Focal Aria K2 936 loudspeaker Page 2

The Arias come with cloth grilles, of which I am not a fan, but with their sturdy plastic honeycomb exoskeleton, easy magnetic stick-on placement, and handsome looks, these cloth grilles are a notch above other cloth grilles I've come across. Still, I took Bob Deutsch's word when he wrote in his review of the original 936 that they sound better with no grilles, so the grilles went back in their boxes.

Along with the Totem Skylights, the Arias were the easiest speakers I've ever set up in my listening room, owing, likely, to two factors: I'm getting better at it, and their sound was less susceptible to room-reflection smearing.

Having reviewed the Shinai integrated when it wasn't fully broken in, I didn't want to take chances when it came to the Arias. I was happy to see a "Running-in period" section in the pamphlet-sized user manual. I was less happy when I read what it said: These speakers could take weeks to fully break in. I didn't have weeks!


The news got better, with the suggestion that the user operate the speakers for 20 hours straight to facilitate break in, at which point the worst should have passed. Leaving nothing to chance, I ran them for about 140 hours before doing any review-related listening. (I considered writing serious listening just then, but I couldn't bring myself to do that. Audio is too much fun to use that type of language.)

Sometime around the midpoint of that 140 hours, as I strolled haphazardly through the listening area while a CD was playing, something in the Arias' sound caught my attention. To confirm what I'd heard, I walked two feet here, a foot there, crouched, tilted my head, turned my head, listened between my legs. Wherever I stood and however I positioned myself, I heard a large swath of good-sounding music. Promising!

After the 140-hour mark, with the Focals connected to the Grandinote Shinai, the first thing I played was track 16, the bass one, on Stereophile Test CD 2. At 40Hz, bass was solid; at 31.5Hz, it was decent. At 25Hz it was, surprisingly, still audible, though more of a suggestion than an actual (warble) tone.

A fluke of remote-control button-pushing landed me on erstwhile Stereophile writer Corey Greenberg's composition "Eden"—track 14 on the Stereophile test CD—a trippy, effects-laden ode to Jimi Hendrix, who was Corey's inspiration to pick up the guitar. To record the piece, he plugged his electric guitar and its attendant effects devices directly into the mixing board then proceeded to let loose on his guitar and the gimmickry—imaginatively so. Through a spaciously wide but fake soundstage, guitar sounds blitzed, swirled, strummed, rumbled, and drifted. Not once in this busy sonic pastiche did I hear any of the varyingly soft, loud, fast, and slow sounds get in the way of each other or collide into a distorted sizzle. All these sounds coexisted peacefully, side by side.

Encouraged, I stepped back to track 13 on the same CD, Edward Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, Part 1 (conclusion), recorded in England's Ely Cathedral with a 200-strong choir. Recording engineer John Atkinson used a four-capsule Ambisonics array set to mimic a coincident pair of figure-8 microphones hanging some 12' above the conductor's head, to create the sensation of a huge space, the soloists and orchestra near, the choir farther out, the organ pipes farther still (footnote 1).


The Focals delivered it all. The tenor stood to the left, in a resonant space, his voice deep and forceful. Despite the near-overwhelming sense of space, the Focals directed my attention to the unflinching control the tenor exerts to sustain a note before skipping to the next and doing it over again. The orchestra sounded smooth and unctuous and caught me off guard with a climactic violin sweep—not a big sweep but a small one. Through the Focals, even small sweeps had lift and drama. When the 200-strong choir kicked in, the voices were a resounding wall of distinct rows of distinct singers.

If I held any biased prereview assumption, it was that the 936's aluminum-magnesium tweeter would exhibit an etched, metallic character. That was dead in the gutter—the assumption, not the tweeter. Its silky highs may as well have been woven by Rapunzel: They were a balm to my ears, without sounding dull or incongruous.


In Miles Davis's Miles in the Sky (LP, Columbia PC 9628), the sounds of Davis's trumpet and Wayne Shorter's sax in their synchronized opening motif on "Stuff" overlap each other, but, through the Arias, each instrument held on to its distinctive timbre. When Miles breaks away into the album's first solo, his blasted, protracted notes have structural integrity: the shape and texture of air expelled through taut lips and formed by a tubular brass object.

Ron Carter's bass lines and Tony Williams's funky drum work propelled the music forward, giving it buoyancy and swagger, without running over the other sounds. The pastel hues coming off Herbie Hancock's organ were at once delicate and well-stamped in space. The K2 936s have a balance that gives notes foundation and fleshes things out from the bottom up, but it isn't dark or obscuring. The soundstage had an illumined quality that gave me a front-row view into what each musician was doing. I couldn't recall the last time I heard the band on this album sounding this on the ball or inventive.


The Focals had their grip on the rhythmic pulse of the music. Plus, I had begun to suspect that something else was going on with these speakers that I couldn't yet put my finger on. I heard that rhythm and that something else on Patricia Barber's cover of Sonny & Cher's 1967 hit "The Beat Goes On" from her live album Companion (CD, Blue Note/Premonition 7243 5 22963 2 3). The track romped out of the gate with a physicality and live-event energy that underscored the main difference between listening to a jazz recording and being at a live, indoor jazz concert: the air—as it's pushed, rearranged, shoved aside, and otherwise pressurized.

