French audio company Focal has been in the hi-fi business since 1979, making everything from car speakers to studio monitors to surround systems. Nowadays, it’s perhaps best known for its high-endproducts with eye-searing price tags. Whether we’re talking about the excellent $3,000 Stellia headphones or the $230,000, costs-as-much-as-a-house Grande Utopia Evo, these are products often out of the reach for the average audio enthusiast.
But just because its pricey items are conspicuous doesn’t mean the company can’t make an excellent pair of speakers at a palatable price point too. I’ve been listening to the Focal Chora 806, the company’s newest bookshelf speaker, and have found it to be a superlative entry in its price bracket. For $1,000 a pair in the US, the 806 is already a great deal, but it is a particular steal in Europe, where it costs €600/£600.
Launched in September, the Chora line replaces Focal‘s Chorus family as the company’s most affordable speakers. This wasn’t a simple refresh: it’s an all-new design, including a newly-developed ‘Slatefiber’ woofer. The cone’s new material is comprised of non-woven, recycled carbon fibers embedded in a thermoplastic polymer. According to Focal, that means improved damping, rigidity, and lightness over the polyglass cone in its predecessor (translation: it sounds better).
It also just looks pretty:
Like all of Focal’s hi-fi speakers, the Chora is relatively unique in that its cabinets and drivers are made right in France. The company invited me to visit its facilities over the summer (disclaimer: Focal paid for travel and accommodation, but I remain as objective as I can), and I have a separate piece coming about that tour and how Focal goes about creating its speakers. But for now, I’ll summarize by saying that seeing how the company hand-crafts even its entry-level speakers adds a sense of luxury and peace of mind you don’t often get from similarly-priced products.
Of course, hand-made components and assembly don’t necessarily guarantee longevity, but it’s not often companies go through the trouble of making their products locally. Focal does so in a small town called Bourbon-Lancy in the Burgundy region of France – two hours away from Focal HQ in St-Etienne.
The company’s cabinet manufacturer had long been a staple of the town, and when Focal bought the facility in 2007, it decided to keep the local expertise rather than move the factory over to St. Etienne. The entire facility is operated by a small team of employees considering Focal’s reach, many of them who’d been working there for years.
Moreover, Focal is among relatively few companies that don’t use off-the-shelf components or partner with external driver manufacturers. Instead, the company makes its drivers in-house back in St-Etienne and can tweak each one down to the coil windings. Focal says it optimizes the performance of each driver for the particular speaker it’s being used with. The company claims this allows its speakers to exhibit higher sensitivity, improved dynamics, and lower distortion than many competitors.
Speaking of colors, the Chora comes in three of them, ranging from an inoffensive glossy black, to a chic white-and-light-wood, to the driver-matching slate blue and dark-wood of my review unit (every speaker should come in blue, just sayin’).
While the Chora’s sharp edges and veneer wrapping somewhat betray its price point, I think it’s a beautiful speaker that should be easy to match to just about any kind of decor. That’s a good thing, considering it’s a bit on the large side for a bookshelf speaker. It may not feel as premium as the Focal Kanta I reviewed earlier in the year, but well, it also doesn’t cost $12,000. For $1,000 it’s one classy-looking speaker.
Play some music through the Chora and thoughts of price point disappear: these are great-sounding speakers, period. As with every Focal product I’ve tried – headphones and speakers alike – the Chora’s dynamics immediately stood out. Having come from the much larger JBL L100 Classic prior to these (bigger speakers tend to be better at dynamics), I expected a great degradation in this regard.
Played through a Yamaha RX-A3080 receiver and powered by a pair of Emotiva Stealth PA-1 amps, the Chora handle transients in drum lines with a snappiness that felt authentic. Timbre and tonality were impressively neutral, with vocals that sounded particularly realistic. There is perhaps the slightest edge to the treble, giving it a bit of a ‘crisp’ sounding presentation.
In other words, no one will mistake these for sounding ‘soft,’ overly ‘warm,’ or ‘laid-back.’ These are not qualities I typically hear in live music, so I don’t expect my speakers to impart them upon recordings.
The Chora also present a wide, expansive soundstage that seems to emerge from beyond the boundaries of the speakers. I’ve previously felt some Focal products have a smaller soundstage; not so with the Chora. It has a wide dispersion design that makes for both enveloping music reproduction and a wide sweet spot, meaning you needn’t be exactly in the center of the two speakers for realistic tonality.
