Based near the foothills of the French Alps in Saint Etinenne, Focal & Co is a respected audio company that makes both complete loudspeakers and, less common for modern speaker brands, the individual drive units inside too.
Read: more speaker reviews.
The company started out in 1980 designing domestic hi-fi loudspeakers, before expanding into professional audio systems, car audio and large-scale drive unit production.
Hi-fi enthusiasts may know the brand better by the name JMlab, although the company now seems to consolidate all its products under the Focal name. More recently, a low-key merger with British audio company Naim Audio took place last year, although at present there is little sign of much collaboration or integration between each brand’s distinctive product lines.
The Focal XS Book is a self-powered stereo speaker system, designed to sit on the desktop. It comprises two modernly styled cabinets standing around 11in tall, rectangular boxes that swell and flare out toward the front to accomodate the main mid-bass drive on the front baffle.
Styling takes a deep bow to Cupertino, the speakers are sold through the Apple Store and look meant to complement Apple’s aluminium-based iMac and MacBook Pro computers.
Sadly, and like too many products trying to cosy up with Apple’s products and their premium materials and construction quality, the Focal XS Book is a faux-metal construct. The realistically aluminium-coloured curved bodywork is disappointingly plastic, sprayed with silver paint to camouflage the lower-cost material.
Focal XS Book: Features
A front grille covered with stretched black fabric can be removed to reveal the two-way speaker system behind.
This comprises a 100mm-diameter Focal main driver with polyglass membrane, and 20mm tweeter with aluminium dome. Below both is a large mouth-like aperture that forms the vent of the bass-reflex tuning, to augment efficiency and bass extension.
On the back of the right-hand speaker, which serves as the master unit of the two, there’s an inlet for figure-8 mains cable, a pair of RCA phono sockets to connect to a line-level source, 3.5mm input jack, and another RCA socket which provides high-level output to the left-hand speaker.
Power and volume are controlled with an integrated button/dial on the top of this same speaker. You press down to toggle On or Standby modes, and rotate the dial to adjust volume.
But in order to make a volume change you still need to press down slightly in order to get purchase on the stiff, ratcheted flat dial. We found this action was as likely to switch the speakers off. As a combined master volume and power control system, it’s a poor piece of design that caused needless frustration when using these speakers.
The XS Book speakers are powered by a stereo amplifier, specified with as 2 x 20W output, housed in the right speaker. It’s a Class D amp design with switch-mode power supply, a combination that’s not untypical for modern mass-market audio products.
While running cool and with low power consumption, this type of amp design is not noted for high sound quality, particularly at high frequencies where distortion can be distractingly high.
In their favour, Class D amplifiers can provide high levels of power and give excellent control of bass speakers, making them especially popular in subwoofer systems.
Focal XS Book: Sound Quality
We tested the Focal XS Book speakers in extended listening tests connected to a high-end CD source as well as wired directly to our reference laptop, using the supplied 3.5mm jack-jack cable from the laptop’s headphone socket.
Intriguingly the left speaker did not sound so strong as the right. Bass seemed a tad weaker and less weighty, while there was less ‘body’ to the sound from this cabinet.
Background noise level was rather high, too high for our taste when used in near-field monitoring in a quiet room, with a steady white-noise hiss heard from the tweeters at all volume settings.
Sound balance was reasonably uniform from different seating positions near the speakers. Perhaps the deep chamfer that surrounds the tweeter dome and mid-bass driver helped minimise sound from being beamed so much, although the speakers would sound a little ‘darker’ when listening from above axis – a potentially useful feature.
There was a good levelness to their tone, sounding neutrally balanced from the low midband all the way to high treble. Below around 200Hz, they had some artificial lift to give more punch in rock and pop material. This did not entirely detune bass lines although a loss of evenness around some bass guitar parts was heard, especially with the volume wound up. This could make certain bass lines a little lumpy and over-ripe, even if the speaker designer’s intention was to add some useful weight here.
The very lowest frequencies appeared to be filtered from reproduction, probably a wise choice given the small size of bass diaphragms and their limited excursion.
The midband was reasonably level, but with a neutral tuning that was experienced as a marginally recessed presence band. Whether a real acoustic response or reaction to the Class D amplification, the XS Book could come across as somewhat cold and dispassionate.
Hi-hat and metallic percussion were heard as jangly and ‘digital’ at times. Electric guitar-based rock and pop music sounded a little abrasive when played at normal to high volumes. Acoustic steel-string guitar was promoted slightly forward in the mix.
At low volumes there was a real limit in the overall articulation of the music. Treble was unduly prominent, bass sounded about right, but the midband was somewhat grey and enervated. It was hinting here at a trace of the paper-like crispness that was a signature of the speaker generally.
Raising the volume would bring more life out of the speakers, up to a point – granted, they were capable of a decent room-filling level but the sound would then become obviously congested.
Some hardening of the sound was more evident in the vocal midrange, for example, when played louder, robbing a singer’s voice of clarity and even intelligibility in denser productions.
At most times, there was a sense of a separate tweeter at work above the mid/bass driver, rather than an integrated sound with midband flowing into natural high frequencies.
The range of volume available from the Focal XS Book was impressive. We're not aware of any digital signal processing inside, and indeed they did not appear to be any artificial limiting or compression in operation, so they were left unhindered to try recreating the full dynamic range of the orginal source material.
Thanks to the large reserves of power and what sounded like excellent damping from the drivers and some suitably inert cabinets, the XS Book speakers had superb start-stop characteristics. This really suited punchy rhythmic music such as modern club and pop music.
Thanks to that comfortable grasp of dynamics, the Focal XS Book had respectable control over the underlying framework of the music – leading to an appreciation of well-timed and engaging rhythm sections in rock and jazz music, for example. Only occasionally would the speakers get a little dragged back by the noted bass tuning that left a few notes overly plummy and thereby tardy.
For part of our listening, we set the Focal XS Book speakers up as intended, as desktop monitors about 0.9m apart, with a laptop as music-source sat squarely between the two. Listening position was around 0.9-1.1m from the plane of the speakers’ front baffle.
In width terms, the stereo soundstage could stretch neatly between speakers – but no further. And even with the speakers given plenty of space behind and to their sides, stereo depth was conspicuously constrained. In short, the XS Book gave a rather two-dimensional cinematic letterbox of even material known to have strong width and depth perspectives.
There’s a slightly clinical quality about the XS Book sound: tight, crisp and reasonably focused; but often too dispassionate to involve you with the music. High volumes were possible, and in fact even encouraged in order to create more interest in the music. At which point the speakers could impress more with their excellent low-end power and control.