With Dolby Atmos-equipped AV receivers now available for less than $500, the Focal D?me Flax 5.1.2 system seems inevitable. It's an ultra-compact, attractively styled home-theater-in-a-box speaker system designed to deliver Atmos and DTS:X in an attractive form factor. The system's as cute as it can be, although it's not inexpensive, at a price of $2,499--or $1,999 for a 5.1 system without the 5.1.2's matching, Atmos-appropriate ceiling speakers.
Audiophiles might sneer when they see the D?me Flax system's hemispherical satellite speakers, although they'll likely think twice when they see the Focal brand. Serious speaker guys might sneer when they see the glossy cabinet, assuming it's plastic; but, when they knock against the side, they'll realize it's aluminum. And when they see the four-inch midrange/woofer snugged tight against the one-inch tweeter, they'll know this is a design that's likely to deliver broad, consistent dispersion.
Two things make this system unusual. First, the 5.1.2 version includes two Focal 300 ICW 4 in-ceiling speakers that you can use as overhead speakers for Atmos and DTS:X. The 300 ICW 4s use the same driver array as the D?me Flax satellites. Most in-ceiling speakers use a coaxial design, with the tweeter in a small enclosure positioned on a stem and usually held in place by plastic supports that span the front of the woofer. I believe the sonic reflections from these supports are the reason most ceiling speakers measure poorly and don't sound very good. Thus, the 300 ICW 4 is one of only a few in-ceiling speakers that obeys Butterworth's first (or second or third, I can't remember) rule of speaker design: Don't put a bunch of crap in front of your drivers. With the Focal 5.1.2 system, you're getting standard drivers on a flat plate, just like most high-quality bookshelf speakers.
The D?me Flax satellites and the 300 ICW 4s use Focal's Flax cone woofer. According to the company, FLAX has three key properties that make for a high-quality driver: "low density, high tensile modulus of elasticity, and high internal damping." The diaphragm is a 0.4mm woven Flax fiber core sandwiched between two 0.04mm layers of glass fiber. Focal says that this results in a lighter cone, and the dissimilar properties of the Flax and glass fibers help damp resonances. All the D?me Flax speakers use the same one-inch inverted-dome tweeter made from a combination of aluminum and magnesium; Focal says the inverted dome delivers flatter, more extended response.
Filling in the bottom end is the Sub Air, a slim design measuring just 6.3 inches thick. (It's also available separately for $599.) The port for the eight-inch pulp-cone woofer is on the side, so the sub can be placed flat against a wall. It can even be attached directly to a wall using an included bracket. The Sub Air incorporates a Class G BASH amp rated at 110 watts continuous power and, true to its name, comes with a wireless transmitter that eliminates the need to run a line-level cable from your receiver to the sub.
There's nothing difficult about setting up the D?me Flax 5.1.2 system, but there's a lot that's different from a conventional speaker system.
First is the design of the satellites, which have an integral base that can be repositioned for on-wall mounting or for use on a table/stand. No tools are required for this adjustment. The speaker connection, which is incorporated into the base, uses terminals with hex screws, and thoughtfully Focal has clipped the appropriate hex wrench into each base's rubber bottom. The only downside is that the connectors are too small to accommodate fat speaker wire. I had to use some generic, lamp-cord-type cable (18 gauge, I think). I placed them on stands measuring 28 inches high in the front and 30 inches high for the surrounds. Knowing the four-inch woofers might need some low-frequency reinforcement, I positioned the satellites six inches away from the wall behind them.
Second is the design of the in-ceiling speakers. Almost all in-ceiling speakers use "dogleg" style mounting, in which twisting four to six screws in the front baffle swings some plastic legs into place; these legs clamp the speaker to the wall. Focal's system requires no screwdriver. It secures the bezel around the speaker baffle with three spring clips. Once the bezel is in, you twist the speaker baffle into it until it clips into place. The mounting of the speaker seems less secure than a conventional design; the baffle can still easily twist in the bezel. Also, if you're so scatterbrained that you can't keep a screwdriver handy when you're installing in-ceiling speakers, do you really have any business installing in-ceiling speakers? Still, after some swearing and re-reading of the manual, I got the speakers into place.
