Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.

Reviewers' ChoiceLately, I’ve gotten a lot of exposure to Focal products. In the September edition of SoundStage! Hi-Fi I reviewed their expensive Spectral 40th floorstanding speaker ($9999 pair; all prices USD), and I’m not ashamed to say that I gushed over them, and strongly considered buying a pair for my reference system. That impulse was reined in only by my commitment to subwoofer-satellite combos. Now in my room is one pair each of two different two-way minimonitors from Focal: the Sopra No1 ($9990/pair), review forthcoming on SoundStage! Hi-Fi; and the less expensive Chora 806 ($990/pair), which better fits the SoundStage! Access brief of affordable audio gear.

Focal

The Chora models will replace Focal’s most affordable speakers, the Chorus line, which at time of writing was still prominently displayed on Focal’s website. In addition to the two-driver, two-way 806 are three more Chora main speakers, all floorstanders: the four-driver, three-way Chora 826 ($2190/pair); the three-driver, 2.5-way Chora 816 ($1499/pair); and the five-driver, four-way Chora 826-D ($2790/pair), which includes a top-mounted driver for Dolby Atmos, for home-theater systems. The line is fleshed out with two more home-theater models: the Chora Center ($790 each) and Chora Surround ($990/pair).

Description

The Chora 806 is a tallish minimonitor measuring 17”H x 8.25”W x 10.6”D and weighing 16.2 pounds. Its 1” tweeter is crossed over to its 6.5” bass-midrange driver at 3kHz. All non-tweeter drivers used in the Chora line have cones of Slatefiber -- so far, in fact, the Choras are the only Focal speakers in which this material is used. Focal claims to have taken four years to develop Slatefiber, which comprises nonwoven, recycled carbon fibers and a thermoplastic polymer. Focal says that their combination of these materials results in levels of rigidity and damping that are excellent for reproducing sound, particularly a rich and balanced midrange.

The TNF tweeter used in all three Chora models is the same 1” (25mm) inverted dome of aluminum-magnesium. It has a suspension made of Focal’s proprietary material Poron, which has shape memory; a 20mm push-pull neodymium magnet; and a 20mm voice-coil with an aluminum former. Per Focal, this tweeter’s spatial characteristics and very low directivity yield a frequency response that deviates by only ±0.5dB over a wide horizontal window. The tweeter is slightly recessed in the front baffle, and sits inside a small waveguide that further controls its directivity and increases its acoustical output.

Focal

Below the midrange-bass driver on the front baffle is a port, to increase the Chora 806’s bass output; on the rear panel is a single pair of high-quality, five-way binding posts. The speaker’s frequency response is specified as 58Hz-28kHz, ±3dB, its sensitivity as 89dB/2.83V/m, and its nominal impedance as 8 ohms.

Focal’s Chora speakers are available in three finishes. My review sample had the Dark Wood finish, with dark wood side, top, bottom, and rear panels, and a front baffle finished in a unique bluish-gray gloss. The other options are Black (gloss-black front baffle and matte-black panels) and Light Wood (blonde panels and a high-gloss beige front baffle). I liked the front baffles on my speakers, though I’m not a big fan of fake veneers of dark or light “oak.”

The fit and finish were good for the price -- no visible mounting screws for the drivers, no mounting holes for the magnetically attached grilles, and no mitered joins. On the Chora 806’s bottom panel are threaded inserts to secure the speaker to its matching stand ($199/pair). I didn’t use this, instead listening to the Focals set up on the 25”-high, dedicated stands I use with my reference Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2 minimonitors.

Setup

The Chora 806es came well packed, sharing a single carton with their grilles and instruction manual. I placed the speakers atop my stands in the usual positions speakers occupy here: along one long wall of my 15’L x 12’W room: toed in 18°, the rears of their cabinets 20” from the front wall, and describing a 9’ equilateral triangle with my high-backed recliner. My dedicated listening room is relatively small, and treated with broadband absorption at the first reflection points on the sidewalls and on the wall between the speakers.

