Two of our reviewers were invited recently to an old-style journalistic luncheon, where the president of a European hi-fi company loudly bemoaned the current trend towards ‘dock’ systems and wireless speakers. “People today they are listening in mono!”, he cried. “We must bring people back to stereo!”
What did he mean? Well his point was that not that such speaker systems actually are mono, with a single tweeter defining the higher frequencies. Most are stereo, in as much as they reproduce and separate two distinct channels. But being bound in a single box, there is minimal distance between the two tweeters — no spread, no real soundstage; unless your head is against the grille, all the sound comes from one place, more or less, and there is little sense of space. This is what our European friend was decrying.
So here is Focal, with exactly the concept of any one-box wireless speaker, but in proper stereo, with two speakers. And why not? It requires only one additional wire to link the two boxes — here the left speaker is passive, while the right carries all the electronics and power. You can build the system up, using the two analogue inputs for any sources you wish to add, but you could leave them at their minimalist minimum and use only the Bluetooth streaming that distinguishes the XS Book Wireless from the plain XS Book. Then all you need do is plug in the power, link the two speakers and that’s your set-up done.
Reinforcing the argument for choosing real stereo, Focal has here delivered two speakers that together have less aesthetic impact on your home than most one-box solutions, some of which are chunky beasts with fairly large footprints, while the XS Book is a slimline design with its top-plate and base a rectangle of just 200 x 65mm. Though aptly named as ‘Book’, their sides flare outward halfway up to accommodate a four-inch Polyglass midbass driver, above which sits a 19mm aluminium tweeter. They port at the front.
The inputs are all at the rear — one minijack, one on RCA phono sockets, and a third RCA phono socket for the cable connecting to the passive speaker (this is usefully provided as a short cable plus an extension cable).
We began our listening with the XS Books up on our usual stands, and they looked pretty silly up there, being so slim, and also somewhat unstable, the base being so small and tilted slightly upward by a rubber bar at the front, until we stuck ‘em down with Blu-Tack. (They fall over if tilted more than 20o from vertical.) Later we shifted them onto a sturdy bookcase a little below eye-level (and so, more importantly, ear-level) where they sat about two metres apart, all but invisible among the book spines on either side. Such a location might be a little inconvenient if you’re adding other source components, but as a Bluetooth audio solution, it is high stealth and, as we shall hear, impressively high performance.
The promise of performance shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone familiar with Focal, a French company that makes some of the world’s best speakers for the home (Grande Utopia EM, $199,990) and the car (Utopia BE, $5000 starting price). But the Bluetooth might be considered more of a surprise. In the past, Focal has approached the potential problems of wireless streaming and the potential quality issues of Bluetooth by giving purchasers a small hardware dongle to put on their iPhone or iPad; this then streamed using an entirely different technology (such as Kleer, which is full CD quality). Here Focal leaves it to the user’s device to determine what quality of music you will be able to stream. If you have an Android phone which supports aptX, so does the Focal receiver, so your phone will stream music at “near-CD quality” — aptX has a 4-to-1 compression ratio, about half of which is lossless efficient codec and the other half more destructive compression, but it’s certainly the best that Bluetooth can currently offer. Apple hasn’t broadly adopted aptX yet, however, so iPhones and iPads will stream at a lesser 256k. Android devices without aptX will almost certainly drop down to the 128k quality of the default SBC Bluetooth codec.
Well Apple’s 256k streaming, at least, sounds pretty fine through the Focals. The Books paired quickly with our 5G iPod touch and delivered a powerful and dynamic sound, a particularly incisive treble yielding tight and forward drum tracks and a slight edge to vocals, though there’s solid enough (and tight) bass in support. Switching to the analogue inputs at the rear smoothed away just a hint of boxiness. We also used the minijack input at the rear to amplify our television, with excellent results in terms of both impact and intelligibility, and certainly a clarity that will challenge most soundbars, and without requiring a long unit to be sat in front of your TV. (The only only caveat here is to check your TV is not one of the new breed which has only optical audio output.) Note there’s no switching between inputs — all three are mixed together if you use them at the same time.
The addition of Bluetooth to Focal’s original XS Book makes music streaming wonderfully convenient, these attractive and capable little speakers delivering a thoroughly modern stereo solution at a price which genuinely surprised us!
Focal XS Book Wireless loudspeakers
+ Real speakers with Bluetooth, Hi-fi sound quality, Very tidy solution, and great value
- Bluetooth quality will vary depending on your device, Slight edge to the sound
Design: 2-way bass-reflex active loudspeaker
Drivers: 1 x 10cm midbass; 1 x 19mm aluminium tweeter
Inputs: minijack analogue, RCA phono analogue, Bluetooth (including aptX)
Internal power: 2 x 20W RMS (no specs)
Quoted frequency response: 60Hz-22kHz (±3dB)
Dimensions (hwd): 281 x 114 x 200mm