Focal (rhymes with “So Cal”) is a world-famous French manufacturer of loudspeakers, headphones, and individual loudspeaker drive units used in a number of high-end audio, architectural, and automotive applications. The firm is perhaps best known for its spectacular (and breathtakingly expensive) Grande Utopia EM Evo loudspeaker system ($260,000/pair) and for its world-class Utopia headphones ($4,400, reviewed here). Happily, though, design DNA from such unobtanium-class products does trickle down into much more affordable Focal products, such as the Chora series surround-sound speaker system reviewed here.
The system comprises a pair of Chora 826-D ($1,395 apiece), a Chora Center ($790), two Chora 806 ($990/pair) with a Chora 806 stand ($290/pair), and a Sub 1000F ($1,990), although you will save a little when buying the complete package from a dealer.
Focal sometimes seems like a materials sciences company that just happens to specialize in designing world-class loudspeaker drive units. In this respect, Focal parallels other engineering-led firms such as Bowers & Wilkins or KEF. In practical terms, this means most ranges of Focal loudspeakers — including the Chora-series models — feature distinctive construction materials whose physical properties are directly linked to speaker performance.
All Chora models use distinctive, wave guide-mounted, inverted TNF Aluminum/Magnesium dome tweeters. The “special sauce” aspect of this alloy is that the Aluminum component adds lightness and stiffness, while the Magnesium component (also very light) adds internal damping to inhibit unwanted ringing and other potentially edgy-sounding distortions.
Chora-series tweeters also feature surrounds (or suspension rings) made of Poron – a material that has the property of shape memory and is said to “reduce distortion in the 2-3kHz range, where the human ear has very great sensitivity.”
Finally, the tweeter waveguides, which appear circular when viewed from the front, are actually shallow oblong directivity-control horns; the “horns” are wider than they are tall in order to achieve broader and more precisely controlled dispersion in the horizontal axis. Focal says that, in the horizontal plane, Chora’s tweeter/waveguide assembly delivers “frequency response (that) has a variance of +/- 0.5dB,” which is said to assure, “an incredibly stable sound stage which makes the listening position less critical.”
The Chora speakers also feature mid-bass and (in some models) dedicated bass drive units that use composite Slatefiber diaphragms. Slatefiber is a material that consists of recycled, non-woven, oriented carbon fiber encapsulated within a thermoplastic polymer.
Focal claims that this composite offers four desirable acoustic benefits: namely, diaphragms that are light, rigid, internally self-damped, and that offer proper wave propagation in terms of sound velocity. To place these comments in context, it helps to know that Focal has a long history of creating innovative, high-tech driver diaphragm materials, so that Slatefiber takes its place alongside the firm’s other signature composites such as Flax and W-series materials.
For me, this review is particularly significant in that it marks my return to a full-on surround sound system for the first time in several years. It is also the first Dolby Atmos-capable speaker system I have had the opportunity to try.
For my listening and movie-watching tests I used a 58-inch Samsung plasma TV that was hand-calibrated by the manufacturer, a Marantz NR-1711 slim-line AV receiver, a Spectrum cable TV box, a Sony PlayStation 4 game system and Blu-ray player, and cable loom consisting entirely of WireWorld components. I enjoyed a variety of streamed movies and music programs via Spectrum, a collection of Dolby Atmos Blu-ray movie discs, and high-resolution Blu-ray music material.
The Chora 826-D main speakers are slender, three-way, four-driver bass reflex floorstanders whose primary driver array consists of one 1-inch wave guide-loaded TNF Aluminum/Magnesium inverted dome tweeter, one 6.5-inch Slatefiber mid-bass driver, and two 6.5-inch Slatefiber woofers. The up-firing Dolby Atmos module of the 826-D features a separate sealed chamber in the top of the speaker with an upwardly angled 5.125-inch quasi full-range Atmos driver. The 826-D sports two sets of speaker binding posts: one for the main, forward-firing driver array, and the other for the upward firing Atmos driver. Interestingly, the nominal load impedance of the main speaker is 8 Ohms, whereas the impedance of the Atmos driver is 6 Ohms.
