Focal Aria K2 936 loudspeaker

The first image that pops into my mind when I think of Focal is of the iconic Grande Utopias and how at one Montreal audio show I couldn't believe that the gentlest, sweetest music I'd heard all day was coming out of those massive speakers. I saw it as a paradox of sorts.

Founded in the City of Lights, Focal has been around since 1979, the year Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now received the Palme d'Or at Cannes and when the average annual income in America was $17,500. Focal started as a twinkle in the eye of engineer and technology journalist Jacques Mahul, who believed he'd built a speaker that would appeal to hi-fi enthusiasts: the DB13. Fast-forward half a century, and Focal, designated "entreprise du patrimoine vivant" (living heritage company) by the French government, employs some 230 people at its large, stylish, multilevel digs.

Those digs, like commercial buildings across much of the world today, are less than fully occupied. Wendy Knowles, head of PR for Focal Naim America and my point person at the company, told me in an email, "COVID has affected everyone within Focal. Initially, our manufacturing was on hold for roughly 6 weeks, until staff were brought back in segmented shifts. Management and sales staff were encouraged to work from home as much as possible." Focal managed to keep making speakers, and things have since become a bit more routine.

Lucky for me, the North American headquarters and warehouse for Focal Naim America are situated just 20 miles from where I live, near Montreal, which made getting the Arias to me a snap compared to the more elaborate scheming required, in the age of COVID, to get products in for review and out to reviewers. Just ask Editor Jim Austin.

The Aria K2 936
Nowadays, it's hard not to feel the pandemic's effect—on everything. In place of the usual white-glove service we reviewers are thought to receive, delivery of the Arias to my driveway was a drop-off-and-dash affair by Zorro, or so I thought at first. It turned out to be some other mysterious man in a mask. Thankfully, at a lean 70lb or so each, the speaker cartons weren't too difficult to maneuver down the stairs to my basement listening room, nor was the unboxing and setting up overly arduous. It is however a job best done by two people, at least in normal, unmasked times.

521focal.1

First thing that caught my eye as I removed the speaker's protective nylon hood was the shininess of its top panel's black, high-gloss finish. It looked sharp—and oh-so-prone to finger smudges. I was happy to find a cleaning cloth included with each speaker—a thoughtful touch. In fact, everything about the speaker's build, from the spiked base assembly to its premium Ash Grey side panels and leatherette baffle, seemed thoughtfully conceived. The Arias project style and sturdiness. Nothing seemed fragile or cheaply made. It was (literally) a solid first impression.

Even before I'd heard them, the Arias left me no doubt that they'd bee-lined from the factory to my house. Coming out of their boxes, they emitted a whiff of that new-factory smell. Each speaker still had its temporary Made-in-France sticker glued to its top, its protective tweeter cover in place, the protective floor tips for the spikes sealed in their bag. This pair was beginning its reviewer rounds with me. I was stoked .

I was doubly stoked because the Aria K2 936 is a Special Edition version of the Aria 936 that Robert Deutsch reviewed so glowingly in 2014, which remains in the Focal Aria line. The original 936 and the K2 version are essentially the same design: an almost 4' high, 3-way floorstander employing a 6.5" midrange, three 6.5" woofers, a down-firing 3" bass-reinforcement vent on its underside, a twin pair of ports on the front that the company describes in its literature as a "multi-port PowerFlow system for more impact," and a 1" inverted aluminum-magnesium dome tweeter whose symmetrically sleek design gave off science-fiction vibes.

Where the similarities between the base model and the K2 end is in their cabinet finishes, and midrange and bass drivers, and the crossovers. Focal's iconic, bright-yellow cones have been around since 1986; the yellow comes from aramid, a strong, heat-resistant, synthetic material that happens to be yellow. In the standard 936, the drivers use the easier-to-make F (for flax) cone, whereas in the K2, the cones' lightweight, rigid foam is sandwiched between the aramid layer and a layer of glass fibers, a configuration said to increase power handling and produce "a pure and precise sound, with no coloration."

