Greg Handy developed a passion for audio in his early teens when he worked as an installer of car audio systems. This experience taught him about passive and active crossovers, subwoofers, and challenged acoustics, as well as how to troubleshoot persistent bugbears like ground loops and noise.
From there, his interests grew to home audio and home theater systems. Once he bought his own home, he began installing sound systems and theater systems in different rooms, spending much time and money along the way. It wasn't long before he began doing the same for friends and family, then sharing his passion for AV with the HomeTheaterReview.com audience.
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 Schönberg speaker system existed up until this point. The Schönbergs 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?
After a day of break-in, I was excited to hear two-channel audio without subwoofer support. Using the Oppo player, the track "San Andreas Fault" from Natalie Merchants album Tigerlily was used to experience a female voice, which I find the most difficult to reproduce accurately.
The Focals did a great job reproducing her subtle inflections and gentle style. The amount of midrange and low midrange bass surprised me. There was an impressive balance between all frequencies. As to be expected, though, the speaker lacked the lower end of the bass range that a good monitor or average tower speaker would have.
A cover of "The Sound of Silence," performed by the band Disturbed, was streamed through Tidal using a MacBook Pro. This song can pollute many speakers with constraint and smearing due to the challenging range of octaves and intensity of the song. However, the Focals performed astonishingly well with the dramatic raspy voice of the lead singer. The overall feeling was that of a high-quality audio system that would make listeners take notice. On this track, it became more apparent that the in-walls did not portray the depth that I have come to expect from a speaker positioned off the wall. However, given the in-wall location of the speakers, I was surprised at the depth of soundstage that did exist.
Streaming the song "La Grange" by ZZ Top, from their Tres Hombres album, I found that the Focals rendered the track's single plucked guitar and swampy voice of the singer, lead guitarist Billy Gibbons with precision. The soundstage was reasonably wide. Mid-bass had weight, without any noticeable congestion or puffery. Vocals displayed detail and texture that hovered in front of the speaker with balance.
Configuring the processor to include the subwoofers added a new level of performance. When revisiting all three tracks mentioned above, it was clear that the 300IWLCR6 truly benefited from the extra bass. Everything improved dramatically. The Focal Sub 1000F provided a seamless handoff to the right and left speakers, creating a truly high-end audio experience.
Comparing the 300IWLCR6 to the Focal Kanta No. 2, it was easy to notice a weightier midrange with superlative upper frequencies via the towers. More depth was apparent, along with a wider soundstage with improved imaging. However, it is evident that these two very different products are similar in timbre. It is hard to assign a numerical value as to how close the in-walls matched the Kanta, but what was clear is the sound quality from the 300IWLCR6 would be entirely satisfying for most consumers. Side by side, the Kantas outperform the in-walls in every way but keep in mind a few things: The Kantas were positioned three feet from the rear and side walls, canted slightly toward the listener, utilizing its carefully crafted speaker enclosure at a $10,000 price point. Lastly, the in-walls smoke the Kantas in the way of a concealed form factor. While I love the look of the Kantas, especially their fit and finish, which is truly second to none, there is something to say about a discrete speaker system. Moreover, let's not forget that the 300IWLCR6 does perform to the level of many modern tower speaker, with subwoofer connected.
Shifting my attention back to the 300IWLCR6 for some movie watching (along with the rest of the 7.2.4 system), I started with an Atmos sampler disc. In the scene from the Transformers: Age of Extinction, where the Decepticon spaceship is magnetically inhaling everything in its path, dialogue was clear while the soundstage projected nicely into the room.
The height channels blended nicely with the front three speakers, while cars and buildings were being pulled into the atmosphere, putting me into the center of the action. The subs were fantastic at playing the low-frequency effects, weaving their sound eloquently with the LCRs.
With the Ultra HD Blu-ray release of Justice League, the height channels displayed winged aliens that flew around and over my room while making eerie high-pitched calls to one another. All channels linked up nicely, enhancing the movement of the action throughout the scene.
The center channel did a great job with dialogue, never struggling with articulation or intelligibility. Simultaneously, the center connected well with the right and left channels to create a wall of sound when needed. Musical passages throughout the movie popped, which demonstrated the front three speakers' capabilities.
With the Ultra HD Blu-ray release of Mission: Impossible Fallout, on an early scene of the film, the characters Ethan Hunt and August Walker parachute from a plane flying at a high altitude. All channels were working hard, with the height channels delivering the fluttering of parachutes in the wind whirling around the room. The center channel was clear, while the right and left channels once again delivered a wide soundstage. The 300IWLCR6 can play loud without any noticeable breakup, distortion, or constraint. On another scene toward the end of the movie, there is an epic helicopter chase and subsequent crash on top of a mountain. Although both helicopters are down, one starts to roll toward the other, and this is where the Atmos soundtrack excels. The chopper poured over my head and drew me into this suspenseful scene. It was apparent that the 100 series speakers worked well by blending superbly with the 300 series.
