capsule review

Review: Focal-JMlab iCub

At a Glance
  • Focal-JMlab iCub

    Macworld Rating

Nowadays, with more and more people using a digital audio device—an iPod, an AirPort Express, a computer, or a streaming audio gadget such as Slim Devices’ Squeezebox2—as their primary audio source, one could argue that fewer and fewer people really need a traditional component stereo system. Sure, people are still buying CDs, but for many consumers, the actual CD sits on a shelf once it’s been ripped to a hard drive. And although radio is still popular, it’s often satellite radio, accessed via a separate receiver. The result is that many of the “home stereo” systems I see in the homes of friends and colleagues go largely unused or serve mainly as a way to play back those digital audio sources. (How many home stereos have you seen recently that are basically glorified speakers for iPods?)

Unfortunately, those who crave higher-end audio have been stuck using such a traditional stereo system because simpler systems (commonly known as “computer” speakers) haven’t been able to match a good home stereo in terms of audio quality. Then there’s the fact that the market for higher-end audio systems is quite small—partly, in my opinion, because such products aren’t appealing to the average consumer on non-audio grounds: Quality audio systems are often bulky and difficult to use, especially to those attracted to devices such as the iPod for their simplicity and elegance.

Taken together, these issues were the inspiration for Focal-JMlab’s new $750 iCub , a unique product that’s difficult to classify in the traditional taxonomy of audio components. Although it looks like a subwoofer, it provides significantly more functionality; it can be used with a computer, but it’s much more flexible than a computer speaker system; it can handle both digital and analog audio signals, but it’s not what you would normally consider a multimedia receiver. To put it simply, the iCub is an audiophile-grade combination of powered subwoofer, remote-controlled integrated amplifier, and digital-to-analog converter (DAC), packaged in a stylish design that’s truly—to borrow a phrase from the computing world—“plug and play.”

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It’s not news that companies are starting to produce simple, yet higher-quality “home” speaker systems for digital devices. A few weeks ago, we reviewed Klipsch’s iFi, the first home speaker system designed specifically for the iPod. At $400, the iFi is expensive compared to traditional “computer” speakers, but reasonable when compared to a comparable home speaker system, and includes an iPod dock that provides the ability to remotely control both the iPod and system volume. However, Focal-JMlab, a company that’s well known in high-end audio circles but is likely a foreign name to the average U.S. consumer, has taken such systems to the next level—and without the iPod-specific design—by offering a higher-end solution for audiophiles. (I should add that Focal didn’t just decide to come up with a name starting in “i” to capitalize on the iPod/iTunes phenomenon; the iCub is actually based on the company’s existing Cub subwoofer.)

Audio Plus Services, Focal-JMlab’s North American distributor, provided us with an iCub and a set of Focal’s Sib stereo speakers and matching stands for evaluation. (Since the iCub is designed to work with most standard stereo speakers, we also tested it with other quality satellite/bookshelf speakers.) The system is significantly more expensive than the Klipsch iFi, or any other similar speaker system we’ve tested, but for those interested in higher-end sound and great design, it may be worth it.

Compact Package

When I first took the iCub out of the box, I was struck by two things. The first was its size: At just 13.1"; x 11.8" x 11.8" inches and just over 24 pounds, it’s actually fairly small, especially when you consider all the electronics inside (more on that in a bit). The second thing was the impressive design. Looking more like a designer version of a Nintendo GameCube than a subwoofer, the iCub features a soft, matte black finish on four faces (the top, front, and two sides) and rounded edges that give it more of a cute look than an imposing one. The front face includes an attractive, silver speaker port while a similar inset on the top hosts a large, silver volume knob. This knob is both backlit and motorized—you can adjust the volume manually or using the included infrared remote.

Inside the iCub is an impressive array of electronics: An 8" subwoofer driver (located on the bottom of the unit, firing down); a 150 Watt BASH amplifier that powers the sub; two 75 Watt BASH amplifiers for powering left and right satellite speakers, respectively; and a 20-bit DAC (digital-to-analog converter). The latter means that you can connect any digital audio source with an optical output directly to the iCub; the iCub’s DAC will handle the conversion to an analog signal.

