Introducing the new entry-level range with innovative cone material. David Vivian reckons it’s something to sing about.
- Secret to its success
- Sound quality
- IN SIGHT
- Best Focal CHORA 826 prices in the US ?
- Best Focal CHORA 826 prices in the UK ?
- Harnessing the Atom
- HI-FI SETUPS
Like many of you, I’ve been craving the life-affirming feeling you only get from live performance. But with no concerts on the horizon, I’ve turned my attention to ensuring I get the very best from my hi-fi.
A DAC will transform your sound in ways you couldn’t have imagined
Sitting in the ‘sweet spot’ between two speakers is the closest you can get to the best seats in the house. Make sure they’re at least 15cm away from the wall and sit level with your ears when seated. It’s also worth experimenting with the angle of the speakers, as even a few degrees can make a huge difference in experiencing a full orchestral sound.
Rearranging the furniture to prioritise your speakers may be a step too far, but good amplifiers have software to help compensate for less-than-ideal positioning. Arcam uses the excellent Dirac Live Room Correction technology, while Sonos cleverly uses the microphone in your smartphone.
Ideally you need an amplifier and speakers with enough power to recreate the feeling of the orchestra moving the air around you. A powerful amplifier will effortlessly drive your loudspeakers, enhancing the excitement of the music – as a rule, more amp power means more control and less distortion.
If big speakers aren’t practical, you can still immerse yourself in a live recording with a pair of over-ear headphones from a respected brand like Sennheiser or Audio Technica. Ideally you should pair them with a DAC like the sublime Chord Mojo that transforms your sound in ways you couldn’t have imagined.
The better quality the music file, the more detail you’ll hear: the tap of a baton, the breath of a pianist and buzz of an audience can all be lost on a poor-quality MP3 file, so seek out better-than-CD quality (16-bit/44.1kHz).
Listening to and watching classical performances are very different experiences, but with the right TV sound system you’ll be surprised how immersive it can be. The best way to enjoy concert recordings is through Dolby Atmos, which projects sound up as well as around the room.
French loudspeaker maker Focal pours a lot of time and money into R&D – probably more than most of its competitors. Originally known as Focal-JMLab, the company was founded in 1979 in Saint-Etienne by the engineer and hi-fi journalist Jacques Mahul and, from the very beginning, a restless desire to stay ahead of the curve fuelled innovation. The mission could easily be subtitled “.. .and the search for the perfect driver diaphragm”. It’s a continuing (and presumably never-ending) quest, but Focal’s track record thus far in bringing new materials and composites to market is impressive. Since the early eighties these have included titanium, titanium dioxide, poly Kevlar, polyglass, flax and, for its premium lines, beryllium and the mysteriously named ‘W’ composite.
Now slatefiber makes its debut, not as a state-of-the-art proposition later to be trickled down to more mainstream fare, but a ready-to-roll game changer at ground level or – as described by Focal – “a new standard in affordable loudspeaker design and performance”. What it means in practical terms is that Chorus, its long-established entry-level speaker range, is replaced by Chora with the new and unique slatefiber drivers, more on which in a moment.
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It projects a spacious soundstage with a strong sense of height and depth
It’s a clever strategy, neatly tying together Focal’s notional pre-eminence in driver innovation and a price point where its benefit will be for the many and not the few, to borrow a recent political slogan. This sort of thing has a tendency to drum up a fair bit of excitement in a highly competitive sector traditionally teaming with players angling for an edge by any and all means possible.
Unlike the sprawling Chorus range it supplants, the Chora family for now has just three members, all solidly constructed bass-reflex designs. The 806 is a two-way standmount and is joined by a brace of floorstanders, the three-driver, 2.5-way 816 and the four-driver, three-way 826 on review here. The lineup will start to expand next year (see Q&A). First up, however, is the flagship tower and it’s something I’m particularly glad about as large-ish three-way floorstanders selling for around £ have been doing great things in my listening rooms of late. The 826 comes hard on the heels of the Bowers & Wilkins 603 and the only slightly pricier KLH Kendall – both guilty of nudging the bar and daring any newcomer to do better.
Secret to its success
They might be on shaky ground with the Chora 826. Focal notes that its aim has always been to make high quality accessible and cites the popularity and acclaim afforded Chorus as a measure of its success. It suggests Chora is on another level altogether. Its objective with the new range has been to capture something of the sonic character and visual appeal of its most advanced and expensive speakers for the keenest price possible. If accomplished, that’s quite some prospect.
