Soundbar or Sound Plinth? Focal lets you decide.
What is it?Over the last year or so, I’ve presented a number of different products as a possible ‘alternative to a soundbar.’ This is partly down to an innate conservatism on my part where I generally prefer two speakers to one and partly down to a desire to show that there are some interesting alternatives to a thin black box on the market. That soundbar sales have continued to put in some strong numbers and not only at affordable entry level price points either, suggests I'm barking up the wrong tree. Perhaps it is time for me to join the party rather than doing the equivalent of standing in the kitchen telling people about other parties.
I have to square this with the requirements I have of a product of this nature. I watch a great deal of broadcast television (rather too much of it is Baby TV at the moment but that’s the nature of things), on demand services and a good smattering of films too but I also need this equipment to play music and my experiences with single point speakers up until this point have not been that good. Additionally, as my TV sits on stand rather than a wall, I need something that works well in this context.
Enter Focal. I have tested two channel products from the company before and was seriously impressed by the Aria speakers in a surround configuration. The company has pedigree with stereo and multichannel and the Dimension Soundbar has been designed apparently with people like me in mind and it is intended to be as happy in stereo as it is with TV. As a final nod to my concerns, it is supplied with an optional subwoofer that serves to act as a plinth for a TV. All jolly clever, so is this burly Frenchman the answer to my soundbar phobia?
What does it look like?The Dimension is a pair of components one of which can be used independently and one that acts as an optional (but not compulsory) add on. The Dimension Soundbar is designed for screens of 50 inch or greater and is a five channel soundbar with HDMI inputs, switching and ARC as well as a single digital and optical input. The Dimension is designed to be wall mounted but also has brackets that allow it to be placed on a flat surface in front of a plinthed TV.
The Dimension soundbase is a matching piece of styling that turns a Soundbar into a Soundplinth. It is designed to sit behind the soundbar and offer some additional bass heft. This means you can have a self-contained system that is able to act as audio system, video switching and TV plinth but equally, you can look to other bass solutions.
The Dimension is built around five identical drivers that are front mounted. These are only 26mm deep but are designed with a view to giving the Dimension a frequency range down to 60Hz without the subwoofer. The exact construction of these drivers is not specified but it would be a fairly radical departure from the Focal design philosophy if they didn’t make use of drivers made from composite materials.
These drivers are powered by 75W class D amplifiers, with one allocated to each channel. These are placed inside a one piece aluminium monoblock that is designed for rigidity and torsional strength - fairly important in a device that is as long as the Dimension is. The chassis also includes two long bass ports at the rear of the Dimension that act to give it the low-end extension that Focal claims. In the centre of the rear panel is the input board comprising an HDMI input, optical input, analogue connection and an HDMI output with ARC as well as an RCA subwoofer connection. Additionally Focal sells a universal wireless receiver that allows for your Dimension to converse via Apt-X Bluetooth.
The Sound Base looks similar and matches well with the Dimension but is made from MDF. Although no taller than the main soundbar it manages to pack a pair of 8x3in drivers working in an opposed arrangement to prevent from rhythmically pumping your TV up and down. This adds extension to 35Hz and is entirely powered by a sixth channel of amplification on board the Dimension and connects to the soundbar via a dedicated cable.
The Focal is a big piece of kit but the build is excellent and the styling is butch but handsome.
How do I set it up?The Focal had a slightly difficult installation process, where much of which is down to the curiosities of my setup than any actual design issue. All of my cabling is as short as possible as it sits behind my rack and the Dimension mounted at the top and the front simply proved too long for my existing connections to handle. I’m therefore deeply grateful to The Chord Company for the loan of some longer HDMI and optical cables to enable the review to happen. With this in situ, the Dimension was tested with a Panasonic GT60, Sky HD and a Cambridge Audio 752BD as well as my Lenovo ThinkPad for Apt-X Bluetooth. Material used included broadcast TV, blu ray, DVD, on demand services and lossless and compressed audio via the laptop.
What's good about it?The Dimension has been designed with a view to being independent of side walls and boasts a very wide claimed soundstage thanks to the design and the physical width. This setup is mirrored in adjustable settings for the size of room and the distance from the listener (although this makes for a feeling of poverty akin to watching Location, Location, Location when you realise your lounge is firmly in the smallest setting). Dolby Digital and DTS are supported and there are pseudo surround modes too. If you are wall mounting, Focal has had the presence of mind to fit a standard sub out and there are plenty of designs in their line-up that will fit.
The Focal is a big piece of kit but the build quality is excellent and the styling is butch but handsome. There is a truly lovely finish in the form of the touch panel control on the side of the Dimension. This activates when you wave a hand near it and is reminiscent of an LCARS terminal from Star Trek (you are welcome to keep your opinions on how cool you consider this to be to yourself). The installation process is simple enough and for a big piece of equipment, the Focal manages to look usefully subtle.
What's not so good?One of the reasons, I spent as much time as I did using the touch panel is because the remote is small, plastic and almost perfectly optimised to the task of being lost down the side of the sofa cushions. Focal seems to be hoping that a fair bit of control will be undertaken via CEC over HDMI but this is not a given because with only a single HDMI input, the Dimension is not going to be as effective as an input switching hub as some of the competition. Whether the connection set of the Dimension is going to be enough for you will come down to the makeup of your system.