The rear of the iCub hosts an attractive, brushed metal plate where you access the iCub’s inputs, outputs, and settings. Four high-quality binding posts (left/right, +/-) are provided to connect a pair of satellite speakers. (Although Focal-JMlab sells several speakers specifically for use with the iCub, you can use any standard stereo loudspeakers.) A two-position switch allows you to choose the system’s crossover frequency (the frequency at which the audio signal is split between the subwoofer and the satellites): 100Hz, for the company’s own Sib or Sib XL speakers or for smaller satellites; or 85Hz, for Focal’s Sib XXL speakers or for larger satellites. Via a rotary dial, you can also adjust the subwoofer output to the appropriate level for your listening room and satellites.

The iCub’s rear panel also provides three audio inputs. The first, as noted above, is an optical digital input, which uses the popular Toslink connector. Although any audio source with an optical digital output should work with the iCub, Focal-JMlab’s literature frequently mentions Apple’s AirPort Express/AirTunes combination as a source—you can play your music in iTunes on your computer and have it sent through the AirPort Express’s digital output to the iCub in another room. The iCub also features two analog inputs: a stereo minijack and a pair (left/right) of RCA jacks. The latter options are handy, as they cover the most common types of analog audio connectors found on digital audio sources.

Finally, the iCub includes a phase inversion switch (useful for those audio sources that provide an audio signal that is out of phase—especially common among portable devices); a voltage switch (allowing you to use the system with either 100-120V or 220-240V electrical systems); a standard power switch; and an auto-on switch. With the latter switch enabled, the system will automatically turn on when it detects an audio signal; when no signal is detected, the iCub will turn off. In my testing, this feature worked most of the time, but it occasionally didn’t “hear” the digital signal from an AirPort Express; however, changing the volume using the remote also “wakes up” the system, so you don’t have to get up and wake the system manually when this occurs. If you disable the auto-on feature, the iCub will remain on, but after a few minutes of silence it will switch to standby mode—not quite turned off, but not using full power, either.

Music’s Cube

True to Focal’s vision, the iCub system is very simple to use. After connecting your satellite speakers, you simply plug in your source and press Play. During my testing, I connected an iPod (using both a mini-to-mini stereo cable and a mini-to-RCA [left/right] cable, connected to the line-out jack on Apple’s dock base); an AirPort Express (via its optical digital output); Slim Device’s Squeezebox 2 (via its optical digital output); and a stereo DVD/TV (via left/right RCA cables). In each case, the iCub worked as expected, including immediately and effectively decoding digital signals. (I discuss sound quality below.)

If you connect both an analog and a digital source to the iCub and play both simultaneously, both audio signals will be heard through the system. This may not be the expected result for those accustomed to complex home stereo systems, but it’s in keeping with Focal’s focus on ease of use, as it means the user doesn’t have to worry about switching between “sources” on a receiver—whatever is playing simply plays.

The iCub’s remote works well as far as infrared remotes go. As we explained in our review of iPod remotes, infrared remotes require a line-of-sight to the receiver and have a range of only 20-30 feet; radio frequency (RF) remotes work through walls and generally provide much better range. In the context in which the iCub is most likely to be used—a home stereo environment—an infrared remote isn’t likely to be as limiting as it might be in other situations, but it does mean that you can’t completely hide the iCub (for example, behind furniture) as you can a traditional subwoofer. On the other hand, if you already have a universal remote control, it can “learn” the iCub’s remote signals, allowing you to control the iCub’s volume from the same remote you use for the rest of your entertainment system.

Note: When I first took the iCub out of the box, I had trouble controlling the system’s volume using the remote: The volume dial would light up as if it was trying to move, but it couldn’t. (I was able to adjust the volume manually.) After contacting Audio Plus Services, the cause became clear: When I removed the iCub from the box, I did so by turning the unit upside-down and then lifting the box off, which put all of the iCub’s weight on the volume knob, pushing it in so that the base of the knob was rubbing against the surface below it. Pulling the volume knob off and then putting it back on restored it to its proper position, allowing the remote to work as expected. This is obviously not a major issue, but it did make me think there should be a warning when you open the box not to place the unit upside-down.

Boom (But Not Boomy) Box

Given Focal’s audiophile roots—and the iCub’s price—you would expect an iCub-based system to offer sound quality superior to that of the typical home stereo system you would purchase at your local electronics superstore. And coupled with a worthy set of satellite speakers, that’s exactly the case. Although the iCub will work with any satellite speakers, you’ll want to at least use high-quality but affordable alternatives from brands such as PSB and NHT; anything less would be, quite frankly, a waste of the iCub’s capabilities. Audio Plus Services provided Playlist with a set of Focal’s Sib “bookshelf” speakers, which retail for $375/pair, as well as a a set of Hip stands ($189/pair), bringing the MSRP of our iCub test system to just over $1300.

