Bookshelf Speakers

Dynaudio Focus 110A Actively-Powered Bookshelf Speakers

ARTICLE INDEX

Introduction

Few things other than human relationships are as important to a writer and music/audiophile critic as the sound of their system. As someone who spends the bulk of his time in front of the computer, the necessity for a great-sounding desktop sound system that can transform bits on a solid-state or hard drive into living, breathing music is essential.

Specifications

  • Design: Two-way Active (Amplified); Ported Enclosure
  • Drivers: One 1.1" Fabric Dome Tweeter, One 5.7" System Magnesium Alloy Mid/Woofer
  • MFR: 45 Hz - 21 kHz, ± 3 dB
  • Amplifiers: Tweeter - 50 Watts; Mid/Woofer - 50 Watts
  • Crossover Frequency: 1.3 kHz
  • Dimensions: 12" H x 6.8" W x 12.7" D
  • Weight: 18.7 Pounds/each
  • MSRP: $2,450/pair USA
  • Dynaudio

For many of us, an essential aspect of a computer-based desktop system is compactness. Some people may have room for a separate amplifier, preamplifier, DAC, and pair of bookshelf (or bigger) speakers in their office; I, for one, do not. Thus, when Michael Manousselis of Dynaudio USA offered me a pair of the Focus 110A "active-powered" (built-in amplifiers) speakers, I was more than happy to accept.

I have now lived with these self-powered 18.7 pounders for over a year. They have the scars to prove it. So far, they've been transported by car 18 times to the classes I teach on vocal music at the Osher Lifelong Learning programs at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State. Lugged up and down the stairs, transported in my trunk, and carted across crowded streets and into elevators, they've not only weathered the storms, but also performed admirably throughout their tenure. I confess that the cabinets are no longer unblemished, and one of the tweeter domes has a nasty dent, but they perform as new.

I don't know how I could have taught my classes, listened to the 320 kbps mp3s upon which I base my twice-monthly classical (and occasional jazz) blogs for Telarc, or conducted preliminary auditions of CDs that arrive for review without the Dynaudio Focus 110A. Partnered with my Macbook Pro in the classroom and my iMac at home, the Benchmark DAC1 USB, Nordost Thor, a Kimber Silver USB cable, and an assortment of Nordost Valhalla and Odin power cables and interconnects, these speakers have become essential to my livelihood.

Need I add that they have become equally essential to my pleasure and enjoyment?


Design

Each Dynaudio Focus 110A integrates two 50W stereo power amplifiers with a relatively compact two-way loudspeaker. The mating is synergistic, with Dynaudio's soft dome tweeter and proprietary magnesium silicate polymer (MSP) mid/bass driver tailored to match the amplifiers' specs, and vice-versa. The net result is the equivalent of a 100W, dual-amped loudspeaker.

The tweeter has a 4 mm aluminum front, Esotec 28 mm/1.1" soft dome with a rear chamber, pure aluminum wire voice coil, and magnetic fluid. The dual woofer/mid-range has a 145 mm/5.7", one-piece molded MSP cone, and 75 mm/3" pure aluminum voice coil. Speakers are available in Cherry, Rosewood, Maple, Black Ash, Gloss White or Gloss Black finish. I followed the black goes with everything rule, including the print on the page.

Each speaker includes an on/off switch and blue power LED, an IEC AC power input that accepts after-market power cords, analog RCA input, high pass filter, input level sensitivity switch, three frequency equalization switches (low, midrange, and high), fuse, and heat sink. Though the speaker is not a Class D design, it runs cool, and poses no danger should you touch it during use.

Several important features of these speakers distinguish them from other self-powered desktop speakers such as the AudioEngine 5 (see Adrian Wittenberg's review). Because each speaker has its own pair of amplifiers, there is no need for speaker cable. And because each speaker's power cable is detachable, it is possible to bring out more of its ultimate potential by using after-market power cablea. Combined with the rear equalization and level sensitivity switches, and easily accessible fuse drawer, it's fairly easy to tweak the sound to your liking.

The high pass switch has three positions: flat, 60 Hz cut off, and 80 Hz cut off. If you don't pair the Focus 110A with a subwoofer – I do not – you will probably want to set the filter to "flat," so that the speaker naturally extends down to 55 Hz without impediment. Because the bass is real – these are Dynaudios, after all - I recommend decoupling the speakers from your desktop. I use Ganymede ball bearing supports, which work quite well. The difference in bass clarity with and without decoupling is immense.

The input sensitivity switch is a great addition. If your source has a low output level, you can boost the speaker's sensitivity by 4 dB. If, on the other hand, the source output level is high, you can decrease sensitivity by 10 dB. (In the case of the Benchmark DAC1 USB, I leave the switch in the flat position).

I prefer to leave the frequency response settings in the neutral position. Depending upon speaker placement, isolation from vibration, and the quality of your source components, this extra ability to tailor the sound is a great boon.


Setup

In the best of all possible worlds, every desktop would have ample room for all the sound equipment you need. In the interest of soundstage realism and transparency, it would also magically make the computer monitor that sits between the speakers totally disappear, so that the soundstage was not compromised in any way. Finally, it would allow your chair sufficient room to wheel far enough back from the system to enable you to fully experience three-dimensional imaging.

Dream on. At Casa Bellecci-Serinus, no matter how many times I wave my mouse, my 20" iMac refuses to disappear from between the speakers. And as much as I'd love to wheel way back from my desk and enjoy, there's this little issue of a file cabinet that gets in the way and prevents me from doing so.