Mid and bass drivers built around slatefiber cones (the name refers to the attractive slate-grey colour, not an ingredient) seem to be the key. The 826, being a three-way design, has a 165mm unit dedicated to the midrange and two 165mm bass drivers, low-frequency output augmented by a large, aerodynamically profiled, front-facing port to help the system reach down to 48Hz at ±3dB and 39Hz at -6dB. The challenge to optimise lightness, rigidity and damping is the same as for any speaker cone material, but as with Focal’s previous ‘solutions’, this one comes at the problem from a slightly different angle. After the woven flax fibre and glass fibre sandwich used in the drivers of its Aria and Kanta models, slatefiber teams thermoplastic polymer with unwoven non-recycled carbon, again as a layered composite.
The front-facing bass port helps the Chora achieve impressively low frequencies
The upshot of having all the carbon fibres point in the same direction, according to Focal, is truly exceptional damping, lightness and rigidity resulting in superb efficiency a spacious soundstage and midband with minimal colouration, unfettered dynamic expression and rich, textured tonality.
The TNF tweeter, set in a shallow waveguide, is unusual, too. As well as sporting an inverted 25mm aluminium/magnesium dome (concave rather than convex to make it less directional), the suspension between the dome and its bracket incorporates Poron, a material with what Focal refers to as ‘shape memory’. It’s a similar arrangement to the one Focal employs for the famous beryllium tweeter in its high-end Utopia range. The benefit of this suspension, claims the company, is that it makes it possible to reduce distortion by a factor of three to around 2.5kHz where the human ear is at its most sensitive, but the 28kHz frequency ceiling is impressive, too.
With so much effort and ingenuity devoted to the drivers, it wouldn’t be too terrible to find evidence of cost-paring elsewhere. True, the Chora aesthetic isn’t a conversation piece like the Kanta, Sopra or Utopia ranges would be, but it is smart and stylishly finished (in black with piano gloss baffle, light wood with cream baffle or dark wood with grey baffle) and holds its own with the more expensive Focal Aria line, positioned one tier up.
A magnetically attached grille covers the mid and two bass drivers, leaving the tweeter (protected by a gleaming steel mesh cap) and reflex port on show. But I reckon Focal is right, the slatefiber drivers look too good to hide away. If you agree, you’ll notice that the midrange driver has a conical dust cap while on the bass drivers it’s flattened out over a greater surface
The music ebbs and flows with a fluency and cohesion that’s easy to relax into area of the cones. The reason is that they have different functions. On the midrange driver, it is shaped to put the squeeze on interference and so reduce distortion, but on the bass drivers caps are flattened to enhance cone rigidity and improve definition and impact at the bottom end.
Normally, I steer clear of screw-on plastic plinths as, while undoubtedly increasing the stability of the loudspeakers to which they’re attached should a Great Dane or over excited toddler rugby tackle them, I find they usually inflict some harm on the sound. Those supplied with the Chora would have been treated no differently but for the fact that, as well as locating the 826 more securely, they also tilt the enclosures back by a few degrees to time-align the drivers – essential for properly focused imaging, says Focal.
|3-way floorstanding loudspeaker
|303 x 1,053 x 388mm
|• 1x 25mm TNF Al/Mg inverted dome tweeter
• 1x 165mm slatefiber midrange driver
• 2x 165mm slatefiber bass drivers
• Quoted sensitivity: 91dB/1W/1m
|Focal-JMlab UK Ltd.
I wish I could claim that I undertake extensive plinth on/off comparisons to be able to hear the effect, but the speaker sounds so good with them fitted, I don’t feel inclined to doubt Focal’s word on the matter. Any experimentation that does take place is confined to discovering whether the tall and slightly tilted-back Chora prefers my small or large listening room (surprisingly, it works equally well in both without the need to be pulled especially far away from boundaries), and how it fares with a selection of classy integrated amps. Again, the Focal remains coolly agnostic, effortlessly and enjoyably revealing the differing abilities of a Cambridge Audio CXA61 (see full review next month) and a Hegel H90 (HFC 427), despite their nominally identical 2x 60W power outputs which, even in the larger room, proves more than enough to drive the sensitive 826 (rated at 91dB) to very healthy levels.
