Focal Aria 936 loudspeaker Page 2

One of my favorite tests of transient response is track 3 of the Chesky Records Jazz Sampler & Audiophile Test Compact Disc, Vol.1 (JD37): Brazilian singer Ana Caram's "Viola Fora de Moda." It's not the sort of music I normally listen to—and in terms of absolute fidelity, this 25-year-old recording it may not measure up to the resolution of the latest 24-bit/96kHz sources—but I'm very familiar with it, and it features lots of percussion instruments that challenge the ability of speakers (and other audio components) to reproduce their sounds. Through the Aria 936, the bells, cymbal, etc., rang out freely, with delicacy and without any harshness—much like the real thing. The sound of the cymbal at 0:54 was particularly telling in its clarity, with a crisp onset and a gradual decay. And while the Aria 936 couldn't match the startling dynamics of the horn-hybrid Avantgarde Uno Nano, it came surprisingly close.

In tonal balance, speakers have come a long way from the days when you had to choose between East Coast (mellow, muted highs) and West Coast (bright, punchy, forward) sounds. As a group, the speakers I've reviewed lately—Monitor Audio Platinum 200, MartinLogan Montis, Wharfedale Jade 7, Focal Chorus 826W, GoldenEar Triton Two, PSB Imagine T2 Tower—offer tonal balances in the "neutral" category, and the differences among them fall into a fairly narrow range. The Aria 936 definitely joins them in this category. In olden days (when, as Cole Porter fans will recall, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking), one was likely to adjust an amplifier's bass and treble controls to compensate for a speaker's departure from tonal neutrality. Tone controls have pretty well disappeared from high-performance audio gear, but if we had them, with the Aria 936 I would be inclined to leave the dials in the Flat (or bypass) position. Bass, midrange, and treble were all present in a well-balanced way, with no part of the audioband jumping out at me or sounding too muted.


One thing the Aria 936 was not was "bright." I mention this specifically because, in my occasional browsing of Internet audio forums, I've encountered the statement that "Focal speakers tend to be bright." Based on my experience with the Aria 936, and with the earlier Chorus 826W, I must disagree. Extended highs, transparent to the tonal characteristics of the recording and of the associated equipment—yes. But from what I've been able to determine, the Aria 936 did not add significant brightness of its own. I can certainly imagine that with a cheap-and-not-so-cheerful amplifier, and a particularly "digital"-sounding source, the resulting sound could be brighter than ideal. I preferred to set my Ayre Acoustics CX-7eMP CD player to its Listen rather than its Measure filter—but then, that was my preference with other speakers as well. And while there were differences in the sound depending on whether the electronics were the solid-state Simaudio Moon pair or the tubed CAT and McIntosh, in neither case could the sound be described as too bright—or too soft, for that matter. Vocal sibilants are, for me, the most telling indicators of exaggerated treble—a "spitty" character that I find very annoying. However, the treble of the Aria 936 was clean and extended but not overly bright, with no emphasis added to sibilants—a tribute to the design of Focal's new tweeter.

I noted earlier that one of my reasons for choosing the Aria 936 over the smaller Aria 926 was that the 936 has an additional woofer and a claimed bass extension to 32Hz, or 5Hz lower than the 926. I was concerned that the bass might be too much for my room, but that wasn't a problem. (The pair of ASC Bass Traps in the front corners probably helped in this respect.) The bass sounded extended—not quite as low or as room-filling as the GoldenEar Triton Twos, but at least comparable to the PSB Imagine T2s. The Aria 936 went low enough to pass my usual low-frequency test—the 32Hz synthesizer note at the beginning of "Temple Caves," from Mickey Hart's Planet Drum (CD, Rykodisc RCD 10206)—with maybe a bit more assurance than the PSBs. Double basses, bowed or plucked, were firm, not weak or exaggerated, and no obvious unevenness manifested throughout the instrument's range.

Colorations—a speaker drawing attention to the fact that the sounds heard are not being made by musicians playing instruments in the room but are emanating from a box and result from vibrations produced by transducers—are endemic to loudspeakers, and controlling them represents perhaps the greatest challenge in speaker design. The Aria 936 did exceptionally well in this department, mixing very little "speaker sound" in with the music. For the most part, I found it easy to pretend that the sounds in my room were of real voices and real instruments, and not of electromechanical contrivances mounted in wooden boxes. The use of flax in the sandwich construction of the midrange and bass drivers, and judicious internal bracing of the cabinet, must have played major roles in allowing the Aria 936 to be so free of any characteristic "speaker sound."