And that's not all. Our 1926 carriage house may be a little gem in the middle of the ghetto, but its only grounded outlet is on the dedicated line to my downstairs reference system. Three-pronged outlets abound, but the third prong leads nowhere. (When the house was built, three-pronged receptacles cost less than two-pronged, and were thus the outlet of choice). It would be nice to have a grounded, audiophile grade outlet in the wall to complement the audiophile grade outlets in the Nordost Thor power distribution system, but that would require rewiring the entire house. At a time when one of out every 10 Americans faces the risk of foreclosure, and lots more have succumbed, such upgrades merit "standby until you win the lottery" status.

Nonetheless, I am blessed with enough Nordost cables to be able to use a pair of Odin interconnects between the Focus 110As, and Odin power cables on the Benchmark DAC1 USB and Thor power conditioner. The speakers themselves are powered with Nordost Valhalla.

Yes, I am well aware that the Nordost cables cost far, far more than the Focus 110As. Some readers may even go apoplectic at the thought. Relax. Take your medication. If you're into Blue Jeans or the Shack or Home Depot, and are tempted to raise the Don't Tread on Me flag, don't let me stop you. Readers who want to experiment with costlier cabling that justifies its price in terms of sonic improvements, however, will find that excellent cabling unleashes more of the Focus 110A's ultimate potential.

Shortly after I received the speakers, I replaced their stock fuses with fuses from HiFi-Tuning. The principle is simple. All the current going to the amplifiers passes through the little wire in the fuse. Fuses made with superior wire and terminations will have less impact on the sound. The theory is so simple that I can't believe people see red at the thought. Besides, you can hear the difference. I have also used fuses from Isotek. Since HiFi-Tuning came out with its Silver Star line, I have not performed a back-to-back comparison of the two.

I have also experimented with aftermarket USB cables between my computer and the Benchmark DAC1 USB. Though it's possible, by the time this review is published, that Nordost will have issued its long-awaited USB cable, I've so far experimented with cables from Cardas, Wireworld, and Kimber. The Cardas is very smooth, and excels at midrange warmth. The silver Kimber may be less plush, but it is more alive and brilliant on top. Ultimate preference depends as much on your system as your taste. While I currently gravitate toward the Kimber. I expect that the Nordost will prove the most synergistic match with my Nordost-rich set-up.


In Use

While the Focus 110A has many uses, including as a self-powered speaker for TV, blu-ray, and iPod/iPhone music listening, I use it exclusively with my computers. As you have undoubtedly gathered from what has come before, I love these little babies. They're so simple to operate. Reach around the back, flip the power switch, and away you go. As much as I love the musicality of my VTL tubed Signature II 450W monoblocks in my downstairs reference system, there is a lot to be said for the ease and immediacy of solid-state amplification.

I have nothing but praise for the unforced detail of the Focus 110A. Recently, when I was using my downstairs system to review soprano Sandra Radvanovsky's Verdi recital on Delos, I was dismayed to discover that she lacked a trill. I was all set to put that into print when I carted the CD upstairs so that my spouse could hear a track on the computer before we went to bed. Lo and behold, the trill I thought was absent was clearly evident. The experience gave me pause. Not only did I immediately change my review copy, but I also promised myself that I would be getting new speakers for my downstairs reference system.

As mentioned earlier, I have now carted these speakers to my classes 18 times. At each class, I've watched my students sit enthralled, captivated by the clarity of the sound. And I'm not just talking about voices. Although they can't possibly convey the weight and depth of timpani and bass drum, let alone the lowest notes on the organ, these speakers do a beautiful job with orchestral music My desktop set-up puts every boom box I've ever heard to shame, including the Bose Wave system.

The Focus 110A is also a boon when it comes to auditioning mp3s. Many of the older Telarc recordings I blog for the Concord Music Group are sent to me in 320 kbps mp3 form. While they're infinitely superior to 128 kbps mp3s, they still come up short in the midrange and bass department, and are sometimes too tinny for my taste The warmth that the Focus 110A can produce makes the best case possible for mp3.

Because most purchasers will use the Focus 110A as part of a desktop system, a word on music servers is appropriate. As a Mac user, I find both Pure Music / Pure Vinyl from Channel D and Amarra from Sonic Solutions far superior to iTunes. While some reviewers have found Pure Music's "Memory Play" feature superior, Amarra is set to upgrade its version 2.0 to a version that also enables RAM playback. I haven't yet tried the Beta version, but a person I trust is raving about its sound with his Magico Q5s. Just as with cabling, which you will choose depends upon the components in your chain.

What is unquestionable, however, is that CDs ripped to your computer and played back through either Pure Music or Amarra sound infinitely better than CDs inserted into the computer's hard or solid-state drive. And when it comes to hi-res files, both servers sound considerably better than iTunes. Note as well that I use either MAX or RIP for ripping CDs rather than iTunes, again because of their greater accuracy.

Playing the Focus 110A at the higher volumes necessary to fill a large classroom, I have noticed a slight tendency to grow hard on sopranos and tenor top notes. Because I do not experience this phenomenon at lower volumes, I am not convinced that the speaker is at fault. Regardless, the sound thrills my students.

Last night, I was listening to the Turtle Island String Quartet's brand new Have You Ever Been…?. The CD combines the quartet's unique hit on the music of Jimi Hendrix with a cross genre twist on an old story, Balakrishnan's Tree of Life. The music flowed effortlessly, enticing me with its warmth. The sound is very, very different than Hendrix's electric guitar, and quite beguiling. I could hear every twist and turn clearly. The Focus 110As had me enraptured.


Conclusions

The Focus 110A is a true audiophile grade active loudspeaker system. Its ease of operation, flexible set-up options, and surprisingly solid, full range sound display the Dynaudio pedigree. Many cuts above your typical self-powered computer speaker, they are designed for the long haul. If musicality is a priority, the Dynaudio Focus 110A is a must-audition.