Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Though best known for such premium luxury speakers as the models populating its Utopia and Sopra lines, France’s Focal offers speakers in many price categories. In September 2019, Focal introduced the Chora line with the release of the 806 minimonitor and the 816 and 826 floorstanders. The Choras comprise Focal’s newest series of affordable speakers, slotting between the Aria 900 and Chorus 700 lines. The Choras’ main-speaker prices start at $990/pair (all prices USD), for the Chora 806.

In January 2020, Focal completed the Chora line by introducing the Chora Center center-channel speaker ($790 each), the Chora Surround ($990/pair), the Sub 600P subwoofer ($1290 each), and the unusual Chora 826-D floorstander ($2790/pair). The Chora 826-D is identical to the Chora 826, with one important difference: an additional, top-mounted driver for a Dolby Atmos height channel.

Focal

Focal sent me two pairs of Chora 826-Ds. That way, I could listen to the speaker in a full surround system with four height channels and thus fully test its capabilities. Focal also sent along a Chora Center and a Sub 1000 F subwoofer ($1990) -- the Sub 600P wasn’t yet in production at time of shipping. Total retail price: a hefty $8360.

Note: The Sub 1000 F subwoofer aside, the speaker models discussed below are available in three finishes: Light Wood, Dark Wood, or Black. My review samples were finished in Black: gloss on the front panel, matte on the other surfaces. Otherwise, the two Wood finishes are applied to the speaker’s top and side panels, while the front panel is painted an attractive contrasting color: cream for Light Wood, dark gray for Dark Wood.

Description: Chora 826-D main/surround speaker

The Chora 826-D looks like a conventional, boxy tower speaker measuring 39.5”H x 8.25”W x 13.5”D and weighing 48.5 pounds. What sets it apart is its wedge-shaped plinth -- add that, and the overall dimensions are 41.5"H x 12”W x 15.25”D. The plinth -- also used with the 816 and 826 tower models -- tilts the speaker up to put the drivers’ axes at the angles and vertical positions that will ensure that their wavefronts arrive simultaneously at your ears when you’re sitting down. Such pains taken in time alignment are also seen in Focal’s more expensive speakers; I’m pleased to see them taken for the Chora line.

Given Focal’s origins as an original-equipment manufacturer (OEM) of drive-units for other speaker makers, it’s no surprise that the Choras were introduced with drivers that are also new designs. What’s new is the material of which the woofer cones are made. This substance, which Focal calls Slatefiber, is a combination of thermoplastic polymer and fibers of recycled carbon; the result, Focal claims, is a light, rigid, well-damped cone. In the 826-D, one 6.5” Slatefiber driver handles the midrange, and two more the bass. The 826-D is a three-way speaker, with crossovers at 270Hz and 2700Hz.

Focal

At the top of the front baffle is the tweeter, one of Focal’s 1” TNF (Tweeter Neutral Focal) inverted domes. Focal inverts the dome to make a better mechanical coupling with the dome’s surround. This reportedly results in greater control of the dome by its voice coil, and thus greater dynamics, less distortion, and more precise soundstaging. The dome is made of an alloy of magnesium and aluminum, which Focal says is an ideal combination for a tweeter: aluminum is very rigid, and magnesium has great self-damping properties. At the bottom of the baffle is a port.

Of the front-baffle drivers, all but the tweeter are hidden behind a single long, racetrack-shaped, magnetically attached grille. With its grille affixed, the Chora 826-D looks similar to Focal’s pricier models, which makes it immediately recognizable as a Focal speaker. The tweeter is protected by its own little grille, this one permanently attached.

The Dolby Atmos height-channel driver is inset in the speaker’s top panel, under another racetrack grille. This drive-unit consists of a 1” Al/Mg dome nestled at the center of a 5” Slatefiber midrange-woofer, firing forward and upward toward the ceiling. Between driver and listener, two thin baffles further help to direct the sound upward.

Focal

On the rear panel are two pairs of binding posts, but these aren’t for biwiring or biamping -- one pair is dedicated to the top-mounted height-channel driver.

The Chora 826-D’s specified frequency response is 48Hz-28kHz, ±3dB, its sensitivity is 91dB and its nominal impedance is 8 ohms. That 48Hz is surprising -- my ears told me it went deeper. These specs indicate that the Chora 826-D will be a relatively easy load for most home-theater receivers.

Description: Chora Center center speaker

The Chora Center weighs 19.6 pounds and is relatively large for a center speaker: 20.9”W x 8.25”H x 9.8”D. Its two 6.5” Slatefiber midrange-woofers flank a 1” TNF tweeter, to which they hand off at 2100Hz. Unlike the 826-D, the Center is a sealed box -- no port. Each midrange-woofer has its own circular grille, and, as in the 826-D, the tweeter is covered by a permanently attached mesh screen. One cool feature of the Chora Center is a piece of rubber that can be attached to the bottom panel, to tilt the speaker upward. An optional stand is available.

Focal

The Chora Center’s specified frequency response is 59Hz-28kHz, ±3dB, with a sensitivity of 91dB and a nominal impedance of 8 ohms. These figures indicate relatively deep bass extension for a center speaker, and that the Chora Center should be easily driven by any decent AVR.

