Lifestyle is not a four-letter word, but you wouldn’t know that by talking to an audiophile. The term lifestyle is often applied to audio and video products aimed at appealing to – ahem – everyday women, which any true believer (aka an audiophile) will tell you is sacrilege. But what is a lifestyle product really? Is it not a product aimed at providing the maximum level of performance with the minimum amount of fuss? While true believers will argue there’s no such thing as maximum performance when talking about a lifestyle product, the truth of it is, the aspect audiophiles fear most is the no-fuss part. You see, part of being an audiophile, or any enthusiast for that matter, is that you get to nerd out or feel superior because you and maybe a few others are the only ones who “get it.” It’s true, because if performance were truly everything, then a product such as the Focal Bird 2.1 System reviewed here would be all the audiophile goodness any reasonable person needs. But audiophilia isn’t about being reasonable; it’s about being right. Well if my time spent with and subsequent enjoyment of Focal‘s diminutive Bird 2.1 system is wrong in the eyes of audiophiles everywhere, then I don’t want to be right.
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The Focal Bird 2.1 system is a complete two-channel experience aimed at providing everyone from the casual listener to the hardened enthusiast with a trouble-free and enjoyable sound experience. It accomplishes this by being more than just a pair of speakers or a satellite subwoofer combo. The Focal Bird 2.1 system is, for lack of a better word, a soundbar-like system – only there’s no “bar” part. In place of a single bar that would otherwise rest above or below your beloved HDTV, the Focal Bird 2.1 system features two unique satellite loudspeakers called Birds.
The Birds are round-ish in their shape, at least in the back, and they feature a smooth, high gloss finish of either white or black. The Bird is a compact little gem measuring nearly 12 inches tall (on its included stand) by six inches in diameter and seven inches deep (again, due to its stand). The Bird tips the scales at a scant four and a half pounds, making it ideal for all types of mounting options, which I’ll talk about later. Behind the Bird’s non-removable metal grill rests a five and a half inch Polyflex cone midbass driver as well as an aluminum dome tweeter. The Bird is the middle child in the line, which also includes a smaller satellite option in the Little Bird as well as a larger option in the Super Bird. All three speakers work seamlessly with the Power Bird, the system’s bass/control module, and are merely options to consider should your needs or room change. As for the Bird, it has a reported frequency response of 70Hz to 25kHz with a sensitivity of 89dB and an impedance of eight Ohms. The Bird can dip as low as three Ohms, but you don’t really have to concern yourself with it seeing as how the Bird will be part of a complete system, one that already has power and has taken its special needs into account.
Speaking of power, the Bird System wouldn’t be one without the Power Bird, which at first glance appears to be nothing more than a compact receiver of sorts, but upon closer inspection you realize that not only is the Power Bird an audio receiver, it’s also the system’s subwoofer. The Power Bird is a combination integrated stereo amplifier/active subwoofer featuring a single, six and a half inch woofer powered by an internal 80-Watt amplifier. This tiny combo helps flesh out the Bird’s lower end, possessing a frequency response of 42Hz to 120Hz. To power the speakers the Power Bird dishes out 35-Watts to each of its two channels. But don’t think that because the Power Bird houses two amplifiers and a subwoofer that it is somehow huge or ugly, for it’s neither. The Power Bird itself measures four inches tall by 17 inches wide and nearly 14 inches deep and is finished to the same high standard as the Bird speakers and comes in your choice of gloss white or gloss black. Beyond its subwoofer and power amplifier duties, the Power Bird is also an analog and digital audio receiver, featuring two RCA style analog inputs, one mini stereo jack and two digital inputs (one optical and one coaxial). There’s even a front mounted headphone jack too. All of the above mentioned features and input options are controlled via a single, simple remote.
But wait – there’s more.
Along with being able to connect to various analog and digital sources, the Power Bird is also wireless ready via a small transmitter. There are three different transmitters available and all three use what is called Kleer wireless transmission technology. Basically you attach one of the three wireless transmitters to your iPad, iPhone, iPod or computer, hit two small buttons, one on the back of the Power Bird the other on the dongle itself, and within seconds you’ll be able to enjoy all your music wirelessly. This means that when you walk in the door after a long day at the office all you need to do is place your iPhone onto the wireless iDock/transmitter or connect the iTransmitter to the bottom of your phone and you’ll be able to enjoy a little relaxation music while getting ready for dinner. That’s awesome. I should point out that while the Kleer iTransmitter dongle for your iPhone, iPad or iPod is included, the before-mentioned iDock and wireless USB transmitter are not.
