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Focal Shape 65 Monitors and Sub One Subwoofer: the Synth and Software Review



Yes, a $3000 monitoring system will bring true happiness to your life

“Which speakers should I buy” is powerful clickbait on Internet forums. It invariably attracts a lot of “the ones I bought are the best” responses.

Well, any musician who’s even considering higher-end monitors like the Focal Shape 65s already knows how silly that is, because nothing is more subjective than speakers (other than mics, which are also transducers). But there’s no arguing that competent speakers – among them the Shape 65s – will let you hear what’s going on so you can make good decisions.

Tests have also proven it much more satisfying to play synths through a really good monitoring system, because… shockingly, because good speakers sound better than bad ones.

Synths in particular are capable of producing extremely powerful low notes with a lot of kick-in-the-chest. And no small monitors (the Shape 65s are named for their 6.5″ woofers) can do that, so we’re including Focal’s Sub One subwoofer in this review. While it’s not intended to work exclusively with these monitors, with a little adjustment it integrates seamlessly and really helps.

Focal (pronounced “foe-cal”). Focal is a French company that’s also big in consumer audio. Our studio world is small by comparison, but this is no mom and pop operation. Because of that they’re able to incorporate some proprietary technology in their designs that might not be an option for a smaller company.

Bucking the trend, the Shape 65s don’t use user-programmable DSP processing or attempt to adjust themselves to your room. They do have built-in EQs you can use to compensate for placement, rooms, whether you’re using a subwoofer (like we were), and so on, but this is  Focal’s rather refined take on standard powered monitors.

Both the Shape 65s and the Sub One have a very high build quality, as you’d be inclined to expect from anything in this price range.

The graphic below from Focal’s website explains all the Shape 65’s important features, so we’ll focus on what it all means. Note that what it mis-labels as an adjustable crossover point is actually a mid EQ centered at 160Hz (a typical monitor of this type crosses over between the woofer and tweeter in the 2kHz range). Focal doesn’t list the Shape 65’s crossover frequency, but they cross over exceptionally smoothly.

One great feature worth singling out: the speakers go to sleep after they stop seeing a signal for a while, then wake up again when they do. That means you can leave the speakers on all the time without worrying about wasting electricity. And if you do switch them off, they won’t thump when the power comes back on.

Sides. Other than the walnut veneer and curved cabinet tops, the passive radiators on the Shape 65’s sides are probably their most obvious characteristic. Those are instead of conventional tuned ports, which speaker designers use to extend the bass response.

The idea is to let you place the speakers against a wall without the sound bouncing back in, as it would with rear-facing ports. Similarly, the Sub One’s dual 8″ drivers point sideways so that you can place the sub under your desk (or keyboard stand, etc.) without worrying about walls behind them.

Good idea, and it works. The only thing is that at least in my studio, the soundstage widened noticeably when I raised the Shapes so their inside radiators cleared the gear that lives between them.

Focal doesn’t provide a frequency response graph, just a ±3dB response spec of 45Hz to 35kHz. We happen to be human, not canine – and at that, humans who don’t use expensive sample rates (because they halve your computer’s audio power). So we’ll have to take Focal’s word that the Shapes go all the way up to 35kHz.

However, I can say that this is a very well balanced system with no obvious lumps or dips. Furthermore, the Shape 65s do have some useful response at 45Hz, which is low for small speakers.

And yet anyone who’s used to having a subwoofer and/or large monitors that extend and bring out that bottom range will still want the Sub One. It has an on-off switch (you can use a pedal), and wow do you miss it when it’s turned off – although being able to defeat it and hear what your music will sound like on sub-less systems is an important feature.

Sound. Right away it’s obvious that the Shape system is totally competent. There’s no question that these monitors wouldn’t be out of place on major professional projects.

The first test: Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” You know what I noticed for the first time? She lithpths thlightly on some of the sibilant syllables! One would have to suspect overly active de-essing as the culprit, but regardless: the Shapes showed that right away – and this is an old personal standby recording for evaluating speakers.

