So let’s say you’re in the market for an upscale 5.1 suite of speakers with Dolby Atmos upfiring capability (5.1.2), and you want to add a bit of style on top of all that sonic beef. One new, interesting option in that space comes from French brand Focal. While Focal was primarily known to me for their studio quality headphones, they have recently revamped and expanded their Chora series of Home Theater speakers, and I have been test driving such a package to fit my living room over the last few weeks. Focal offers these in 3 color schemes, I went with piano black but dark and light wood grain examples are also shown throughout this post.
Here’s the twist: This room is my ‘everyday TV watching while hanging out’ space. It’s gotten a lot more use during the pandemic while I’ve been working from home, but typically me and a few roommates watch mostly broadcast TV and play a bit of Xbox in there. It’s not my main ‘Man Cave Home Theater Room’ where I’ve got a full array of 4x ceiling speakers and a 16″ sub, but truth be told we spend a LOT more time in the living room than we do in the ‘real’ home theater. Despite being slightly lower specced, tech-wise, it’s a very important space we use a LOT.
I’ve had my ancient Paradigm Monitor 7s in there since moving in during 2012. These speakers have traveled with me through two houses, and they were bought the week DVD came out, which Wikipedia tells me was in roughly March of 1997. That’s 23+ year old speakers that have been tweaked and retrofitted to to bring into the Atmos era with a couple of cheapy Atmos bounce pucks. So, why not see what a serious upgrade to dedicated Atmos floor standers could bring to the table? Sure the old speakers will never die, but how much better will three hundred pounds of 2020-era, purpose-built, Atmos-powered tech sound? Let’s find out!
Get the forklift!
Seriously, Focal sent me the full package on an overflowing pallet! 299 pounds worth. It shipped from Canada but they were manufactured in France. And it was a pretty penny’s worth of gear too.
Here’s the full bill:
826-d pair – $2790
806 pair – $990
806 stand pair – $290
Chora CC – $790
Sub 1000f – $1990
That’s $6850 all in!
Here they are with the wrapping off:
The star of any competent 5.1 or greater speaker array is typically the front left and right pair, and Focal does not disappoint with these two monster towers. Featuring 2x 6″ woofers, a 6″ midrange cone and a 1″ tweeter on each of the left and right sound channels. They then top it off with an upfiring 5 and 1/8″ full range speaker for Atmos ceiling effects for each side as well. All 3 6″ drivers use Focal’s proprietary “Slate Fiber” material which they claim “is characterized by its dynamic, rich and ultra-balanced sound, particularly in the midranges. With its acoustic qualities and unique “slate effect”, it has become a benchmark for High-Fidelity in its price category.” Focal notes that the materials making up the Slatefiber are “a composite cone comprising recycled non-woven carbon fibres and thermoplastic polymer… The combination of these two materials results in excellent acoustic performance, in terms of sound velocity as well as rigidity and damping.” Focal touts this combination for 3 main characteristics: Rigidity, Damping, and lightness.
I’m always a bit leary of buying into the grandiose pronouncements speaker manufacturers make about the “secret sauce” materials engineering used in their cones, but I can say three things with authority regarding the Chora towers: First, the blue (Bleu?) hue they use is attractive and has a unique look, with and without the screens on. The non-woven carbon fiber is also somewhat unique as well. Personally I tend to really dig the checkerboard style woven carbon fiber look but this works well here too, giving it kind of a ‘radio static’ vibe. Second, these things are heavy as hell. There’s some big metal magnets in there moving these bad boy cones back and forth. Third, they simply sound great, in both music and movies. More on specific content I checked out below.
I’ll note up front that I haven’t, up til now at least, been a huge believer in “burn in periods” but I did run sound continuously for about 20 hours before any critical listening. Surprisingly, and I can’t say if it was placebo or what, but it really seemed to help. I think there may be something to letting them get to the right temperature and having the parts all gel together for a bit after all, especially with items like this manufactured overseas and shipped from Canada. I also ran the Denon Audessey tool to really get them set right with the characteristics of the room. I generally don’t get into microphone measurement details in my reviews, so what you’ll find here is more subjective than objective. If you’re the kind of buyer who demands detailed graphs this review isn’t going to check that box for you.