It’s also important to point out that if you encode your music at low bitrates, the iCub’s potential is going to be sadly wasted. An iCub-based system will still sound good using 128kbps music files, but it won’t justify its higher price tag when compared to less expensive systems—the system’s performance will be limited by the music files themselves. If you plan on splurging on an iCub, you should plan on re-ripping your music at at least 192kbps—the higher the better. In fact, to anthropomorphize just a bit, the iCub was happiest playing uncompressed music streamed via an AirPort Express or played off an iPod. (My comments below on audio quality refer mainly to uncompressed or lossless-compressed music, since such music best demonstrates the capabilities of the iCub.)

As a subwoofer, the iCub’s bass response is tight and controlled, providing clear, discernible bass notes rather than the muddy thumps commonly heard with lesser subwoofers. Although Focal claims response of 40 Hz to 110 Hz, in my testing the system’s bass response starts to roll off at just over 50Hz—bass is clearly present at 40Hz, but no longer flat. Still, given the size of the iCub’s enclosure and driver, bass extension and quality are excellent.

At the other end, although the iCub can indeed produce audio up to the rated 110Hz, its response begins to roll off slightly (meaning it doesn’t produce quite as constant an output level) between 90 and 100Hz; thus the ideal satellite for the iCub will itself be able to extend to that level. Although the Sib speakers I tested are overall a very good match for the iCub, they’re the smallest in Focal’s Sib line and I found a slight dip—meaning output levels were slightly lower—between 100Hz and 120Hz with the iCub/Sib system. To be clear, this was a minor flaw that only an audio geek (like myself) would likely pick out, and isn’t really a knock on the iCub itself; rather, it’s a recommendation—important with any subwoofer—to use satellites that are a good fit for the sub’s frequency response.

The iCub’s satellite amplifiers are also impressive. Using the Sib speakers and several other similarly-priced satellites I had on hand from PSB and NHT, the iCub system produced excellent detail without being overbearing. Although it’s more of a testament to the quality of the satellites—on good recordings, I could easily hear the breaths of a sax player, the scratching of guitar picks against strings, the scraping of violin bows between notes, along with realistic presentation of instruments and voices—the fact is that you need a good amplifier, as well, and the iCub performed admirably. Soundstage was also excellent, with the members of an orchestra appearing where they should and the drums and cymbals of a jazz ensemble appearing at the appropriate depth behind the other musicians. The system was also quite capable of producing ear-splitting volumes in a good-sized listening room without breaking a sweat.

Overall, the sound quality of the iCub/Sib system is clearly better than any other “iPod” or “computer” system we’ve heard—as it should be given the price and target market. The system compared favorably to a $2000 home stereo comprised of an NAD integrated amplifier and NHT speakers and subwoofer, likely the level of system someone interested in the iCub would be shopping for.

The Lowdown

The iCub isn’t your typical computer or iPod speaker system, nor will it replace a typical home theater system that switches between 12 different audio sources. Rather, it’s a product that’s clearly designed for a specific market: Those with one or two digital audio devices who are looking for a full-size speaker system, who are serious about sound quality, and who value good design. If you fit into these categories, the iCub is an impressive system that provides a glimpse into the emerging upscale end of the “digital lifestyle” market: products that sound great, look stylish, and are simple to use. It’s also one of the first products we’ve seen that attempts to bring the often-crusty high-end audio market a few steps closer to today’s iPod-using, convenience-loving music listeners. Finally, when you consider everything the iCub provides—a powered subwoofer, an integrated amplifier, and a good DAC—the $750 price tag is reasonable compared to the cost of buying components of similar quality separately. The iCub is an exciting and unique product that I suspect will inspire similar products from other companies.

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    Pros

    • Compact size
    • Excellent sound quality
    • Automatically turns on when it detects an audio signal
    • Accepts both digital and analog signals
    • Simple to set up and use
    • Attractive design

    Cons

    • Auto-on feature occasionally didn’t detect AirPort Express
    • Remote controls system volume only
    • Overkill for use with low-bitrate music
    • Only two inputs
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