The first image that pops into my mind when I think of Focal is of the iconic Grande Utopias and how at one Montreal audio show I couldn’t believe that the gentlest, sweetest music I’d heard all day was coming out of those massive speakers. I saw it as a paradox of sorts.
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 effecton 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.
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 sharpand oh-so-prone to finger smudges. I was happy to find a cleaning cloth included with each speakera 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. The original 936 and the K2 version are essentially the same design: an almost 4′ high, 3-way floorstander 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.
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 was impressed by the seeming solidity of the K2 936’s cabinet construction, which is identical to the standard 936’s. The user manual describes it as an “ultra-rigid MDF construction for very low vibrations.” Intriguedespecially because I’d learned that Focal engineers design their drivers around the cabinet and not the other way aroundI asked Wendy Knowles for more information about the cabinet construction. She replied, in an email I imagined she wrote in a sweat: “The engineers won’t share that.” The engineers gave me no choice but to get out my hacksaw to investigate for myself.
Claimed specs in the user manuals of both models are identical, offering no insight into how they compare sonically: Crossover frequencies at 260Hz and 3.1kHz. Frequency response of 39Hz28kHz, ±3dB. Sensitivity of 92dB. Base and K2 versions share an unusual impedance rating, with a big gap between nominal (8 ohms) and minimal (2.8 ohms) impedance.
That last figure raised a flag, because in my review of the Grandinote Shinaithe first one, not the follow-upJohn Atkinson, based on his measurements, warned against pairing the Shinai with speakers whose impedance dropped below 4 ohms. I was planning to use that same Shinai in this review. More intrigue.
The user manual advises setting up the speakers so that they form two vertices of an equilateral triangle, facing the listening chair (the third vertex). That’s mostly how they ended up, although ultimately I preferred the bass response and soundstage with the speakers placed slightly farther apart from each other than from me, about 10′ and 9.5′, respectively, and toed in a little less than suggested so that they aimed just to each side of my head.
This setup reproduced the first half of the pink-noise track on Stereophile‘s Test CD 2 (CD, Stereophile STPH 004-2) as it’s intended to be heard: as a smooth, narrow rushing-waterfall soundno obvious frequency ranges standing outseeming to emanate from precisely the center of the speaker positions. The stability of that narrow image was preserved when I leaned my head sideways or stood.
When setup was done, the gap in height between the tweeters and my ears was the widest I’ve encountered, the tweeters higher than my ears by about a foot. Even the midrange driver, just below the tweeter, stood 2″ above my ears. Having a woofera real woofer, not a mid/bass driverbeing the driver closest to ear level was a first for me.
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