Type: 3-way bass-reflex floorstanding loudspeaker + 1-way sealed
2x 6 1/2″ (16.5cm) Slatefiber Woofer
1x 6 1/2″ (16.5cm) Slatefiber Midrange
1x 1″ (25mm) TNF Al/Mg inverted dome tweeter
1x 5 1/8” (13cm) full-range speaker driver
Sensitivity (2,83V/1m) 91dB 91dB
Frequency response (±3 dB) 48Hz-28kHz 100Hz-20kHz
Low frequency point (-6 dB) 39Hz 90Hz
Nominal impedance 8Ω 6Ω
Minimum impedance 2.9Ω
Recommended amplifier power 40/250W
Crossover frequency 270Hz – 2,700Hz
Dimensions (HxWxD) 41 7/16″ x 111 5/16″ x 15 1/4″
Net weight (with grille) 48.5lbs (22.2kg)
Let’s talk about one bit of seeming trivia for a second: Those carpet pegs! Damn these things are effective and deadly. They ensure that moving these towers by one person is a challenge. Strongly recommend 2 person lift and watch your toesies!
We also need to talk about the Dolby Atmos effect too. My opinion of upfiring speakers has been relatively unchanged since Dolby first demoed Atmos for HTForum many years ago now. Upfiring creates a fun but diffused ceiling sound effect. It puts sound in a general area that is not unlike a ‘cloud’ of sound that is not specific to any one speaker. This is wholly different from having an array of 4 or more direct radiating ceiling-installed Atmos speakers, which I happen to have in my basement. A ‘direct’ Atmos installation creates a full hemisphere of sound where individual sounds can be tracked like a laser pointer in the full expanse of your seating area. I repeat this not to denigrate the bounce experience. This is my 3rd in-home set of bounce Atmos speakers. I have a set of Andrew Jones integrated bookshelf speakers with Atmos upfiring tops as well as the previously mentioned pucks. The Focal is easily the best specimen of upfiring Atmos I’ve ever heard, handily beating even what Dolby used to demonstrate the effect to us. But you need to be prepared to get the cloud style results, not one like a laser. I gotta say too they look seriously badass, especially with the grills removed!
If the Left and Right channels are the stars of most 5.1 setup, the center is really the unsung hero. Here too Focal goes deep with double 6 and a 1/2″ slatefiber woofers and a 1″ dome tweeter. It left no conversations unsaid and really helped center, no pun intended, the focus of movie dialogue. I also used it a bit with matrixed music modes and found it to be very competent for all kinds of tunes, and perfectly matched to the fronts and rears, as one would expect.
Type 2-way sealed center loudspeaker
Speaker drivers 2x 6 1/2″ (16.5cm) Slatefiber Mid-bass
1″ (25mm) TNF Al/Mg inverted dome tweeter
Sensitivity (2,83V/1m) 91dB
Frequency response (±3 dB) 59Hz – 28kHz
Low frequency point (-6 dB) 51Hz
Nominal impedance 8Ω
Minimum impedance 3.8Ω
Recommended amplifier power 40/200W
Crossover frequency 2,100Hz
Dimensions (HxWxD) 81/4″x207/8×913/16 (21x53x25cm)
Net weight (with grille) 19.6lbs (8.9kg)
To be clear, Lafayette is America’s Favorite Fighting Frenchmen, per Hamilton on Disney Plus, but Focal puts up a strong showing too!
Focal 806 direct radiating surround speakers / rears
Speaking of the rears, in this room I went from bi-pole speakers to these direct radiators. As expected this makes them easier to pick out when content is coming from them during traditional DTS and Dolby Digital channel based content, but with my diet consisting primarily of Dolby Atmos these days the mix of sound coming from algorithmically assigned speaker balances it all melds together nicely just the same. I bought the bi-poles 30 years ago when there were big arguments about which was best, bi-pole, di-pole or direct, and it simply doesn’t make that big a difference any more. To me at least! The Focals surrounds are powerful, crisp/clear, and perfectly matched with the tone of the fronts and center.