As has become increasingly clear with my recent reviews of the B&W 603 and KLH Kendall, there are some things a well-designed and engineered three-way floorstander of a certain size can do that are simply beyond even the best standmounts or smaller floorstanders with fewer drivers. It’s a kind of easy-going generosity that unpacks a recording more completely for appreciation. The B&W excels through the midrange and treble with stunning clarity, resolution and openness, while the KLH has a warmer tonal balance and deeper bass without being quite so transparent. Both exhibit that appealing three-way unconstrained largess.
If anything, it’s even more apparent with the Chora 826. For instance, that lovely walking double bass that introduces Simply Red’s Sad Old Red breathes rather than feeling as if it’s being squeezed out of a constriction. Sarah Jane Morris singing John Martyn’s Sweet Little Mystery happens in a soundstage with believable scale and solidity, her soul-drenched huskiness portrayed with a richness and depth that tugs hard on the emotions. No, the Focal isn’t quite as resolute as the B&W or as tonally warm as the KLH, but it does chart a very comfortable path between the two that, straight away, gives it fabulous listenability.
Also, better than both those speakers is the Focal’s ability to project an extraordinarily huge and spacious soundstage with a strong sense of height as well as depth – maybe a result of that backward tilt. It works to stunning effect when I cue up jazz pianist and composer Chick Corea’s latest live set with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade on the album Trilogy 2, capturing not just the electricity of the performance but more than an inkling of venue space and ambience. Time and again, the Chora displays a knack of handling heavy duty with a light touch. At dazzling full tilt, the Corea trio gives any speaker a lot to think about and organise, but the 826 neither blurs the detail nor labours the action. The sense of realism over exaggeration is stunningly impressive.
The same applies equally to Van Morrison’s latest album, Dark Night Of The Soul, which sounds gloriously rich and unprocessed, Van the man’s voice in fine, growly fettle. The music ebbs and flows with a fluency and cohesion that’s easy to relax into. The feeling of textural shading and the finely graded palette of tonal colours and sumptuous yet effortlessly deep and supple bass are a simple joy to behold.
1 25mm TNF Al/Mg tweeter
2 Single-wire binding posts
3 Forward-facing bass port
4 2x 165mm slatefiber bass drivers
5 165mm slatefiber midrange driver
In the mid-eighties, the French company developed a poly Kevlar sandwich cone for its midrange and bass drivers. This was constructed from two layers of aramid fibres placed on either side of a hollow micro-ball structure. This design optimised the cone’s weight, rigidity and damping ratio in pursuit of improved driver responsiveness.
In 2015, it introduced flax cone drivers (previously the preserve of the more expensive Kanta) for its more affordable Aria speaker range. This sandwich cone features a thin layer of flax linen in between two layers of fibreglass. Flax was chosen for its mechanical properties, the hollow fibre combining neutrality and lightness while its low elasticity and high rigidity are similar to that of carbon and Kevlar.
The Chora 826 swiftly resolves any debate about whether to go for a standmount or floorstander, and it’s bad news for the standmount. That it can deliver the myriad advantages of a three-way tower in a small room makes it all but irresistible
This is Focal right on top of its game. The Chora 826 isn't just fine value, but a great speaker full stop
- Exceptional sound
- unfussy about placement and partnering equipment
- Nothing at the price
Best Focal CHORA 826 prices in the US ?
Best Focal CHORA 826 prices in the UK ?
See also TOP 10 Subwoofers
Harnessing the Atom
There is an old but not entirely inaccurate adage that states: “If it looks right it is right”, which basically means if something is sound this will be apparent even before you turn it on. While almost certainly valid, it does put this particular system at a slight disadvantage. The Focal Chora 826 is a pretty big loudspeaker and the Naim Uniti Atom in direct contrast is a fairly compact all-in-one. You’d be forgiven for wondering if this bijou system can really do the business when paired with those rather hefty towers.
I’m pleased to say these concerns prove groundless. This is a pair that not only works, but actively thrives. After nearly a decade of collaboration, Naim and Focal have clearly learned from one another and it means that whatever proportional incongruity there might be, this is a very effective system indeed.
Key to this is the fact that both companies have retained some of the characteristics that have long defined them. The Chora 826 is a big, threeway floorstander but thanks to Focal’s attention to detail and the use of its clever composite cones – now including recycled, non-woven carbon fibres to create the distinctive finish that Focal calls ‘Slatefiber’ – they are highly sensitive. With the 826, it would appear, a little goes a long way.