The Chora 826-D, as with the original Chora 826 (reviewed here), features clean, crisp, rectangular lines with an attractive wood-grain vinyl wrap (offered in light wood, dark wood, and black finishes) on the top, bottom, sides, and rear panel of the cabinets. The front baffle of the 826-D (and all Chora models) is treated to a matte-textured blue/grey coating on the dark wood offering, cream on the light wood, and gloss black for the black finish, with magnetically attached fabric grilles that cover the Slatefiber drivers (Focal recommends leaving these grilles off for maximum acoustic transparency). The TNF Al/Mg tweeter features a built-in metal mesh protective screen, while the tweeter waveguide is molded in a thermoplastic material that matches the color of the baffle. A flared, forward-firing bass-reflex port flange completes the picture. Up top, an oblong magnetically attached fabric grille protects the upward firing Dolby Atmos driver.
One striking design touch is a wedge-shaped, bolt-on plinth that comes with the 826-D and that serves to tilt the entire loudspeaker backward by a few degrees. Since most of us are used to seeing rectangular objects stand straight up and down (perpendicular to the floor), the 826-Ds create a vivid impression as they lean backward (almost as if falling over to the rear).
The Chora Center is a sealed, acoustic suspension-type speaker designed to be oriented horizontally. It features two 6.5-inch Slatefiber mid-bass drivers flanking a centrally positioned 1-inch TNF Aluminum/Magnesium tweeter. The cabinet’s industrial design matches that of the 826-D and features a press-on riser bar that attaches to the bottom of the cabinet and that tips the speaker backward at an angle roughly matching the rearward tilt of the 826-D.
The Chora 806 is mid-sized, bass reflex stand-mount monitor that uses one 1-inch TNF Aluminum/Magnesium tweeter, one 6.5-inch Slatefiber mid-bass driver, and incorporates a forward firing bass reflex port. While the speakers could be placed on a bookshelf or third-party stand, I would recommend using them with Focal’s optional stands. The stands feature a wedge-shaped floor pedestal (similar in appearance to the wedge-shaped plinth that goes under the 826-D), a vertical riser strut, and a top-plate with pre-drilled holes through which the user inserts beefy mounting bolts (included) that sink into matching tapped holes in the bottom of the speakers. The key is that the wedge-shaped floor pedestal tips the stand, and thus the speakers, backward at an angle roughly corresponding to the tilt of the main and center speakers.
The Sub 1000 F is a powered subwoofer that comes from a higher range of Focal speaker than the Chora range (the Sub 1000 F roughly corresponds to Focal’s upscale Aria 900 loudspeaker family).
It is a sealed, acoustic suspension-type subwoofer sporting a 12-inch woofer with a diaphragm made of Focal’s proprietary Flax composite material. Focal claims the material is “light, stiff, and well damped,” with the result that it is said to deliver, “greater neutrality of timbre and better sound definition.”
The Sub 1000 F incorporates a stout and very high-powered 1000-watt BASH amplifier. The cabinet is roughly cube-shaped and finished in matte black, but with a very beefy 1.5625-inch thick front baffle finished in gloss black. A circular grille covered in black cloth covers the woofer for day-to-day operations.
Focal says the Chora system requires a break-in period of roughly 20 hours of continuous play before the drive units stabilize and deliver full performance. I would concur with this recommendation, but I would add that even more break-in time can be beneficial because it helps the sound of the system to smooth out even more and to “open up” considerably. Straight out of the box I found the system sounded a little stiff or overly constrained and perhaps ever-so-slightly prone to edginess. However, if you give the system the time it needs to loosen up and smooth out rough edges, very good sonic things can and do happen.
In general, the Chora system offers neutral voicing (long a Focal hallmark) and a lively, energetic sound that makes dynamic contrasts in music, movies, and television broadcasts easy to hear and appreciate. Neutrality is simply part of Focal’s design DNA, but the system’s dynamic properties are due, I think, to the fact that the Chora models are reasonably sensitive and easy to drive, so that one doesn’t really need Battlestar Galactica-grade AV electronics to make the speakers sing. On the contrary, once broken in the Chora system delivered consistently expressive sound with ample measures of detail and resolution, while remaining pleasingly unfussy in everyday use.
I really cannot overstate the importance of the contributions made by the Sub 1000 F to the overall sound of the system. The sub is surprisingly powerful, with plenty of dynamic headroom, offers exemplary low frequency extension, very good transient speeds, and very fine bass pitch definition. Put all of these qualities together and you have a sub that in every way builds upon and in fact expands upon the core strengths of the main Chora system. Many subwoofer debates devolve into heated discussions of depth (or extension), output (how loud will it play), bass quality (transient speed, pitch definition, and accurate rendering of textural and transient details), and impact (a quality some aficionados call “slam”). Focal’s Sub 1000 F comes home a winner because it does all of the above well and in a really balanced way — in the process giving the Chora system the elusive yet very desirable qualities of low-end muscle, swagger, and “jump,” coupled with a solid measure of finesse.