While the iTransmitters and iDocks may be sold separately there’s an awful lot of standard kit that comes with the Bird 2.1 System, kit that includes two different types of table/wall mounts, loudspeaker cable as well as mounting hardware and other pieces necessary to help hide/route unsightly cables. The total cost of Focal’s Bird 2.1 system is $995, which may seem a bit on the high side at first but not when you begin to add up what it would cost to achieve the same levels of usability and performance via an ala carte system.
The Bird 2.1 System is among the easiest systems to install – ever. Even if you choose to wall mount the Bird satellite speakers, like I did, the time it takes you complete a professional looking installation pales in comparison to much of the competition. Out of the box and into my bedroom I had the entire Bird 2.1 System up and running in under 30 minutes. Keep in mind I mounted the two Bird speakers to the wall flanking my 42-inch Samsung HDTV.
I mounted the speakers first, which required me to angle the attached stands from a vertical to a horizontal position, find a suitable height, screw in two drywall anchors (I used my own) and then affix each speaker to the wall. From there I unboxed the Power Bird and set it atop my Sanus equipment rack below my HDTV. Using the included speaker cables I connected each speaker, via their small but high-end pushpin style posts, to the back of the Power Bird.
The one thing you have to be careful not to overlook is the small series of switches on the Power Bird below the binding posts that select the various crossover points based on whatever Bird speaker you’re using. I flipped the switch for the regular Bird and moved on.
From there I connected my Sony Blu-ray player to the Power Bird’s optical input and my DVR to its coaxial. I should mention that the Power Bird does not decode and/or play back Dolby Digital or DTS surround sound formats, nor does it do any faux surround sound playback – this is a pure, two-channel product. From there I hit power and was off. I dialed in the subwoofer level via a large knob next to the Power Bird’s binding posts and was ready to enjoy my favorite music and movies.
I went ahead and let everything settle into its new surroundings for a few days before sitting down for any critical listening.
I began my evaluation of the Focal Bird 2.1 system using an old favorite of mine, Alanis Morissette MTV Unplugged (Maverick). I like this album for a lot of reasons, the biggest reason being it’s a pretty well recorded album, all things considered. I began with the track “I Was Hoping,” which starts off with a simple acoustic guitar later accompanied by Morissette herself.
Read more about the performance of the Focal Bird system on Page 2.
Together the pairing was nothing if not haunting through the Bird 2.1 system. The subsequent cello only rounded things out and leant a delicate intimacy to the performance that I wasn’t expecting to hear, or feel, from a sub-$1,000 system. The Bird speakers had a wonderful naturalness about them, one that felt appropriate and by no means dictated or constrained by their diminutive size. Morissette’s vocals, while not entirely lifelike in scale and/or weight within the soundstage were still palpable and stood in stark contrast to the surrounding musical elements. Speaking of surrounding musical elements; the Focal Bird 2.1’s soundstage was not a far-reaching expanse of texture and nuance, nor was it a flat, blanket wall of sound. The Bird 2.1’s soundstage existed somewhere in the middle, for all the music unfolded cleanly and clearly between the left and right speakers, which were spaced roughly five feet apart. What did strike me about the soundstage was how deep it was, and likewise, how far forward it projected. In terms of lateral space the Focal Bird 2.1’s soundstage was a decidedly three-dimensional affair, with Morissette smack in the middle of it. Bass was firm and taut, rounding out the Birds’ bottom end nicely, though I could feel that under spirited listening it wouldn’t be hard to tax the six-inch woofer and its amplifier. The most magical thing about the trio was that when I simply closed my eyes and let the music wash over me, the coherence between the three pieces was largely seamless and wholly enjoyable.
Next, I wanted to give the Focal Bird 2.1 system a bit more of a workout so I fired up Nirvana’s Nevermind (Geffen). Beginning with “Lithium” I set the Power Bird’s volume control to explode and surprisingly, it didn’t – explode that is. At the edges of insanity the six inch woofer inside the Power Bird will bottom out and distort. However, and I must stress this, the point in which this happens is far higher than you’d expect from such a compact chassis. Reeling things in a bit, the bass was able to regain its composure and once it did, beautiful things began to happen. The kick drum was firm and hit with impact that, while not chest-pounding, was still forceful, giving weight and a bit of gravitas to the opening of the track. Focal is known for their drivers, especially their high frequency transducers and while the tweeters inside the Bird satellites may be just pedestrian aluminum domes, their performance is anything but. The cymbal hits rang true with wonderful air and extension, all the while sounding organic and natural without the sibilance you’d expect from such a budget setup. Vocals were, again, nuanced and realistic in terms of scale and weight within the soundstage. The soundstage did open slightly with a bit of volume behind it but still wasn’t quite as horizontally spacious as I would’ve liked. Still, what existed between the speakers was nothing short of astonishing. Dynamically the Bird 2.1 system begins to show its makeup, for it’s not explosive; instead it chooses to exercises control – control over how much and when to flip the crazy switch. Because of this, the energy you expect to hear and feel from a band such as Nirvana is lessened during certain passages – notice I said lessened, not lost. I will say this: the Bird 2.1 system still managed to rock harder and with more conviction than I originally thought possible, especially given the size of the Bird speakers (which are almost unflappable) and the sub contained within the Power Bird.