I was impressed by the seeming solidity of the K2 936's cabinet construction, which is identical to the standard 936's. The user manual describes it as an "ultra-rigid MDF construction for very low vibrations." Intrigued—especially because I'd learned that Focal engineers design their drivers around the cabinet and not the other way around—I asked Wendy Knowles for more information about the cabinet construction. She replied, in an email I imagined she wrote in a sweat: "The engineers won't share that." The engineers gave me no choice but to get out my hacksaw to investigate for myself.

Kidding.

521focal.life

Claimed specs in the user manuals of both models are identical, offering no insight into how they compare sonically: Crossover frequencies at 260Hz and 3.1kHz. Frequency response of 39Hz–28kHz, ±3dB. Sensitivity of 92dB. Base and K2 versions share an unusual impedance rating, with a big gap between nominal (8 ohms) and minimal (2.8 ohms) impedance.

That last figure raised a flag, because in my review of the Grandinote Shinai—the first one, not the follow-up—John Atkinson, based on his measurements, warned against pairing the Shinai with speakers whose impedance dropped below 4 ohms. I was planning to use that same Shinai in this review. More intrigue.

Setup
The user manual advises setting up the speakers so that they form two vertices of an equilateral triangle, facing the listening chair (the third vertex). That's mostly how they ended up, although ultimately I preferred the bass response and soundstage with the speakers placed slightly farther apart from each other than from me, about 10' and 9.5', respectively, and toed in a little less than suggested so that they aimed just to each side of my head.

This setup reproduced the first half of the pink-noise track on Stereophile's Test CD 2 (CD, Stereophile STPH 004-2) as it's intended to be heard: as a smooth, narrow rushing-waterfall sound—no obvious frequency ranges standing out—seeming to emanate from precisely the center of the speaker positions. The stability of that narrow image was preserved when I leaned my head sideways or stood.

When setup was done, the gap in height between the tweeters and my ears was the widest I've encountered, the tweeters higher than my ears by about a foot. Even the midrange driver, just below the tweeter, stood 2" above my ears. Having a woofer—a real woofer, not a mid/bass driver—being the driver closest to ear level was a first for me.

COMPANY INFO
Focal
US and Canada distributor: Focal Naim America
313 Rue Marion, Repentigny
QC J5Z 4W8
(800) 663-9352
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
mtrot's picture

Any comment as to how the K2 936 sound in comparison to Aria 936? Inquiring minds want to know! I will say, with those neon yellow drivers, the WAF may suffer in comparison to the flax drivers.

As to the tweeter height, I also seem to have the situation of my ear level being a foot or more below the tweeters on many modern tower speakers, which is one reason I really like the way Focal positions the tweeters on the Kanta series.

MZKM's picture

At least Focal made the sound signature downward sloping to account for the directivity mismatch at the tweeter. However, would have liked it not to be there in the first place and thus allow a neutral listening window. Maybe it’s for higher sensitivity, but I’m not totally sure why so many companies have woofer sides drivers act as midranges (6.5” crossed at 3100Hz), 4” is usually the largest you want for good directivity.

Glotz's picture

is luscious and deep! I love the yellow aramid drivers in contrast as well.

leefy's picture

Focal (formerly JM Labs) did not begin in Paris but rather in Saint-Etienne just outside of Lyon where they are still located.
Aside from that minor quibble, thanks for the enjoyable review.

rschryer's picture

...to remove that quibble.

As per Wikipedia: "Focal-JMlab, a research office dedicated to acoustics was founded in 1979 in Paris..."

So we're good? :-)

leefy's picture

Hi Robert:

Thanks. I wasn't aware of that. I had visited the factory several times (as a dealer then. now retired) and talked to M. Mahul and he had never mentioned any Paris history so I was unaware of that. You learn something every day!

