Dennis Burger is a native Alabamian whose passion for AV began sometime before the age of seven, when he dismantled his parents' brand new 25-inch solid-state Zenith console TV and exclaimed--to the amusement of no one except the delivery guy--that it was missing all of its vacuum tubes. He has since contributed to Home Theater Magazine, Wirecutter, Cineluxe, Electronic House, and more. His specialties include high-end audio, home theater receivers, advanced home automation, and video codecs.
We've spent the past ten years or so recalibrating our expectations for what a thousand-dollar floorstanding speaker can and should sound like, largely as a result of high-performance, low-cost wunderkinds like GoldenEar's Triton Five, Bowers & Wilkins' 603, and Monitor Audio's Silver 300, just to name a few. With the latter in particular, though, we've recently had to start recalibrating our expectations for what a thousand-dollar floorstanding tower speaker can and should look like.
Still, I'm not sure I was quite ready for Focal's Chora 826, at least not aesthetically. Borrowing some finish cues from the much more expensive Kanta line, all of the new Chora speakers sport a distinctive two-tone finish, with your choice of either dark wood paired with a cool blue-gray façade, light wood with a creamy front baffle, or a simpler gloss/flat black combo for those feeling a little less adventurous.
No matter which finish combination you opt for, the Chora 826 features a one-inch aluminum/magnesium inverted-dome tweeter (with a perforated protective cover), a 6.5-inch Slatefiber midrange driver, and two 6.5-inch Slatefiber bass drivers in a three-way configuration, with crossovers set at 2,700 Hz and 270 Hz. A front-facing reflex port beneath the bottom bass driver brings low frequency response down to a very respectable 48Hz (-3dB), with extension down to 39 Hz at -6dB. Not even remotely shabby for a speaker that measures just 41.5 inches high by 15.25 inches deep and just shy of 12 inches wide.
"Hangonaminute," I can hear some of you saying, "what's all this 'Slatefiber' business?" Fair question. It's a new material developed by Focal and manufactured in France that the company describes as a composite of recycled non-woven carbon fibers and a thermoplastic polymer. Focal unsurprisingly lauds the rigidity, lightness, and superior damping of this new material, and I can't disagree with any of that. But speaking purely aesthetically, I'm so smitten by its lovely and organic marbled look that I'm honestly torn between displaying the speakers with grilles on or in the altogether.
The decision is made a bit tougher by the fact that the magnetic grilles don't cover the tweeter (or port, obvs), but slip right over the top of the midrange and bass drivers, and as such have practically no impact on the voice of the speakers. After a few weeks of fussing, I eventually settled on a grilles-on look for the Dark Wood pair provided for preview, as it gives the speakers a somewhat more elegant look. Swap these for the Light Wood finish, though, and I have a feeling I would lean toward the birthday-suit approach, just for the enhanced visual pop.
No matter your preference for grilles on/grilles off, the aesthetic design of the speaker is aided by its included plinth, which bolts onto the bottom using an included Allen wrench and serves dual purposes. Functionally, it gives the speaker a bit of a tilt back of roughly five degrees, which helps aim the tweeter toward the listener, given the relatively short stature of the speaker cabinet itself (38.25 inches sans plinth). It also provides a wider, more stable base that makes the speaker harder to tip over.
Aesthetically, it gives the Chora 826 a bit of a floating look, since the plinth doesn't extend as far forward as the façade of the speaker cabinet itself.
I'm devoting so many words to all of this rather than just pointing at the pictures scattered throughout this review because I honestly feel that images just don't do the speaker justice. It's true, on closer inspection it's a little more obvious that the wood is a veneer. But taken as a whole, even if you don't focus on its budget price, the Chora 826 is simply a lovely little speaker--so lovely as to be a bit distracting until you're used to it.
Since the Chora 826 is relatively small and reasonably lightweight for a three-way tower speaker, unboxing is easier than you might expect. The packaging for the speaker opens along the front instead of the top or bottom, which means you may need a little more room than expected to pull it out of the box and unwrap it, but it's still most certainly a one-person job.
Sitting atop the speaker within the box you'll find another box containing the plinth, as well as connecting hardware, an Allen wrench, and carpet spikes, should you need them. The capsule-shaped magnetic speaker grille is also housed in its own separate sub-package.