Next, I decided to ditch physical media and go with the Bird’s wireless option, which required me to plug the included wireless dongle into the bottom of my Apple iPhone 4. From there I hit a small button on the back of the Power Bird, which set off a rapidly flashing green light. I then hit a small-elongated button on the bottom of the dongle, which in turn set off a flashing amber light. The two lights flashed for about 20 seconds before settling into a synchronous rhythm indicating that the signal had been acquired and the link established between the two pieces. Potential customers take note that once you’ve completed this step, you’ll never have to repeat it. I launched Pandora on my iPhone and hit play on one of my favorite playlists, Electronica/Downtempo, and immediately music began to play through the Bird 2.1 system. I put my phone into my pocket and began walking around the house (which is a single story and only 1,200 square feet), and at no time did I lose the signal – hell, it even worked just outside my front door. Now, are you going to want to stream music to a room you’re not in? Probably not, but it speaks to the Kleer system’s range.
Streaming music sounded almost indistinguishable from CD source material provided I was listening to a track that I had ripped myself. Obviously low resolution files and/or streaming music from services such as Pandora favor convenience over ultimate fidelity. Still, lower resolution music or properly ripped material, both were pleasing and able to be enjoyed via the Bird 2.1 system. As nice as the sound was, it was the wireless capability as a whole that truly bowled me over, for the convenience and enjoyment provided by its sheer presence ended up being a bigger draw that even I originally thought.
I ended my evaluation of the Focal Bird 2.1 system with a Blu-ray disc, for a system such as the Bird 2.1 will inevitably be used to watch the occasional movie. I cued up Transformers Dark of the Moon on Blu-ray (Paramount) and sat back to see if the music-oriented Bird 2.1 system could throw down with a Hollywood blockbuster. In short, it could and it did. The scene involving the collapse of a Chicago skyscraper with our heroes trapped inside was rendered brilliantly for a system comprised of two small satellites and a six-inch subwoofer. Highs were pristine, smooth and grain free, possessing ample sparkle and detail that only accentuated the visuals unfolding on screen. Dialogue remained clear and intelligible, even in the face of insane destruction. It was the Power Bird’s bass response that took me by surprise for it seemed to plunge deeper and play louder than in my previous tests, and was wholly satisfying despite not possessing the same, strike-you-in-the-chest impact you’d expect from a standalone subwoofer. Still, not many subwoofers look as good or are as easy to integrate as the one inside the Power Bird.
I’d also like to point out that because the sub inside the Power Bird is most likely going to be mounted high or higher than your typical sub, it’s less likely to excite certain room nodes that can cause bass to sound bloated or sluggish. I even mounted the Power Bird to the wall via the supplied brackets and noticed little to no difference in the system’s overall bass response. Granted, I mounted the Power Bird high enough to have line of sight to the front panel, but you get my point.
Back to the film; I found the Bird 2.1 system’s dynamic capabilities to be equal to what I experienced with two-channel fare though its soundstage presentation seemed to open up a bit, possessing more width and depth. From a sheer enjoyment standpoint, especially when installed into a bedroom or den, the Bird 2.1 system’s performance, be it for music or movies, is truly remarkable and aurally fulfilling. The Bird 2.1 systems’ performance coupled with its connectivity and convenience make for a magical combo, one that provided me and my wife with hours of trouble-free enjoyment. My wife was so taken back by the Bird 2.1 system’s performance and ease of use that she now prefers to watch movies in our bedroom than in our media room. I still prefer my reference rig but I must admit I spend a little more time in bed either watching movies or wirelessly listening to Pandora while reading the news than I ever did before the Bird 2.1 system showed up.
