French manufacturer Focal is known mostly for its venerable floorstanding and bookshelf speakers, but recent efforts outside of this realm have proven praiseworthy, as well. Now Focal has decided to dance in the increasingly popular and crowded soundbar realm with the Dimension, which costs $1,599 with subwoofer or $1,399 without. Expensive for a soundbar, you say. In terms of price-to-performance ratio, it’s actually not, as I’ll try to demonstrate in this review.
The Dimension is a 450-watt, 5.1-channel solution, including dedicated center, left, right, and surround channels, with the “.1” referencing the optional subwoofer. The drivers are four-inch and full-range; each is powered by a dedicated 75-watt amp, and the Dimension features a sixth amp for the optional passive subwoofer. In terms of connectivity, it features one HDMI 1.4 input and one HDMI 1.4 ARC-capable output. ARC is especially important in the smart TV age, as it allows audio to pass from the TV back to the soundbar. The HDMI jacks support 1080p, 3D, and multichannel audio (DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1), but 4K pass-through is not supported. Rounding out the inputs are an optical digital input and a mini-stereo jack. Bluetooth aptX is also supported via an adapter that Focal includes with the Dimension.
Aesthetically speaking, the Dimension is an attractive if nondescript design, featuring an ultra-rigid black aluminum enclosure with side-firing bass ports. The lack of plastic is welcome in general and especially welcome at this price point. The bar measures a fairly svelte 4.5 inches high by 45.6 wide by 4.25 deep and weighs 12 pounds.
The matching Dimension subwoofer, which is designed to snuggle right up behind the soundbar in a horizontal configuration if the soundbar is table- or stand-mounted, measures basically the same in height and width, but it’s 12.3 inches deep and weighs 31 pounds. Focal wisely chose a passive design, thereby eliminating the need for an additional power cord. That said, if you’d rather bring your own powered sub to the party, you’re good to go, as the soundbar is designed to accommodate both options.
The quickest way to set up this bad boy is to table-mount it, which is how Focal designed it to be used–especially if you opt for the subwoofer. However, there is also the option of wall-mounting the soundbar, and the necessary hardware is included to do so; if you go that route, you’ll likely be able to install it yourself.
Either way, you’ll likely encounter some setup frustration, as I did. For starters, the space within the recessed cavity of the Dimension where the connections are located is incredibly cramped, especially if you’re using it as a video switcher (running two HDMI cables through it). The issue is exacerbated if you’re also connecting the Bluetooth dongle.
Moving to the subwoofer, if you’d like to use the speaker cable that Focal includes in the package, then you have no choice but to mount the sub behind the soundbar, as the speaker cable is too short for any other configuration. Further complicating a distant install of the sub is the fact that the binding posts on the soundbar are maddeningly tiny and will only accept the thinnest of speaker wire. In my living room, the depth of the shelf that sits below my TV is only five inches, so I really had no choice but to place the sub elsewhere. While I was able to use some existing speaker wire, I actually had to shear some of the copper from it in order to get it to fit in the Dimension’s binding posts–not fun. It was that or head to RadioShack, which to me is akin to being hit in the head with a mallet. There was also the challenge of trying to hide all of the assorted cabling, as well as the Bluetooth dongle.
I tested the Dimension system a bit in this configuration in my living room, but ultimately I moved it to my listening room for critical listening. In this location, I was able to set the soundbar on a table just below my projection screen, with the subwoofer placed where Focal designed it to be: right behind the soundbar.
All of that said, the connections themselves are as they should be on a soundbar: simple and straightforward, eschewing the need for myriad components and the requisite cabling. My sources included an Oppo BDP-93 player, a cable box, and my iPhone connected via Bluetooth.
