What is the Focal Astral 16?
The Astral 16 was developed in conjunction with Immersive Audio Technologies, a major player in the multichannel and immersive audio markets due to its association with Storm Audio and Auro Technologies. As a result, the Focal is essentially a rebadged version of the Storm Audio ISP 3D.16 Elite, and the Astral 16 not only handles Auro-3D but also the more common Dolby Atmos and DTS:X object-based audio formats.
The 12 built-in channels are augmented by four balanced XLR outputs, resulting in a maximum of 16 channels. All these channels are fully configurable from 2.0 to 9.1.6 and just about everything in between including bi-amping your speakers or adding any number of subwoofers. There’s also Dirac Live to apply room correction, along with filters, EQ curves and bass crossovers for manual fine-tuning.
The Astral 16 is a high-end product and comes with at an equally high-end cost of £20,000 as at the time of writing (December 2019). To justify such an eye-watering price tag it’s going to need to deliver a suitably impressive multichannel and immersive audio performance. So let’s wire up 11 speakers and two subwoofers and find out.
Related: What is Dolby Atmos?
The centrally mounted 4.3-inch display is flanked by three control buttons on the left, and a volume dial and a power switch on the right. The volume dial is extremely granular in terms of adjustments, but the three control buttons (edit, enter, and exit) only allow for minimal adjustments. The reason for this is that the Astral 16 is designed to be set-up and fully controlled using a web-based interface. Having said that, the display itself does at least provide plenty of useful information, as you can see below.
At the rear are also some fairly large fans, which are essential for keeping the amplification and processing cool. Unfortunately, they do generate quite a bit of noise, but that’s not likely to be an issue if the Astral 16 is installed in an equipment rack that’s located elsewhere. However, if you’re planning on positioning the Focal in the same room as everything else, you'll need to keep the noise factor in mind. The Astral 16 measures 191 x 479 x 490mm (HxWxD), and weighs 20.0kg.
Related: What is DTS:X?
Control and Connections
However, not being a custom installer with access to a control system, or owning an iPad, this did cause a few issues for me. I was forced to use my laptop, which is less than ideal when all you want to do was change the volume. However, the good news is that the web-based user interface is really well designed and highly intuitive, making both set up and control of the pro/amp easy, flexible and responsive (see below).
All you need to do is plug the Astral 16 into your router, get the processor's network address from the front display, type that into your browser and you’re good to go. The resulting screen gives you a choice of Remote or Setup, with the latter password protected. The Remote option provides all the controls you need to operate the processor and amplifier on a day-to-day basis. Conversely, the Setup option allows you to drill down into the menus, configuring and fine tuning the Focal.
The reason the Setup option is password protected becomes obvious as soon as you access it. The Astral 16 offers the kind of configuration flexibility only found on very high-end processors, and once fully set-up by a professional installer they will doubtless want to avoid any unwanted fiddling by their customer. However, if you’re a gifted amateur and want to set the Focal up yourself, you’ll have a field day playing with all the features and options.
All the connections are at the rear, and it’s a pleasingly stripped-down selection that concentrates primarily on seven HDMI inputs and two mirrored outputs. All the HDMI connections support 4K/60p, 4:4:4, wide colour gamut (Rec.2020), high dynamic range (HDR10, Hybrid Log-Gamma, HDR10+ and Dolby Vision), HDCP 2.2, and, in the case of the first HDMI output, eARC (enhanced audio return channel) as well. Overall, the HDMI connections are well-specified, and my only complaint is that there's no HDMI 2.1 support, which on something this expensive might prove a limitation in the future.
There are also three optical and three coaxial digital inputs, along with eight analogue RCA connectors that can be assigned as four stereo inputs or one 7.1-channel input. There are two USB ports (one for connecting a USB microphone and the other for service), an Ethernet port for the web-based UI (no built-in Wi-Fi), an IR input/output, and four 12V triggers.
Finally, there are 12 outputs (binding posts) for the built-in amplification, along with four balanced XLR pre-amplified outputs for additional channels if necessary. This gives a total of 16 channels which can be assigned in any order you want. There’s also a pair of balanced XLR outputs for a stereo down-mix of whatever’s playing – perhaps for audio in another room.
Related: What is High Dynamic Range (HDR)?
Features and Specs
The amplification uses three separate power supplies, one per a group of four amplification channels, and can deliver 200W into 8 Ohms simultaneously on all 12 channels. The channels, including the additional four balanced XLR outputs, are fully-configurable with mono-amplification, bi-amplification, and active loudspeaker management. In terms of immersive audio, the Astral 16 can handle up to 7.3.6 or 9.3.4 for Atmos and DTS:X, or seven ear-level and five height channels, along with a sub and voice of god channel for Auro-3D.