This dovetails neatly with Naim’s habit of producing amps that have a bit more welly than the numbers suggest. The Atom is rated at 40W, but these seem to be bigger, hardier watts than those found elsewhere. It means the Atom doesn’t simply run the Choras, it drives them and exerts a palpable grip over proceedings. What this translates to is a system that has effortless amounts of welly even in fairly large rooms.
The force awakens
There’s more than brute force at work here, though. The Chora series is firmly in the foothills of Focal’s range, but the expertise that has been gained in the creation of the flagship models is present here too. Everything from the driver surrounds to the cabinet bracing is a distillation of what Focal has learned elsewhere. It is also less demanding about placement than Focal models of old, helping to make the business of accommodating it easier than before.
The Naim also benefits from decades of experience. Like everything else the company makes, the internals of the Atom are fastidiously arranged to keep noise and interference to a minimum and are dominated by a hefty power supply. Things have been successfully fired into space that don’t look as neat as the Atom does internally. It also uses the same streaming platform as everything else in Naim’s arsenal (making multi-room a breeze). Not only is it one of the best of its kind, it does pretty much everything you might reasonably expect a streamer to do. It might be small, but it’s absurdly talented.
The sheer technical accomplishment on display is impressive at this price point
It is also one of the best-looking pieces of equipment you can buy from any manufacturer at any price. The Atom is proportionally perfect and peppered with detailing that makes it look and feel more expensive than it actually is. Details like the way the vibrant display instantly switches to a volume figure when you twist that beautifully weighted volume control before seamlessly switching back to the album cover is an effortless blend of hardware and software that helps it feel special. The Chora is necessarily more business like, but it leverages its classic proportions to come across as both handsome and elegant. Focal says that the rearward lean imparted by the plinth is for time alignment so I’m sure it’s just a happy coincidence that it does a brilliant job of reducing the perceived bulk of the cabinet too.
Recipe for success
In truth, the Atom could be packaged in a recycled biscuit tin and the Chora possessed of no mass-reducing visual tricks and the way they sound together would still be worthy of note. When Naim and Focal joined forces nearly a decade ago, there were quite a few people who questioned how they would work together. In culinary terms, it felt like mixing chocolate with horseradish; individually fine ingredients but not necessarily the path to a great recipe.
Here we are in 2021, though, and without either company compromising their identity, this system absolutely sings. The opening bars of Marina’s Soft To Be Strong are, in microcosm, a demonstration of everything this system can do. All the technical attributes are present and correct. Diamandis is locked to the centre of a soundstage that is expansive but never diffuse. The piano has a weight to it and notes decay naturally. The tonality of both is totally convincing too. The technical accomplishment on display is mighty impressive at this price point. It’s the sort of effortless, unshowy brilliance that only becomes apparent when you listen to something not so supernaturally talented.
Getting better all the time
But there’s so much more to what this system does, too. Every ounce of the emotional content this track has is stitched into the presentation. It never impinges on the rightness of what you hear, but it’s the difference between a capable rendition and a living, breathing performance. And as the tempo increases, things only get better. Mark Lanegan’s ballistic Disbelief Suspension is a visceral whirlwind of guitar noise and pounding drums with Lanegan’s leathery vocals leading the charge. The Focal hits hard, but lands each beat with millimetric precision.
This is also down to the Atom. It couldn’t wear the Naim badge if it didn’t take any time signature you can imagine and deliver it as if it had been built to play that piece and that piece alone, but even with this knowledge it manages to delight. It’s as slick as anything in the inventory of a multi-national, but at its heart it simply wants to deliver the musical message; via pretty much any digital medium you can imagine. Where the progress has really been made over recent years is in the decoding. The Atom is a device that, without ever losing the bite and excitement in a recording, manages to be utterly forgiving at the same time. Want to listen to the Prodigy’s Their Law at levels you feel as well as hear? It’s got you covered.
This is a system that has effortless amounts of welly even in large rooms
This perfect balance is delivered to the Chora 826 and it certainly doesn’t let the side down. This is still every inch a Focal. The detail retrieval is exceptional and the ability to create space makes music a near holographic experience for the listener. What there also is, is a demonstrable joy to the way that it makes music. It’s the difference between putting some tunes on to accompany another task and sitting down and actually listening, rapt for an evening, ploughing through every corner of your collection (and remember, as the Atom now supports Spotify, Tidal and Qobuz, you don’t need to stop at music you own either), and loving every second of it.