Focal

Instead of my costlier reference-system separates, I used an affordable integrated amplifier more typical in price of what these speakers will probably be driven by: an NAD C 316BEE ($449). I used as a source my Bluesound Node streamer and its internal DAC, connected to the NAD’s line-level analog inputs (RCA), the NAD in turn connected to the speakers with homemade 12-gauge speaker cables. The Node was used as a Roon endpoint; I controlled the Roon core installed on my Windows 10 laptop with Roon’s Remote app, installed on my Samsung Galaxy Tab S smartphone. The laptop was connected via Ethernet to my network. I streamed music from Tidal, and played FLAC files ripped from CDs and stored on a NAS device.

Sound

I first listened to “Creep,” from the Stone Temple Pilots compilation Thank You (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Atlantic) -- a track surprisingly well recorded for a hard-rock album. From the opening strums of the guitar and delicate cymbal work, both to left of center, I could hear nuance and detail through the Focal Chora 806es. Cymbals, brushed or struck, shimmered naturally with no hint of glare or metallic sheen. There was plenty of extension, and the decay of the cymbal stroke 20 seconds in seemed to go on forever. Bass from the drum kit sounded full, tight, satisfyingly rich and real. The bass wasn’t as tight as what I’d been hearing from NHT’s C 3 Carbon Fiber minimonitors ($1399.98/pair), in for review at the same time, nor was it as punchy and fast -- but the Focals sounded fuller, weightier, and bigger than the C 3s.

The Chora 806’s midrange was pure delight -- lots of detail, with that full-bodied, forward, lively sound I’ve come to expect from and enjoy with Focal speakers. The NHT C 3 Carbon Fiber’s midrange sounded leaner. The 806 delivered what I’d hoped for and half expected, based on my experience with the Focal Spectral 40th, which costs an order of magnitude more -- Scott Weiland’s voice was conveyed with intimacy and palpability, and with rich tone, body, and smoothness. His voice seemed to leap from the mix, to the point where I felt I could reach out and touch the aural image conjured dead center between and above the speakers, and slightly behind the plane described by their frontmost vertical edges. I could hear all the inner detail of his singing, even as I was able to pick out the intricate structure and layering in Dean DeLeo’s acoustic guitar playing, to his left. When the chorus begins at 1:35, with guttural electric rhythm guitar and backing vocals at hard right, the 806es sounded composed and smooth as silk even at sound-pressure levels approaching 100dB.

Focal

To further evaluate the Chora 806’s bass extension, I cued up “I Feel It Coming,” from The Weeknd’s Starboy (16/44.1 FLAC, Republic). While I wouldn’t expect a stand-mounted speaker to reach down to the lowest extreme of the audioband, the quality and quantity of bass I heard from the Focals was more than satisfying for a minimonitor. Although, again, not as punchy as the NHT C 3’s, the Focal’s bass was punchy enough, with no hint of bloat down low. Furthermore, the extreme driver excursions this track demands of a midrange-bass driver didn’t smear the midrange -- I could hear Abel Tesfaye’s voice with clarity and detail, even at high volumes. Using my miniDSP UMIK-1 calibrated microphone, I measured the -3dB point relative to 1kHz as 38Hz -- quite respectable, and 20Hz lower than the specified -3dB point.

For a more delicate recording, this time of a woman’s voice, I listened to “I’ve Got to See You Again,” from a well-recorded album I often turn to: Norah Jones’s Come Away with Me (16/44.1 FLAC, Blue Note). The Chora 806es didn’t disappoint -- from Jones’s opening acoustic-piano notes at center, and Jenny Scheinman’s delicate violin just behind and to the left, these speakers were effortlessly transparent. The piano had rich tonality and weight, with all its subtle resonances conveyed, while the violin notes had a deliciously smooth texture with no hint of edge or glare. Jones’s voice was, as with the other tracks, forward yet smooth, lively yet full-bodied, gently floating above the tops of the speakers. On this album voices can sound sibilant, but through the 806es, Jones’s closely miked ess sounds remained controlled. In comparison, the NHT C 3s didn’t reproduce the sound of her piano with as much weight, and Jones’s voice could get shouty and lean when she leans in to the mike. The 806es were punching high.

