Focal Aria 936 loudspeaker
Focal makes products in six categories: 1) high-fidelity speakers, 2) home cinema, 3) multimedia and wireless, 4) headphones, 5) monitoring and pro studio, and 6) custom and public address. Of course, our interest here is in No.1. The 2014 Stereophile Buyer's Guide lists 21 Focal speakers, with prices ranging from $549 to $190,000/pair. The Aria 936 is too new to be listed in the Guide, but its price of $3999/pair puts it at just about the median.
Although Focal makes some very expensive speakers, one of their priorities has been to incorporate the technology developed for their top models into more modestly priced products. This was true for the Focal Chorus 826W 30th Anniversary Edition loudspeaker (I reviewed it in the November 2010 issue), which used the proprietary W-sandwichcone midrange and woofer technology found in Focal's more expensive speakers.
Focal describes the ideal loudspeaker cone as being: 1) light, to allow rapid acceleration; 2) rigid, for pistonlike movement; and 3) well damped, for low coloration. In their view, these often conflicting goals are best met by a "sandwich" construction of different materials. Their W sandwich takes this approach, but its production is labor-intensive and thus costly. In a search for a less expensive alternative, Focal developed a new composite material in which flax fibers of various densities form the core of the cone, in a sandwich construction with fiberglass. Unlike for the W cone, manufacturing of Focal's F cone can be automatedand France is apparently the largest European producer of flax. (If, like me, you're a bit uncertain about what flax is, linen is made from flax fibers.)
Having developed this new way of making midrange and woofer cones, Focal turned their attention to tweeters, and came up with an inverted dome made of an alloy of aluminum and magnesium. It's similar in these respects to the tweeter used in the Chorus 826W, but in the Aria 936 the suspension between the dome and the bracket is made of Poron, a "memory foam" of microcellular urethane. This suspension method has been shown by Focal to reduce distortion by a factor of three in the critical range of 23kHz. A polyurethane plate with waveguide is said to improve the new tweeter's horizontal dispersion.
Focal's Aria 900 line of speakers comprises five models. I'd heardand been quite impressed bythe Aria 926 at the last Toronto Audio Video Entertainment Show. My only reservation was that, while the 926 generally sounded very good at TAVES, one of the demo recordings was Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, and I found that the bass lacked some weight. At 45" H by 11.5" W by 14.5" D, the Aria 936 is as wide and deep as the 926, but it's 5" taller, to accommodate a third woofer. The 936's claimed low-frequency extension is 32Hz vs the 926's 37Hz (both 6dB), and that could make a difference with bass-heavy material. I requested a pair of Aria 936s.
The Chorus 826W was a nice-looking speaker, but the Aria 936 has a more elegant appearance. The finish is impeccable: Black High Gloss on the sides and top, with leather front, rear, and bottom. (It's also available in Walnut.) There are two ports on the front panel, "for more impact," and a downfiring port in the base, "for increased depth."
Because the Aria 936 has roughly the same footprint as the Chorus 826W, which I'd reviewed, I thought positioning the Arias would not be a problemand it wasn't. With the help of Audio Plus rep Ian McArthur, who delivered them, I placed the speakers in more or less the usual positions, along the long side of my listening room, and played with their distances from the walls, the listening seat, and each other, until we felt that the soundstage and bass character and extension were about right. The Aria 936 comes with a plinth that conveniently allows you to withdraw and extend the built-in spikes, first by hand, then using the included plastic wrench. This worked very wellI wish other speaker manufacturers had a similar arrangement.
The Chorus 826W has a removable grille that covers the bass and midrange drivers but not the tweeter, which has its own, apparently fixed grille. Fairly late in my auditioning of the Chorus 826W I discovered that the tweeter grille could be removed with the tip of a ballpoint pen or a paper clip. I did, and was rewarded with greater treble clarity and improved specificity of imaging.
For the Aria 936, Focal has changed the grille arrangementperhaps because of customer complaints. A single grille covers all five drivers, and it's attached magnetically. What hasn't changed is the fact that the speaker sounds better with the grille removed, which is I how I listened to it (and is what Audio Plus recommends).
Ian McArthur told me that, as far as he knew, the review samples had come straight off the assembly line, with no break-in. But they sounded good out of the box, with only minor improvements after more extensive playing. Focal speakers that use a beryllium tweeter have a reputation for needing a longer-than-usual break-in period if they're not to sound too bright, but that wasn't the case with the Aria 936's aluminum-magnesium tweeter.
When selecting electronics to use with speakers, I often find myself in a quandary. Should I use equipment at a price level that represents a typical or likely pairing, or should I use higher-end equipment that lets the speakers really show what they can do? At various audio shows, Focal's Aria models have been successfully demonstrated with Devialet D-Premier DAC-integrated amplifiers, which are also made in France and distributed by Audio Plus. I was sure that Audio Plus would have loaned me a Devialet for this review, but that would have introduced a second unknown factor into the equation: Before being able to assess the sound of the Aria 936, I would first have to compare the Devialet with other equipment that I was already familiar with, so that I could get a handle on the Devialet's contribution to the sound (see sidebar, "Confounding, Cables, and Room Acoustics"). That would turn the process into, in effect, a second reviewsomething I wasn't prepared to do.
So I went with the familiar: my own Convergent Audio Technology SL1 Renaissance preamp ($7995), McIntosh MC275LE power amp ($5500), and loan samples of PrimaLuna's ProLogue Premium integrated (at $2299, a real-world option) and Simaudio's Moon Evolution 740P preamp ($9000) and 860A power amp ($14,000). The Simaudios, being new models, weren't entirely known quantities, but I was familiar with their respective predecessors, the Moon Evolution P-7 and W-7. At one point I'd had both sets on hand for comparison, and knew that this pre/power combo was representative of today's top solid-state electronics, the 740P/860A having even greater finesse than the P-7/W-7. My comments on the sound of the Aria 936 represent a kind of "averaging" of the sound with the various amplifiers, with differences as noted.
Smooth. Very smooth. Not smooth in the sense of glossing over or subduing the sharp transients that characterize the sounds of certain instruments, but just not exaggerating or sharpening them. This was my initial impression of the Aria 936, and it persisted throughout extended listening.