Final Electrostatic Loudspeakers
By Ron Goldberg
While in-wall and on-wall speaker solutions for custom applications have undoubtedly come a long way, audiophiles have often regretted the lack of choices to which they've grown accustomed in free-standing technologies. For many customers, the characteristic "sound" of dipolar, bipolar or electrostatic speakers are the A/V system's selling point, all of which are difficult or impossible to pull off in a wall-mounted application. Final Sound is a Dutch company that has developed a modular line of electrostatic panels designed for on-wall home theater applications. The goal is to bring the unique sonic and aesthetic benefits of this technology into a room-friendly design appropriate for a custom theater.
Final offers several models of electrostatic panels, distinguished by size and application, meaning on-wall or floorstanding. The system reviewed here consists of the Model 100 fronts ($1,990/pr.), which at 28 inches by eight inches and only 1.6 inches deep, are sized to perfectly frame an on-wall plasma TV, as well as the 25-inch Model 200 center channel ($1,199), and the S-200 powered subwoofer ($999), which is cone-driven, rather than electrostatic. For the surrounds, I used an additional pair of Model 100s, but the smaller Model 90s can be used as well. The actual radiating panel is flat, as opposed to curved, which is typical of other electrostatics like Martin Logans. Final believes that this design provides a more symmetrical "push/pull" for the driver, and with it, better sonic dispersion.
One of the traditional caveats to electrostatic technology is that the speakers must be fed with power in order to keep the electrostatic charge. In most cases, this means that each individual speaker has an AC wire, but Final has taken a different approach. The power for the individual electrostatic monitors is provided by a box called the Final Central Unit (FCU), which houses individual power supplies and connections for up to 6 speakers. Final supplies a 30-foot cable with special connectors at each end for the output of each power supply to the input on the speaker panel. The cable is UL approved 16/4, and safe to put inside walls. The obvious advantage to this approach is that you only need one AC outlet to power up to six speakers, plus another for the powered sub, of course.
The on-walls mount with a specially designed plate that can tilt, pan or pivot, bringing the front plane of the speakers out approximately four inches from the wall, or about the same as a typical plasma TV. The angle flexibility is especially relevant for properly setting up the sweet spot for electrostatics, which when correctly oriented to the listening area, can offer tremendous spatial realism. The speakers are framed in an attractive anodized aluminum, with the panel protectors in a black metal mesh. The subwoofer, which is down-firing and features a 10-inch aluminum driver powered by 160 watts, is finished in an attractive, high-gloss piano black.
The Model 100s can be driven with as little as 60 watts, but Final recommends between 90 and 150, which I would agree. At 86 dB/m at 4 ohms, these aren't terribly sensitive, but any installation of this caliber would likely include more than enough juice to make the panels sing. The frequency response is 150 Hz - 25kHz, for the mains, center and surrounds. The subwoofer is rated from 25Hz to 225Hz, and offers a variable crossover point and volume control.
While the placement of the Final speakers is obvious, the addition of the central unit makes them a more involved installation than a traditional dynamic speaker system. The FCU is about the size of a small stereo power amplifier, in an attractive brushed aluminum finish with a blue LED to indicate power. The power supplies for each individual panel are on circuit boards that snap into the FCU, much like installing an accessory card on a PC. The power supplies are fed as individual channels from the audio amplifier, which connects to the FCU "channels" by way of banana plugs (and banana plugs only). The circuit boards then connect to each individual panel by way of the supplied cable, which is terminated in a molex-type snap-in connector. These connectors are fairly sizeable, and I'd recommend pulling the wires to each speaker with at least one connector end removed for the job (these are easily re-attached). The cables themselves are fairly thick, about the size of a typical coaxial lead.
Installing the wall plates is simple, though I would have liked to have seen some kind of integrated wire management. The speakers themselves are very lightweight and are easily attached to the wall mounts, which are nicely machined to fit snugly into the integrated mounting bracket behind the panels. Once the panels are attached to the mount, the mounts become largely invisible, though the nature of this technology is that you can actually see through the driver and the protective mesh.