Each Chora 826 sports one pair of binding posts, so bi-wiring isn't accommodated. Overall, I really love the quality of the binding posts, as they're easy to loosen and tighten and look quite lovely. If I have one concern, it's that tightly fitted black and red caps will need to be removed if you intend to use banana plugs (as I always do), and these caps do put up a good bit of a fight. I had to end up resorting to needle-nosed pliers to extract them, and it felt a bit like pulling a tooth. By the time I had them out, the caps were more than a bit mangled.
From there, though, setup is a breeze. Due to the front-ported design of the speaker, you don't have to be quite as concerned with distance from rear boundaries. In my relatively small two-channel listening room, this is a blessing. Being able to position a pair of speakers six inches from the wall rather than eighteen definitely leaves me with more breathing room and affords a wider soundstage, since there's more distance between me and the speakers.
I began my evaluation of the Chora 826s by connecting them to Denon's PMA-150H Integrated Network Amplifier as I wrapped up that review, then swapped in my much more powerful Peachtree Nova220SE integrated amp. Both were connected to the speakers by way of pre-terminated ELAC Sensible Speaker Cables, and my primary source for the duration of the review was my Maingear Vybe media center and gaming PC.
After quite a bit of casual background listening, I started my serious evaluation of the Focal Chora 826 in, I'll admit, something of an unusual way. I've been on quite a Boz Scaggs kick as of late, and I've noticed something about "Lido Shuffle" from 1976's Silk Degrees that never really occurred to me before. Play this track through a speaker with any significant tonal peculiarities or unevenness in the midrange, and Scaggs' voice just gets swallowed in the verses, lost and indistinct amongst the horn- and piano-heavy instrumentation.
Within 20 seconds of cueing up the track by way of the Focals, I could tell that wouldn't be a concern with these speakers. In fact, I struggled to really hear many meaningful differences between the Chora 826s' handling of the song and that of my beloved Paradigm Studio 100 v5s, which sold for $1,800 way back in the day. That's high praise, by the way.
Listening a little closer and doing some more extensive A/B testing, I was just about ready to proclaim the Focals a little more detailed and airy in the upper end, while giving the Paradigms the nod in terms of dynamic punch and fullness in the low end and mid-bass, but decided to swap out the Denon PMA-150H, with its 35wpc output, for something a little beefier in the form of the aforementioned Peachtree Nova220SE. With this swap, the bottom octaves of the Focal Chora 826 absolutely came alive, and I was left with very little to niggle about (and, quite frankly, fewer meaningful differences between the two speakers).
All of the above makes absolute sense. What I can't quite figure out is why, with the Peachtree integrated in place, the tinkling pianos that accompany the main lines of the chorus ("Lido! Whoah oh oh oh...") seem to dance and wiggle around in the air a little more tangibly via the Chora 826s.
I guess the lesson to be learned here is that while the speakers sound great even with rather anemic input, they really come into their own with a lot more oomph behind them, not only in terms of dynamic punch, but also imaging and soundstage. In other words, if you're thinking of picking up these speakers to pair with an existing amp, don't fret too much if the amp doesn't quite meet the Chora 826's minimum recommended specs. But if you're looking for an amp to drive these speakers, you'd do well to go with something more toward the upper end of the speakers' recommended amplification range (40 to 250 watts per channel).
Impressed by the speakers' handling of the percussion in "Lido Shuffle" (at least by way of the Peachtree integrated), I next spun a favorite percussive torture test of mine: Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" from the relatively recent remaster of 1984. To be frank about it, I got a little greedy at first, and quickly found the speakers' pain point (99dB peaks from about six feet away), especially when the doubled kickdrum starts up at around the five-second mark.
Easing back on the volume knob a few decibels, though, made the speakers stop complaining. And what I was left with was an incredibly holographic presentation of that iconic drum intro/solo. The sense of space was simply cavernous, and the overall delivery of the percussion was unimpeachable both in terms of dynamics and transient response.
Much the same could be said for the rest of the song once guitars and vocals join the party near the one-minute mark. The sense of space was simply wonderful, especially from the incidental sound effects (like the glass bottle rolling across the floor and the papers rustling and ripping.
Add the bassline in at around 1:12, and the Chora 826s just open right up and rock, with a wall-to-wall soundstage and an overall balanced and neutral sound that lets the music do the talking. True, this track doesn't really offer many opportunities to evaluate imaging once it kicks into high gear, but it proved that these French beauties can get straight-up wild with the right motivation (as long as you don't go just batshit crazy with the volume knob).
