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I’m buoyed when I learn of an audio manufacturer bringing advanced technologies to lower-priced products. This trickle-down effect is made possible because the advanced R&D needed to develop the technologies has been paid for by customers who bought the company’s flagship products. In addition, the manufacturer has gained long experience working with these technologies, discovering ways to bring its benefits to simpler and more cost-effective designs.
A prime example of this phenomenon is the new Chora Series of speakers from the French company Focal. The Choras benefits from the company’s long history of innovations in driver design, specifically the W-Sandwich cone construction pioneered in its top-end Utopia speakers. The W-Sandwich cone consists of two thin skins of fiberglass flanking a lightweight Rohacell core. This structure confers many advantages over homogeneous cones. First, the sandwich construction helps damp cone resonances for lower coloration and greater clarity. Second, the sandwich structure can be stiffer and lighter than a monolithic cone. This combination of lightness with stiffness is the Holy Grail of driver technology—lighter-weight cones can start and stop faster than heavier ones, and stiffness resists the tendency of the cone to flex when driven hard. But making a cone from three parts is much more labor-intensive and, thus, expensive than making a monolithic cone, and requires specialized equipment. So Focal spent four years developing a new cone material that brings the benefits of composite construction to a unit that is less expensive to manufacture than the W-Sandwich. The new material, called Slatefiber, is made from non-woven carbon fiber mixed with a thermoplastic polymer. Slatefiber comes close to the performance of the W-Sandwich in several important parameters, at a fraction of the cost. Slatefiber performs considerably better than the polyglass cones used in the outgoing Chorus Series, the forerunner to the current Chora models reviewed here.
Although the 826’s woofer and midrange cones look identical when seen from the front, they actually perform very differently. By designing and building the drivers themselves, Focal can engineer each one for the loudspeaker model in which it will be used, rather than employing the same drivers in every product throughout the line. Creating optimized drivers for a specific loudspeaker also allows the crossovers to be simpler. Although Slatefiber diaphragms are not as elaborate as the fiberglass/Rohacell sandwich cones in the Utopia line, it’s nonetheless significant that this composite-driver technology is possible in a speaker of this price. Very few companies have the expertise and scale to develop such a technology and bring it to market with large-scale production.
The $2190-per-pair 826 is the top of the three-product Chora range. It is a three-way bass-reflex design employing two 6.5″ woofers, a 6.5″ midrange, and a 1″ inverted-dome aluminum-magnesium tweeter. A magnetically attached grille covers the three cone drivers, leaving the mesh-covered tweeter open on the baffle. The speaker sits on a plastic stand that both widens the footprint for greater stability and tilts the speaker backward for some measure of time alignment between drivers. One pair of binding posts is provided. The Chora line is available in three finishes—black, light wood, and dark wood. The speaker is made entirely in-house in Focal’s French factories. That’s unusual for a product of this price, and one made in such high volume. Most European manufacturers would have the speaker built in China.
The music lover with $2190 to spend on a pair of loudspeakers must resolve a fundamental question: stand-mount or floorstander? The stand-mount will likely have a more inert cabinet because of its smaller size, and smaller cabinets also help the speaker disappear into the soundstage. But those advantages come at the cost of bass extension and weight, dynamic range, and the ability to play loudly. The similarly priced floorstander will likely be a three-way with an additional woofer or two, along with greater cabinet volume for lower bass. You also won’t need to spring for speaker stands. In addition, the footprint of a thin floorstanding speaker is about the same as that of a compact speaker mounted on a stand.
Which brings me back to the Chora 826. If you prefer a robust, full-range sound over the stand-mount’s last degree of imaging precision, the 826 will fit the bill. One of this speaker’s real plusses is the quantity and quality of its bottom octaves. The 826 has a very nicely weighted bass presentation, full and warm without bloat or excessive bloom. This articulate low end was highlighted on Linda May Han Oh’s lyrical acoustic bass solo on “Sixty Six” from Pat Metheny’s From This Place. The 826 maintained clarity as the volume was increased, only becoming a bit thick when pushed hard. I didn’t hear any port contribution at normal listening levels, but detected a bit of tubbiness at higher volumes with bass-heavy music. The 826’s bottom end was generous, but fairly tight and controlled. Transient performance was excellent, with the 826 reproducing the drum kit with speed but without etch on leading edges.
Where the 826 really shines is in midband resolution, perhaps because of the Slatefiber cone technology. The 826 has a wonderful ability to present natural instrumental timbre and resolve fine detail. Many speakers of this price sound congested through the mids, blurring the distinction between instruments and the space surrounding them. In addition, most $2200 speakers don’t resolve subtle details that tell you how the instruments work and are being played. The 826 sounds like a much more expensive speaker through the mids, revealing, for example, the acoustic-guitar fingerwork of Eric Clapton and B.B. King on Riding with the King (Tidal MQA). The superbly recorded vocals on this album also highlighted the 826’s sense of presence and palpability. I also enjoyed the way the 826 could unravel the intricately layered rhythms of the band African Guitar Summit on its second release. This level of clarity and definition is outstanding at this price.
The midrange through the vocal region was very slightly recessed, setting singers a little further back in the soundstage. The treble was not quite as clean as the midband, sounding open, well-balanced, and integrated, but with a bit of added sheen. At moderate volumes, I didn’t notice this character with most recordings, but when pushed hard—by the high-energy big-band horn section in Act Your Age by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, for instance— the Chora took on a bit of edge. Instruments with lots of high-frequency energy had a bit more prominence. On the plus side, the treble was very finely detailed. Note that you can adjust the amount of treble energy by varying toe-in; less toe-in results in a smoother top end, but at the expense of imaging precision.
Soundstaging was excellent, with tight image focus and palpability, and a real impression of depth. The phenomenal solo acoustic guitar recording of Gaelle Solal on the album Tuhu (Tidal, MQA unfolding to 352kHz) was reproduced with a convincing sense of the instrument’s size and presence, surrounded by a well-defined acoustic.
Most of my listening was with the Chora driven by the NAD C658 streaming DAC/preamp ($1645) and C298 Class D power amplifier ($1995) reviewed in the February issue. This is the level of sources and electronics likely to be partnered with the 826, although I did connect the Chora to my reference electronics and sources to put them under the microscope.
Focal’s Chora 826 is a textbook example of how a company trickles down its best technologies—in this case, advanced cone construction—to lower-priced products. I can’t think of another speaker near the 826’s price that uses drivers this advanced. That advantage shows up in the Chora 826’s outstanding midrange clarity and resolution, articulate and full-range bass, and overall musical coherence. The highish sensitivity (91dB) suggests that the 826 is a fairly easy load for an amplifier. Anyone considering speakers in this price range must audition the Focal Chora 826—a perfect example of trickle-down technology at its best.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Three-way, four-driver floorstanding loudspeaker Driver complement: Two 6.5″ Slatefiber woofers, one 6.5″ Slatefiber midrange, one 1″ aluminum-magnesium inverted-dome tweeter Loading: Bass reflex Frequency response: 48Hz-28kHz (±3dB) Impedance: 8 ohms nominal, 2.9 ohms minimum Sensitivity: 91dB Recommended amplifier power: 40-250W Dimensions: 11.9″ x 41.5″ x 15.25″ Weight: 46.6 lbs. each, net Price: $2190/pr.
FOCAL-NAIM AMERICA 313 Rue Marion Repentigny, QC J5Z 4W8, Canada (866) 271-5689 focal.com