Thanks again for the review of what sounds like a lovely product.
Cheers
Lee

David C's picture

...Wikipedia is not always a reliable source. Both Robert Deutsch's review of the Aria 936 and the Focal website indicate that the company was founded in Saint Etienne, France. I would venture that Leefy made the comment in a good faith effort to correct a minor error, which should have been caught in editing, in what is otherwise a very enjoyable and informative review.

https://www.focal.com/en/dates-and-history-of-focal

leefy's picture

Thanks David

I did not want to pursue it as it might have been seen as pedantic (and it is a minor point) but I appreciate your kind words as I do think the Paris reference is an error on the part of Wikipedia. I'll leave it at that and stick with enjoying Robert's enjoyable review. Thanks again for your comment.

avanti1960's picture

if they included bi-amp terminals.
three way towers are prime candidates for bi-amplification.

Jack L's picture

Hi

Maybe this Focal model has been designed to be sensitive enough to operate without need of bi-wiring/bi-amping.

That said, I am a die-hard bi-wiring advocate ! IMO, bi-wiring (or bi-amping for this matter) can improve the sound of its single-wired version big time due to substantial reduction of hi & low requencies intermodulation inside the SAME connecting cable.

I converted my KEF 2-way standspeakers to bi-wiring by re-design/building its lousy factory X-over to do the job many many years back. The bi-wired conversion has made substantial sonic improvement with the rest of the rig remain UNchanged.

In fact, quite a few brand-name loudspeakers come with such biwiring/bi-amp terminals, including bookshelves. It only shows those bi-wired loudspeaker makers got good musical ears.

Bi-amp will be another story as it will involve complex outboard active/passive hi/low frequency crossovers & acoustical level balancing. It can be a can of worms for every Joe Blow consumers.

Listening is believing

Jack L

Kal Rubinson's picture
Quote:

In fact, quite a few brand-name loudspeakers come with such biwiring/bi-amp terminals, including bookshelves. It only shows those bi-wired loudspeaker makers got good musical ears.

That is certainly one possible interpretation. ;-)

teched58's picture

We have an unsolvable conundrum. As in, it's getting ridiculous, but this is what we've gotta indulge to survive. (I worked in the trade press for many years, and have personally experienced the, er, existential havoc wrought by the internet, beginning in the mid 90s and accelerating to death star mode after the bursting of the dot bomb bubble ca. 2001.)

JRT's picture

You could buffer the output of your existing amplifiers (flea powered tube amps?) with a pair of Musical Fidelity 750k Superchargers (circa 2008), and use those to power the loads full spectrum, if you can find some available for your purchase. The point of the exercise is that the Superchargers can power difficult loads while presenting an easy load to your tube amplifiers (you may need to add a suitable resistor across your amplifier outputs in parallel with the 50_Ohm load presented by the Supercharger), and the nonlinearities of your tube amplifiers will dominate the resulting sound character of the amplifier combination. Or you could buy a different pair of suitable amplifiers.

https://www.stereophile.com/solidpoweramps/1208mf/index.html

http://www.musicalfidelity.com/uploads/manuals/English/750k_manual_english.pdf

JRT's picture

I suggest that you consider using VituixCAD to provide a graphic showing an EPDR curve with impedance and phase curves with respect to frequency. In the image below, the dark gray color curve is impedance, the light gray color curve is phase, and the violet color curve is EPDR (Equivalent Peak Dissipation Resistance).

https://kimmosaunisto.net/Software/VituixCAD/VituixCAD_help_20.html#Impedance

While VituixCAD is free for private use, and you could try it out that way, the author Kimmo Saunisto charges €200 for first seat commercial license, and €50 each for additional commercial license seats.

You can import measurements taken using Arta Labs' Limp. A commercial license for Arta's software package is €149. You can try it for free.

I understand that you have Audio Precision measurement gear, but this is quick, easy, effective and accurate, and with laptop and compact outboard gear is more easily luggable when and where that might be an issue.

I have no affiliation with any of this. This is just a recommendation, not SPAM.

X