Does greatness in stereo translate to similar ability when it comes to surround?
What is the Focal Aria?One line of lively discussion that has occupied AV and two channel enthusiasts alike for longer than AVForums has existed is whether what makes a speaker great in stereo necessarily makes them as effective in extended surround. Some speaker companies don’t make any bones about their speakers being strictly designed for stereo use. At the other end of the scale, companies have also been designing speakers that are built almost exclusively for multichannel use. The requirements are somewhat different - a stereo speaker works to create a soundstage between two speakers via a relatively wide dispersion from each speaker. This is far less important for multichannel where the amount of a soundstage each speaker is called upon to produce is smaller. Equally, the integration between multiple speakers of different shapes placed at different heights can be a challenge for a speaker designed to work with a single identical partner.
Those of you who keep up with AVForums reviews (and my thanks to you if you do) will know that part of this system has been seen by us before. The Focal Aria 906 arrived as a stereo pair and did extremely well. All of the characteristics that Focal speakers historically excelled at - tonal accuracy, impressive clarity and incredible detail retrieval - were present and correct. Where the 906 differed from some Focal designs of old was that these attributes were paired with a sense of liveliness and fun that meant that the 906 was more entertaining to spend time with that had been the case with some other models. Now the 906 has been sent to the back and joined by the 926 floorstanders and the CC900 centre speaker. Does an ability in stereo translate to multichannel brilliance and can the fun factor I experienced come across in five channels?
Focal Aria DesignThe technology that makes up the Aria speakers has been covered at length in the review of the 906 but very briefly, the Aria range makes use of technology derived from the flagship Utopia range which uses a driver technology called W Sandwich which uses layers of fibreglass in differing thicknesses and densities to produce drivers that work at different frequencies. This works a treat but does tend towards being too expensive to use in speakers that don’t cost several thousand pounds each.
The solution is what Focal calls F Sandwich and uses flax for some of the more expensive fibreglass layers. This works well - the driver has most of the desirable properties of its bigger brothers at a cost which is still significant but substantially reduced over the Utopia and Electra ranges. Partnered with an aluminium tweeter that also uses data from the beryllium ones used higher up in the range. These drivers are used in all the members of the range and the result is a very cohesive set of speakers. Each unit contains a single example of the tweeter and at least one of the 6.5in mid bass style drivers.
In the case of the 926, there are also two bass drivers with a different dust cap that give it a frequency response down to 37Hz (albeit with a 6dB roll off). This means that Focal elected to send the system as a five channel only. There is no sub in the Aria range and to provide meaningful low end extension you would need to be looking at a very substantial device indeed. It is also worth pointing out that the 926 is the smallest floorstander in the Aria range. The whopping 948 sports a pair of 8.25in drivers per speaker and should have some serious bass to it. By comparison, the CC900 is almost compact but with a pair of the 6.5 inch drivers, it disposes of significant grunt in its own right.
The stereo members of the set - the 906 and 926 are front ported and in the case of the 906 acting as the rears in the set, it does mean that they can be placed fairly close to the rear wall if space is tight. When used in stereo, this had a negative effect on performance but in the context of rear speakers, this seems to be much less of an issue. The CC900 is rear ported which is unusual in Focal design practice. Rather than a port as large as the one on the front of the 906, the CC900 instead uses a smaller pair of ports which presumably divide into one per driver. In practice, these don’t seem to be affected by using the CC900 in a confined space.
The F Sandwich drivers are not only a clever solution at a lower price point but handsome in appearance, giving the speakers a touch of colour.
The 926 has both a sizeable front port and a downward firing one. This is given the space it needs to function by virtue of the plinth that the speaker needs to have attached. This is a single piece of cast metal and is possibly the only annoying aspect of the design of any of the speakers in the set. As well as requiring the speaker to be inverted to fit, the levelling process for the spikes is slightly involved and not as easy as the same process on the Tannoy Precisions but this is really only something you are going to have to do once. All of the speakers are fitted for single wiring as is the Focal tradition.
The rest of the design of the Aria set is very appealing and the build quality is as good as the 906 samples that were supplied last year. The F Sandwich drivers, as well as providing a clever solution to building composite drivers at a lower price point, also have a very handsome appearance and give the speakers a touch of colour. The review set was assembled from different sources and this meant that the 926s were finished in walnut while the centre and surrounds were in gloss black. The walnut finish is interesting because initially, I wasn’t exactly bowled over by them. It is smart enough but many rivals are supplying speakers in a real veneer by this price point and the 926 didn’t sit happily in the room. Halfway through the review process, the room was repainted with the wall behind the speakers going from a cream to a light blue. For reasons I’m sure more décor savvy people will understand, this colour sets off the walnut far better and I’m much keener on them since. Given that the gloss black comes at a price premium, it would be worth checking the walnut finish out as it might look excellent or not.
