Focus Recording Studio
Below is what Professor in Mathematics at UCLA, Robert E. Greene wrote in the absolute sound magazine after his visit to Focus Recording Studio in 2002:
From The Absolute Sound, Issue 124
Robert E. Greene
Exploring the Boundaries of the Possible
The AmpSpeaker Monitoring System of Ole Lund Christensen and Paul Ladegaard System total: As auditioned, $250,000, including room construction; domestic version, including acoustic modification of suitable smaller room, $100,000.
After years in audio, one can get the feeling that few real revelations ate right around the comer. No matter what journalistic rhetoric might suggest, revolutionary developments are far between. But every once in a while, one encounters things that extend one’s sense of what is accomplish-able.
Such occasions are a great renewal, a relief from the more-of-the-same feeling that otherwise tends to overwhelm us.
A few months ago, I had such an encounter: the opportunity to listen to the monitoring system of Focus Records in Copenhagen, Denmark, a system (and room) designed from the ground up by Danish acoustician’s Ole Lund Christensen and Paul Ladegaard (pronounced, more or less, “lathe-gore,” with “lathe” as in “lather” but without the “r”). This system combined the power of “professional” sound with the low distortion and low coloration of the finest of High End systems. And it offered an insight into the recorded acoustics and an absence of listening-room signature that are unique in my experience. I had a listening time of only a couple of hours I was just about to head back to the USA. But those hours redefined what I think of as possible is audio.
Is this the world’s best audio system? That is not a question I can answer, of course. But it certainly sets a new high water mark for me in a number of directions that are vitally important musically.
It is a custom-pro system, and you would have to be in an unusual position to purchase it for home use (we are talking here of the acoustical design and construction of a complete, rather large room from the ground up, to begin with, not to mention the equipment inside the room). But the ideas involved can be scaled down, and indeed Christensen and Ladegaard have designed similar rooms that are of domestic size, although not exactly of ordinary domestic appearance! Further information about their ideas and products can be found on the website www.actem.de. (The Gamut amplifiers used will be reviewed soon by HP) To my mind, these ideas are a compelling vision of how audio could make fundamental progress.
When you walk in, before a note of music sounds, you already know that something unusual is happening acoustically. On your left is one-half of the room that looks and sounds quite normal. But on your right, in the part of the room where the speakers are, there is a kind of acoustic “hole.” If you are sensitive to room acoustics, then, with your eyes shut, you might feel that the room was open to the outdoors on that side. This is live end/dead end with a vengeance. The speaker end of the room is specially shaped, with the corners cut off by diagonal walls so that the whole end forms a shallow polygonal U. The bass parts of the speakers, two 15-inch drivers per channel, sealed-box enclosure, are mounted is the wall at floor level so that two-wall loading is built in, and the bass response is carefully calculated to be flat at the listening position (and potentially loud, too). The mid and high frequencies are generated in each channel by a pair of paper drivers from JBL flanking vertically a modified version of a ribbon tweeter from Holland, originally developed for sound reinforcement, with very high power handling. The cabinets are made of constrained-layer damped material, involving alternate layers of wood composition and lead. The walls and ceiling of the speaker end of the room are covered completely with panels of inch-thick rock-wool in fabric (it does not look bad, if a bit blank). The angled, damped walls ensure that essentially no early reflections of higher frequencies reach the listener.
The system has a high sensitivity – the mid drivers are by nature 96-dB/watt/meter and the overall system sensitivity is 99dB/2.83v/1m. And it is driven mufti-amped by 2,500 watts of power. It is capable of destructive levels – Christensen says it can produce the same total acoustic power as a full symphony orchestra! But that is not really the point. Rather, this dynamic capability translates into surely unprecedented dynamic ease: The system does not change character as it gets loud. It continues to sound utterly clean and distortionless. And it is extraordinarily neutral. Christensen says that it is so flat, one can detect its response errors only by using the best of the calibrated B & K microphones. The system errors are below the microphone error level for any lesser mike. And it sounds that way. If you want to know what your recordings really sound like, here would be your chance to find out. (I was reassured to find that the Philadelphia Orchestra/Water Lily recording I worked on sounded really good: Talk about nervous time!)
The truly astounding part of the system, to my mind, though, was the revelation of recorded acoustics. Most of us cry for that in our systems, but in domestic audio, the signature of the listening room is hard to eliminate. We can suppress it with improvised room treatment and with careful speaker placement, and we can attack it with quite good success via DSP electronic correction. But it always seems to be lurking around, a perhaps small but not entirely still voice telling us that we are not really in Carnegie Hall or the Philadelphia Academy of Music or the Concertgebouw but are still partly in our own room. The Focus system has a far lower level of such residual signature than any other stereo system I have heard. As soon as I got home, I started working on my own listening room, although I am well aware that nothing informally conceived can begin to match the unified and expert designs of Christensen and Ladegaard. But I had been shown the sonic glory of the goals to which we aspire and the path we can try to take to reach them.
Is reality replicated? No, of course not. Stereo is in front, reality is all around, and so stereo recording is thus flawed, by nature. But this system gets quite close to suspension of disbelief. One can really listen to it in the spirit of a live orchestral concert. And lest you think it can do only large music, let me assure you that it did a marvellous job on solo piano, not embarrassed by the just previous performance by your author on a concert grand in an adjacent room. (OK, so I am a violinist and they justifiably laugh when I sit down at the piano, but I am talking about sound here!) One of the most interesting features of this system is that it was not just the equipment that did the magic. A pair of Yamaha NS-10 speakers (this is a recording studio, you know) sounded amazingly good in the room – not to be compared to the real system, of course, but still stunningly good compared to their sound in ordinary rooms. Moreover, the system itself, while it used amplifiers of unusual and apparently superb design, also ran the signal through a mixing board. The signal itself was impeccable (Bow Technologies CD player eponymous designer Bo Christensen was there, as it happened) and of course the mixing board was set to neutral positions, but still there was a lot of stuff and wire between. When Ole Christensen pointed this out to me, I replied: “Acoustics is everything.” (This elicited a big grin.) And if acoustics is not absolutely everything, then certainly my few hours at Focus suggested that designing a room of uncompromised acoustical behaviour and a speaker system that is integral to it is the key to the ultimate achievement in audio. As Ladegaard and Christensen both said to me on separate occasions, an audio system is a pair of small boxes inside a large box. You have to design them together. After I heard their system, I could only agree. If you happen to be visiting Copenhagen ….
Ole Lund Christensen