Moving on to something a little more in line with what Focal's engineers likely designed the Chora 826 for, I settled in to spend a bit of quality time with Michael Hedges' album Aerial Boundaries, focusing heavily on my favorite cut from the album, "Bensusan." This is another song that hinges on purity of tone for me, but not necessarily for the same reasons as "Lido Shuffle." Given that this is a solo acoustic guitar composition recorded straight to digital with no overdubs, there's little room for editorializing here, especially given that the sound of Hedges' modified Martin D-28 is absolutely unmistakable, and any deviation from that sound would be sacrilege.
I'm really struggling to find anything to fault here. The Chora 826's handling of Hedges' aggressive playing style and heavy reliance on harmonics is spot on, in terms of tone, timbre, and transient response. That famous Martin just hangs in the air, and harmonics leap out further into the room with incredibly energy and not a hint of harshness.
I also found nothing to complain about with Björk's "Hyperballad," from her album Post. This is a song that I generally find works better on sub-and-sat 2.1 systems, due in large part to its throbbing, sinewave-like bassline, which dances around between 40 and 60 Hz and simply never relents. I played it almost on a lark, not really expecting much, but the Chora 826s handled themselves quite admirably, cranking out that deep and powerful bass mostly effortlessly while also rendering Björk's breathy, ethereal vocals with spectacular detail. Crank the volume knob too far to the right, and it's true that the front-firing ports did huff and chuff a little, but this was never noticeable at comfortable listening levels.
I hate to call this a "downside," all things (especially price) considered, but while the Chora 826 does have wonderfully wide dispersion, it's off-axis response doesn't sound quite as even as I would demand from a pricier speaker. This means that you might have to pay a little more attention to treating your first reflections that you would with a $3,000 or $5,000 tower.
You'll also want to take care to aim the tweeters at your listening position as much as possible, which wasn't a problem at all in my listening space due to the slight lean-back of the included plinth (boosting the height of my seat a little did cause the speaker to lose a bit of its coherence and balance).
I did have to tinker around with toe-in a little to get the sound dialed in perfectly, but to reiterate what I said in the Hookup section, the fact that the speaker isn't finicky in the slightest about boundaries behind it and its distance from them means that setup and placement overall is really flexible.
Competition and Comparisons
All of the speakers mentioned in the intro should be considered viable competition for the Focal Chora 826. At $999 apiece, GoldenEar's Triton Five is a stiff competitor in terms of sonic performance, owing largely to its fantastic High-Velocity Folded Ribbon tweeter and superior off-axis response. Aesthetically, though, the Triton Five looks like a big, black sock with a plastic hat.
I'll admit that I haven't spent much time with the $900 Bowers & Wilkins' 603, and none of that time was spent in my own listening system. But my limited experience with it speaks to another wonderful performer in its price class that's somewhat dragged down aesthetically by its plain-Jane plinth.
Monitor Audio's $999.99 Silver 300 is one of the few speakers at this price point to give the Chora 826 a real run for its money in terms of aesthetics, in my opinion, especially finished in natural oak or walnut. You can read more about this speaker's performance in Andrew Robinson's featured review.
If I have any niggles about the Focal Chora 826 that aren't covered in the preceding text, they really come down to one thing I've praised this speaker for the most: its aesthetics. In a perfect world, I would love to see these speakers offered in finishes that more closely match their bigger brethren in the Kanta line. I dream of a Chora 826 finished in that striking Gauloise Blue/Walnut and my tasty bits start to tingle. Give me that Solar Yellow/Black High Gloss combo and I might need smelling salts.
But I'm just dreaming. Manufacturing realities being what they are, Focal obviously had to pick a few safe color-and-finish combinations and stick with those. And for $999.99 a pop, it's seriously hard to complain.
It would also be hard to complain about the sound of these speakers even if they carried twice the sticker price. We live in a wonderful time for high-performance audio, and it's only getting better all the time.
While I can't, unfortunately, speak to the performance of the Chora line's accompanying center channel speaker, aptly titled the Chora Center, I can give the 826 my enthusiastic endorsement for those looking to build a great-sounding and great-looking floorstanding stereo setup that's super forgiving in terms of placement.
• Check out our Floorstanding Loudspeakers category page to read similar reviews.
• Visit the Focal website for more information.
• Focal Kanta No.2 Floorstanding Speakers Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.