In-wall and in-ceiling speakers, sometimes referred to as architectural speakers, are growing in popularity thanks to their stealthy sleek form factor, as well as the growing importance of immersive or object-based surround systems like Atmos and DTS:X. A while back, I did reviews on two different architectural speaker systems from MartinLogan and PSB. In both of those systems, most of the speakers were in-ceiling, including the most critical left, center, and right channels (LCR). The only in-wall speakers of those installations were the side surrounds. (I installed the MartinLogans first, removed them, and enlarged the speaker locations to fit the PSBs).
Although it is not optimal to have front LCRs in the ceiling, it was the best I could do in that room, and I am a firm believer that something is better than nothing. Surprisingly, their performance exceeded my expectations. This experience made me wonder how a fully immersive architectural surround system would perform if my LCRs were installed in the walls, at the preferred height, in a 7.2.4 configuration in my living room, where there is space to place such a system. A couple of years later, the speaker gods agreed by granting me an opportunity to review Focal's new top-of-the-line 300IWLCR6 ($799) from within the company's 300 series line of speakers, along with the recently developed 100 series for surround and height channels. However, the good fortune did not stop there. I had in my possession the Focal Kanta No. 2 speakers, from a recent review of this speaker One wouldn't expect the in-walls to outperform the free-standing, $10,000 Kantas, but since they share the same Flax cone technology, I was curious to hear how close they could get.
While the initial 300 series launched approximately two years ago with three models (300ICW8, 300ICW6, 300ICW4), Focal has expanded the line with three new models: 300IW6, 300ICLCR5, and the flagship 300IWLCR6, the subject of this review. The 300 series has several appealing features, but two distinct characteristics are the use of the Flax Cone driver ("F" Cone) technology, and the implementation of Focal's patented Easy Quick Install system (EQI), which requires no tools to attach the speaker to the wall or ceiling cutout. (More on this later.)
The 300IWLCR6 is an open-back three-way design that utilizes twin 6.5-inch bass drivers on each side of a four-inch midrange driver, made of the Flax cone material, and a one-inch inverted dome aluminum/magnesium tweeter.
Two switches located on the speaker's faceplate adjust output level of the tweeter by 3dB, and midrange driver by 2dB up or down from "0", allowing for fine tuning within the room. The 300IWLCR6 can be used as a horizontal center channel speaker by rotating the four-inch driver and tweeter module 90 degrees. Frameless Magnetic Low Profile Grills cover the entire mounting structure, providing a frameless appearance that is easy on and easy off, and snug to the wall with an eighth-inch profile.
Focal indicates a frequency response of 40Hz to 28kHz, with a nominal impedance at 8 Ohms and a sensitivity of 92dB, which allows for easy amplifier requirements. The recommended amplifier power range is 50 to 150 watts per channel.
The 300IWLCR6 left, center, and right channel speakers fit perfectly across the front wall of my formal living room, where a 5.1 Vienna Acoustic Schöenberg speaker system existed up until this point. The Schöenbergs worked as an on-wall system, and although they are incredibly sleek, svelte, and sexy, they were the first items noticed upon entering the room. A more discrete form factor was desired, especially since this room is supposed to be a formal living room.
As I mentioned earlier, surround and height channels from Focal's 100 series were implemented to complete the object-based system. Specifically, the 100IWLCR5 fit the bill for side surrounds, while the 100IW6 fit the space for surround back channels, mainly due to their diminutive size. Lastly, the 100ICLCR5 model was chosen as height channels for their somewhat more massive scale, and enclosed speaker box design. Two Focal Sub 1000 F subwoofers finished off the 7.2.4 array.
For amplification, a Krell THEATER 7 powered all seven ear-level channels, while a NAD M27 powered the height speakers. An Oppo UDP-205 Blu-ray player and a MacBook Pro served as sources.
Without turning this review into an installation geek-out session, some explanation of the system design is appropriate due to the nature of the product. According to Focal's instructions, the bottom seven speakers need to be symmetrical within the room but also at ear level or as close to that as possible--nothing surprising there.
In researching further I found an extensive 43-page guide located on the Dolby website, in which Dolby indicates a speaker height of 3.9 feet or 47 inches, which they suggest is an average ear level for a seated listener. While Dolby would like rear channels to be at that same height as the LCRs, they allow a 25 percent upward tolerance if needed. By installing the seven ear level speakers within these specifications, it creates a separation from the height channel layer, which achieves the immersive surround effect at its best.
In regards to the surround back channels, I had to deviate from Dolby's suggestions. While I like to follow instructions as much as possible, my seating is close to the rear wall, which is not optimal. Dolby requires the surround back speakers to be a few feet behind the seated position. That is a hard goal to attain in a room like mine, but I did not let that stop me. I forged on by raising the surround back and surround sides as well, just a bit higher so all seated positions would have better listener line of sight. Lastly, the 100 series speakers have some directional adjustability of the tweeter, which allowed further tweaking of all four surround channels.
The Easy Quick Install system mentioned earlier is an ingenious attempt to make in-wall speakers a bit easier to manage. Most in-wall designs use a clamping system controlled by screws accessible on the front plate. As the screw tightens, clamps swing out and compress against the drywall or sheetrock for adequate attachment. In my experience, there are several clamps located around the perimeter of the speaker--typically eight of them, which is more than sufficient. In the case of EQI, Focal created spring-loaded hooks or clamps, which activate upon insertion into the cutout. The hooks swing tight to the wall structure automatically without the need for a screwdriver to complete the installation. Unfortunately, it would be difficult to find a location where the system could work. The mechanism needs at minimum 1.625 inches of clearance or "leave" from the cutout perimeter. In real-world situations, that is difficult to obtain on both sides of the speaker. It is hard to find a location where wall obstructions are not in the way of the speaker, let alone an additional 1.625 inches beyond the speaker cut out. That, combined with the fact that the existing industry norm of a screw-driven clamp works just fine, challenges the validity of the EQI system.
Thankfully, Focal created an installation backup plan even though there was no mention of it anywhere in the instructions. On the front face-plate of the speaker, small moulded pocket holes surround the structure, which perfectly angles a screw into a nearby stud. In my particular installation, there were studs in the way of the actual speakers, so I decided to alter the studs. To me, this was an aggressive path that most custom installers would not follow. I braced the cut studs by tying them into the two adjacent studs, which was additional work. As a result, my openings allowed the use of EQI. If your wall will allow its use, EQI is a remarkable mechanical design to see in action. Start at the bottom and push the speaker in to its opening, and you will hear a loud click, click, click in rapid secession. EQI takes over and pulls the speaker out of your grasp securing the speaker frame to the wall. Two cloth handles on the top and bottom of the structure are used to pull the speaker out of its cut out.
From a do-it-yourself perspective, depending on obstructions, the front three speakers would be the easiest to install if your equipment rack is in front and centered to the room, as that allows for easy wiring. Running the wire for the remaining channels is a whole different story. Most people should hire a professional for that task.
In the end, though, the outcome was a huge success. The inconspicuous installation gave my living room a more formal appearance, which made my wife happier. The overall look is sophisticated and very custom, but how would it sound?
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...