Bob Barrett is a versatile writer and knowledgeable hi-fi enthusiast whose work for HomeTheaterReivew.com runs the gamut from mid- to high-end home theater to audiophile components and speakers. He also specializes in high-performance and high-end headphones.
Well-known to audiophiles, French loudspeaker manufacturer Focal has built a reputation by making some excellent loudspeakers over the years. What sets Focal apart from today's typical loudspeaker manufacturer is that in addition to designing and manufacturing all their loudspeaker models in France, they also build their own cabinets and every single component that goes into those enclosures, including drivers. Having 100 percent in-house engineering and manufacturing capability enables Focal to control every aspect of design and production. It also means that crossovers can be simpler designs because the proprietary drivers are purpose built for the exact dimensions and shape of the speaker cabinet.
Several Focal loudspeakers have been reviewed here at HomeTheaterReview.com, including all the Sopra models and the recently introduced Kanta No. 2. However, starting at just shy of $10,000 and up, those speakers are only within reach of the well-heeled audiophile. What about the those of us who aren't one-percenters?
The Focal Aria 926 ($3,299 per pair) is the smallest floorstanding loudspeaker in the Aria line, which fits between the Chorus and Kanta lines of Focal's extensive range of loudspeakers. The Aria family is comprised of three floorstander models, one bookshelf model, one center channel, and a wall-mounted surround sound speaker. Focal says the Aria 926 is ideal for rooms measuring from 215 square feet with a listening position of 10 feet from the loudspeaker. My reference listening room is very close to that size, so it seemed like the optimal choice going into this review.
The three-way Aria 926 loudspeaker has a leather-wrapped front baffle framing two 6.5-inch flax cone bass drivers in parallel, one 6.5-inch flax cone
midrange driver, and a one-inch TNF aluminum magnesium alloy inverted dome tweeter with waveguide. The tweeter borrows design elements from the beryllium tweeters found in Focal's Sopra and Utopia lines, but at a much more affordable price. The speaker is a dual ported design with a front port for more bass impact and a bottom port for additional bass depth.
Flax is a plant that's been cultivated for centuries for its seed (linseed) and for the textile fiber (linen) made from its stalks. France happens to be the main cultivator of fiber flax in Europe. Historically, Focal has used a variety of materials in a sandwich configuration for their diaphragms. The company believes that a combination of materials is better able to achieve the three
essential criteria they consider necessary to realize the utmost fidelity from a diaphragm than any single material on its own.
Those three criteria are low mass, a highly rigid structure, and very good damping for uncolored sound. For the Aria line, Focal looked for a material that could be machined rather than the labor-intensive hand-weaving process required for their "W" sandwich diaphragms found in the more expensive Sopra and Utopia lines. Focal patented what they call the "F" sandwich, which has a thin layer of glass fiber on both sides of a core of flax. This three-layer combination of materials is much more affordable to produce. Focal claims that the "F" sandwich diaphragms achieve the best combination of results for the three criteria at its given price point. For more details, you can read Focal's white paper on the subject here.
The Aria 926 loudspeakers arrived in single-layer cardboard boxes, but the cabinets were wrapped in a foam bag with plenty of molded foam inserts surrounding them for protection from shipping damage. The method did its job because the speakers were flawless upon unpacking. Knowing the Aria 926 is the smallest of three floorstander models in the line, might lead you to believe that it's a bit smaller than it actually is. The speaker measures 40-3/4 inches tall by 11-9/16 inches wide by 14-5/8 inches deep and weighs in at 55 pounds.
The speaker comes with a cast black aluminum alloy base with adjustable spikes that provides the necessary clearance for the bottom port after mounting per the provided instructions and wrench. The nonparallel cabinet sides are angled in slightly front to back while the cabinet front has rounded vertical edges, enhancing the speaker's appearance. The speaker is finished with a black glass top, adding a further touch of design sophistication and blending nicely with the black high gloss cabinet finish of the review samples.
