Leave it to the French to kick the sound of desktop/computer speakers up a notch
Focal isn't just a high-end speaker company, they also design studio monitors, the Audiophiliac checks out their affordable Alpha 50 pro speakers.
Around 10 years ago, I bought a pair of Focal Mini Utopias to use as my primary reference speakers. The Minis were very large "bookshelf" speakers -- and they were pretty terrific -- but I didn't realize at the time Focal also offered a range of professional studio monitors. When I finally heard them at trade shows and studios, the sound was close to my Minis, but I never auditioned their pro speakers at home until now. The Alpha 50 is the entry-level model from a new line of affordably-priced Focal Alpha speakers. The speaker stands close to 12 inches high; it's a bit bigger than my everyday desktop monitors, the Adam Audio F5s, but the Alpha 50s are not so large to be out of place on an audiophile's desktop.
Size, after all, has its advantages, namely in bass oomph, and large speakers don't squash dynamic range as much as smaller monitors do. This model lists at $349 per speaker ($300 each street price), and it's a lot of speaker for the money. I think it's a handsome design, in a no-nonsense kind of way. The curved side plastic panels add a little design flair, and the overall build quality inspires confidence.
The Alpha 50 has an all-new, 1-inch, "inverted" aluminum dome tweeter (it curves in instead of out); and a new 5-inch polyglass woofer. The tweeter is mated to a 20-watt Class AB amplifier, and the woofer to a 35-watt AB amp. The drivers and built-in amplifiers are designed by Focal in France, and the speakers are manufactured in China. The medium-density fiberboard cabinet weighs 16.1 pounds; the speaker has balanced XLR and standard RCA inputs.
There are bass and treble controls on the rear panel. I liked what I heard with the controls set to their "0" positions, and overall balance, from deep bass to high treble, was smooth as can be. I placed them on my desktop, about 30 inches from my ears, but I also listened from further back, to as far as six feet, and loved the sound. The Alpha 50 doesn't have a volume control -- you'll have to adjust volume from your computer (or digital converter if it has a volume control). I did find the backlit "Focal" logo on the front of the speaker a little too bright; if I owned them, I'd be tempted to cover it with tape to reduce the glare.
The Alpha 50 tells the truth about the sound of your recordings, so the good ones sound really good; the best stuff is astonishing. Close up, desktop listening minimizes typical room acoustic issues/problems, so you hear a lot more direct, from-the-speaker sound, and with something as tasty as the Alpha 50, that level of quality may come was a big shock. This speaker's low-end bass plumbs deeper than that of my Adam Audio F5s. Listening to A Tribe Called Quest's "The Low-End Theory" was really satisfying, the finely-honed shadings of the weighty bass lines put a big smile on my face.
Midrange and treble clarity was just as impressive as the bass, so I found Chris Thile's solo mandolin performance on his "Bach: Sonatas and Partitas" album goosebump-raising stuff. Nothing sounded forced, and vocals were very natural. John Williams' orchestral score for "Schindler's List" was simply gorgeous. CDs took on an almost high-resolution believability, which I attribute to the Alpha 50s' low distortion.
The sound is right up there, but was not as clear the tiny Genelec G One speakers and F-One sub I recently reviewed -- but that combo runs $1,585! My everyday desktop references, the Adam Audio F5s, were bested on every count by the Alpha 50s.
Focal also sent along the next model up in the line, the Alpha 65 ($399 each), which is larger, so it produces even more bass and plays louder. It's too large for my desktop, but it's got the right stuff for use as TV speakers. It would be a terrific alternative to a sound bar, but only if your TV or cable box has variable audio outputs, so you can control the Alpha speakers' volume. The biggest Alpha, the Alpha 80, runs $549 each.
Correction, 11:29 a.m. PT: The original version of this article misstated the price of the Alpha 50 speakers. They cost $349 per speaker.