Bass presentation feels judiciously balanced in my room, with a taught response and a nice amount of kick – none of that mushiness you sometimes get with bookshelf speakers. That said, it’s worth noting bass extension is not particularly remarkable for the speaker‘s size, at least compared to some of some recent competitors. Focal rates the Chora 806 as extending down to 49Hz(-6dB). The similarly-sized KEF R3 reaches all the way down 38Hz, and the noticeably smaller Buchardt S400 goes almost as low as the KEFs.
Then again, both of those speakers are roughly twice as expensive as the Chora, depending on where you’re located. It’s also worth remembering bass extension is easily addressed with a subwoofer. You could add an SVS SB-1000 subwoofer to the Chora for 500 bucks, for example, to get full-range sound while still saving on the competition. Alternatively, you could opt for the larger Chora 816 ($1,600 a pair) or 826 ($2,000 a pair) towers, although I personally always prefer the bookshelf+sub combo.
I feel the Chora punches above its price class. In brief comparisons, I found it had less bass and a slightly less focused soundstage than Buchardt’s excellent $1,800 S400, but it provided a more enveloping sound, with a more forward midrange and arguably better dynamics. The $4,000 Bowers and Wilkins Formation Duo beats the Chora on bass – which is important! – but I preferred the latter for just about everything else. Again, a subwoofer is your friend.
The above are my listening-only impressions, but measurements can tell you a lot of a speaker without the influence of my biases and my particular setup. Luckily, the measurements seem to largely back up what I’ve been hearing.
Though speaker companies sometimes like to create a ‘house sound’ by tweaking a speaker‘s frequency response, research tells us the vast majority of people prefer a speaker that shows a flat frequency response when measured in an anechoic chamber. But because much of the sound we hear in a normal room is actually reflected from the walls, it’s also important that the speaker‘s sound changes smoothly as you move away from the primary listening axis; the sound the speaker radiates to its sides will affect its tonal balance.
I don’t have an anechoic chamber, so instead, I use an established technique that emulates one by removing room reflections from recorded data. It’s not perfect, but it should be fairly representative of the speaker‘s performance.
First, let’s take a look at the speaker‘s horizontal frequency response. The grey curve at the bottom is the single most important one, as it’s an average of the sound radiating within a ±30-degree horizontal and ±10-degree vertical “listening window.” This is most representative of the direct sound you’ll hear in a typical seating position. The colored lines above represent how the speaker‘s sound changes off to its sides in 15-degree increments:
Right away, we see the Chora impresses in a few regards. For one, the listening window is superbly flat, especially for a passive speaker with no digital processing to ‘fix’ the sound. There is a slight downward trend, but this appears to be balanced by the off-axis sound.
Off the sides, we see the speaker does not change much in level and maintains a relatively flat response even as far at 75-degrees to the side.
It’s an impressively wide and even performance for a speaker at this price point, and it implies the Chora will have an expansive soundstage. It also means music should sound good even if you’re not sitting in the exact sweet spot. That said, you will want to ‘toe-in’ the speakers towards your ears for the best sound, as the response above 10 KHz drops precipitously beyond 15 degrees off-axis or so.
For comparison, check out my measurements of the KEF R3. That speaker also has an even response off-axis response, however, the sound drops lower towards the speaker’s sides. That typically means a narrower soundstage and sweet spot, although the image might appear more focused. I generally prefer a more expansive soundstage, but your mileage may vary.
Unfortunately, the Chora is less impressive in the vertical plane. You can see a large dip in the frequency response begin to form as soon as you move a few degrees above or below the tweeter. Granted, a dip forms on almost every speaker with its tweeter and woofer in a vertical arrangement, but the Chora controls this dip less than some high-end speakers.
Luckily, the vertical response does not typically affect our perception of sound as much as the horizontal, as long as the overall sound remains fairly balanced. I did not find this dip to be particularly audible. Still, these measurements do imply you should make sure the Chora’s tweeter is at the right height and angle relative to your listening position.
Ultimately, the Chora 806’s caveats are few: you’ll want to take some care in positioning them, and you might want a subwoofer to reach the deepest bass. But those relatively common issues aside, there’s very little not to like about the Chora.
It’s beautifully designed, feels well built, and comes from a reputable company. It sounds fantastic with a transparent, neutral tonality, a wide soundstage, and dynamics to get your toes tapping. The Chora readily competes with some of the most popular speakers in the $1,500+ price bracket; that it costs just $1000/€600 is icing on the cake.
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Published November 12, 2019 — 20:55 UTC
ProductChora by Focal