WORDS AND MUSIC

REVIEW: Focal Aria 926 loudspeakers

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A new speaker range; a new drive-unit material. Focal’s Aria 900 line-up makes its début this weekend, and judging from the Aria 926 floorstanders (above) I’ve been using for the past couple of weeks, the French speaker company could be on to something rather special.

New materials are the lifeblood of the loudspeaker industry. There’s not too much you can do with the established design elements of drivers and a box (however it’s shaped), so hardly an announcement of a range of speakers goes by without some claim of an innovative choice having been made for cones or domes.

There’s everything from Kevlar to carbon fibre to metal/ceramic to a novel coating or doping or formulation, each one apparently a breakthrough and offering standard-setting performance.

French company Focal is no stranger to this kind of development: it has a clean-room/hazardous material chamber in its factory dedicated to the manufacture of its beryllium tweeter domes by an employee in a ‘space suit’.

It’s also for many years made its V and W sandwich cones, so-called due to their use of glass layers – V is for ‘verre’, while of course ‘W’ is ‘double-vee’ in French, indicating the use of double glassfibre layers – , not to mention its Polyglass designs, using microscopic glass spheres on the surface of a cone.

The high-precision, highly-skilled manufacture of the ‘W’ cones starts with the stretching of heated layers over metal formers (left), and is both labour-intensive and time-consuming.

That’s why Focal has long been looking for alternatives for its more affordable speaker ranges, and it’s just come up with a new speaker technology.

Actually, its latest material is a very old one: flax. Not only is this a traditional French product, grown in Flanders, Picardy and Normandy, but the country is also Europe’s main producer of flax, the source of the top-quality French linen fabric used worldwide by the fashion industry.

FLAX: THE FACTS

Doesn’t sound like the most obvious material from which to make speaker cones? Well, the flax fibres are as rigid as Kevlar, as stiff as carbon fibre, light, self-damping and yet the material made from them is easy to use in automated manufacturing.

A bundle of flax fibres, used to make thread for spinning, is typically 10-40 fibres, with each fibre around 10cm long, Each of those is a single, very elongated cell, with a diameter of 7 to 40 μm, and composed of 70-80% cellulose.

And it gets better: because each fibre is hollow, it’s half the weight of glass-fibre, and its very low elasticity makes it ideal to increase the rigidity and resistance to flexing of a sandwich cone-construction.

The fact that the raw material comes in non-woven bundles allows it to be used to create the thicknesses required for the sandwich drivers, and of course the fact it’s a natural product, and thus not prone to the vagaries of the oil market (which produces the petrochemicals used in many applications), makes it doubly attractive.

SIMPLER ASSEMBLY
You may have got the idea now that Focal quite likes flax, and the material also suits another of the company’s requirements in its hunt for a new range of drivers to slot between its Polyglass drivers and the pricey-to-make ‘W’ sandwich cones used in its high-end speakers.

By contrast with the W cones, it’s much simple to make the new Flax cones on a semi-automated production line, from initial layering of the sandwich through to final testing.

Above: Making the flax drivers. The initial sandwiches of material (top left) are pressed into cones, assembled into surrounds, and processed through to final testing and listening, all in Focal’s French factory

Or, as Focal MD Gérard Chrétien (left) puts it, ‘The W cones have to be handmade; with this, it’s pff, pff, boom – and it’s done’.

The new drivers use 0.4mm fibreglass layers sandwiching a 0.4mm woven flax core, and by varying the density of the layers different characteristics can be imparted. In woofers, for maximum stiffness, the fibreglass layers are of a 100g/sq.m material, and the flax 250g/sq.m; for midrange drivers, requiring lightness and maximum damping, 50g/sq.m fibreglass sandwiches a 150g/sq.m flax core.

There’s an extra appeal to using flax: it’s a renewable resource, thus boosting the company’s eco credentials.

And even without reading the description on the trim-rings, there’s no mistaking the new ‘F’ sandwich drivers: they have an unusual ‘woven fabric’ look to them, in a ‘natural linen’ colour – mainly because they’re basically woven natural linen. Or at least the fibres used to make linen.

The drivers also have a new cast Zamak (zinc/aluminium/magnesium/copper) basket, designed for a free flow of air behind the cone, and an optimised magnetic ‘motor’ , and the first speakers in which they’re being used is Focal’s all-new Aria 900 range.

Actually, the drive units were first launched as part of the company’s in-car range of speakers, designed to slot into the factory speaker locations as a simple upgrade for a range of vehicles.

The first F drivers for those applications hit the shops a month ago: now there’s a complete range of domestic speakers using the new cones, too.

‘A TIMELESS, SOBER STATEMENT’

The Focal Aria 900 range is launching this month to slot in between the recently-revamped Chorus 700 line-up and the Electra Be II range, eventually replacing the 800 V series: Focal says it ‘represents a significant design shift away from the Chorus 800 V’s very strong design identity towards a more timeless, sober statement combining the mineral and the organic.‘

The initial offering is five models: the bookshelf/standmount Aria 906, seen right with the floorstanding 926; the 936 and 948 floorstanders; and the CC 900 centre speaker.