Type: 2-way bass-reflex bookshelf loudspeaker
6 1/2″ (16.5cm) Slatefiber Midbass
1″ (25mm) TNF Al/Mg inverted dome tweeter
Sensitivity (2,83V/1m) 89dB
Frequency response (±3 dB) 58Hz-28kHz
Low frequency point (-6 dB) 49Hz
Nominal impedance 8Ω
Minimum impedance 4.6Ω
Recommended amplifier power 25/120W
Crossover frequency 3.000Hz
Dimensions (HxWxD) 8 1/4 x 16 31/32 x 10 5/8″ (43.1x21x27cm)
Net weight (unit with grille) 16.2lbs (7.35kg)
(NOTE: Those are my old stands, whoops! I replaced them with the Focal provided ones which match more closely aesthetically. Sorry!)
Focal 1000-F Subwoofer
Focal 1000-F Subwoofer
Check out that flax flex!
Holding down the bottom duties in this set is Focal’s sealed 12 inch entry, the 1000-F. This room is always a challenge for subs because it is entirely open on one side, the house is an “Open concept” design. That means that the job of a sub, which typically changes the air pressure in the whole room, is extending that as far as it can push and pull. In my case you get significant bass effect in the kitchen and morning room nook, and a bit still in the dining room and living room past those. Still, the 1000-f holds up remarkably well. It loses a bit of the tightness that a more sealed room would naturally have but still produced dynamic, room shaking effects especially in Atmos streams and UHD disks. It puts out a punishing bottom end on music too, making sure you have your speakers set to ‘small’ on the receiver controls. I listened exclusively to my own purchased tracks through Apple Music for those tests. More on that below. There’s always concern from HT buyers that subs designed for home theater don’t always translate well to music, but I haven’t always shared in that sentiment and it was a non issue for this review.
Type Active sealed subwoofer
Drivers 12″ (30cm) Flax woofer
Cut-off frequency (-6dB) 22Hz
Frequency response (±3 dB) 24Hz – 200Hz
Crossover frequency 40 to 160Hz
Dimensions (HxWxD) 420 x 400 x 420mm – 161 7/32″ x 153 1/4″ x 161 7/32″
Net weight 47lbs (21.5kg
The Movie Experience
4K Atmos Streams I watched included:
Eurovision on Netflix via Xbox 1 X
Hamilton on Disney Plus on Xbox 1 X
Trolls World Tour on iTunes via Apple TV
Bloodshot on Vudu via Apple TV
The final confrontation in Avengers: End Game on Vudu via Apple TV.
Scoob! on iTunes via Apple TV
HD Dolby Digital stuff I checked out included:
A few episodes of Troll Hunters on Netflix via Apple TV.
The Good Place, Netflix on Xbox 1 x
I actually got through the entirety of the movies listed above with the Focals. I’m a firm believer that the vast majority of 4K / Atmos content is perfectly fine via streams and these selections did not disappoint.
I have watched the last hour of Endgame while evaluating so many different settings and hardware components that you think I’d be numb to it by now, but no, it is a gut punch every. single. time. All you have to do is say “On your left” and I might wipe a tear away. Would I have preferred 4x overhead speakers? Sure. But this room will never ever allow such a setup and every gunshot, laser beam, ground pound and snap was crystal clear and simply FUN on this setup.
Nobody expected I would absolutely love Trolls World Tour less than me, but there it is, it’s a fantastic movie. Great Message, Great Music, Great animation. The finale is a bit of a letdown but a solid A- that absolutely rips Techno, Rock and yodelling (?!?!) tracks on the Focals.
Eurovision? Ya Ya Ding Dong! What else is there to say?