The fit and finish are impressive for a speaker at this price point. Other cabinet finishes available include prime walnut, an oak colored finish, as well as the recently discontinued (hence discounted at retail) noyer. The flax drivers are quite attractive, but can be easily hidden by attaching the included full-length magnetic black grill if desired. Like most Focal speakers, I found just a single set of robust binding posts around back. Focal doesn't typically provide multiple sets of binding posts for a bi-amping option given their easy load and higher-than-average sensitivity specs. The Aria 926 is no different in that regard, with 8 ohms nominal impedance of and rated sensitivity of 91.5 dB. That doesn't mean they won't still benefit from a high-quality power amplifier, though. Before moving the Focals to my dedicated listening room, I first connected them to my family room system for a couple of weeks to break them in while serving television audio duty. Next, the Focal Aria 926s were moved upstairs, taking the place of the just-reviewed Sonus faber Sonetto IIIs in my listening room.
I connected them to the usual reference electronics including a Classé CA-5300 amp and Classé CP-800 Preamp for two-channel, as well as a Marantz AV8801 Preamp for multichannel audio. Sources included an Oppo BDP-205 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc player, and a Mac Mini as music server streaming from music services Tidal and Qobuz. All connections were made with WireWorld cables and interconnects. After some experimentation, the Focal Aria 926s ended up in almost the same location as the Sonettos--about five feet from the front wall, eight feet apart, and toed in slightly.
I started off my critical listening with several familiar acoustic musical selections featuring solo piano or guitar. In my opinion, the piano and guitar are two of the most difficult instruments to reproduce realistically. One such track I used was a terrific recording of French pianist Hélène Grimaud performing the familiar Debussy composition "Réverie, L. 68: (Andantino sognando)" from her album Memory, streamed from Qobuz in 96 kHz/24-bit (Deutsche Grammophon).
Through the Aria 926s, there was a lot of detail to the layered overtones of the somber beginning. There was such transparency and tonal accuracy that it seemed the sound did not emanate from speakers, but rather the room itself. High notes were articulate and detailed without sounding harsh. The soundstage was wider than expected, and in between notes, the background was so starkly quiet that that I swore I heard foot pedal pushes on a few occasions. The Aria 926s created a believable acoustic space. While it wasn't quite convincing enough to make me believe I was listening to the live recording in the studio, it came close enough that I found myself listening to the entire album instead of just the single track on more than one occasion. Not a bad indicator for a speaker at its price point.
Moving on to a track with acoustic guitar and a male vocal, I listened to Ed Sheeran's "Sunburn (You Need Me EP Version)" from the first disc of his collection of five EPs appropriately titled 5 (Paw Print Records), which he released before signing with Atlantic Records. I played the shiny silver disc using the Oppo player. The Aria 926s conveyed all the intimacy of the acoustic space in which this track was recorded. The acoustic space recreated by the speakers made me feel as though I was a guest in the space with Ed sitting just a few feet directly in front of me. The rich, textured tones of his vocal were portrayed accurately through the Arias. On this close-miked recording, I could clearly hear every slide of Ed's fingers up and down the frets of the guitar neck.
Listening to favorite female vocalists such as Sade singing "The Big Unknown" from the motion picture Widows streamed from Tidal in 44.1 kHz/16-bit (Sony Music Entertainment) or Sara Bareilles performing "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" from her album Brave Enough: Live at the Variety Playhouse streamed from Qobuz in 96 kHz/24-bit (Epic) was no less emotionally expressive and detailed.
With the Aria 926s passing the test on solo instruments and vocals, it was time to move on to something a bit more complex. I switched to the Pop/Rock track "Bad Liar" by Imagine Dragons from their fourth album, Origins, streamed from Qobuz in 44.1 kHz/24-bit (Kid Ina Korner - Interscope). The band is known for their arena-sized, percussion-rich anthems and this track is no exception. On some speakers, the bass drum can lack coherence, sounding a bit congested and muddy.
On the Focals, the bass was punchy, tight, and controlled. The Focals did a great job of teasing out the individual instruments and vocals into their own acoustic space surrounded by air, throwing a huge wall-to-wall soundstage in the process. Dan Reynolds' voice was reproduced with all the grit, energy, and emotion I'm familiar with, having heard him perform live in concert. And at the 3:50 minute mark, drummer Dan Platzman strikes what might be the rim of the drum three times. This sound appeared to originate from high up the side walls of the room near the ceiling, startling me a bit with its height and width.
To test the lower limits of the Focal Aria 926, I queued up the Submotion Orchestra track "Variations" from their album Kites, streamed from Tidal in 44.1 kHz/16-bit (SMO Recordings). "Variations" is a laid-back track with a sultry vocal, but will really test a speaker's ability to reproduce bass. I turned up the volume to a level beyond where I would normally listen.