Coming in the first quarter of next year are three more Aria 900s: a smaller bookshelf model, the 905; a more compact floorstander, the 916; and a surround speaker, the SR 900.

Pricing for the first models starts at £800/pr for the Aria 906, with the Aria 926 floorstanders I have been trying for the past couple of weeks at £1800. Those prices are in walnut finish: black high gloss adds £100 to the Aria 906, and £200 to the Aria 926.

The 926 is a three-way design, and there’s more to the speakers than just the flax drivers: this is an all-new design, from the TNF tweeter, with a suspension system developed from that used in the range-topping Utopia speakers’ tweeter, through to cabinets designed and engineered for the range.

One of the benefits of the Focal way of doing things – ie making everything from drive units to finished speakers for all of its models except a few of its ‘lifestyle’ products – is that crossovers can be kept simple, as the drivers are both made for specific speakers and mounted in enclosures designed to make the most of them.

In the 926, the tweeter is a new design for the Aria 900 range, a 25mm inverted aluminium/magnesium alloy dome mounted using a Poron ‘memory foam’ suspension into a waveguide designed to improve horizontal directivity, and thus stereo imaging.

Below this is a 16.5cm flax-cone mid/bass unit, and then a pair of 16.5cm bass drivers, also with flax cones: the midrange hands over to the tweeter at around 2.4kHz, and to the woofers in the region of 290Hz.

The cabinets have non-parallel sides to break up standing waves, and are designed to be very rigid, combining 18mm and 24mm MDF and strategic bracing.

That ‘timeless sobriety’ Focal talks about extends to the leather finish on the front baffle and the glass top-plate, while these floorstanding models sit on a hefty diecast aluminium plinth, this having the dual function of adding stability and providing space into which the downward-venting bass port can operate.

That’s actually one of two ports the speakers use as part of what Focal calls a ‘Powerflow’ arrangement: there’s a forward-venting one for speed and impact, and the downward-firing one for extension.

PUTTING THE FUN BACK INTO MUSIC
In the usual manner of such press events, I first heard the Aria 900 speaker range at the Focal factory in Saint-Etienne, France, a couple of months ago; also in the manner of such events, the listening came at the end of a long day involving an early start, too much time in a minibus, several presentations, an exhaustive factory tour and a typically French extended lunch at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Saint-Étienne Métropole.

Hey, I’m not complaining – after all, I’m sure a lot of people had a tougher day at the office – but it’s safe to say the enthusiasm levels were flagging a little by the time we moved on to the Arias.

Listening to the speakers – and some of the bigger models in the range – certainly put that right in very short order. These are some of the most direct and communicative speakers I’ve encountered for a very long time, and above all they’re huge fun to listen to.

The 926s here were the smaller of two floorstanders we were played in the Focal listening room, and instantly grabbed the attention; the larger ones – the 948s complete with 20cm bass units – were an absolute riot.

That meant I couldn’t wait to have a play with a pair of Arias at home: it’s rare for me to have so instant a reaction to the sound of a range of speakers.

Over the course of many years of listening, I’ve got used to having to work hard to nail down the differences between different speakers: they’re usually easy enough to hear, once you’ve run some familiar tracks through a couple of times, but putting them into words is the tricky bit. And that’s especially true of you’re also trying to avoid falling back on some of the lazier reviewing clichés, from ‘trouser-flapping bass’ (which surely went out when loon pants were abandoned some time around the mid-1970s, but I guess may have been revived when chinos came back in) to windows being cleaned and flung open.

None of that old nonsense here: I just hooked up the Aria 926s to a range of amplifiers – single-wired, you’ll note, as the new Focal range has no truck with multiple runs of speaker cable –, fiddled around with the positioning a bit, sat back, and started enjoying the music.

SIMPLE SET-UP
The speakers come with substantial screw-down spikes able to be deployed for use on carpet or wound back into rubber feet for use on solid floors, but along with the review pair (which had already been trucked round a good number of retailers as Focal’s early sales sample) came a little plastic bag containing some sharper spikes, enhanced carpet-piercing for the use of.

Having bolted the plinths onto the cabinets, I tried the original spikes, put them back in the box and installed the sharp ones, then set the speakers up in the orientation I usually choose – just a shade of toe-in, sufficient that the outer side of the cabinet can just be seen from the listening position.

The trusty Helix school protractor I found in a box the other day, along with the rest of a slightly rusty geometry set, tells me that’s a bit short of 10 degrees off a dead-ahead ‘firing straight down the room’ position.

Amps in use for testing included the Creek Evolution 50A (reviewed here), a Naim SUPERNAIT 2, an Onkyo TX-NR818 AV receiver and a NaimUniti 2 all-in-one system.