This section was a pleasure to write, just as the Dimension was a joy to listen to. While I’ll get more granular as I get into some specifics of what I listened to, I will say that, across the board, I found the Dimension’s sonic signature to be balanced and highly engaging, while also elegant when necessary. Keep in mind the fact that the surround effect that any soundbar produces depends on multiple factors–including soundbar height relative to ear height, the sound engineering of the source material, and the sonic signature of the source component itself. All of that said, in general I found the soundstage, imaging, and surround effect to be exemplary, relative to other soundbars I’ve auditioned and heard in various demos. I also enjoyed features like the CEC remote control system, which allows the Dimension to be controlled by other CEC-compatible remote controls, and the Touch Proximity Sensor, which wakes the unit when it detects movement nearby.
After some hours of break-in, I began critical listening with Jack Johnson’s “Radiate” from his most recent album From Here to Now to You (Universal Republic). Those familiar with my reviews might note that I gravitate toward Jack Johnson; if you’re uninitiated, I strongly urge you to check out his music. He’s a self-taught musician from Hawaii, and you cannot go wrong with any of his albums. Anyway, after sitting back and soaking in the track, I wrote one word on my notepad: “wow.” This is a track with which I’m intimately familiar, mostly from playback through my reference system. The transition to a soundbar from a dedicated multi-speaker setup is typically a bit of a letdown. While the Dimension wasn’t the sonic equal of my reference system, I can tell you that it provided close to the same level of enjoyment for a hell of a lot less money, not to mention the assorted components and cabling. The sound was energetic without going overboard, and the bass was taut and deep, despite the fact that I hadn’t yet connected the sub. Considering the sub only adds $200 to the price point, I find its addition to be a no-brainer, unless of course it overcomplicates the install.
Sticking with music, as well as my buddy Jack Johnson, I cued the song “Constellations” from Best of Kokua Festival (Universal Republic). While this song is originally from Jack’s album In Between Dreams, the Kokua version also features Eddie Vedder and Kawika Kahaipo. The first thing I noted was the raw and transparent texture of their voices (this is a live album), but the thing that really stood out was the visceral twang and decay of the acoustic guitar. Again, this is a track that has seen steady and consistent play in my reference system, and again I was floored by how much I enjoyed what I was hearing. It takes some pretty serious engineering to produce that level of sound quality with all of your drivers packed that close together in one enclosure, so hats off to the team at Focal.
Sticking with music but wanting to hear something multichannel, I booted up the Blu-ray of the Eagles’ Farewell Live From Melbourne (Rhino Records), which I think might be their sixth farewell tour. Unfortunately, the Dimension doesn’t feature Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio decoding (which you can find on other similarly priced HDMI-equipped soundbars), but I let my Oppo player decode the DTS-HD MA soundtrack and send it as multichannel PCM to the soundbar’s HDMI input. The Eagle’s hit “One of These Nights” was yet another blissful experience, as the rasp in Don Henley’s voice was conveyed with raw and compelling detail. Don can still hit the high notes, and the Dimension proved to be a worthy conduit. I also jotted down the fact that the soundstage was “pretty remarkable” given the physical constraints of five drivers packed into a single box. It was on this track that I connected and engaged the subwoofer, and the effect was dramatic. Out of the box, the bass was just a touch thin, but a quick adjustment on the Dimension’s credit-card-sized remote resolved the issue fully and provided exceptionally smooth mid and deep bass.
I played around a bit in terms of my ear height relative to the height of the soundbar, and it certainly did impact both audio quality and surround effect. That said, the effect wasn’t as impactful as other soundbars I’ve heard, and this is a big deal when you consider how vastly different each install will be. Also, it didn’t impact the soundstage too dramatically, which I found to be wide and compelling, especially when playing well-recorded source material.
Next, I played Puss in Boots on Blu-ray (DreamWorks). Scoff at me if you will, but I can tell you that, not only is the film clever and entertaining, it also features brilliant sound engineering and plenty of action in the surround channels. The fireworks in the opening scene were delivered with a punchy, visceral bang, and the surround effect was palpable. It’s also worth noting that, thanks to a dedicated center channel, dialogue remained intelligible, even during some of the more chaotic action sequences. There’s nothing more frustrating than missing dialogue in a film and/or having to tweak the center-channel volume, both of which can ruin the escapism. Thankfully, I didn’t find this to be an issue with the Dimension. Surround effects in the action sequences were engaging and fun, but you’re never going to get the same effect from a soundbar that you will with dedicated, well-placed surround speakers.
