analog converter and Puccini U-Clock master clock.

Preamplifiers: David Berning ZOTL Pre One, Lyra Connoisseur 4.2L SE.

Power amplifiers: David Berning Quadrature Z mono amps, David Berning ZH-230 stereo amp, Vitus Audio SS-010 and VTL IT-85 integrated amps.

Speakers: Focal Diablo Utopia, Raidho Eben C2, Kiso HB-1.

Interconnects: Nordost Odin, Vitus Audio Andromeda.

Speaker cables: Nordost Odin, Vitus Audio Andromeda.

Power conditioners: Quantum QX2 and QX4.

Power cords: Nordost Odin.

Equipment rack, platforms, and support products: Stillpoints ESS five-tier rack, Stillpoints component stands and cones.