Founded in the City of Lights, Focal has been around since 1979, the year Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now received the Palme d’Or at Cannes and when the average annual income in America was $17,500. Focal started as a twinkle in the eye of engineer and technology journalist Jacques Mahul, who believed he’d built a speaker that would appeal to hi-fi enthusiasts: the DB13. Fast-forward half a century, and Focal, designated “entreprise du patrimoine vivant” (living heritage company) by the French government, employs some 230 people at its large, stylish, multilevel digs.
Those digs, like commercial buildings across much of the world today, are less than fully occupied. Wendy Knowles, head of PR for Focal Naim America and my point person at the company, told me in an email, “COVID has affected everyone within Focal. Initially, our manufacturing was on hold for roughly 6 weeks, until staff were brought back in segmented shifts. Management and sales staff were encouraged to work from home as much as possible.” Focal managed to keep making speakers, and things have since become a bit more routine.
Lucky for me, the North American headquarters and warehouse for Focal Naim America are situated just 20 miles from where I live, near Montreal, which made getting the Arias to me a snap compared to the more elaborate scheming required, in the age of COVID, to get products in for review and out to reviewers. Just ask Editor Jim Austin.
The Aria K2 936
Nowadays, it’s hard not to feel the pandemic’s effect—on everything. In place of the usual white-glove service we reviewers are thought to receive, delivery of the Arias to my driveway was a drop-off-and-dash affair by Zorro, or so I thought at first. It turned out to be some other mysterious man in a mask. Thankfully, at a lean 70lb or so each, the speaker cartons weren’t too difficult to maneuver down the stairs to my basement listening room, nor was the unboxing and setting up overly arduous. It is however a job best done by two people, at least in normal, unmasked times.
The K2 936s have a balance that gives notes foundation and fleshes things out from the bottom up, but it isn’t dark or obscuring.
First thing that caught my eye as I removed the speaker’s protective nylon hood was the shininess of its top panel’s black, high-gloss finish. It looked sharp—and oh-so-prone to finger smudges. I was happy to find a cleaning cloth included with each speaker—a thoughtful touch. In fact, everything about the speaker’s build, from the spiked base assembly to its premium Ash Grey side panels and leatherette baffle, seemed thoughtfully conceived. The Arias project style and sturdiness. Nothing seemed fragile or cheaply made. It was (literally) a solid first impression.
Even before I’d heard them, the Arias left me no doubt that they’d bee-lined from the factory to my house. Coming out of their boxes, they emitted a whiff of that new-factory smell. Each speaker still had its temporary Made-in-France sticker glued to its top, its protective tweeter cover in place, the protective floor tips for the spikes sealed in their bag. This pair was beginning its reviewer rounds with me. I was stoked.
I was doubly stoked because the Aria K2 936 is a Special Edition version of the Aria 936 that Robert Deutsch reviewed so glowingly in 2014, which remains in the Focal Aria line.1 The original 936 and the K2 version are essentially the same design: an almost 4' high, 3-way floor stander employing a 6.5 midrange, three 6.5 woofers, a down-firing 3 bass reinforcement vent on its underside, a twin pair of ports on the front that the company describes in its literature as a “multi-port PowerFlow system for more impact,” and a 1 inverted aluminum-magnesium dome tweeter whose symmetrically sleek design gave off science-fiction vibes.
Description Three-way, five-driver, floorstanding loudspeaker. Drive-units: 1 (25mm) aluminum-magnesium TNF inverted-dome tweeter, 6.5 (165mm) K2 sandwich-cone midrange unit, three 6.5 (165mm) K2 sandwich-cone woofers. Crossover frequencies: 260Hz, 3.1kHz. Frequency response: 39Hz–28kHz, ±3dB. Sensitivity: 92dB. Impedance: 8 ohms nominal, 2.8 ohms minimum. Recommended amplification: 50–300W.
Serial numbers A1CBKF000002, A1CBKF000003.
Dimensions 45” (1150mm) H × 11.5 (294mm) W × 14.5 (371mm) D. Weight: 64lb (29kg).
Finishes Ash Grey premium finish (from the Utopia line).
Price $5990/pair. Approximate number of dealers: 270.
