Cutting-edge technology, incredible dynamics, but is it really a studio monitor?
Every now and then a product comes along in the audio business that generates much head-scratching. This time its a nearfield monitor system — the Fujitsu Ten Eclipse TD512 and A502. These units come from Fujitsu Ten Ltd, a company little-known in professional audio circles. However, the Eclipse system is by no means a half-baked 'cottage industry' product — it's a serious attempt to break into a new market with a product designed from the ground up to be free of the traditional compromises that Fujitsu Ten say afflict conventional speaker design. The serious nature of the enterprise is apparent from the moment you open the packaging. Everything is exquisitely designed, engineered and finished. The engineering is closer to aerospace or F1 than to traditional audio products — pro or hi-fi. Although these are expensive units, its not remotely hard to see where the money has gone.
The system comprises a pair of small, single-driver, standmount speakers and a dedicated, single-input integrated stereo amplifier. Despite the fact that the speakers incorporate an short integral stand, I was also loaned a pair of Fujitsu Ten's tall and seriously heavy floor stands for the review. The speakers look, and are engineered, like no others. The single composite-coned 130mm driver is housed inside an extremely dense, egg-shaped enclosure constructed of a mineral-filled resin. The driver is decoupled from the enclosure, but rigidly bolted to the die-cast structure that emerges from the bottom of the enclosure and interfaces with the stand. The structure within the enclosure incorporates a 3kg weight that, according to Fujitsu Ten, offers a 'Grounding Anchor' for the driver to work against. There is no passive filtering or EQ of any kind — the driver is simply connected to the high-quality input terminals that nestle in the underside of the enclosure behind the stand. A reflex port at the rear apex of the egg provides tuned bass loading and the enclosure is entirely free of internal damping material.
The 30W integrated amplifier is no less stunning to look at — in fact to my eyes it's the more successful piece of industrial design. It's a two-part unit: the power supply occupies the lower die-cast aluminium section, while the amplifier itself, the signal input sockets and the speaker outputs are in the black upper section. The amplifier section simply sits on the power supply section, supported by three conical feet. As well as offering only a single input and output, apart from a power button, you only get one control — volume. The reverse conical section right at the top of the unit is the volume control, and it is up-lit when the power is on by an array of bright white-blue LEDs.
The TD in the product's name stands for 'Time Domain' and expresses Fujitsu Ten's core philosophy in the design of both speaker and amplifier — although it finds particular expression in the speaker. Fujitsu Ten's argument is that speaker design conventionally concentrates on frequency response issues and that this happens at the expense of accuracy in the time-domain performance. For example, the use of more than one driver to cover the audio band introduces unavoidable distortions in a speaker's time-domain performance as the path length from each driver to the listener's ears is unequal.
Similarly, the use of rectangular, sharp-cornered cabinets means that diffraction effects and panel resonance add delayed signals that again arrive at the ears a little later than the signal from either driver. These phenomena, amongst others, Fujitsu Ten claim to be predominantly responsible for speakers sounding like, well, speakers — compressed, uncommunicative, unnatural. They believe that if you optimise the time-domain performance of a speaker by engineering out all the mechanisms that introduce time-domain errors it will do an acoustic disappearing trick and transcend the conventional frequency domain-based performance limits.
So is this a philosophy based on serious science or is it all spin and black magic? Well the demands of marketing-speak mean that many of the ideas embodied in the Eclipse are oversimplified in explanation, but the core idea of ridding a speaker of time domain distortions is clearly a good one. However, it's not a new one, as I believe all of the features of the Eclipse have been tried before on one product or another. Perhaps the only new thing here is that they've never all been tried in the same product at the same time. It's also a little misleading to suggest that the time domain and frequency domain of a speaker are somehow independent. They are not, and just as emphasis on frequency-domain issues can risk a speaker's time-domain performance, so things can work the other way. For example, the decision to use a single full-range driver is not only likely to bring significant power-handling, compression and maximum-level restrictions, but will also result in a speaker with very narrow high-frequency dispersion. Even the axial frequency response will be compromised by the need to cajole a flat frequency response up to 20kHz (or at least near) from a driver with a natural inclination to roll off at around 6kHz.
Ironically, the way this is almost certainly done is to construct the cone/duct-cap/coil region of the driver such that it has a resonant characteristic at high frequencies — a characteristic that, in the time domain, is likely to look a little untidy. I suspect the time-domain errors that would be introduced by a properly engineered and integrated tweeter would be significantly more benign. Similarly, reflex low-frequency loading, with its inherently poor group-delay characteristic, seems a strange choice for a speaker intended to be optimised for time-domain performance. Presumably reflex loading was the only option if reasonable low-frequency extension and cone displacement-limited power handling were to be achieved.
So what happens when you listen to a familiar piece on the Eclipse TD system? Well it's hard to know where to start when trying to communicate something of the character of a product as different as the Eclipse. First up, a 130mm driver and 30W is not a recipe for high-level monitoring, so the Eclipse is very much a one-person, small-room, nearfield product. Second, there are aspects of the Eclipse that are quite simply stunning. The dynamic range, in terms of being able to resolve the quietest detail, is uncanny — reverb tails seem to go on so much longer, unintended 'noises off' and the mechanics of playing an instrument or singing are revealed as never before. Stereo imaging, too, is startlingly sharp and believable throughout the range — speakers that can portray a convincing low-frequency stereo image like this are rare. The bass also seems somehow to transcend, as Fujitsu Ten argue, the limitations of driver and cabinet size. Maybe the Eclipse sets up such a believable acoustic space that the brain begins to fill in the frequency-domain gaps? The closest analogy I can come up with is that listening to the Eclipse has something of the quality of listening on headphones, so intimate and free are they of many traditional speaker artifacts.
So you'd think I'm about to give the Eclipse an unreserved thumbs-up? Unfortunately, no. When I first used them I was mixing some songs by a local guitar and voice duo. The mix I had already set up on my usual monitors sounded pretty poor on the Eclipse so, having been seduced by their detail and dynamics, I set about remixing — and wasting my time. For all its qualities, the Eclipse system has some tonal (OK, frequency-domain) issues that, for me, make it a difficult choice for nearfield monitoring. Firstly, the high-frequency beaming means that, unless you are positioned exactly in the sweet spot — and it's a very, very small one — you'll hear a tonal balance seriously devoid of output above, say, 8kHz. There's also a distinct and pervasive upper mid-range coloration to the sound of the Eclipse that I'd put down to trying to get the driver to work over the full range. It was this coloration in particular that threw me when trying to mix on the Eclipse as I tried vainly to suppress it through all sorts of wild EQ on guitar and voice.
I'm not saying the Eclipse is unusable. As a secondary and hugely analytical monitor I can see it becoming, for some people, a vital tool. But for me it required just too radical a reprogramming of tonal expectations to work. In the end, a hugely frustrating product.