I brought the Kantas back into the room to replace the left and right in-walls at this point. Knowing the towers would outperform the in-walls, it was more of a curiosity of how noticeable the improvement would be, given that the bulk of a movie soundtrack plays from the center channel. With all three movie scenes, the difference was not as significant as you might think. The majority of the improvement occurred during louder musical passages, where a broader and deeper audio image presented itself.
Another takeaway is something that had not occurred to me up until this experience: the option of a high-quality in-wall center channel is a viable alternative compared to free-standing center channel speaker. Specifically, if you happen to be the lucky owner of the Focal Kanta or Aria, the 300IWLCR6 as a center speaker could be a contender for your room. Recently, Focal released the Kanta Center channel speaker, which is a real commitment in the way of space and money. At $6,000 it is quite an investment. For some, it is a requirement, which is understandable. If that price point is out of the home theater budget, the 300IWLCR6 could be a great substitute at $799. Additionally, having the center channel out of the way is a nice bonus, even when you have two towers in the room.
The Easy Quick Install system is a nice concept, and it appears Focal spent much effort creating it. Unfortunately, I can't see the system working out to the installer's benefit in most situations. I was able to use it only because I was willing and able to alter the studs in my wall just to fit the speakers between them. However, I would have never moved a stud to use the EQI function for that sole purpose. Focal was strategic in creating an alternative installation path if needed. To be clear, EQI only applies to the 300 series and not the 100 series speakers used for surround and height channels. The latter product uses the traditional screw down clamping systems, which worked well.
Comparison and Competition
I have the PSB W-LCR ($999) installed in another room, as surround speakers. They are an enclosed speaker, whereas the Focal is a free air speaker, but they're comparable to each other due to their similar speaker compliment and three-way design. The PSBs' performance is impressive, and the enclosed back creates an impressive midrange. However, the Focals' midrange is excellent as well. The PSBs exhibit a very slight nasal characteristic, which I do not notice with the Focal LCRs.
As I mentioned earlier, the MartinLogan Axis is another in-wall product that I have had some experience with. From their top of the line Stealth product line, the Axis at $1,149 is similar to the Focal since the design is made up of two mid-bass drivers flanking a tweeter. However, the folded ribbon tweeter is very much different than the Focals' inverted dome aluminum and magnesium tweeter. This speaker has impressive imaging and upper-end frequency output that should be of interest.
GoldenEar has their Invisa Signature Point Source ($999) in-wall speaker. This speaker uses a ribbon tweeter and four midrange bass drivers each covering a different frequency range. I auditioned these speakers at a brief demonstration, and they left a memorable impression worth considering.
The Focal 300IWLCR6 proved to be a high performing in-wall speaker that worked well with both music and movies. With a sophisticated subwoofer engaged, the LCRs' performance exceeds many floor-standing speakers at or above their price point, but were not at able to reach the Focal Kanta's ultra-high-performance characteristics. The quality and character of the 300IWLCR6's sound are so similar to the Kanta that Focal could have named the speaker the Kanta CI. Moreover, they attained this level of performance without the footprint and inconvenient location requirements of typical tower speakers.
The performance was so good that the 300IWLCR6s are my day-to-day music listening and home theater system, without regret. While I love the appearance of high-performance free-standing speakers and accompanying equipment, I have come to appreciate the clean look of my formal living room overwhelmingly. Part of the charm is that no one sees it coming: when I fire up the system, heads turn, and comments of disbelief start rolling in. The performance is so impressive and enjoyable I am consistently able to forget about the equipment and enjoy the performance of both music and films, never feeling deprived.
Speaking of movies, as a 7.2.4 immersive surround system the results were so satisfying that I could not be happier. It is indeed an enormous amount of entertainment to have an immersive surround system that the entire family can enjoy. If you are a movie enthusiast as I am, you will appreciate the additional involvement that Atmos brings to the experience. Lastly, and as a side note, if you happen to be a Focal Kanta or Aria owner, the 300IWLCR6 is a compelling alternative center channel speaker. If am in-wall/in-ceiling system is in your future, the 300IWLCR6 should be on your list of prospects.
• Visit the Focal website for more product information.
• Check out our In-wall and Architectural Speaker category page to read similar reviews.
• Focal Kanta No. 2 Loudspeaker Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.