The soundstage presented by the pair of Aria 936s and the precision of the images within that soundstage were first-rate. Depending, of course, on the source material, the soundstage was deep as well as wide, and had good specificity of images within the soundstage. Listening to the series of "Depth of Image: Acoustic Clicker" tracks on the Chesky Jazz Sampler & Audiophile Test CD, Vol.2 (JD68), I could hear all of the increases in depth up to 70', just one step short of the maximum 80'.

Most of my listening to the Aria 936 was with the CAT SL1 Renaissance and McIntosh MC275LE. This was a very good combination: there were no obvious "tube" colorations, but a very liquid, "musical" sound. I also listened quite a bit through the Simaudio Moon Evolution 740P preamp and 860A power amp. Although my preference remains with the tubed combo, I had no difficulty getting accustomed to the sound of the solid-state Simaudio gear, and came to appreciate their highly detailed but still nonclinical sound, and their ability to drive the Arias to a higher level than the tubed gear without strain.


Of course, the CAT/McIntosh and, especially, the Simaudio preamp/amp combos, while not crazy-priced, are still on the expensive side, costing more than most potential buyers of the Aria 936 are likely to spend. Do you have to spend big bucks to get the Aria 936 to sound good? I would say the answer is "No." My go-to product for a moderately priced integrated amplifier is the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium ($2299). It worked well with the Aria 936, its 35Wpc not a real limitation at the levels I normally use, and while it had just a bit more tube character and a bit less ultimate transparency than the CAT/McIntosh duo, the Focal/PrimaLuna pairing is one I could live with quite comfortably. I'm not experienced with solid-state integrated amps at about the $2000 price point, but a perusal of the most recent edition of Stereophile's "Recommended Components" and talking to a good dealer should help to identify some likely contenders.

"A big, spacious sound, tonally neutral, with impressive dynamics, and powerful bass for the size of the speaker." That was my capsule description of the sound of Focal's Chorus 826W 30th Anniversary, and it also describes the Aria 936, which is all of those things—and more. As befits its somewhat larger size and additional woofer, the Aria 936 reaches further down into the bass, without the bass sounding boomy or bloated. No longer having samples of the Chorus 826W on hand for comparison, and thus having to rely on my memory and listening notes, I may be on thin ice here, but I'm comfortable saying that the sound of the Aria 936 is more detailed and more transparent, and its highs are particularly clear and extended without sounding in any way forward or clinical. Soundstages are bigger, and aural images within those soundstages are more precisely defined.

The word voice has long been associated with the reproduction of music, going back to His Master's Voice, Electro-Voice, and Altec's Voice of the Theater. It is thus most appropriate that Focal has named their newest line of speakers Aria, a term that refers to vocal music. With the right source and suitable partnering electronics, the Aria 936 sings with a beautiful voice.

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

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

You suggested perusal of Recommended Components for a good matching amp. Perhaps it's time for Stereophile to develop an app which matches recommended or reviewed components based on reviewer-observed synergies? Now that's an app that could save our hobbyists a lot of money and frustration! You could use all the usual criteria such as speaker efficiency v.s. amp output, but also provide guidance on frequency balance matching, i.e.; soft phono preamp with bright cartridge.

remlab's picture

..has that old Focal/Wilson 20khz resonance. Compensates for us old guys hearing.

Allen Fant's picture

This newest series are on my radar to demo. In the past, I really liked the 918/928 models.

I am interested in the new driver material.

eriks's picture

Unfortunately a lot of listeners point the Focal's straight to their ears. This might be good for many speaker's, but not for the Profile's which shared a similar tweeter design and resonance. They have a more neutral tonal balance and image much better with the speaker's toed in as little as possible.

eriks's picture

Hey Robert,

You might have been snookered a little by Focal. While they make good stuff, the al/mg tweeter with a poron surround has been around for about a decade. It's not so new. Still sounds good though. :)



Vlasto's picture

Focals are actually paired very ofter with German T+A...very pleased combination ...


latinaudio's picture

Where did you saw that combination? I have a pair of Focal Electra 926 plus T+A electronics and the highs still sizzle, although the bass performance got better...

growboxguy's picture

On a whim I just purchased a set of Aria 926 for the crazy price of $1799 shipped, brand new from an authorized reseller. I had to take the white color for that price but hey, I will work with it.

My question is will these mate well with my Bryston 3b SST? I listen to mainly rock at high volumes, I use a subwoofer crossing at 60 hz so low end wont be a problem. My system consists of a Bryston BDP-2, Teac UD-301 DA converter, Yamaha CX-A 5000 preamp, Bryston 3b sst for mains and an old school Classe Audio DR-10 on a pair of JL Audio 12w6v3 in a custom sealed enclosure.

Thanks so much!