Description: Sub 1000 F subwoofer

Focal packs a lot of technology into the Sub 1000 F’s relatively compact, all-but-cubical dimensions of 16.5”H x 15.75”W x 16.5”D. The cone of the 12” driver is made of natural flax fibers, as in the woofers of Focal’s Aria models. Focal claims that flax and their Slatefiber both offer high rigidity, stiffness, and damping. Unlike in the Arias, the Sub 1000 F’s flax cone is sandwiched by two layers of glass fiber, to better meet the high demands of subwoofing. The driver has dual magnets, which Focal says results in better control and linearity.

This woofer is driven by a 1000W BASH amplifier -- a hybrid class-AB/D design. The high power is required because the Sub 1000 F is a sealed box, with no port to augment its bass output. A circular grille covers the cone.

Focal

On the control panel in back are RCA jacks for stereo or a single low-frequency effects (LFE) input from an AVR. There are also a volume control, a crossover-frequency knob, and a 0°/180° phase switch. Per Focal’s specs, the Sub 1000 F can produce usable output down to 24Hz.

The Sub 1000 F’s front panel is finished in High Gloss black lacquer, its side and top panels in matte black.

Setup

I used the four Focal Chora 826-Ds for the left/right main front and surround channels. At first I set them up wrong, bolting speakers to plinths placed backward, so that the speakers were angled down, not up. That didn’t look right, and I corrected my mistake.

I placed the Chora 826-Ds and Chora Center in the usual spots I have my home-theater speakers -- except, of course, for the height speakers. That put the Chora Center directly in front of me and 9’ away. The front left and right 826-Ds were 12’ from my listening seat, to either side of my 92” projection screen. The surround left and right 826-Ds were about 5.5’ to either side of my listening seat at an angle of 90°. The height speakers, of course, were also the four 826-Ds -- the only tricky part was running speaker cables to each of them. This was made easier by my room’s T-bar ceiling -- I could run cables between the hung and true ceilings down to the Dolby Atmos terminals of the 826-Ds. The Sub 1000 F subwoofer went in the room’s front right corner, about 12’ from my listening seat.

Focal

For ease of setup, I subjected the system and room to analysis and correction by the Anthem Room Correction software built into my Anthem MRX 720 AVR, then tweaked the room-gain settings. The low-end crossover frequencies selected by ARC were: 60Hz for the Chora 826-Ds, 70Hz for the Chora Center, and 130Hz for the Dolby Atmos height modules. I then ran test tones through each speaker, to ensure that the levels and crossovers were set to my liking.

Listening

I was eager to hear the effects of the Chora 826-Ds’ height-channel drivers, this being my first opportunity to hear “ceiling-bounce” speakers in my home theater. However, my first and lasting impression of Focal’s Chora surround-sound system wasn’t how well the simulated height channels worked -- and they worked great. Instead, it was the huge, enveloping sound. The soundfield was utterly seamless, even behind me -- all the more remarkable as this system included no rear surround speakers.

This was well illustrated by the Dolby Atmos soundtrack on the BD of The Invisible Man (2020). In the opening credit sequence, ocean waves proceed from the extreme low foreground of the image and rush forward, away from the viewer; as they break on the shore, water splashes up to form words. The sounds of the waves moved seamlessly from rear through surround to front speakers, and as it did I heard splashing all around me, including above the tops of the speakers. In chapter 9, the Invisible Man encounters Cecilia and an intense fight ensues. Benjamin Wallfisch’s eerie score seemed to appear far above me, then crawled along the ceiling. Throughout the film, each time the Invisible Man appears out of nowhere, the music blasts to keep you jumping in your seat. At these moments the wide dynamic range of the Focal system was very noticeable -- the music’s pulsing beat exploded from the quiet, enhanced by deep bass from the Sub 1000 F. I watched The Invisible Man twice: once in my living room, and once in my basement home theater, where I’d set up the Focal system. The excellent sound quality of the latter system made watching this movie a far more tense and scary experience than I’d had in my living room.

Focal

I had no problem tracking discrete sound effects through the Focals’ soundfield, and chapter 9 includes a scene that particularly showcased the Dolby Atmos prowess of the Chora 826-Ds. When Cecilia first encounters the Invisible Man, she’s in the attic and hears him on the stairs. She grabs a can of paint and splashes paint on him. I could track the sound of the paint splattering up onto the ceiling at left, and objects being knocked around at right rear. Another good scene is in Blade Runner 2049, whose BD edition also features a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. In chapter 1, when K’s spinner circles above Sapper Morton tending his protein farm and Morton looks up, I could easily track the sound of the spinner across my ceiling, from rear left to rear right to front right. A remarkable feat.

The deep, resonant voice of Dave Bautista, who plays Morton, came clearly from the Chora Center, which in general proved a very good match for the Chora 826-Ds. Later, during K’s debriefing at headquarters, as a voice moves from rear to front speakers, there was no hint of timbral mismatch.