Manufacturer Focal, BP 374108, rue de l’Avenir, 42353 La Talaudrière Cedex, France.
Tel: (33) 04-77-43-57-00. Web: focal.com. US and Canada distributor: Focal Naim America, 313 Rue Marion, Repentigny, QC J5Z 4W8. US Tel: (800) 663-9352, Canada Tel: (866) 271-5689, (450) 585-0098. Web: focalnaimamerica.com.
Where the similarities between the base model and the K2 end is in their cabinet finishes, and midrange and bass drivers, and the crossovers. Focal’s iconic, bright-yellow cones have been around since 1986; the yellow comes from aramid, a strong, heat-resistant, synthetic material that happens to be yellow. In the standard 936, the drivers use the easier-to-make F (for flax) cone, whereas in the K2, the cones’ lightweight, rigid foam is sandwiched between the aramid layer and a layer of glass fibers, a configuration said to increase power handling and produce “a pure and precise sound, with no coloration.”
I used DRA Labs’ MLSSA system and a calibrated DPA 4006 microphone to measure the Focal Aria K2 936’s frequency response in the farfield, and an Earthworks QTC40 mike for the nearfield responses. (The Earthworks microphone’s capsule has a diameter of just 1/4, so it doesn’t present a significant obstacle to each radiator’s output.) The loudspeaker’s manual recommends that the listener’s ears should be the same height as the tweeter, so I used the tweeter axis for the farfield measurements.
Focal specifies the Aria 936’s sensitivity as a high 92dB/2.83V/m. My estimate was slightly lower, at 90dB(B)/2.83V/m, but this is still usefully higher than average. The Aria 936’s impedance is specified as 8 ohms, with a minimum magnitude of 2.8 ohms. Using MLSSA and checking with Dayton Audio’s DATS V2, I found that the impedance magnitude (fig.1, solid trace) remains above 8 ohms below 25Hz and in the mid-treble. The minimum value was 2.75 ohms between 100Hz and 135Hz. However, the electrical phase angle (dashed trace) is occasionally high when the magnitude is low. For example, there is a combination of 4 ohms and –60° at 80Hz, which will increase the loudspeaker’s demand for current from amplifiers in a region where music can have high levels of energy. The EPDR1 drops below 2 ohms in three regions—27–38Hz, 65– 141Hz, and 363–895Hz—with minimum values of 1.8 ohms at 32Hz and 0.97 ohms between 87Hz and 90Hz. The K2 Aria 936 must be used with amplifiers that don’t have problems driving 2 ohm loads.2 In addition, with tube amplifiers that have high output impedances, the shape of the Focal’s impedance magnitude trace implies that the low treble will sound exaggerated.
Other than one at 24kHz, which was due to the metal-diaphragm tweeter’s primary breakup mode, the traces in fig.1 are free from the small discontinuities that would imply that there are resonances of some kind present. However, when I investigated the enclosure’s vibrational behavior with a plastic-tape accelerometer, I did find some resonant modes. For example, two resonant modes were present on the sidewalls level with the middle woofer, one at 289Hz and a slightly stronger one at 441Hz (fig.2). These were also present at lower levels at other places on the sidewalls, and a single resonance at 668Hz was present on the back wall. All the modes were both relatively low in level and had a high Q (Quality Factor), which will mitigate any audible effects.
A saddle is centered on 41Hz in the impedance magnitude trace, which suggests that this is the tuning frequency of the two small ports on the front baffle and the larger, downward-firing one on the speaker’s base. The minimum-motion notch in the woofers’ summed output (fig.3, blue trace; the three woofers appear to behave identically), which is when the backpressure from the port resonance holds the woofer cone still, lies at the same frequency. The outputs of all three ports were very similar. Their nearfield output (fig.3, red trace) peaks broadly, in textbook manner, between 30Hz and 100Hz. The upper-frequency rolloff is clean, though some low-level liveliness can be seen at 800Hz.
1 EPDR is the resistive load that gives rise to the same peak dissipation in an amplifier’s output devices as the loudspeaker. See “Audio Power Amplifiers for Loudspeaker Loads,” JAES, Vol.42 No.9, September 1994, and stereophile.com/ reference/707heavy/index.html.
2 The Aria’s high sensitivity will mitigate this difficult load to a degree.
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