The sonic qualities of the Chora system and Sub 1000 F coalesce to make surround sound in general and Dolby Atmos soundtracks in particular a joy to hear. Honestly (and perhaps shamefully) I had forgotten how enjoyable a well dialed-in multichannel system could be, but the Chora/Sub 1000 F brought it all back to me in a vivid and compelling way.
Near the opening of First Man, test pilot and astronaut-to-be Neil Armstrong is piloting the difficult-to-fly X-15 rocket plane on a mission that carries the craft up to and beyond the outer edges of the atmosphere. Armstrong encounters a terrifying moment when, upon his first attempt at re-entry, the X-15 inadvertently skips off the surface of the atmosphere, taking a heart-stopping, unplanned detour back upward toward the edges of space. In that extended scene, the soundtrack takes a lead role, first by showing the incredible power of the X-15’s rocket engine, which is conveyed by the almost deafening, all-enveloping, low-pitched roar of the engine. Next, the extreme dangers involved in guiding the experimental craft up beyond the edges of the atmosphere are expressed by the sudden, almost eerie silence that ensues when the rocket engine is cut off and the X-15 follows a curved ballistic path thousands of feet above the atmosphere. Then, the uncertainties and dangers of (attempted) re-entry are captured by wild sounds of buffeting as the craft’s outer skin becomes visibly red-hot.
Fast-forward to Armstrong’s eventual, successfully re-entry, and he has a wild ride as he struggles to right the craft in the dense air, then to maneuver the rocket plane over mountainous terrain, and finally to bring it safely to a rest on its landing skids in the midst of a dry lake bed. Thanks to the power of the soundtrack, and once the cacophony of the landing ends, I was aware that I had involuntarily been holding my breath for perhaps the last 30 seconds or so of the X-15’s perilous descent. Such is the emotional impact that Dolby Atmos and an accomplished surround speaker system can bring to the movie-watching experience.
The 2019 film Midway depicts the epic WWII battle of the same name, which is widely considered to be the turning point for America’s fortunes in the war in the Pacific. During the battle, American torpedo bombers proved largely ineffective, partly because their low/slow/on-the-deck attack approaches left them terribly vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire, but also because their torpedoes were relatively untested and notoriously unreliable. This meant that the crux of the battle depended upon the navy’s squadrons of Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers. As a self-confessed airplane nut, I have often wondered what a dive-bomber attack might look like, sound like, or feel like, and Midway, with its brilliant Dolby Atmos soundtrack, provided answers.
The final dive-bombing attack scene is particularly effective thanks to the terrifying sound of the plummeting bomber descending to attack the sole remaining Japanese aircraft carrier, the deafening sound of anti-aircraft fire coming up from the ships below, and the heart-stopping sound of fire from Japanese fighter aircraft coming from behind and above the diving bombers. The soundtrack shows how the bomber pilots and their tail gunners must have had nerves of steel, ice water in their veins, and fierce, rock-solid commitment to their missions. Otherwise, it seems, they would surely have been overcome by the sheer terror of the moment. Soundtracks like these, when reproduced as well as they are by the Focal Chora system, add a greatly heightened level of emotional content to the movie-watching experience.
But, the Chora system is not just about movie watching; it’s an excellent performer for music listening as well.
Throughout Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds: Live at Radio City Music Hall (Blu-ray), I was struck by the deft, adroit way in which the Chora system captured the earthy passion and faint, signature rasp of Dave Matthew’s voice — qualities that, to my ears at least, define him as a performer nearly as much as his superb acoustic guitar work. Nowhere is this more evident than on the chorus of the beautiful Daniel Lanois tune “The Maker,” where one almost leans forward in anticipation of hearing Matthews’ phrasing as he renders the chorus line from which the song draws its title. Further, the Chora system does a brilliant job with Tim Reynold’s intricate, agile, and at time explosive acoustic guitar solo on “Betrayal,” which Reynolds wrote. The Chora speakers not only captured the fast-rising leading edges of rapid-fire notes, but also the fullness of the bodies of the notes, and finally their lingering decay. The articulacy and dynamic expressiveness of the Chora system was simply captivating.
Watching Return to Forever Returns: Live at Montreux 2008 (Blu-ray) proved a poignant and bittersweet experience for me, as my listening sessions spanned the timeframe just before and then after the passing of the brilliant keyboardist Chick Corea. On one hand, I was so glad to have this Blu-ray record of Corea’s performance, but at the same time I was saddened to think there would be no more concert recordings forthcoming in the future. Still, this Blu-ray disc captures Return to Forever at the peak of its powers, as the Focal Chora system beautifully reveals.