On this track, deep bass kicks in around the 0:35 second mark. When it did, the Focals did their best to reproduce the synthesized notes. I could tell they lacked a bit of that deep bass impact of the track I've heard through my larger reference speakers, and there wasn't that same punch in the gut. The Focals seemed to be straining just a touch, evidenced by a slight loss in cohesion.
Crossing over the Focal Aria 926 speakers to two JL Audio subs at 60 Hz through the Classé Preamp seemed to do the trick. The Classé CP-800 can quickly switch back and forth between a 2.0 and 2.2 speaker configuration. Doing so confirmed my first impressions about the bass. With the subs added in, the low bass was punchier, tighter, and better controlled. There was no longer any hint of bass strain or leanness from the Focal speakers when combined with the subs. But it took a track with exceedingly deep bass to expose the limits of the Focals. The vast majority of music contains very little if any bass information below 45 Hz.
Since movies and music play pretty much equally in my listening room, I integrated the Focal Aria 926s into the rest of my reference surround sound system, comprised of an Aerial Acoustics center channel and surrounds, as well as the two JL Audio subs previously mentioned.
Everything was calibrated using the room correction software built into the JL Audio subs and the Marantz AV8801. With that taken care of, I popped Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Sony Pictures Entertainment) into the Ultra HD Blu-ray disc player.
There is a wild helicopter chase scene in the movie where the pilot (Nick Jonas) takes off by first crashing through a closed barn door and then is shot at by the bad guys using rocket launchers as he makes his escape. The sounds are swirling all around the room from the rockets whizzing by, and then when the helicopter loses elevation due to a malfunction. And then there are the albino rhinos chasing the helicopter. Just your typical movie starring the Rock.
The Aria 926s never drew attention to themselves, blending in seamlessly with the other speakers in the room to provide a cohesive three-dimensional sound field. All the while, dialogue was crystal clear as it moved across the front soundstage, with no discernable change in tonal character. The movie, while not exactly high drama, was definitely entertaining with the Aria 926s in place. I experienced similar results again and again, whether streaming the latest episodes of Star Trek Discovery on CBS All Access or watching other movies on disc like Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born. I found the Focal Aria 926s to be an excellent choice for home theater as well as music.
From my experience, the Focal Aria 926s wouldn't be the best choice for musical tastes that lean heavily toward genres like rap, hip-hop, or very dynamic full-scale symphonic works, at least not on its own. For these types of bass heavy music, a speaker that is closer to full range would be preferable (translation: larger and more expensive). However, crossing over the Aria 926s to a good subwoofer or two eliminates that concern completely.
Comparison and Competition
The Aria 926 can compete with more expensive speakers like the B&W 702 S2 ($4,500 per pair), the Sonus faber Sonetto III ($3,995 per pair), or the Monitor Audio Gold 200 ($4,500 per pair). While the Aria 926 is just a bit leaner in the bass, add in a good subwoofer and for about the same total cost, it can best them.
The Focal Aria 926 possesses a smooth yet detailed top end along with a level of coherency across its frequency range that is surprising at its price. The Focal's inverted dome tweeter along with its Flax midrange and Flax bass drivers combine to present phenomenal imaging within a soundstage that is surprisingly wide and deep. The Focal Aria 926 can hold its own against speakers costing more and not be embarrassed.
While these speakers may not offer the same level of resolution or bass impact as their big brothers, the Sopras, spend some time listening and it becomes obvious the Aria 926s are of Focal lineage. The balanced presentation of the Focal Aria 926s make them a speaker I would gladly listen to all day.
If you are a fan of the Focal sound and your musical tastes run the likes of genres such as pop/rock, alternative, jazz, instrumental or small ensemble classical, the Focal Aria 926 would be a great choice among speakers in their price range and even a bit higher.
And if you're looking for a speaker that can also serve double duty for home theater, add the Aria CC 900 center, Aria SR 900 surrounds, and a sub or two to the Focal Aria 926 and you'll have a first-class multichannel setup that will provide enjoyment for years to come.
• Visit the Focal website for more information.
• Check out our Floorstanding Loudspeakers category page to read similar reviews.
•Focal Kanta No. 2 Loudspeaker Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
What frequency did you cross the Focals at?
@Bob Barrett Nice Review! Don’t think I’ve heard a Focal floorstander before. What’s your favorite Reference Floorstander of all time? Chris