Focal Vestia No2 loudspeakers
It is the magical moments that make the life of an audio reviewer so special, such as my encounter with the Vestia No2 floor-standing loudspeaker from French manufacturer Focal. My heart initially sank when I spied a pre-production version of the Vestia No2 three-way at the Bristol Hi-Fi Show. In the past Focal and I have never seen eye-to-eye on what constitutes an ideal loudspeaker balance, their approach tends to differ from my favoured BBC-style monitor balance which centres around the midrange performance with refined and detailed treble nicely integrated.
But, entering that Bristol hotel room my ears immediately sensed that something unusual was happening. I was enjoying, actually enjoying a Focal floorstander. Okay, it was playing at a typical ‘show volume’ but the tracks were carefully selected to avoid the oodles of bass being created and setting the room off too much. It was the treble output which struck me: surely this was not coming from a metal-dome? But then, Focal wouldn’t use anything else as a tweeter, would they?
Then the ‘secret’ was shown to me by the Focal staff on duty. The Vestia range, of which the Vestia No2 is the smallest floorstander, relies on dome technology from the brand’s in-car range. It is, to all intent and purposes, an inverted dome. From that moment I was hooked by this speaker’s capabilities and delighted to be offered the first review sample in the UK.
Focal has been creating audio equipment since 1979 through a core businesses of speaker drive units and hi-fi loudspeakers from its facility in France. In 2011 there was a merger with the UK’s Naim, famed for its electronics. Three years later, founder Jacques Mahul stepped down and the company was acquired by its managers and a private equity firm: Vervent Audio Group was created. Today it’s a European leader in the audio sector with Focal alone employing 260 staff at its facility in Saint-Étienne.
Vestia is not named after the genus of French snail, or the Nightshade family of plants, rather it is a high-falutin’ amalgam of Vesta and Hestia – goddesses of the hearth and the home. The newly-launched range, sits above Focal’s Theva line-up and below the Aria models. The unit on test here is complemented by the bookshelf No1; Centre speaker and larger floorstanders in the shape of the Nos 3 and 4.
The review sample arrived in stunning white, described as ‘light wood-look’ cabinets with white leather-effect front and rear baffles and imitation wood wrap (complete with mock grain) to the sides. Although small by tower stands, they certainly dominated my small listening room and provided something of a Scandinavian with that white finish. No birch-ply at this price-point, rather MDF boxes with internal bracing to control resonances, and successfully so it has to be said. The pair I heard at Bristol were in the ‘rich dark wood-look’ option with black leatherette accents that makes for a more traditional vibe. There is also a choice of ‘sleek black high gloss’ which probably also provides a high-class feel. To the rear, a single pair of fairly basic, chromed binding posts. No bi-wiring option although there are generous reflex ports to both front and rear, these feature Powerflow aerodynamic shaping to allow fluid airflow which limits distortion and parasitic noise in order to reduce chuffing and dynamic compression. The front port is smaller in both diameter and length than the rear port; it is tuned higher for more direct impact. The rear port is larger to produce a lower, infra-bass.
Magnetic grilles are provided which add to the visual mass of the loudspeakers without any obvious sonic benefits or affording special protection to the drive units, but not everyone provides grilles these days. While the cabinets aren’t very inspiring the drive units are rather special and deserve particular attention. They are housed in separate internal enclosures, one for the midrange, one for the two woofers and another for the tweeter.
The midrange and two bass drivers have 165mm Slatefiber [sic] cones which were originally launched in 2019. The construction involves the use of recycled, non-woven carbon fibres applied as a filling sandwiched between two layers of thermoplastic polymer. Focal engineers opted to use non-woven carbon fibres and to arrange them in the same direction as they found this achieved greater rigidity and better damping whilst keeping weight down – the three ‘essentials’ of a competent drive unit chez Focal.
The 25mm TAM tweeter sits in a urethane waveguide for improved horizonal directivity. It comprises an inverted dome/cone made from an aluminium/magnesium alloy and moulded into an ‘M’ shape – a design intended to afford greater rigidity to reduce distortion. The dome is made from a single piece and boasts an extremely linear frequency response, a low distortion rate and better sound dispersion. Other claimed benefits include highly extended bandwidth, mastery and damping of resonance, better dispersion due to its geometry and tilt angle, and optimum power handling due to the possibility of integrating a large voice coil. Apparently much work was done to control the tweeter’s rear-firing output and absorb it.
The speakers sit on spiked aluminium base plates which do afford stability while helping to transmit vibration into the ground. They are also raked to tilt the speakers backwards at the front which provides a degree of time alignment to the drivers. This model is recommended for use in rooms from 20m², with a suggested listening distance of three metres and there’s talk of combining them with the Sub600P subwoofer for true bass junkies.
Tower or bookshelf?
I probably need to begin by saying that I’ve habitually preferred standmount loudspeakers over floorstanders. The fact then that the Vestia No2s made such an impression on me at Bristol speaks volumes about their sonic abilities.
To summarise, briefly, standmounts tend to have more attack and speed which makes them more suitable for handling complex material and higher frequencies because they typically have less bass and lower cabinet coloration. What I have always admired is their imaging ability, when designed proficiently, and this makes it easier to identify individual performers rather than presenting an homogamous mass of sound. Something of tremendous benefit when trying to balance at a mixing console or enjoy a piece of complex music.
What floorstanding loudspeakers can offer is greater bass depth, greater dynamics and sheer listener involvement. They also negate the need to spend upwards of £300 on suitable stands. The Vestia No2 offers all three in abundance but more than that, which is what I noticed in Bristol. They are a far cry from the modern-day trend of generating low-down woof and over-powering treble for maximum listener excitement but while masking everything in between.