The Astral 16 also includes Dirac Live for setting up the multichannel system, analysing the room’s acoustics and correcting where necessary. Dirac offers target curves that are editable and full bandwidth 20Hz-20kHz phase correction on all channels (including subwoofers). Focal also includes a calibrated measurement microphone and tripod, 10m USB cable, and mounting kit.
The web-based user interface allows for control and setup that includes configurable multi-theatre management, configurable audio zones management, unlimited theatre and audio zones listening presets, back-up and setup restoration, and firmware updates via USB or network. There’s the dedicated iOS application for simple and intuitive control using an iPad, along with support for Crestron, Control4, Savant and RTI home automation.
Related: What is Auro-3D?
Set-up and Operation
The flexibility of the Focal is what really impresses, allowing you to configure the channels in any way you want. To set-up the processor you start by creating a theatre mode, which involves choosing a speaker layout, defining the exact configuration, and assigning the channels. In my case I set-up a 7.2.4-channel system with four overhead speakers and a pair of subs up front.
The setup menu allows you to assign the channels in any order you like, but since there are three individual power supplies that each drive four channels, it’s recommended you connect the front three speakers to channels one, five and nine, thus spreading the primary load across all three power supplies. I took that advice, and then allocated the remaining eight channels accordingly.
Focal includes a calibrated UMIK-1 USB mic, which you use to calibrate the channels manually or automatically with Dirac Live. You simply plug the mic into the Astral 16, and it will generate test tones, allowing for real time frequency analysis. Dirac Live runs on Windows or macOS, and those with the necessary skills can also integrate measurements from external correction tools like Room EQ Wizard.
However, most people will simply choose the automated approach of Dirac Live, and the software will take you through the process step-by-step. Dirac Live will equalise each channel, and offer bass management to fine tune the performance to suit your system and acoustical environment. Once you have finished taking the measurements and making adjustments based on the characteristics of the room, you can load the curves into the processor.
First of all, Dirac Live does a fantastic job of bringing all the speakers together into a cohesive system. To a certain extent that isn't hard with my system because I'm using mostly the same speakers and the room has been treated to a degree, but there are always audible differences due to the acoustic environment. Thanks to Dirac Live, there’s a pleasing sense of overall balance, and the negative aspects of the room itself are eliminated, leaving a single integrated three-dimensional soundstage.
The biggest problem with my room is a nasty node at about 50Hz, but Dirac did an excellent job of smoothing that out and combining my two MK V12 subwoofers into a seismic wave of bass. This low-end kick is delivered in a controlled fashion, effectively crossing over with the speakers to create a seamless frequency range. The impulse response is also improved, creating a soundfield that's tight and precise.
In fairness, any processor, amplifier or receiver that includes Dirac Live will benefit from the same state-of-the-art room correction, but it's still great to experience just what the filters are capable of in terms of making the room disappear, and leaving an utterly realistic soundstage. When combined with the flexibility and sophistication of the Astral 16, the results are also incredibly refined and nuanced.
My second observation is that the Class D amplification does a really impressive job of driving eleven speakers simultaneously. My ear-level channels are composed of MK S150 speakers at the front, and S150T speakers at the sides and rear. These are rated at 4 Ohms but the Astral 16 has absolutely no issues driving them, and even when all eleven channels are active, the amplification doesn't break a sweat. There's plenty of headroom, and the resulting experience is both powerful and responsive.
The Astral 16 is clearly designed for object-based audio, but it should also be able to handle less immersive soundtracks as well. The film Dunkirk boasts an awesome 5.1 mix, and the Focal handles it with exceptional skill. The opening scene contains subtle surround effects including wind, footsteps and the fluttering of the falling leaflets. However, the sudden gunfire had me jumping out of my seat, and the precise delivery and subtle use of the subs gives the rounds an added kick that's highly effective.
The minimal score is handled with skill, as the sound of a constantly ticking watch is weaved in and out of the mix. The chaos on the beaches is delivered with a frenetic urgency, while the high-pitched scream of the Stuka dive bombers sounds terrifying. The explosions hit with a visceral jolt, and as the bullets tear through the beached boat, I find myself diving for cover. I was also holding my breath during the scene in the sinking ship, as all five channels immerse you in the rising sea water.
If you want to take advantage of all the speakers in your system, you can up-mix any non-immersive soundtrack using either Dolby Surround, DTS Neural:X, or Auro-Matic. I generally found the first two worked best, creating a more enveloping experience that enhances the existing surround mix, creating a surprisingly believable sense of immersion. Watching Dunkirk, you'd honestly believe that the Stuka dive bombers were originally mixed in object-based audio, as they seem to scream down from above.