Moving on from animated cats to decaying humans, I cued up World War Z (Paramount). Talk about a film that’s a sonic assault on a home theater. In chapter nine when the Zs breach the walls of one of the last still-human strongholds, the Dimension kept its composure, despite screaming citizens, circling helicopters, and heavy machine-gun fire. I was truly taken aback by how well the Dimension conveyed the sheer terror of the scene and never faltered, even as I pushed the volume hard. I did notice that mid-bass was a bit thin during this sequence, although it was hard to determine whether that was the fault of the Dimension or the filmmakers, and I doubt most people would even notice. All in all, the Dimension delivered a powerful and immersive experience, belying its size and general physical constraints.
As I mentioned previously, there are little to no quibbles with what I consider to be the most important aspect of any piece of audio gear: the sound quality. As with every Focal product I’ve been exposed to, the sound quality and the aesthetics leave me with nothing but awe and praise.
What you must remember when dealing with a product of this ilk is that, at the end of the day, the connectivity and flexibility in terms of mounting and placement are going to be just as important to consumers as the sound quality. In this respect, the Dimension has some shortcomings. For one, it is too lean in the connection department, with its single HDMI input and single optical digital input. Other comparably priced active soundbars that we’ve reviewed offer two or three HDMI inputs, as well as an assortment of digital and analog inputs to accommodate a variety of sources.
Secondly, for a novice or even a decent DIYer, installing the Dimension might lead to some swearing and possibly some drinking. Simply put, the Bluetooth receiver needs to be built into the soundbar, the input/output bay needs to be larger, and the included subwoofer speaker wire needs to be longer. In talking to Focal’s engineers, I was told that, due to the soundbar’s aluminum casing acting as an RF shield, there’s no place to bury the antenna–hence the need for an external Bluetooth dongle. Although I’m not an engineer, given that Bluetooth is ubiquitous, I think a more elegant solution is needed. Other manufacturers have certainly nailed it without sacrificing sound quality.
Are these deal breakers? I’d say that, if your focus is on performance, most definitely not. If you’re like me and sound quality trumps everything else, you’re going to find ways to work around the setup challenges, even if it takes a bit more time and maybe a bit more money. Because at the end of the day, that time and money will be a blip in your life compared to the time you’ll spend enjoying the Dimension’s performance.
Comparison and Competition
While many manufacturers now play in the soundbar sandbox, very few boast sound quality in the Dimension’s class. The only two that I’ve personally heard (one I reviewed, the other at a CES demo) that are on par with the Focal are the Bowers & Wilkins Panorama and the GoldenEar SuperCinema 3D Array Soundbar. Since my original review of the Panorama, B&W has updated to the Panorama 2 ($2,200). While you’ll gain an onscreen display with the Panorama, you’ll lose streaming capability altogether, as there’s no Bluetooth or AirPlay option. The GoldenEar SuperCinema 3D Array Soundbar is a passive soundbar that retails for $999, but it only has three channels and requires the addition of amplification and a processor to connect sources.
To put it succinctly, the Focal Dimension is an elegant product with some inelegant design elements. Does this mean I don’t recommend it? Not at all–I’m simply trying to make it clear that it’s designed for a specific type of setup; and, if you’re going to stray from that setup, you need to be prepared for some extra work and possibly expense. That begs the question of whether or not the sound quality is good enough to justify the extra work, and I’d say, unequivocally, yes.
The bottom line is that it didn’t matter if I was listening to a Blu-ray disc or Bluetooth streaming from my phone, the sound quality was about as good as you’ll currently find in the soundbar market. If you’ve decided that a soundbar is the right solution for your living room and you want to be thorough in your search, then I’d highly recommend you take a hard look at Focal’s Dimension.
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