Right off the bat it must be noted that despite being somewhat of a satellite subwoofer-like setup, the Focal Bird 2.1 system is really a close-ended affair. What I mean by this is: if you’re looking to add another brand of speaker to the Power Bird, regardless of your reasoning, you’re not going to be as happy, sonically, as you would be by sticking with one of the Bird branded loudspeakers. This is not the downside – the downside is that if you have a larger room, a room too large for even the Super Bird, than the Focal Bird 2.1 system isn’t going to be for you. My bedroom is roughly 14 by 21 with nine-foot ceilings and it was easy for me to over-drive the Birds in that room if I tried, though I rarely did. That being said, if I were relying on the Focal Bird 2.1 system as my primary system in a room the size of my bedroom I would pop for the Super Bird speakers over the Birds for they would afford me greater impact for both music and movies. Just keep the dimensions of your room in mind when choosing which Bird system is right for you.
The subwoofer contained in the Power Bird module was surprising in its ability to play deep though don’t mistake it for something it’s not, which is a large, heavy subwoofer. Within its limits the Power Bird’s sub is magnificent and musical. But step outside its limits and all bets are off, for it will go ugly early – though I maintain that the Power Bird’s limits are far greater than what you’re probably thinking.
Clearly the Power Bird 2.1 system is aimed at music lovers, which is no doubt why it excels at playing music. That being said, there are music oriented lifestyle products out there at or around the same price as the Focal Bird 2.1 system that will also do surround sound and/or some form of faux surround sound. Personally, I don’t fault the Bird 2.1 system for this omission but I could see how some could, especially given its asking price.
Lastly, the Kleer wireless dongle is a wonderful accessory and one I’m glad is included in the box for its presence is arguably half of what makes the Focal Bird 2.1 system so great. That being said, the instructions on how to sync the dongle with the Power Bird unit could be better as could the process itself for it doesn’t always work the first time. Though, to be fair, once you’ve completed the necessary steps to sync the dongle to the Power Bird and you’ve achieved sync-age – you’re good to go.
Competition and Comparison
There aren’t a lot of products like the Focal Bird 2.1 system, in fact I can only really think of a couple off the top of my head, both coming by way of Bose. The Bose CineMate GS Series II system is similar to the Focal; however it lacks the audio inputs and wireless capabilities the Focal has (not to mention the sound) but makes up for it by selling for $799. The Bose Lifestyle 235 Home Entertainment System is another three-speaker getup. However the subwoofer is not part of the control unit like the Bird 2.1 system and it costs far more at $2,299. While the 235 system does allow for HDMI connectivity it still can’t hold a sonic candle to the Focal Bird 2.1 system.
Other possible suitors include Audio Pro’s LV2 Wireless Digital Speakers, Aperion Audio Zona Wireless Speaker System and Clarity HD Model Ones. All of the above mentioned speakers are exactly that, speakers, therefore they do not include a subwoofer and/or the ability to switch between multiple sources. They all have lifestyle roots and allow for some form of wireless and/or iProduct compatibility.
For more on these products and others like them please check out Home Theater Review’s Bookshelf and Small Speaker page.
I’ll be the first to admit, I can be, at times, an anti-audiophile in that I often look at my own system and scream out loud, “There must be a better way!” Well, the Focal Bird 2.1 System turned out to be exactly what my recovering audiophile self needed – an injection of practicality and joy that was otherwise missing from what had become a life consumed by bit-rates, formats and heavy equipment. The fact of the matter is this, if you simply love music and wish to enjoy it for what it is, then a system such as the Focal Bird 2.1 system is all you really need, provided you listen in an environment that isn’t going to prove too taxing to its diminutive size.
The Focal Bird 2.1 system is akin to a survey course on what being an audiophile is all about, for nothing is allowed to get in the way of the music, not even the user, which is not only refreshing but somewhat revolutionary. While some may call the Bird 2.1 system a lifestyle piece and dismiss it as such, I assure you it’s more than that – it’s pure. Sure you can obviously do better, I’m not suggesting that this sub-$1,000 system somehow bests a system comprised of Wilson Audio Sasha W/Ps and a stack of Audio Research electronics, no. But I would make the argument that any budding audiophile or even home theater enthusiast should hear a system such as the Focal Bird 2.1 before venturing up the food chain, if for no other reason than to have a real appreciation for what’s possible at an entry level price before going for something more “high-end.”
I love this system and I’m not alone for it is the first piece in five years that my wife wants me to keep, and while many of you will probably take that endorsement and dismiss the Bird 2.1 system altogether, I urge you – don’t. For if the Focal Bird 2.1 system can serve as a starting point for any would-be audiophile then it can also serve as an ice breaker towards getting your significant other into the idea of welcoming future hi-fi and/or home theater products into your life.
Say hello to the new audiophile gateway drug.
• Read more bookshelf speaker reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com’s staff.
• Look for sources in our Source Component Review section.
• Explore Blu-ray players in our Blu-ray Player Review section.