Focal turns the air Blue(tooth)

Focal XS Book Wireless Desktop speakers £300

Focal’s commitment to audio outside dedicated hi-fi has grown in recent years, and the Focal XS Book Wireless desktop speakers are the latest addition to its more consumer-focused product range.

Ultimately, we’re looking at a pair of the original XS Book speakers launched in late 2011, except this time they come bearing aptX Bluetooth for wireless playback.

The design is therefore almost identical to its predecessors’. The same tapered look remains, as do the 19mm aluminium dome tweeters and 10cm polyglass mid/bass drivers. There’s still a 20W-per-channel amp in the right-hand master speaker.

Bags of scale, clarity and depth

A rubber power button, which doubles as the volume control, sits on top of the right-hand speaker. Around the back are is a 3.5mm and RCA inputs for connecting other devices such as CD players, smartphones and laptops.

As you might expect, the Focals retain a similar sonic character to their forebears when using a wired connection. There’s a great sense of scale here, and a good stereo spread that does a grand job of filling our reasonably sized testing room with big, detailed and accurately placed sound.

Play Paloma Faith’s Blood Sweat & Tears and there’s a really listenable quality to the Focals that immediately draws you in. Paloma’s powerful voice is placed front and centre, with great clarity and depth, and there’s a clear, controlled treble that never sounds harsh or forced.

We’d like a bit more get-up-and-go

That said, bass junkies will certainly feel something missing in the balance. There’s bass there, but it’s subtle. And without that weight in the low-end, tracks can feel a little less substantial than when played through the similarly priced Ruark MR1s (which won our desktop speakers Group Test last month). They lack a little solidity.

The Ruarks challenge the Focals in the rhythm department, too. They feel lively, throwing themselves behind a piece of music with excitement and enthusiasm — but the Focals feel just a touch sluggish in comparison, and don’t time quite as well.

AptX is a higher-quality version of the regular Bluetooth standard. Stream music from a MacBook using that connection and, despite its claims of near-CD-quality playback, there is a drop in quality from the wired connection — something we’ve come to accept in exchange for the convenience of wireless playback.

Their character remains largely the same and the soundstage respectably sizeable. However, the wireless connection introduces a slight edge to the treble, which could be smoother at higher volumes. It sounds a little more reined-in too, but there’s still performance to be had here that you wouldn’t traditionally expect from a pair of desktop speakers.

Make sure you have space

Their size is still a consideration. These Focals will tower over most other dedicated desktop speakers, and just about hit our limit as to what size that we’d be happy to have sitting in front of us at work.

Their tapered shape raises a few questions as well. Sitting on a rather thin base and being the height they are leaves them feeling a bit unstable. These definitely want a solid desk or shelf as their home.

That said, since the original XS Books arrived we’ve seen some great steps forward in desktop audio. Those were a five-star product, so simply adding wireless connectivity to a 2011 product seems like a missed opportunity for innovation.

These are still excellent speakers, and Bluetooth widens their appeal, but there’s real competition for them at this price now. And that’s why they lose that fifth star.

Rating ★★★★☆

FOR: Great scale; good stereo; detailed presentation; aptX Bluetooth is a nice touch

AGAINST: A little restrained, bass could be better; slight edge to treble in Bluetooth mode

VERDICT: Thoroughly listenable speakers with stacks of detail and Bluetooth convenience

There’s a slight — and inevitable — drop in quality with Bluetooth, but these still produce a sound that you wouldn’t traditionally expect from desktop speakers. Especially wireless ones…

USE THEM WITH

HTC One

To hear the benefits of aptX Bluetooth, you’ll need an aptX source. The ace HTC One will do nicely.

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