The right stuff
As a combo then, this is no longer chocolate and horseradish (if indeed it ever was). It’s duck and orange when you’re feeling highbrow and cheese and onion when you aren’t. This is a stupendously clever, exactingly well made and exceptionally flexible combination. It might take a moment to believe that this system looks right. Trust me when I say it absolutely is
NAIM UNITI ATOM
The smallest member of the Uniti family, the Atom is an exceptionally well specified and implemented all-in-one with a 40W amp powering a UPnP board with AirPlay, Bluetooth and Chromecast as well as a selection of digital and analogue inputs, all combined in a very handsome chassis.
FOCAL CHORA 826
The largest member of the Chora family is a three-way design that uses the latest ‘Slatefiber’ technology for the midrange and bass drivers, partnered with an aluminium tweeter. These are placed in a carefully braced, front-ported cabinet available in a selection of finishes.
Product manager, Focal
DV: How do the properties of a slatefiber cone differ from flax?
MM: Slatefiber is made of recycled carbon fibres and thermoplastic polymer and has some very interesting acoustic properties: good rigidity, high damping (close to flax and ‘W’ membranes) and extremely lightweight. The upshot of this is that the sound characteristic of slatefiber offers excellent clarity in the midrange, which represents a huge upgrade in performance over the previous polyglass technology used in the Chorus. At Focal, we tend to find our speakers have a “Focal sound signature” and slatefiber delivers a sound characteristic that we feel is very reminiscent of our more premium models.
How did the slatefiber cone material come about?
The idea behind slatefiber was to create a new cone-material technology, exclusive to Focal, for our entry-level range of speakers. Historically, we have used a polyglass cone. For Chora, we wanted to have a product that was totally developed and made in France, so we created a new industrial tool (a semi-automated machine to make the cones) to be able to produce slatefiber cones in our factory at Saint-Etienne, yet still remain competitive.
Are any further models likely to be introduced to the Chora range?
In 2020 we’ll be introducing some exciting new members of the Chora family, to cater for a range of multichannel setups. Watch this space!
NAIM UNITI STAR
Offering premium-quality streaming, Naim’s Uniti Star is an all-in-one designed to offer the highest resolution from streaming music sources. Options are plentiful. It has aptX HD Bluetooth, Chromecast built-in, AirPlay 2 compatibility and UPnP network streaming.
Physical connectivity is similarly expansive. There’s HDMI with ARC, two digital optical inputs (which support 24bit/96kHz), plus coaxial audio and BNC (which up the ante to 24bit/192kHz). There are also analogue inputs.
Those with an extensive CD collection will also appreciate the built-in disc player. Even better, it’ll rip discs to local storage. Power output is also rated at a healthy 2x70W: all you need do is add speakers and you’re good to go.
IFI ZEN STREAM
Described as a ‘Wi-Fi audio transport’, the Stream is the latest addition to iFi’s lookalike Zen audio separates line, and proves a powerful hi-res upgrade for any existing hi-fi system or a DAC. Maker iFi suggests matching it with the lookalike iFi Zen DAC, which also features a high grade headphone amp, to make a formidable hi-res headphone audio system.
The ZEN Stream features two digital outputs, asynchronous USB and coaxial digital audio, and supports hi-res audio from multiple sources. There’s a dedicated Tidal streaming mode, DLNA certification, AirPlay and Chromecast (soon via firmware upgrade). It’s also Roon compatible.
FOCAL CHORA 826-D
Hands down the most elegant floorstanding loudspeakers with Atmos upfiring built in, Focal’s Chora 826-D will change the way you think about spatial audio in the home.
An update on the original Chora 826, this new version combines three forward-facing mid-range woofers and an aluminium-magnesium TNF tweeter, with a recessed Dolby Atmos up-firing driver. It’s a best of both worlds approach, good for high-quality hi-fi and 3D audio. Partner with a Dolby Atmos AVR and as many additional speakers as you want. Focal offers timbre matched surround, centre and subwoofers in the Chora line.
Designed in collaboration with Danish studio NORM Architects, this gorgeous example of Scandinavian cabinetry is available in aluminium, bronze tone aluminium or smoked oak, and features an engraved touch-sensitive wooden control panel.
More importantly, it sounds awesome. The Beosound Stage sports no fewer than 11 drivers, each with its own 50-watt amplifier. While Dolby Atmos compatible, there are no upfiring speakers. It’s a three channel design, oozing hi-fi credibility. Bluetooth is joined by Chromecast built-in and Apple AirPlay 2. HDMI with eARC is offered for connection to a telly.