Those of you who read my reviews regularly know my general philosophy by now: when I’m digging into an evaluation, I try to narrow my focus on what a product claims to be rather than on what I want it to be. It’s hard to knock an AV receiver for lacking AirPlay and Bluetooth capabilities, after all, when it was designed first and foremost for unadulterated audio performance. And it’s hardly fair to judge a great big pair of audiophile headphones for coming up somewhat short in the portability department.
So, what to make of an outdoor speaker that falls quite a bit short in its outdoorsiness? When the speaker in question is Focal’s Custom OD 108, I have to admit that I’m about to turn this review into a great big pile of hypocrisy. Because in terms of its ability to withstand the elements, this speaker is about as rugged as low-level Wizard in a game of Dungeons & Dragons (which, for you non-nerds in the audience, is to say “not very”). On the other hand, it’s been a long, long time since any speaker shocked me with its performance so much as the Custom OD 108 does.
Let’s back up and start from the beginning, though. From the moment I pulled my pair of Custom OD 108s out of their boxes, I had some reservations about their durability. While beautiful, their ABS boxes seemed light and lacking in sturdiness. And the spring-loaded binding posts around back provide virtually no protection from the elements. More troubling still is the fact that the OD 108 is ported on the front, a port that’s protected only by the speaker’s perforated metal grill.
A quick look at Focal’s printed specs and instruction manual seemed to confirm my suspicions: no ingress protection rating at all; only a note that reads: “Warning! Long sun and/or bad weather exposure can damage your loudspeakers. We recommend that you place your OD 108 loudspeakers under a penthouse in summer and to remove them in winter.”
And if you’re under the impression that any of that mattered as soon as I heard these speakers in action, you’d be wrong. I decided not to mount the Custom OD 108s as I normally would an outdoor speaker, since my patio offers little protection from dust and none from mosquitoes, not to mention the fact that it tends to rain sideways here in Alabama this time of year with next-to-no notice. I did, however, temporarily perch them on a wall on the patio and connect them to my NEAR 6XL amp (which in turn is connected to the Control4 EA-1 entertainment and automation controller in the home theater).
And within seconds I was blown completely away. Like many of you, I’m sure, my musical diet as of late has consisted of a near-never-ending stream of Prince tunes, so by chance the first track that came up when I opened my phone and started playing to the speakers via AirPlay was “7,” from the Love Symbol Album. The song, in case you’ve forgotten, begins with a semi-a cappella chorus that’s positively drenched in reverb, an effect that could hardly be called subtle, but nonetheless contains within it oodles of subtleties. And the Custom OD 108 captured every single one of them. The distinct voices within the mix, which are often buried by even really fantastic outdoor speakers, rang through with utter individuality through the Focals, in a way I’m normally only used to hearing through my big GoldenEar Triton One towers or my Ultimate Ears Capitol Studios RM in-ear monitors.
And it isn’t just the detail and nuance of those voices; it’s the way they project out into the space in front of the Focal speakers. There’s a depth to the image that’s a little hard to comprehend, honestly. It’s a genuine, three-dimensional sense of space that you just don’t expect to hear outside, sitting on a patio swing, sipping freshly squeezed lemonade and swatting at flying menaces.
And then that funky beat dropped. Focal rates the Custom OD 108’s total frequency response as 50Hz to 20kHz (±3dB) with low frequency extension to 42Hz (-6dB). But what those numbers don’t really fully convey is how gracefully it rolls off on the lower end. Relying only on its 8-inch fiberglass cone woofer in addition to its tuned port, the Focal cranks out some truly delicious, balanced, nuanced bass that never seemed to struggle, no matter how much I threw at it.
And believe me, I tried hard to trip it up. After rocking out to a few more Prince tunes, I changed gears and cued up Beastie Boys’ “Hey Ladies” for what I considered to be an even tougher bass challenge. And the Custom OD 108 passed that test without flinching. But again, what shocked me more was the way the pair of speakers handled that trippy phase-shifted guitar riff in the song’s intro. The first few beats came out of the speakers perfectly centered, but when the phase-shift happened, it almost felt like the cabinets themselves moved from their perch five or six feet in front of me to new spots a few inches from the sides of my ears. The sound wasn’t just enveloping; it was swaddling.
And it was at about this time when my crazy, shotgun-toting, Pentecostal preacher neighbor leaned out his side door and gave me the stink eye, which seemed as good an opportunity as any to not only turn the volume down a bit, but also to switch to some kinder, gentler tunes. Buckingham Nicks’ “Crying in the Night.”
Even at vastly reduced listening levels and with much tamer music, the Custom OD 108 still had surprises in store–namely just how well it maintained its impeccable tonal balance and imaging capabilities at any volume. It’s one of those rare speakers that shines just as brightly when whispering as when driven like a beast of burden from the depths of hell. And once said neighbor stepped out for a bit and I had a chance to crank the volume back up, the speakers proved to be just as delightful to listen to whether I was all the way across the yard or all up in their grilles.
It’s just a shame that they can’t deliver that level of performance in all environments, but then again, that may be asking too much. As great as it sounds, Focal’s Custom OD 108 outdoor speaker is really only appropriate for semi-outdoor installations where temps never drop below freezing or where your clients don’t mind bringing them in for the winter. And even if you install them under a decent overhang, you’ll still need to tilt them slightly downward in moist climes to avoid condensation pooling up in their tuned port.
Simply put, Focal’s Custom OD 108 outdoor speakers are amongst the finest I’ve ever heard in their category. Imaging, tonal balance, and performance at all listening levels are simply astonishing.
Concerns To call them “outdoor” speaker is a bit of a stretch. They offer very little resistance to the elements, no ingress protection, and cannot be left outside in cold weather. Needless to say, that limits the projects (and even the geographical locations) in which they can be installed.
► Type: 2-way bass-reflex outdoor speaker
– 8-inch (21cm) fiberglass midbass
– 1-inch (25mm) aluminum inverted dome tweeter
► Frequency response (+/- 3dB): 50Hz – 20kHz
► Low frequency point (- 6dB): 42Hz
► Sensitivity (2.83V/1m): 91dB
► Nom. Impedance: 8 ohms
► Minimum impedance: 6.5 ohms
► Crossover frequency: 2,400Hz
► Recommended amplifer power: 10 – 200W
► Dimensions (HxWxD): 414 x 287 x 258mm
► Net weight 12.8lbs (5.8kg)