Hamilton was likewise incredible, and I could catch every word Daveed Diggs spits no problem =)
-UHD 4K HDR disks-
After spending a few days soaking in streams, I decided to push on over to some of my favorite disks. I flipped through a dozen favorites, and the worst part was having to stand back up and change the disks themselves. The HORROR! (No, I did not get to Apocalypse now).
The last hour each of:
Avengers End Game, Avengers Infinity War, Hot Fuzz (DTS:X not Atmos!), War for the planet of the apes.
The FIRST scenes of:
Baby Driver, Overlord
Kingsmen – Church massacree
Fury – Hedge Rows
Kong Skull Island – Hurricane through to “Is That a Monkey???”
Wreck it Ralph – Hero’s Duty
Dread – Chain guns
Knowing – Plane in the rain
Hacksaw Ridge – nothing can survive that
The Fifth Element – Diva
Bohemian Rhapsody – We will Rock you & Live Aid
A Star Is Born – Shallow
The above are some of my favorite demo scenes and scenes I just love to dig through to remember how awesome they are. All are super high recommendations from me. You can’t go wrong with any of the above. The Focals accurately played each of these faves and put a nice top spin into the rafters where called for.
The Music Experience: Streaming and beyond
Want the track lists I tested with? Here are my 3 standard test Playlists!
Break Bass Bass Test, from mild to wild
Big Play My main ‘shuffle up and listen to anything” playlist
Can’t remember the name Goofy songs of all flavors
Standout tracks from this review:
Yello: The race
Ludacris: How Low
LMFAO: Party Rock Anthem
Traffic – Glad
Eric Clapton – Let it rain
George Harrison – While my guitar gently weeps
Chaka Khan – I feel for you
Can’t Remember the Name (my weird tracks list):
Vengaboys: We like to Party
I set my Apple TV to play Music throughout the day and the tracks above were standouts. Nobody needs to picture me dancing around my living room but I’m not gonna say it didn’t happen. Strong bass and crisp mids and highs will do that.
Price versus features and build quality
If there is any part of the Focals that would give one pause, it’s the price. That’s nearly $7k for a 5.1.2 setup, just speakers not including the receiver or amps. If you went with quad 826-Ds and put those 806s onto the sides making a 7.1.4? That’s over $11000 smackers. At that price range some competing brands are into full hardwood cabinets, not veneers. And again, this is all bounce based. My preference is strongly for in-ceiling where possible and I know more than a few folks have experimented flush mounting speakers -on- the ceiling too, but some rooms simply won’t allow either. As noted above the Focal 826-D is far and away better bounce experience than either of the other two that I own, but at 9x and 27x the cost of either of those.
Can golden eared listeners justify the cost based on truly superior sound quality? That remains to be seen. From my perspective the kit -sounds- premium if I were to compare it against the bang for the buck gear it replaces, and it certainly holds it’s own against the similarly priced gear I have in the basement as well. But if you need to back that up with numbers I can’t do that. If it’s my money I say the materials are in the ballpark but the lack of true wooden boxes is the only real con I can name.
And veneer isn’t all bad, it’s standard for anything below the exotic. So, that’s a personal call. The guts are heavy duty, the finish is mirror sharp, and the components are all top notch, with Focal doing their own materials for the woofer’s Slate-Fiber and the sub’s unique use of flax. That counts for a lot in my book.
Out with the old?!?!
Shultzy has grown quite fond of the old kit.
Overall / Conclusion
Overall I very much enjoyed my time with the Focal Atmos suite and will be sad to see them ship back. Before they do tho I’m going to break out a few of my favorite UHDs including Pacific Rim and BladeRunner 2049 for more testing, for science! =)
In the meanwhile, let me know in the comments if you have any questions about the fit, finish and performance of the set and I will try answer as best I can. Better yet, if you are in the central MD area while they are still here, PM me to come over and get a demo!
Finally, thanks to Focal for letting HTF kick the tires of these very nice speakers. These may not be sticking around but I’ve got some Focal headphones and a set of studio monitors on my wishlist too! Those are probably closer to my near term buying budget. =)
Where to buy
Buy direct from Focal or find a dealer near you!
Focal Dealer Locator