Focal Chorus 826W 30th Anniversary Edition loudspeaker

Does spending more money on audio equipment get you better sound? Some audiophiles assume that anything that costs more must be better—and that if it's relatively inexpensive, then it can't be any good. Others hold the opposite view: expensive components can't possibly be worth their prices, and those who manufacture them—and audio journalists who report on them—must be charlatans.

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My view, which I believe to be held by the majority, is that there is a sizable positive correlation between price and sound quality—by and large, more expensive equipment tends to sound better—but that the correlation is far from perfect. Some ultra-high-priced equipment does not bring benefits commensurate with the price, and, conversely, some very reasonably priced products deliver sonic performance that's better than expected at the price. As a magazine dedicated to the interests of a broad spectrum of audiophiles, Stereophile has an obligation to examine equipment that covers the entire price range, from the entry level to the extreme high end.

Having said that, although I enjoy listening to extreme high-end equipment at shows, my interest as a reviewer is in the moderately priced range. I'm just more of a Volkswagen/Honda/Toyota than a Ferrari/Lamborghini/Aston Martin kind of guy. So when I heard the Focal Grand Utopia EM speakers at the Salon Son & Image show in Montreal in 2009, I was greatly impressed by the sound, but I knew there was no way I would consider reviewing a speaker that sells for $185,000/pair. Even the least expensive floorstander in Focal's Utopia line, the Scala Utopia, is beyond my comfortable reviewing range at $29,500/pair. But the Focal Grande Utopia EMs sounded really terrific, and made me think, not for the first time, that I should look into reviewing some speaker made by this prestigious French company. But which one?

The answer came to me when I saw an ad in—of all places!—Stereophile. It was on the back cover of the magazine, with a picture and description of the Focal Chorus 826W 30th Anniversary Edition. This speaker uses some of the technology from Focal's higher-priced speakers, but costs a relatively affordable $3495/pair. That's more my speed.

Description and Design
The Chorus 826W 30th Anniversary is a floorstanding three-way design featuring a 1" aluminum-magnesium inverted-dome tweeter, a 6.5" cone midrange, and two 6.5" cone bass drivers. There are two ports: one downward-firing, and one front-firing, "for bass impact." The speaker includes a cast aluminum base, which allows it to be easily leveled and ensures that there's enough space for the downward-firing port to perform its function.

The main difference between the Chorus 826W 30th Anniversary and the plain-vanilla Chorus 826V ($2495/pair) is that the 826W midrange and bass drivers have the W-sandwich construction that characterizes the speakers in Focal's higher-priced lines. These high-tech drivers have a core of closed-cell foam enclosed in layers of resin-impregnated spun glass on the inside and the outside. (The W stands for double verre, or "double glass" in French.) Manufacturing is quite complex, and takes about 30 minutes per driver. The claimed advantages of the W-sandwich design are low mass and exceptional rigidity. This, in turn, is said to improve dynamics and definition. The second difference between the 826V and the 826W is cosmetic: the finish of the 826W is to a higher standard, with optional red or white sides available only for the 826W. The review samples had black sides, which are fine, but I've seen the red-flanked model and like their extra touch of drama. The rest of the speaker is finished in shiny black acrylic, which has quite an elegant effect.

Like most speakers, the Chorus 826W is provided with a removable grille to cover and protect the drive-units. This one, of fabric stretched over a plastic frame, interestingly does not cover the tweeter. Most speakers sound better with their grilles removed, and I found this true of the Chorus 826W—greater clarity, more detail—but the difference was not as marked as in the case of the Monitor Audio PL200, which I reviewed in the April 2010 issue. Nevertheless, after the initial setup, I did all of my listening with the grilles off.

Although the grille covers only the Chorus 826W's bass and midrange drivers, the tweeter has a small metal grille of its own. This didn't appear to be removable, and I had no information from Focal or their US importer, Audio Plus, to indicate that removing the tweeter grille was an option. Still, I wondered what the speaker would sound like with its tweeter naked—as it is on Focal's speakers that include the more expensive beryllium tweeters. But more on this anon.

Setup
I've learned from experience that floorstanding speakers sound best when placed along the long side of my 16' by 14' by 7.5' listening room, out from the front and side walls, the exact distances determined by listening to the effects of minor adjustments. When I received the Chorus 826Ws, I plunked them down pretty much in the spots that had been occupied by the Monitor Audio PL200s, then played with the distances from the front and side walls, adjusted the toe-in, and finally leveled the speakers with the adjustable spikes that are part of the Chorus 826W's base.

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