Focal Aria SetupThe Focals were setup in my lounge on the end of a Cambridge Audio 751R and 752BD player combination. As Focal did not supply a sub, the Arias were used with and without a Tannoy TD12 sub to see what low end extension they were capable of and how a sub augmented them. Additional source material came from a Sky HD box, NAD DAC 2 wireless DAC and Netflix via the built in ap on a Panasonic GT60 series Plasma. Material used included Blu-ray, DVD, lossless and high res FLAC as well as Spotify and Grooveshark.
Focal Aria Sound QualityThe Arias all arrived with some hours on them which means that I have little real understanding of how much running in a brand new pair would need but historically Focal speakers have benefitted from having plenty of hours on them before making a real judgement about their performance. There are also some brief pointers on setup. While the 906s worked well with a small amount of toe-in, the 926s were not happy in this configuration and worked best pointing directly forward. I was also forewarned by Focal that the crossover arrangements of the 926 can confuse some auto calibration software but this is hardly unusual with two and a half and three way designs.
With these niggling details taken care of, the Arias get a huge amount right. How much right? During the testing phase, I intended to use a single scene from Rush to make some considered judgements on effects panning and with sound effects that I was basically familiar with. I ended up watching the whole thing. Part of this can be ascribed to the fact it was the first time I had seen the film in a while and I rather enjoy it but it was also because the presentation courtesy of the Arias was seriously good.
This is down to a number of reasons. As you might expect from the way that the 906s performed in stereo, the amount of information that the Aria set extracts from the soundtrack is absolutely at the top of what you might expect at or anywhere near the price point. The climatic race in Rush is packed full of effects that eluded me in the cinema. Behind the roar of engines, suspension creaks, water gurgles over bodywork and under tyres and the commentary over the top is crystal clear. The experience is utterly immersive- something that genuinely transported me from a lounge in Buckinghamshire to the sodden Fuji circuit.
Another reason why Rush was so effective in this regard is that the 40Hz roll off of the 926 is not too much of a problem for a film with no really significant sub bass. Make no mistake, it packs a hefty punch for a relatively sensibly sized speaker but switching to the more LFE charged Pacific Rim does show up the lack of the bottom octave. Switching the burly Tannoy TD12 into the mix brings some of this back but removes some of the impressive speed that the Focals have. If you do want to augment the Arias, you will need to budget a fair amount on top of the £3,000 you will have already spent.
I am under no illusions that £3,000 is a serious amount of money but the way that these speakers perform as a surround set is genuinely excellent. The last pair of speakers of a similar price to go through the review process was the Tannoy Precision set which made full use of their dual concentric drivers to produce seamless integration but in some ways, the sheer scale of the Focals has them beaten. The handover between the speakers is imperceptible and even though the materials used for tweeters and main drivers is very different, it is virtually impossible to work out when one ends and one begins.
The listening experience is utterly immersive
The movement of information from front to back is also excellent and the 906 manages to throw out a very wide amount of information which makes it an effective surround speaker as well as a stereo one. The effectiveness of the Focals as stereo speakers still shines through with the 926 used in two channel. While they might not do a nuclear explosion complete justice, the bass response for music is excellent with real potency and drive to it. The ‘fun factor’ that the 906 showed in stereo doesn’t necessarily translate to film - the soundtrack takes more of a defining role here - but the 926 is as capable as its little brother in stereo. A spirited performance of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall is still the hugely entertaining mix of punch and agility that the 906 has - with the bass heft that the 906 was slightly lacking in.
Against this array of talent, the only real weaknesses that the Arias showed in extended use was a sense that they really come into their own at higher levels which can leave them sounding a little soft at low volumes and they are not desperately forgiving of some low bitrate material although Netflix and Sky sound more than acceptable. Against this, the Arias are impressively sensitive and don’t need excessive amounts of power to reach high sound levels. You shouldn’t skimp on the quality of the amplification but you don’t need an amp the size of a storage heater to make them run.
- Exceptionally immersive and detailed sound
- Excellent build
- Superb stereo performance
- Very demanding of partnering sub
- Slightly recessed at lower volumes
- Gloss black finish a cost option
Focal Aria Surround System ReviewThe answer to whether what makes a great stereo speaker also makes a fine surround speaker isn’t going to be definitively put to bed with one example but the Focal Aria system does make use of many of the attributes that make it a fine stereo performer and use them to great effect in film. Detail retrieval, the cohesion and depth of the soundstage and the astonishing tonal accuracy all combine to great effect. If you aren’t a bass monster, it is also capable of doing justice to many films without a subwoofer. I’m going to be very sad to see them go.
The thorny question of whether the Aria is better than the Tannoy Precision is difficult to answer. The Tannoy is slightly softer in terms of presentation which makes it a little more forgiving and I still think that it is one of the finest pieces of industrial designs going. The Focal responds with that astonishing detail and depth to the performance that has you engrossed in front of films instead of analysing them. Picking a winner is tough but anyone lucky enough to be in a position to be making that choice for real is unlikely to wind up disappointed.
Value For Money8
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.