Focal

I briefly touched on the performance of the Focal Sub 1000 F above. Another great example of its deep, powerful bass was in another early scene of Blade Runner 2049. The sound builds in a crescendo through the opening credits, and climaxes with the first shot: a single human eye filling the screen. Deep bass from the Sub 1000 F filled my room and blasted my walls. A good sign that a sub is producing powerful bass is when my family, on the main floor above, complains that it’s too loud. Boy, did I get complaints.

Tonally, the sound of the Chora 826-D was similar to that of Focal’s Dôme speaker, which I reviewed recently. That’s not surprising -- both sport TNF tweeters. The highs had an immediacy that drew me in to the sound. It wasn’t harsh, but clean and extended -- as you’d expect from a high-end company such as Focal.

Comparisons

I had no other tower speakers topped with Dolby Atmos drivers, but it was interesting to compare the surround envelopment of the Focal Chora system with that produced by my present HT system. This system mostly comprises Definitive Technology models: BP8060ST bipolar main speakers with built-in subwoofer modules, a CS8060HD center-channel, and small Mythos Gems for the side and rear surrounds. The height channels are served by Angstrom Ambienti ceiling speakers at rear and wall-mounted Def Tech ProMonitor 1000 minimonitors for the front. A Paradigm Servo-15 V2 subwoofer holds down the bottom. In its day, this system retailed for a total of about $7000.

For discrete effects at ceiling height, the ceiling speakers in my usual system are slightly better than the Choras. For example, the spinner in chapter 1 of Blade Runner 2049 was slightly easier to track. However, the Chora 826-Ds did a better job of reproducing atmospheric effects. In busy street scenes, the Focals were superior at mating height effects with the other speakers’ outputs. In fact, the side-surround 826-Ds distributed their sound widely, making rear surrounds unnecessary.

Focal

For listening to music in stereo, I connected the Focal 826-D directly to my NuPrime IDA-16 integrated amplifier. I said above that I thought the Chora 826-D’s specified low-end limit of 48Hz seemed conservative, and that it sounded to me as if the speaker went deeper. I felt this when I played “Temple Caves,” from Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum (16/44.1 FLAC, Rykodisc) -- in fact, I checked to make sure my subwoofer wasn’t turned on, even though I knew it wasn’t connected to the NuPrime. The lows weren’t quite as deep as they are through my BP8060STs -- hardly surprising, given the Def Techs’ built-in 10” subwoofers -- but I was surprised to hear and feel such prominent subterranean bass from the 826-Ds.

The Focal 826-Ds were excellent at reproducing aural images. I listened to “Roll Jordan Roll” from Standing in the Safety Zone, by the a cappella gospel group The Fairfield Four (16/44.1 FLAC, Warner Bros.). It was easy to pinpoint each singer laterally on the entirely ersatz soundstage, and with greater precision than through my BP8060STs. However, the bipolar BP8060STs produced a bit more soundstage depth.

It was remarkable how close the sound of the Focal Sub 1000 F was to that of my Paradigm Servo-15 V2, despite the Focal’s smaller driver: 12” vs. 15”. The Sub 1000 F proved ideal for a room the size of mine (24’L x 14’W x 8’H) -- the Paradigm is overkill. In terms of dynamics -- e.g., the sound of gunfire in Blade Runner 2049 -- both subs provided the tight bass needed to make me jump. This was all the more remarkable when I reminded myself how much smaller the Focal sub is.

Conclusion

Focal’s design team should stand up and take a bow. The Chora home-theater system provided remarkable surround envelopment from speakers that take up no more space than a standard 5.1-channel system. The addition of Dolby Atmos modules to the Chora 826-D not only provides height effects, it unifies the outputs of all six enclosures in a single, seamless, three-dimensional surround soundstage. Although $8360 is a lot of money for a surround-sound array, the Chora system’s refined highs and deep bass mean that it leaves nothing to be desired at the price. Still, the price of this system can be reduced by $1800 if you forgo the second pair of towers and replace them with Chora 806 minimonitors. But whichever way you mix and match the Choras, I’m sure you’ll find a combination that will make a home theater that will keep you happy for years to come.

. . . Vince Hanada
vinceh@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • A/V receiver -- Anthem MRX 720
  • Amplifiers -- Integra DTA-70.1, NuPrime IDA-16
  • Speakers -- Definitive Technology: BP8060ST tower, CS8060HD center, ProMonitor 1000 surround and height speakers, Mythos Gem rear surrounds. Angstrom: Ambienti in-ceiling speakers.
  • Subwoofer -- Paradigm Servo-15 V2
  • Source -- Oppo BDP-95 universal BD player
  • Cables -- Analysis Plus Super Sub interconnects and Blue Oval speaker cables
  • Projector -- Epson Home Cinema 3500

Focal Chora 826-D / Chora Center / Sub 1000 F Home-Theater Speaker System
System Price: $8360 USD.
Warranty: Five years, subwoofer and speakers; three years, subwoofer amplifier.

Focal Naim America
313 Rue Marion
Repentigny, Quebec J5Z 4W8
Canada
Phone: (800) 663-9352

Website: www.focalnaimamerica.com