There is also no getting away from the issue that the Dimension with Sound Base and bluetooth module included is significant money for a soundbar. The category is increasing in scope and price but the Focal is near the top of the tree and faces competition in an absolute sense from a 5.1 package and sensibly priced AV amp combination although as the market shows, customers aren’t generally shopping for these items as an either/or.
What does it sound like?How does it work for films and TV?
Really rather well. I have always regarded the Yamaha Sound Projectors as my favourite single point sources for multichannel and their beam system is extremely effective. The Focal works in a perceptibly different way to the Yamaha as it is less reliant on walls and there is a sense of immediacy to surround information that is subtly different to the reflection process. With my old favourite Unstoppable on the 752BD, there is a genuine immersion to the viewing experience and no sense that the performance is only due from the front centre stage.
The levels of detail and separation are impressive too. Dialogue is unfailingly clear and easy to follow and the Focal manages to present the fine detail that makes film soundtracks truly exciting things to listen to. Neither is there any shortage of headroom. The Dimension has no difficulty in my admittedly ‘bijou’ lounge of sustaining 90dB with peaks comfortably in excess of this. The 75W per driver figure seems entirely believable and the Dimension makes good use of it. Indeed, the Focal is actually a little more challenged at the other end of the scale. The volume ramp of the Focal is such that from mute upwards, it is generally producing a fairly spirited performance. It is actually possible for me to get a quieter listening level out of my AV amp than the Focal which is a little curious but shouldn’t be a huge issue.
Broadcast TV keeps most of the same qualities as film although the Dimension is not as capable at creating rear presence when only given a stereo signal to work with. Once again, all of the basics are there - clear and weighty dialogue and plenty of incidental detail. Even poor soundtracks are opened out with a degree of conviction that is very impressive and often something that sub sat systems find challenging. There is no question that the physical width of the design helps the soundstage considerably but Focal has clearly done more than simply ensure the drivers are far apart to achieve the spaciousness that it has.
How does it work for music?
I confess I embarked on music testing with fairly negligible expectations but even working on this principle, the Dimension is better than I expected it to be. Multichannel music benefits from the same attributes as film material does and provided that the rear channel information is well encoded and not overblown, the Focal is well within its comfort zone. Stereo is perhaps the more surprising element of the way that the Focal performs. There is a stereo image and a cohesion that is reminiscent of two speakers rather than one. I’m relatively spoiled in that I have a dedicated two channel system that is always going to crush any piece of AV equipment but listening to the Dimension isn’t a chore.
The Bluetooth module is well implemented, easy to use and has reasonable range (although after testing the Musical Fidelity V90 Blu, everything has to take second place to the extension the aerial on that allows for). If the argument from Focal is that this performance can’t be built into the Dimension for the asking price, that is possibly fair enough but given that many soundbars are bought sight unseen, customers are likely to choose between the model that has Bluetooth as standard and the one that doesn’t in a fairly inevitable way.
Is the Soundbase any good?Yes - very much so. Inexpensive passive subwoofers are treated with some fairly justified scepticism but given that the Dimension has amplification on board for the task and the Soundbase has obviously been designed to work with it, the partnership is effective and has some impressive low end heft to it. Equally, the counter firing principle is well implemented because very little radiated energy can be felt through the top panel even when the sub is going great guns.
Connecting the Focal to a Tannoy TS2.12 instead of the Soundbase gives more bass extension as you might expect and the 60Hz extension of the Dimension makes for a fairly smooth crossover. If you are wallmounting, the performance with aftermarket subs is unlikely to disappoint but if you are using the Dimension on a stand, it would foolish not to at least try the Soundbase because it works so well in terms of both performance and design.
Dialogue is unfailingly clear and easy to follow and the Focal manages to present the fine detail that makes film soundtracks truly exciting things to listen to
- Impressively dynamic and powerful sound
- Capable in stereo
- Excellent build and handsome aesthetics
- Limited inputs
- Bluetooth is a cost option
- Doesn't really do quiet
Focal Dimension Soundbar and Sound base ReviewI’ve come out of the review process of the Dimension in a more positive frame of mind about soundbars than I went in and this is undoubtedly due in no small part to the positive qualities that the Focal possesses. It is easy for me to point out that an AV amp and sub/sat package offers more scope for upgrades and offers a more immersive experience but this is to completely miss the point. The Focal offers excellent surround performance and a genuinely surprising stereo quality that is wrapped in a single, well built and well thought out chassis. The Soundbase is an impressive add on that adds useful bass extension and a TV mounting solution at the same time.
Should I buy one?
There is plenty of competition and there is no arguing that £1,190 for the whole package is a fair amount of money. The inputs are a little on the limited side and given that as many screens have Bluetooth as they do, many people are likely to find a workaround sending a signal to the Focal via ARC and do without that cost. The Dimension gets a great deal more right than it does wrong though and if you are after a stylish soundbar that can deliver a hefty punch, the Focal is far too good to ignore.
Ease of Use8
Value for Money8
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