The main reason that Auro-Matic didn't impress as much as Dolby and DTS, is that my speakers aren't positioned correctly to take full advantage of Auro's capabilities. As a result, the comparison isn't completely fair, and I suspect if I was running seven ear-level channels and five height channels, combined with two subs and a voice of god channel, the experience would be very different.
I did, however, test Auro-3D using my four overheads as height channels instead, and I have to say the results are impressive even if I wasn't getting the full experience. The problem with Auro-3D is that it's just not widely supported, and out of the hundreds of discs I own, only three have Auro-3D soundtracks: Red Tails, Pixels and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Using my Blu-ray of Pixels I was at least able to check the Focal does indeed decode Auro-3D, and considering the difference in speaker layout, the battle with Pac-Man was enjoyably immersive.
Moving on to Dolby Atmos allows the Astral 16 to really kick up a gear. Blade Runner 2049 sounds amazing, and the opening bass notes are delivered with depth and control. The sense of immersion is often remarkable, especially during the scenes at street level. The sounds of flying vehicles and advertisements echo overhead, while the milling people can be heard all around.
The attack in the ruins of Las Vegas allows the Astral 16 to reveal its ability to not only place effects with complete precision but to also deliver incredible transients. There's no shortage of power, so sudden explosions benefit from an impressive dynamic range, and the perfectly integrated subs deliver a pleasingly percussive kick. The climactic fight in the water also benefits from the overhead channels, putting you right in the middle of the action.
I used The Matrix to test how well the Astral 16 is able to steer highly directional sounds, and the processor made sure the bullet time effects were perfectly synchronised with the on-screen visuals. The sounds are seamlessly moved from speaker to speaker, ensuring a thrilling sonic experience. The same is true in Gravity, and as Sandra Bullock moves around the ISS the sounds move with her, creating a completely believable three-dimensional sense of space (no pun intended).
Finally, I watched Crimson Peak, which has a fantastically immersive DTS:X soundtrack. The sound design is used with remarkable creativity, turning the titular house into a living, breathing entity. There are sounds of creaking wood and blowing wind that are delivered with absolute precision and clarity. While the sounds of water moving through pipes move around, behind and above you, and these effects are steered with a commanding sense of authority.
- Superior multichannel processing
- Atmos/DTS:X/Auro-3D support
- Powerful Class D amplification
- Dirac Live room correction
- Flexible web-based user interface
- No remote control
- No HDMI 2.1 support
- Very expensive
Focal Astral 16 AV Processor/Amplifier Review
The Focal Astral 16 is a state-of-the-art AV processor and amplifier that offers incredible flexibility when setting up and configuring a multichannel immersive audio system. It combines each component into a cohesive soundstage, before applying cutting-edge acoustic calibration to deliver a remarkable sonic experience. Whichever object-based audio format you choose, the Focal is able to steer effects seamlessly around a system that can utilise up to 16 channels.
While the Astral 16 isn’t cheap and is fairly complicated to set up, it boasts 12 channels of built-in amplification that sets it apart from much of the competition. It’s clearly aimed at the custom install market, with the kind of build quality and design you associate with higher end products. The connectivity is excellent, there’s a useful iPad remote app, and the Focal supports all the main control systems. Only the lack of HDMI 2.1 or a normal remote control disappoint.
However, it’s the performance you’re paying for, and here the Astral 16 really delivers the goods. The built-in amplification is impressively powerful and, as a whole, this processor is capable of creating breathtaking aural landscapes. The precision and control are often amazing, with well-defined effects, clear dialogue and perfectly integrated bass. Whether you think it's worth twenty grand will largely depend on your budget and circumstances, but the Focal Astral 16 is certainly a stellar performer.
What are my alternatives?
Trinnov Audio Altitude 16If you're looking for a serious alternative to the Astral 16, then look no further than the Trinnov Altitude 16. This 16-channel AV processor also supports Dolby Vision, DTS:X and Auro-3D, but doesn’t include any built-in amplification, which makes it cheaper than the Focal at £13,000. The Trinnov is quite simply the most sophisticated and flexible processor we’ve ever tested, making it worth every penny. It's capable of delivering a superb and completely seamless immersive audio experience thanks to superb processing, state-of-the-art optimisation features, and a staggering level of configurability. This gorgeously designed and beautifully made processor has a cutting-edge user interface, comprehensive connections and an exceptional sonic performance.
Acurus ACT 4The Acurus ACT 4 is another possibility and is a well designed and cleverly thought-out multichannel AV pre-amp and processor. Unlike the Astral 16, there's no built-in amplification, but it's attractive, solidly made, has an excellent set of connections and is priced at £12,300. It also sounds superb, with a highly engaging immersive sonic performance that supports Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. However, it is limited to processing 13.1 channels of object-based audio, and can’t handle Auro-3D. It also lacks any automated room EQ system, which puts it at a definite disadvantage to the similarly priced Trinnov Altitude 16.
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