Jesse Harris, composer of “I’ve Got to See You Again,” also plays acoustic guitar on this track, entering at hard right 55 seconds in. Through the 806es, every one of Harris’s plucked notes demanded my attention with their sparkle and leading-edge attack as they danced around the right-channel speaker instead of coming directly from its baffle. The 806es struck the right treble balance: not too hot, not too cold, with delicacy and detail intact. For example, at 1:51 into this track, a cymbal crash emerges slightly to the right of center stage, its sound then extending farther rightward as it slowly decays. The cymbal shimmered, sounding natural and balanced but never metallic or etched, as it sometimes did through the NHT C 3 Carbon Fibers.

Focal

The two acoustic guitars in “Sad Nights,” from Blue Rodeo’s The Days in Between (16/44.1 FLAC, WEA), are mixed hard right and center left -- through the Chora 806es, both were reproduced with sparkly detail that gave the overall sound a lively feel. Jim Cuddy’s voice, mixed left of center on this cut, was surrounded by a generous amount of air and reproduced with solidity. The 806es imaged very well, placing Cuddy’s voice distinctly above and in front of the guitars, which were also precisely carved out on the soundstage. When the chorus begins at about 1:10, Cuddy’s voice is backed by Keelor’s -- through the Focals, Keelor’s voice was clearly distinct from Cuddy’s, slightly behind it and to the right, as it should be. Both voices sounded smooth yet very present and palpable, just the way I like it.

Comparisons

I compared the Focal Chora 806 with two other minimonitors, using pink noise and an SPL meter to ensure that the speakers’ output levels closely matched. I began with my own Bowers & Wilkins 685 S1s, which I currently use in my home theater. The 685 S1, which retailed for $600/pair when still available (the current version, the 606, lists for $800/pair), sports a fit’n’finish on a par with the Chora 806’s.

But while of similar build quality, the Focals mopped the floor with my old B&Ws, besting or equaling them in every category of sound. With the Stone Temple Pilots’ “Creep,” the quantity and quality of bass from the two were close, but the Chora 806es sounded a bit fuller and bigger, and went lower in frequency. Reproduction of the highs went to the Focals, through which I heard cymbal crashes that were airier, with more shimmer and longer decays. But the biggest differences were in the midrange -- the Focals reproduced Scott Weiland’s voice with more presence, height, and air than the 685 S1s could muster. The Chora 806es also more convincingly reproduced the strummed guitar to left of center at the beginning of the track, with an “in-the-room” transparency the B&Ws couldn’t match. There was no contest -- with every track I played, the Chora 806 bested the 685 S1.

I was so taken with the Chora 806 that I pitted it against some far costlier competition: Revel’s PerformaBe M126Be ($4000/pair), reviewed by Philip Beaudette in August 2019 on Soundstage! Hi-Fi. At four times the Focal’s price, this little beauty is, by most accounts, a benchmark for a two-way minimonitor, and was one of the SoundStage! Network’s Products of the Year for 2019.

Focal

Listening to the Chora 806 in isolation, I wouldn’t complain about any lack of transparency -- but in direct comparisons with the Revels, I occasionally but clearly heard a hint of cabinet coloration from the Focals that just wasn’t there with the Revels. For example, the acoustic guitars in Blue Rodeo’s “Sad Nights” seemed to float freer of the Revels’ cabinets, and were more clearly delineated from the bass lines than through the Focals. The pricier Revels’ thicker, denser cabinets and no doubt superior drivers also yielded tighter, punchier bass than the Focals could deliver. Given the difference in price, I wasn’t surprised.