If one had to pick a single word to describe the sound of the Shape 65/Sub One setup, it would be “solid.” The bass drum backbeats in Killing Me Softly hit you with a satisfying amount of thud, and playing a synth bass patch does the same. And that’s an overall characteristic, not just the low end. These are punchy speakers.

Now, the other side of the solid sound is that this system is on the constrained side of a scale between open/airy and tight/constrained. If that reads as these being small- and boxy-sounding monitors (as some small powered monitors are), that’s absolutely not the case. But by comparison both the width and depth of the soundstage on my Blue Sky System One, used for comparison, is markedly larger. (The System One has long since been superseded by newer models, but it also consists of two 6.5″ sats plus a sub and was in a comparable price range.)

Similarly, low-level dynamics – including spaces and reverbs – are considerably more subdued on the Shape system. That’s apparent on entire mixes, but also individual instruments, which sound somewhat thicker and rounder on the Blue Sky system. 

However, that becomes a lot less apparent when you crank up the Shapes/Sub One. It’s not that the overall sound changes when they’re loud – another testament to their being very competent – it just becomes easier to hear details. This system likes to be cranked up.

The instructions say the Shape 65s want ten hours of break-in use before they sound like themselves. Our review speaker samples are factory demos that had already been broken in, but the sound does seem to have loosened up a little over the weeks we’ve been reviewing them. Were they fully broken in at first? Do they actually get better over time?

Placement. Focal suggests positioning the Shape 65s between 15cm and 2m (about 16″ and 6-1/2′) with you at the center of an equilateral triangle, although they recognize – absolutely correctly – that “every situation is different.” They also advise you to point the tweeters at your ears, and the speakers have height-adjustable rubber feet so you can tilt them.

If you have, say, a computer monitor and some rack gear in between them (as is the case around these parts), they may have to be positioned about five feet apart and angled in. Happily there’s absolutely no hole in the middle with them at that width.

Furthermore, it’s my pleasure to report that these are not speakers with a pinpoint sweet spot; you’re not tethered to a single position before the image shifts. The Shape 65s also maintain the same sound when you move back a few feet from them.

All of this says their higher-frequency dispersion is notably consistent across its field, presumably because of the design of their M-shaped inverted cone tweeters.

Sub One. One of the dark secrets in audio is that beyond a basic standard, it’s very hard to hear the difference between subwoofers. Anything below about 80Hz is just rumble, so as long as a sub isn’t distorted (the Sub One isn’t) the distinctions mainly come down to how loud they’ll play, their features, and how well they integrate with the speakers in the system.

Somewhat curiously there are no level controls on the Shape 65s, but there is one on the Sub One to balance it to the “satellite” speakers. My taste: all the way up! At that level it’s balanced well with the Shapes, and you don’t hear the sub as a separate speaker. That’s not to be taken for granted.

The Sub One contains variable crossovers to the speakers (you send the left and right outputs of your audio interface to it, then connect its high-pass filtered outputs to the speakers). Focal doesn’t make any suggestions, but I found the 90Hz setting to work well.

This sub, with its dual 100W RMS Class D amplifiers, doesn’t get hot. That’s the advantage to Class D amps: power efficiency. The lower-powered Class AB amps in the Shape 65s don’t get hot to the touch, but you’d hope they wouldn’t. Designers choose those circuits because (when done well) they’re both clean and relatively efficient.

Top and bottom lines. The Focal Shape 65 is sold as a reference model, which means it’s designed for studio use rather than to make music sound good. That’s what you want for a project studio. And its ability to get loud without getting nasty, combined with its punchy sound, make it a great choice for a project studio with a lot of synths.

It’s obvious that everything about the Shape 65/Sub One system is meticulously designed, and its characteristics – being tightly controlled/solid/even – are not arbitrary. I keep coming back to the same word: competent.

Prices: $999 each speaker (Shape 65 and Sub One, so just under $3000 as reviewed)

Click here for more info about the Shape 65s

and here for more info about the Sub One

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