Source components included my current reference network music player, the Naim NDS/555 PS, the optional Ambit tuner stage for the Creek amplifier, and elderly but still superb Audiolab 8000T analogue tuner, and an Esoteric K-07 SACD/CD player, this last doubling as a DAC for music played from my MacBook Air laptop. Cabling (apart from the Naim Hi-Line between NDS and SUPERNAIT 2) was all from The Chord Company.

HOW IT SHOULD BE
Right, that’s all the housekeeping done, but beyond that all there really is to be said about the Focal 926 speakers is that they are a constant delight.

Play just about anything through them, from speech radio podcasts to high-resolution files played on the NDS, or through the Esoteric over USB, and there’s just one simple emotion to be had: if your listening experience of them is anything like mine, it’ll have been a long time since music has sounded so uncomplicated and enjoyable.

You just put some music on, and you think ‘Yes, that’s how it should be.’

So you turn it up a bit louder than you might have done before, have another listen, and it’s even more captivating, to the point where you find yourself flitting around your music collection from orchestral to solo voice-and-guitar blues to a big choral work to a flat out rocker to a couple of tracks of Pink Floyd to piano trio jazz to Culture Club’s Victims – yes, really! – to violin concertos to plainsong to…

Well, almost anything, as fast as taps on a screen can take you.

There’s punchy, ‘gets you where it matters’ bass on offer here, both fast and well-extended; a seamless transition into the midband with no suggestion of drive units passing the baton between them, and a treble that’s both sweetly controlled and capable of beautifully clean imaging and ambience.

Listening to the Aria 926s for a couple of weeks was fascinating, and actually reminded me of the fun I had with a pair of Tannoy DC2000 speakers more than two decades ago: they didn’t take much power to get them moving, sounded clean even when pushed, and were deep, fast and exciting with their 20cm Dual Concentric drive unit and woofer of the same size.

They were great party speakers, great ‘listening to rock in the dark’ speakers, and made everything you listened to through them exciting and involving.

I’m sure the Focals are rather more refined than I remember the Tannoys being, but they have many of the same characteristics: there’s an uncomplicated ‘rightness’ about their sound, and best of all they make you want to keep on listening to more and more music. Or radio. Or whatever.

I can honestly say I can’t remember when I listened to so much music and so many podcasts and plays and everything; I feel like I may have taken root on this sofa, and have to keep on dragging myself off to do trivial things like make a drink or sleep.

My mental jury’s still out on the look of the flax drive units when the 926s’ magnetically attached grilles are removed: they’re certainly distinctive, but at times I catch sight of them and they have a little too much of the coarse-woven planet-saving reusable shopping bag about them, despite the high-quality trim-rings around the drivers and the textured front baffle.

Oh, and having seen both the walnut and high-grade gloss black versions in the flesh, as it were, I have to say I think the premium finish is well worth the extra money: these aren’t huge speakers, but the walnut finish makes them look a bit boxy, while the gloss black is rather more slimming.

That aside, however, the Focal speakers have required no acclimatisation, no allowances to be made for them, no ifs and buts and if onlies – they came out of their boxes, got placed in position, and they have simply worked beautifully, regardless of the electronics with which they’re partnered.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that quite a lot of the final development of this range was done with Naim’s DAC-V1/NAP 100 DAC/preamp and power amp, and I’m sure the entry-level Aria 906s would make a pretty potent small-room system when used with the desktop Naim duo. Mind you, so would these 926s, based on the listening I did with both an original NaimUniti and the new NaimUniti2.

Fired up with the Onkyo AV receiver, they delivered ‘do we really need a subwoofer?’ levels of low-end slam, and were enough to have me wondering how a system using these speakers with the dedicated centre and surround models is going to sound: their high sensitivity (91.5dB/W/m) ensures they make the most of any amplification with which they’re used, but they don’t half go some when you hit them with some decent amplifier power.

These are gloriously enjoyable speakers, and if the rest of the flax-toting Aria 900 range is up to this standard, Focal could well have a serious sales success on its hands.

Something tells me there’s going to be a lot of pff, pff, boom going on down in Saint-Etienne this Autumn…

Focal Aria 926
Three-way floorstanding loudspeaker
Price £1800/pr in walnut finish, £2000/pr in high gloss black lacquer
Drive units 25mm aluminium/magnesium inverted dome tweeter, 16.5cm flax cone midrange unit, two 16.5cm flax cone bass units
Crossover frequencies 290Hz and 2.4kHz
Frequency response (+/-3dB) 45Hz-28kHz
Sensitivity (2.83V, measured at 1m) 91.5dB
Nominal impedance 8ohms
Recommended amplifier power 40-250W
Ports Two, as part of Focal’s Powerflow system: one forward-venting, one downward-venting
Terminals One pair of combination 4mm socket/spade/bare wire
Accessories supplied Full-length grilles with concealed magnetic fixings, aluminum alloy plinths with fixing bolts and spikes
Dimensions (HxWxD) 103.4×29.2x37cm
www.focal.com

Written by Andrew Everard

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