Connected to my Hegel H190 amp/streamer the Vestia No2’s high 91.5dB sensitivity and 8 Ohm impedance presented a friendly load that caused no problems. The quoted lower frequency response of 47Hz seemed achievable, certainly something approaching 55Hz was evident. As to whether the upper 30kHz reach was attainable is subjectively harder to vouch for, but that low-down bass was accompanied by a delicate treble nicely in proportion to the overall balance. At first, the soundstage appeared narrower than expected from a pair of towers, with placement where I would have my usual stand-mounts. But the solution was simple: move the speakers further apart and remove the toe-in such that they were perpendicular to the listeners. Of course this will vary in each setting depending on room acoustics.
I enjoyed the enveloping bass although if used exclusively for movie soundtracks I would either move the towers further out than the two-feet I had them from the rear wall or even consider foam bungs for the rear ports to control the LF output although this was enhancing the depth of the soundstage and proved ideal for most musical tracks. I admit to not being accustomed to modern film sound and found it overblown, shall we say, in a clear effort not merely to entertain but to excite the audience. I am sure the Vestias reproduced it faithfully even if it was not to my taste. After a run-in period of a couple of weeks of constant use the listening sessions began in earnest and the panel was assembled.
From the first notes my fellow listeners remarked on how noticeable the bass output was, both in terms of extension and quality, as well as the superb way it was integrated into the overall sound. With the Memphis soul album Green Onions from Booker T and the MGs, there were comments of impact, realism, fulfilling sound quality and captivating melody from this 1962 recording. Individuals in the small ensemble could be easily identified: Booker’s organ and the rhythm section, and Steve Cropper’s guitar as our feet tapped to endorse the Vestia No2’s timing credentials.
There was a sense of a hugely deep and tall soundstage from Cher with her album Believe where the speaker showcased an exceptional midrange, reproducing vocal nuances to delight the panel. We clearly have a speaker design with impeccable pace and rhythm ability which brought a smile to the listeners’ faces from an almost 3D presentation. Such from a design at twice the price would be credible. The thought of adding a subwoofer never crossed our minds save for a home theatre installation, perhaps. The low frequency is both clean and tight as well as more expansive than might be expected from a speaker at this size and price, adding depth, impact and enjoyment to the music.
Onto classical repertoire and my selection of Mahler’s Eighth (CBSO/Rattle on EMI) was not as I know it from my usual BBC-style monitors. The panel rather enjoyed the presentation and, I have to admit, I did become accustomed to it even if it presented something of a mishmash compared with monitor loudspeakers where I am used to being able to analyse the sound rather than accept it as a whole presentation of the massive orchestral and vocal forces. The Vestia No2s were clearly much happier with smaller classical works and handled Haydn’s Horn Concertos 1 and 2 (a 1991 recording on Decca with Barry Tuckwell) superbly, for example.
Next up was Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (Orchestre de Paris under Barenboim) where clearly the Focal design was much happier, handling the dynamics with aplomb and recreating a highly-involving soundstage. Overall, the panel remarked on how percussion sparkled, vocals portrayed an ethereal quality while strings could be delivered with delightful lightness.
Such was the superb rendition that the next logical track was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (that Telarc recording from 1979 of the Cincinnati Pops). Who said these speakers were not suitable for classical music? Certainly, it’s not the same presentation as from top-flight stand-mounts where each performer, each instrument can be identified across the soundstage. Rather, the listener is presented with the picture as a whole; a unified sound of immense quality with authority and decent spread across the frequency range albeit with enhanced bass to add weight and enhance the overall enjoyment. Through the No2s, the sheer musical value of the piece, with orchestra and choir plus those wonderful special effects, was simply a delight to enjoy.
One listener arrived with a DVD of Top Gun which all too readily revealed the Vestia No2’s home theatre credentials. Parts of this had me on the edge of my seat as the entire room filled with a most dramatic and realistic sound to captivate the audience. Surely one can wish no more from a loudspeaker designed to entertain? Immersive was almost an understatement here: the floor literally moved from the sound generated by these two modest towers which showed how impressive they could be at higher SPLs.
After the listening sessions proper, I lived with the Vestia No2s for several weeks as my everyday loudspeakers. During this time much of the material I heard was human voice, either as speech from news and current affairs programmes or dialogue in radio and TV drama. The presentation was impressive and it would be hyper-critical to pinpoint minor aberrations in the frequency response which I noticed only because I am so used to hearing these voices without any hint of chestiness or nasality. But I suspect that the vast majority of users will not be listening to this kind of material. What is most pleasing is an absence of male and female sibilance which blights so many conventional metal-dome designs; notably free from blemish was Jennifer Paige’s track Crush, helped by a well-controlled and nicely tailored top-end response.
Hats off to the R&D team at Focal for putting their in-car TAM tweeter technology into a domestic loudspeaker to create the first metal-dome design that I could live with. I for one hope it is the start of something epic and that we shall see lots more implementation of this fascinating tweeter which manages to retain the advantages of a metal dome but avoid the sonic nasties which so often accompany aluminium/magnesium drive units.
As with all mass-produced products, in the Vestia No2 there have clearly been cost-savings (notably: packaging, cabinet finish and terminal quality) to reach the price-point; but thankfully they are not in the key areas of sonic performance which sets something of a benchmark. The sound is lively, engaging, realistic and above all most enjoyable. These are not BBC monitors, nor do they aspire to be. What they are is value-for-money hi-fi speakers which are bound to bring a smile to the listener’s face and provide endless entertainment in both two-channel and home theatre settings.
The package is one of superb engineering and outstanding sound quality which I whole-heartedly recommend for personal audition not least for its natural sound with a real sense of poise, finesse and overall refinement. I shall miss them and, if I had room for any more loudspeakers at home, I would purchase them as a class-leader in their sector.