What was most interesting was when I focused on the voices in “Sad Nights” -- I preferred what I heard through the Focals. The Chora 806es had the ability to lift Cuddy’s voice up, out, and away from the rest of the instruments, in a way that the Revels couldn’t quite replicate. This effect was more pronounced in the chorus, this time with Keelor’s backing vocal. The Revels reproduced both singers’ voices with realism and transparency, but the two men sounded somewhat trapped in the mix when directly compared with the Focals -- through the latter, Cuddy and Keelor sounded freer. The Revels are known for their accuracy, and perhaps their reproduction of the voices in “Sad Nights” is the way this track is supposed to sound -- but even if I could be convinced that that were true, in terms of my own musical enjoyment, I’d choose the Chora 806es over the M126Be’s, at least for their reproduction of singers’ voices.

These observations generally applied to every cut I listened to, but the degree to which I preferred the Focals’ reproduction of voices depended on how hot or cold the engineers had mixed them. In “I’ve Got to See You Again,” in which Norah Jones’s voice is mixed on the hot side, I only marginally preferred the Focals -- her voice had a touch more body and presence, which I liked. But for just about every other aspect of sound quality I preferred the Revels, which produced noticeably tighter bass, a bit more transparency of piano and voices, and just a hair more finesse and delicacy with cymbals. What was surprising was how well the Focals not only held their own, but from time to time won me over -- for one-fourth the Revels’ price.

Conclusion

The Focal Chora 806 exceeded my expectations. Their imaging focus was first-rate, and while the bass wasn’t as tight as I’ve heard from other two-way minimonitors, it was weighty enough to make this speaker sound bigger than it is. The top end was consistently nimble, delicate, detailed, and extended, and just right in terms of output -- not too bright, definitely not dull. The 806’s treble, with its perfect blend of control and aggression, made the sounds of cymbals, whether softly brushed or struck hard, pure joys -- I heard no hint of metallic sheen, which can really be off-putting.

Focal

And oh, that sublime midrange. I’ve now listened to three different Focal loudspeakers at home, and they share a strong family resemblance in the midrange -- a resemblance I really like. Through the Chora 806, acoustic piano, acoustic or electric guitar, strings, and especially voices, all had a palpable, detailed, reach-out-and-touch-it presence that I found especially rewarding. Complementing this midrange presence and liveliness were a rich tonality and body that revealed in the sound a sense of weight and, at times, warmth.

For a stand-mounted speaker costing $990/pair, Focal’s Chora 806 did little wrong and so many things right. If you’re in the market for a high-quality minimonitor anywhere near $1000/pair, you owe it to yourself to run to your nearest Focal dealer to listen to a pair of Chora 806es.

. . . Diego Estan
diego@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Speakers -- Bowers & Wilkins 685 S1, NHT C 3 Carbon Fiber, Revel PerformaBe M126Be
  • Subwoofer -- SVS SB-4000 (2)
  • Integrated amplifier -- NAD C 316BEE
  • Power amplifier -- McIntosh Laboratory MC302
  • Crossover -- Marchand Electronics XM446XLR-A (between preamp and amp)
  • Preamplifier-DAC -- McIntosh Laboratory C47
  • Room-correction EQ -- miniDSP DDRC-22D with Dirac Live 2.0 (between digital sources and DAC)
  • Digital Sources -- Bluesound Node streamer, Rotel RCD-991 CD player, laptop computer running Windows 10 and Roon
  • Analog sources -- Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Esprit turntable with Ortofon 2M Red cartridge
  • Speaker cables -- 12AWG oxygen-free copper (homemade) terminated with locking banana plugs
  • Analog interconnects -- AmazonBasics unbalanced (RCA), Monoprice Premier series balanced (XLR)
  • Digital interconnect -- AmazonBasics optical (TosLink)

Focal Chora 806 Loudspeakers
Price: $990 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Focal-JMlab
108 Rue de l’Avenir
42350 La Talaudière
France

Website: www.focal.com