Focal Chorus 826W 30th Anniversary Edition loudspeaker Page 3

The Chorus 826W's tonal balance brought to mind something my high school music teacher, Mr. Scott, wrote in my yearbook: "Don't B-sharp. Don't B-flat. Just B-natural." I don't think Mr. Scott meant this admonition to apply to speakers, but if he had, then I think he'd have been pleased with the Chorus 826W. The bass, midrange, and treble were present in subjectively near-perfect balance. Of course, a couple of 6.5" drivers will not give you bass in the subwoofer range; a quick check with the warble tones of Stereophile's Test CD 3 (Stereophile STPH006-2) showed that the bass held out to 40Hz, and was pretty much gone by 31.5Hz. Subjectively, the bass was pleasantly full rather than thin, supported in part by a 50Hz room mode that I've found to be present with other speakers as well.

Voices, male and female, provide perhaps the best indicators of midrange tonal accuracy, particularly if the listener is familiar with the live sounds of those voices. During my time with the Chorus 826Ws, I had the occasion to do a kind of "live vs recorded" comparison—albeit with a greater-than-ideal delay between the live and the recorded—when I attended a cabaret concert by the soprano Rebecca Caine. She originated the role of Cosette in Les Misérables in London, and was Christine in the Canadian production of Phantom of the Opera (recordings of both of which I reviewed in Stereophile). Caine's career has included opera as well as musical theater, with appearances at Glyndebourne, the English National Opera, the Canadian Opera Company, Scottish Opera, etc. She was in Toronto as part of the 20th-anniversary celebration of the Canadian production of Phantom. While here, she gave a cabaret concert of musical-theater favorites. My seat was up front, maybe 8' from the singer, and she was quite wonderful, singing with great beauty of tone, clear diction, and depth of emotional expression. After the concert, I bought a copy of her Leading Ladies (CD, Dress Circle RCCD01), which features the material she sang at the concert.

Listening to the CD at home, I was struck by how well the speakers (and, of course, the rest of the system) reproduced the unique quality of Caine's voice. She has a pure sound, with less vibrato than Christine Andreas (whose CD Here's to the Ladies, PS Classics PS-208, was one of my 2009 "Records To Die For" picks), but she resembles Andreas in that she's a singing actress who communicates emotion and character rather than just making pretty sounds. All of this came across through the Chorus 826Ws. The Focals also did well with male singing voices, Bryn Terfel's bass-baritone having the resonance that I recall from hearing him live. I did not have the pleasure of hearing George London live—a bit before my time—but listening to his Spirituals (CD, Deutsche Grammophon 00289 477 6193) made me feel that I had some sense of what this great singer must have sounded like in person.

With the Chorus 826Ws' tweeter grilles on, the treble was a bit on the soft side, and high-frequency transients lacked some clarity. However, removing the tweeter grilles produced a marked improvement at the top end: cleaner, better defined, and subjectively more extended. The difference was particularly evident with track 3 of the Chesky Records Jazz Sampler & Audiophile Test, Vol.1 (CD, Chesky JD37), with its bells, cymbals, and great variety of percussive effects. One of my touchstones for high-frequency reproduction is the sound of the cymbal at 0:54 of this track. With the tweeter grilles on, the cymbal was there, but it lacked the shimmer that I know to be present in the recording. Removing the tweeter grilles restored the shimmer I had been expecting, the sound becoming more realistically cymbal-like, approaching—but not quite reaching—the sense of high-frequency extension and air that I remember from the Monitor Audio PL200.

However, whereas the PL200's tonal balance was tilted slightly in the direction of brightness, the Chorus 826W's seemed more nearly neutral, and more forgiving of faults elsewhere in the system. If you were using a CD player with a more hard-edged "digital" sound than that of the Ayre Acoustics CX-7eMP, and your preamp and power amp had sound that was more along the typical solid-state line than is the Simaudio combo, the tonal balance with the Chorus 826W would likely be more listenable than with the PL200. (This is where system matching comes into play.)

The soundstage presented by the Chorus 826Ws was deep and wide, falling, again, just short of the degree of precision of imaging that characterized the Monitor Audio PL200s. Instruments and voices were nicely positioned in space, but their outlines weren't as precisely defined as I remembered hearing from the PL200s. Keep in mind, however, that the PL200 is more than twice the price of the Chorus 826W. It should sound better, and it does—although, as noted, the PL200 is more critically dependent on the quality of the ancillary equipment. I suspect this is also one of the differences between the aluminum-magnesium tweeter of the Chorus 826W and the beryllium tweeters used in Focal's higher-priced speakers.

Conclusion
When a loudspeaker manufacturer whose top model costs close to $200,000/pair introduces an "Anniversary Edition," my expectation is that the price of the commemorative speaker would be at least some multiple of $10k. Focal has confounded this expectation with their introduction of the 30th Anniversary Edition Chorus 826W at $3495/pair. Why did they make this their Anniversary Edition model, rather than, say, a $60,000 version of the $50,000/pair Maestro Utopia III, which John Atkinson reviewed in the July 2010 issue? When I asked this question of Audio Plus's Ian McArthur, he said, "Focal decided to produce an affordable loudspeaker for the music lover whose support over the years made them the company they are today. Focal considers it a musical 'thank-you' to their customers for the last 30 years of support."

In fact, "loudspeaker for the music lover" strikes me as a pretty accurate description of the Chorus 826W. Although its imaging capability falls a bit short of the pinpoint accuracy valued by some audiophiles, its smooth, well-balanced, easy-on-the-ears sound serves the music, and takes the emphasis away from the equipment used to reproduce it. At $3495/pair, the Chorus 826W is not what I'd call inexpensive, but by the standards of high-end audio it can be considered moderately priced. Focal's accomplishment with their 30th Anniversary Edition speaker is to have included some of the technology—notably the W-sandwich woofers and midrange—responsible for the level of performance of their more expensive speakers, and at a price that's relatively affordable. Merci, Focal!

COMPANY INFO
Focal-JMlab
US distributor: Audio Plus Services
156 Lawrence Paquette Industrial Drive
Champlain, NY 12919
(800) 663-9352
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