Once installed, the mounting solution allows the installer to precisely aim the panels to their best effect toward the listening area. Electrostatics in general have a wide perceptual dispersion pattern, but audiophiles familiar with this technology know that you can literally "beam-in" the best soundstaging with minute changes in tilt and pan. For my own listening setup, I used the panels pretty much parallel to the sweet spot, with just a shade of toe-in. Because there's so much driver area to these speakers, the vertical dispersion is unusually large, which should be an obvious benefit for a wall-mounted plasma installation, where the screen is usually at an elevation to the viewing area.
Electrostatic speakers have some clear benefits over more conventional speaker designs. Because there's no box, there's no cabinet resonance, and because they're an open dipole, there's uncommon spaciousness between front and rear of the soundstage. Also, because there's no crossover from the upper bass range up through highest treble, there's no distortion introduced by such circuits. The result of these traits usually adds up to an exceedingly uncolored, three-dimensional experience. In the best implementations, a good electrostatic sounds like there's no speaker at all, just highly-resolved music floating in space.
The Final system was well able to deliver these benefits. In particular, the panels excel at the representation of space and in the resolving of low-level sonic detail. In two-channel stereo mode, the mains were so spacious and precise that I found myself looking more than once to make sure the center speaker wasn't playing along with them. When switched into a surround listening mode, the overall spatial effect was so holographic as to be almost disconcerting. In terms of creating a three-dimensional sonic space that seems to extend beyond the speaker boundaries, I've heard few home theater speakers of any type or size that compete with what the Finals can do.
Space, and the illusion of it, is an especially good thing for movies, and surround playback is truly exciting through the Finals. Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks were vivid and colorful, and even the "Neo" settings on most receivers and pre/pros come to new life. The low-level resolving power of the Finals also provides great benefit to SACD and DVD-A recordings, and in the case of the latter, the Finals really show off the capabilities of this new format. From a timbral perspective, the Finals are crisp and with a slight forward tilt in the upper midrange. Lead instruments and vocals, not to mention dialog, are especially well-served. In choosing amplification for these speakers, I'd lean toward a unit with warm sonic character to complement the system.
As is the case with so many sub-sat implementations, the subwoofer ends up shouldering a lot of the responsibility for the overall sonic cohesion. I'm happy to say that the Final sub is truly outstanding—authoritative, uncolored and extremely fast. The latter characteristic is extremely important in mating with an electrostatic to preserve the overall sonic timing, and with the sub placed within the speaker boundaries, the system really does stay cohesive. For both movies and music, I liked this sub better than almost any other I've auditioned this year.
There are now so many speaker solutions for custom home theater that even the good ones often get lost in the shuffle. Premium on-wall speakers are often a difficult up-sell, because in most demonstration environments, the differences will usually be subtle to the customer. The experience that the Finals are able to deliver is clearly and demonstrably different from almost any other on-wall or in-wall speaker solution currently on the market, and their value proposition should be immediately apparent to even a casual listener. For audiophiles who aren't used to hearing this technology in a home theater context, the Finals should be an especially attractive option.
There are other excellent electrostatics on the market, notably those by Martin Logan. But the Finals come in enough sizes to be applicable to more home theaters, and because of the outboard power supply system, there's one less cable to run to each speaker. The Final's wall mounting system is simple, and from a visual standpoint, the speakers will nicely complement any plasma display that they're set up to frame. While a system like the Finals requires a bit more from the installer in the way of initial setup, overall the speakers (and even the compact sub) are easy with which to work.
If you've been looking for a high-end speaker line that clearly isn't a "me-too" product, the Finals offer a compelling alternative. More than most, they should be able to help sell themselves on both sonic and visual merits. While certainly not inexpensive, they clearly convey "exotic" to the customer, and sound unlike just about anything else they'd be demonstrated against. Final deserves a tip of the hat for updating a much-beloved audio technology for the custom-install market.
Final Model 100, 200 Electrostatic Speaker System
$6695 as reviewed
Unique sonics and visuals
Central power supply