First up was the soundtrack from the film Into the Wild (J-Records), which is a standout solo effort by Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder. I played a lossless version of the soundtrack through my MacBook Pro, connected via the V-Link and Cambridge Audio DacMagic. My mom happened to be in the room as I played the track "Hard Sun" and her comment was, "It sounds like he's standing in the room with us." Exactly. Such was the experience I had time and again with the Focals. These speakers are revealing, but not in an overly clinical way. The texture in the vocals, as well as in the instrumentation, was exemplary. By closing your eyes, you could hear Eddie's fingers sliding up and down the neck of his guitar. It was quite an engaging experience and definitely the best I've heard this track sound. The experience was reminiscent of some of the high-end audio demos I've heard at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Vegas over the years.
Now that I was encroaching upon that truly transformative experience that you can only get from the right speakers, source components, wiring and listening room configuration, I thought it was time to jump right into some high-resolution audio, in the form of Madeleine Peyroux's "The Kind You Can't Afford." I downloaded this from HDTracks.com as part of Sound & Vision's Ultimate HiDef Music Experience, which is still available for a very affordable six bucks. What first struck me was how well the Focals conveyed all of the range and soul in Madeleine's voice. The 836Ws produced a vast, compelling image and weren't overly picky about placement. Some of the sweetest-sounding tweeters I've heard have been made of beryllium, an incredibly strong, lightweight element that is also used to make missiles, though I prefer its high-end audio applications. As I mentioned in the introduction, Focal chose an aluminum/magnesium inverted dome tweeter for the 836's, and it is an absolute stunner. This tweeter is right up there with some of the best I've heard in terms of being detailed and open, without sounding the least bit edgy or harsh, regardless of what's playing through it. Further, I would say that in terms of frequency range, it was the highs that really stood out to me again and again as I listened to the Focals. I am in no way suggesting a lack of balance in the speakers - rather, I'm simply pointing to the fact that, in my opinion, the tweeter is the star of this show.
Next up was a bit of rock in the form of The Red Hot Chili Pepper's "Rain Dance Maggie" from their latest offering I'm With You (Warner Brothers). This is the standout track on the album and it features plenty of low-frequency material, which was conveyed with authority through the Focals. They threw a broad, resounding soundstage with Anthony Kiedis' voice floating in the middle of the room. A common theme with audiophiles, when we encounter speakers of this caliber, is to make the statement "I heard things in the track I've never heard before." That was the case here. I went ahead and throttled the volume, not just to test how the speakers would handle it, but also because I was enjoying the experience. In case you're wondering, the Focals hold up extremely well at high volume, showing no strain and no lack of coherence. I doubt the same could be said of my neighbors after that particular listening session.
Craving a bit more high-res love, I played Peter Gabriel's "Flume," which is a Bon Iver cover from Gabriel's Scratch My Back (EMI). This is yet another HDTrack's download and one of my favorites thus far. Each keystroke of the piano was an audible treat, creating its own voice in this haunting track. The Focals conveyed Gabriel's vocals with an eerie transparency, showing spot-on resolution and truly remarkable balance. I know I keep harping on their high-frequency acumen, but their midrange prowess is also considerable. It will probably come as no surprise that their dynamic range is also notable, especially in this song as moments of quiet instrumentation transition into loud, shrill vocals from Gabriel. This one begged to be played back several times. I found the Focals' midrange performance on this and other tracks to be sweet, smooth and highly detailed.
Last up was an audiophile favorite in the form of Hugh Masekela's "Stimela," which is from his album Hope (Triloka Records), although my copy is from the Burmester demo disc they played at CES. This was an absolute audio treat and the best I've heard this track sound since that Burmester demo, which featured over $150,000 worth of gear. "Thank you for coming in, sir, would you like to buy a condo or an audio system?" Who buys this stuff? Anyway, back to the track, it runs the gamut in terms of high, low and midrange frequencies. From Hugh mimicking the whistle of the coal train, to his brilliant horn play, to the drum beats thumping in my chest, the Focals provided a truly transformative experience. Their resolution and coherence were simply stunning, as were their ability to recreate live music without adding any unwanted sonic artifacts.