In particular, the system invites the listener/viewer to focus intently on the interplay between these four master musicians, showing how they encourage, enable, support, and sometimes challenge one another as each song unfolds. I am particularly fond of the track “Vulcan Worlds” (composed by bassist Stanley Clarke), which shows the incredible speed and fluidity of Di Meola’s guitar work, the precision and power of White’s percussion contributions, the sheer genius of keyboardist (and musical master chef?) Corea as he both support and also instigates musical movement as the song develops, and finally the punchy yet sharply staccato sound of Clarke’s furious musical lines as played on his signature Alembic electric bass. Clarke’s bass lines show, especially, how powerful and seamlessly integrated the sounds of the Chora speakers and of Focal’s Sub 1000 F truly are. My point is that the Chora system does what a good music system should do: pull the listener deep inside the performance at hand.
There really is no downside to the Focal Chora system when it is evaluated in its intended use context: namely, as a versatile speaker system suited both for home theater and music applications. Purists interested solely in music applications may find there are comparably priced stereo speaker systems that offer some performance advantages for music playback (advantages such as greater sonic transparency, heightened textural and transient detail, and superior top-to-bottom cohesiveness). Two music-focused alternatives would be the Martin Logan ElectroMotion ESL hybrid electrostatic dynamic floorstanding loudspeakers ($2500/pair) and the Magnepan 1.7i quasi-ribbon type dipolar floorstanding loudspeakers ($2400/pair). While both the Martin Logan and Magnepan speakers offer higher absolute performance limits for music listening, both speakers (and in particular the Magnepans) are far more demanding of electronics than the easy-to-drive Focal system.
I can think of three systems that stand as direct competitors to the Focal Chora system and that I would encourage prospective buyers to audition.
The Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) 600-s Series system Anniversary System (reviewed here) is comprised of the 603 S2 Anniversary floorstanding speakers ($1999.99/pair), the HTM6 S2 Anniversary Edition center-channel speaker ($799.99), the 607 S2 Anniversary Edition stand mount monitors ($699.99/pair), and the ($799.99). Stands for the 602 S2 monitors are sold separately.
The KEF Q Series system includes the ($1999.98/pair), the ($699.99/ea.), the ($699/pair), and the ($749.99/ea.). Customers desiring Dolby Atmos capabilities can purchase designed for placement on top of the Q950 towers ($599.99/pair). These feature the company’s signature Uni-Q driver technology, where waveguide-loaded tweeters are positioned within the throats of mid-bass or bass drivers, creating multi-way driver assemblies where all drive units share the exact same acoustic centers — a design touch said to promote superior phase coherency and imaging.
The PSB Speakers Imagine X Series system includes the ($2798/pair), the ($449/each), the ($549/pair), and the ($1099). Customers desiring Dolby Atmos capabilities can purchase designed for placement on top of the Imagine X2T towers ($799/pair). These rely on research methodologies first pioneered by the legendary acoustical consultant Floyd Toole, and expanded upon by PSB designer Paul Barton, to create speakers whose measured performance enjoys a high degree of correlation with musical accuracy as perceived by listeners.
Of these three systems, I have the most experience with the PSB system and the least with the B&W system, with the KEF Q system somewhere in the middle. All three competitors have, as does Focal, solid reputations for being engineering led companies with a great deal of materials-science expertise when it comes to designing loudspeaker drive units. In England, both B&W and KEF helped pioneer measurement-driven development of advanced drive unit technologies, while in Canada PSB has famously used Canada’s NRC (National Research Council) Acoustics Laboratory to further its own loudspeaker designs.
I found Focal’s Chora/Sub 1000 F system helped me rediscover the joys (and cinematic significance) of high-quality surround sound systems. In fact, the Focal system was so good that it has inspired me to begin looking into acquiring a object-based surround system for my personal use.
The Focal Chora/Sub 1000 F system distinguished itself through a high degree of articulacy and uncommonly fine dynamic expression. Equally important is the fact that the system is easy to drive, meaning you won’t have to drop megabucks on AV electronics in order to hear what the Focal system has to offer. In fact, a good but modest AVR is all you need to bring the system alive.
• Read our Focal Chora 826 Three-Way Floorstanding Loudspeaker Review.
• If you want more in-depth coverage of Focal products, read our Focal Chora 806 Bookshelf Speaker Review.