The Focals brought me a sense of that live-venue air accompanied by out-of-body jolts provoked by a fleeting belief that I was out and about again, back in the social fabric, mingling in celebration with members of my species. Big, audacious music thrashed in the air while quieter sections throbbed against walls. And while the soundstage may not have been the deepest I've heard, the spatial relationships among the instruments were solid and seamless.

The acoustic guitar on "Let It Rain" produced rich, woody body tones. Details popped out, like the sticky "clack" of Hammond B3 keys being pressed and the minute ways Patricia alters and blends her voice with her breath to control her expression of the emotional substance of her lyrics. End-of-song applause surprised me by the number of handclaps I was hearing: Were there more people in the audience than before?


I heard similar detail at the beginning of "At Home," from the Tord Gustavsen Trio's album Being There (CD, ECM 2017 B0008757-02), specifically in how the air whipped and settled around the piano pedals as Gustavsen compressed and decompressed them, and in the snare-sweeping technique of Jarle Vespestad's brushwork. Piano chords came at me like jumbo fruit slices across the ambient air—rotund, reverberant, and tender. Bass lines were limber and bold, while drums and most notably the cymbals sounded simultaneously weighty and weightless. "At Home" starts off slow, builds to a fast tempo, then returns to slow. I'd never felt these parts as being quite the melancholy-to-jubilance-and-back-to-melancholy journey as I did here. The track touched me more than usual.

And that's when it hit me, what that something else was, so obvious now: The Focals were champs at rhythm, but even more, they were masters of melody, of digging out melodies and stringing them together. Of flow.


Alice Coltrane's Journey to Satchidananda (LP, Impulse! IMP-228) has oodles of melodies and volleys of jangling, rattling, juxtaposed tambourine sounds. The best gear will separate most of the tambourines in space and by their timbres—but not all, because at points the tambourines are meant to merge into an indistinguishable mass.

I also noted that the title track's tempo had been relaxed. Not slowed down but made more fluid. It sounded unusually sensual and undistorted. The soundstage was regally grand, billowy, lavish. Tambourines shimmered and shook along well-separated paths until they clashed, but the most meaningful thing I can report is how much I enjoyed listening to Pharoah Sanders's and Coltrane's solos despite having heard them countless times and knowing them so well I can whistle them note for note. They just sounded right. And melodic as all get-out. The Focals renewed my awe for music I'd been taking for granted.


I finished my listening with the most live-sounding of my studio albums, Junior Wells's Southside Blues Jam (LP, Delmark DS-628) featuring Junior and his longtime musical cohort and friend Buddy Guy along with guitarist Louis Myers, drummer Fred Below, and pianist and Blues Hall of Fame inductee Otis Spann.

Listening to "You Say You Love Me," I pictured the boys bonding over music and a bottle of whiskey in a smoky, makeshift recording studio abutting a pool hall. Did that happen? Doesn't matter. The Focals allowed me to live that fantasy. The music was conspicuously groovy, each person's contribution well-defined in an acoustically vivid environment. Junior's voice sounded close-up and earthy with its trademark mix of suave and cocky. But there was an extra pinch of pathos in his voice, even when after a song had ended he asked the band if he did alright. The Focals, in the context of my system, injected humanity and vitality in a 50-year-old recording. It gave me comfort, albeit bittersweet, knowing that cool cats like Junior, Otis, Louis, and Fred are survived by their music.

In my smallish room, the K2 936s endowed the music with a warm, hearty tone that sounded about as unclinical as I could imagine music sounding. Music poured out of them adorned of flesh and a pulse. But the Aria's strongest suit lies in its ability to mine out melodies and give them gravitas. Its defining spirit is that of a melodymaker.

It is, as well, a speaker of paradoxes. Like those mighty Grand Utopias that sang like nightingales at that Montreal audio show, the K2 936 combines qualities that would seem to work against each other, but here they work together: smooth and dynamic. Power with finesse. Rich and detailed; warm and transparent. The K2 936 played all genres of music in a way that made them engaging to listen to. The Focals breathed the music in and out. They sucked me in with their whispers and pushed me back with their force.

I can't imagine the average audiophile, or music lover, not liking the K2 936. That's not to say it's for everyone; it might not be the best choice for, say, a small, square room, or if it has to be placed against walls or fed by overly rich-sounding electronics. But in the right room, dialed in just so, the Arias offer the whole package: smooth highs, warm and detailed mids, bass you can feel and that can carry a tune.

Perhaps most surprisingly, at normal-to-high listening levels, with the 37Wpc Grandinote Shinai, the K2 936s never sounded underfed. On the contrary. Despite their claimed 2.8 ohm minimum impedance, they breezed through everything I played, repeatedly making me want to hear just one more song.

Starting now, I won't be surprised if the first image to pop into my mind when I think of Focal is that of the Aria K2 936.

Footnote 1: Although Stereophile Test CD 2 is no longer available, you can download the complete performance of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius here. The pink noise and warble tones RS used to set-up the Focal speakers are still available on our Editor's Choice CD.—John Atkinson
US and Canada distributor: Focal Naim America
313 Rue Marion, Repentigny
QC J5Z 4W8
(800) 663-9352

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.

Onthehouse88's picture

Focal doesn't use the same drivers for midrange and woofer's in their speakers. The midrange are designed to work as a midrange and the woofer are made to work as a woofer, the drivers do their job as intended - but yes many other companies, use the same drivers for midrange and the woofers.

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 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.

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.

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


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

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.

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).

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.