In the beginning of this review, I went over the specs. Without repeating them, I'll remind you that these are pretty big speakers, no two ways about it. As such, you're going to need space and potential spousal approval. It's also worth noting that their overall design is dramatic, especially if you opt for the red panels on the sides. While these aren't negatives per se, these types of design elements can make it more difficult to fit them into a given room/lifestyle.
In terms of performance, while I thought their low-frequency performance was spot-on and well balanced, I will say that total bass junkies and maybe fans of rap music might want to look elsewhere, as these speakers simply weren't designed to plumb those sorts of depths. I don't care how low these speakers are measured, in a top-performing system, I would look for a subwoofer (or two) to pair them with, as they have the potential to shine even more by leaving the truly deep stuff to the subs. Not that you "need" subs with the Focals, but if you want to go all the way, this is the path. Very reasonably, I could suggest this would be an upgrade path after the credit card is paid down a little.
Competition and Comparison
While I haven't heard an abundance of speakers that can compare with the 836Ws, especially in their price range, I can recall a couple of standout demos. One speaker that blew me away a few years ago at CES was the PSB Synchrony One, which retails for $5,500/pair. If you put the screws to me, I'd tell you that I would save the thousand bucks and buy the Focals, as I prefer a more open, airy top end and the PSBs are a bit darker in character.
Another speaker worth a look, or I guess I should say listen, is the Usher Mini Dancer 2, which retails for $5,000 per pair. This is another speaker company that put on an amazing demo at CES, though the same can't be said of their website. The Ushers feature a beryllium/titanium tweeter that rivals that of the Focals and their fit and finish is also exemplary.
Monitor Audio is another manufacturer that might be worth your time, specifically the Gold GX300 which retails for $5,500 per pair. While I haven't listened to the GX300s, I can tell you that Monitor Audio speakers are generally well-received by the audiophile community. All of that said, if $5,000 for a pair of speakers is simply out of your price range, I would suggest taking a look at some of PSB's other, more affordable speaker lines such as the Imagine T, which can be had for a couple of grand per pair.
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There's a level of sophistication to the sound of the Focals that (I'm going to be chided for saying this) you really do need to spend this kind of money to hear. There are some very rare exceptions to this rule: Magnepan comes to mind, although with Maggies, you're going to sacrifice some low-end performance and you need big power to drive them properly. As I mentioned in the Competition and Comparison section, comparable speakers, at least the ones I've heard, are going to cost you about the same as the Focals.
Every aspect of the 836Ws smacks of the high end, from their design, both internally and externally, to their ability to peel back every layer of the instrumentation and vocals in a given piece of music. Also, due to their revealing nature, they'll let you know right away if the track you've fired up is of lesser audio quality, something I demand in a speaker.
A truly high-end pair of speakers can transport you back to your first concert, back to your childhood, back to a simpler time. This was my experience with the Focals, as they literally made me want to take a couple of days off from work and do nothing but re-experience my music collection. Just about all of what I heard during both critical and casual listening sessions simply blew me away. If budget constraints have you wincing at these price points, I strongly recommend putting the majority of your budget into speakers of this caliber, then doing your homework to mate them with an affordable, high-performing amp and processor combination.
To put it simply, the Focal 836Ws are the best-sounding speakers I've had in my listening room to date. I've spent more time compiling this review than any other I've written, mainly in an effort to explain just how good these speakers are, especially given their price point, as they are worthy of every glowing keystroke.
• Read more floorstanding speaker reviews written by Home Theater Review's staff.
• Look for an amp to drive the Chorus 836W in our Amplifier Review section.
• Find a sub to pair with the Chorus 836W in our Subwoofer Review section.