Fortunately, the 300 ICW 4 uses sturdy spring clips for the speaker wire, which is the best solution for in-wall and in-ceiling speakers because they don't loosen over time. The clips are tiny, though, so you may have to trim a few strands of wire from your in-wall speaker cables to get the wires to fit. Some ceiling speakers have fabric or plastic parts that prevent insulation and other debris from getting into the speakers' inner works. The 300 ICW 4 doesn't, but I solved that problem cheaply using a couple of fabric covers to shield the speakers.
The Sub Air presented no major challenges. I simply connected the transmitter to the sub output of a Sony STR-ZA5000ES AV receiver, then put the sub in place and turned it on. The manual says they should connect automatically. Mine didn't, but all I had to do was press a button on the transmitter and a button on the sub, and they connected immediately.
The suggested subwoofer crossover point for the satellites wasn't stated in the manual, but the sub's manual stipulated 120 Hz for these particular satellites, so that's what I went with.
Of course, after getting the system installed, I immediately pulled out my Atmos Blu-ray discs to experience the thrill ride of the ceiling speakers. But I'd like to start off by discussing some material that I listened to much later in the review process: Ralph Towner's Batik LP, a lovely ECM release from 1978.
I put on Batik just because I wanted to hear some vinyl, and I used the D?me Flax 5.1.2 system just because it happened to be hooked up. I was pretty blown away by what I heard: a deep soundstage with precise and captivating stereo imaging. Bassist Eddie Gomez's bowed solo on the first track, "Waterwheel," had a huge, spacious sound, almost as if it were echoing off mountains, while Towner's guitar was sharply focused dead-center, and drummer Jack DeJohnette's ride cymbal ticked away insistently in the left channel. I loved the way the satellites captured the spatial contrasts in the recording without resorting to overt tonal coloration; everything sounded natural. The whole presentation had that spaciousness and detail that makes a good stereo audio system so appealing, and that audiophiles and reviewers (this one included) go ga-ga for at hi-fi shows.
Likewise, I loved the detail I heard in my 180-gram pressing of John Coltrane and Don Cherry's album The Avant-Garde. The distinctive character of both horn players' sound came through beautifully, Coltrane focused hard left and Cherry hard right, much as if you heard them in the studio standing about 10 feet apart. Ed Blackwell's drum kit stretched naturally across the stereo soundstage, each cymbal portrayed with perfect attack and decay and realistic, unexaggerated detail. I was also surprised to hear what a nice job the little Sub Air did playing Percy Heath's bouncing, swinging bass notes without booming and without exaggerating any particular frequencies. This sub may be a "lifestyle" model, but it's no mere home theater thumper.
As great as the system sounded with two-channel music, it's obviously likely to appeal more to the home theater crowd, so I'd better move on to some Blu-rays. I'll start with Divergent: Insurgent. I must confess I'm baffled by the Divergent Series; but, thanks to a tip from my buddy and fellow AV writer John Sciacca, I was able to skip right to the movie's best Atmos scene, in which heroine Tris (Shallene Woodley) is hanging inside a sort of high-tech virtual reality glass-walled torture chamber, carrying on a conversation with Jeanine (Kate Winslet), who stands behind the glass wall. During the scene, the sound moves abruptly from hard center and acoustically dead (Jeanine's point of view) to highly reverberant and emerging from above (Tris's point of view).
I think any Atmos-curious home theater enthusiast who hears this demo would choose to use ceiling speakers for Atmos without hesitation. I've remarked in past reviews about how Atmos-enabled speakers (the ones that sit atop a system's left and right speakers and are intended to bounce sound off the ceiling) are great at making a small home theater speaker system sound like a large one, but they don't really produce a distinct height speaker effect. The D?me Flax system's 300 ICW 4 in-ceiling speakers do, obviously, produce a more dramatic and realistic overhead sound effect. In scenes like this one, the difference is obvious.
The D?me Flax 5.1.2 system also impressed me when I watched The Incredibles, which isn't Atmos but has a great 5.1 mix nonetheless. Dialogue clarity was excellent, with the movie's many different voice actors all sounding natural, never chesty, boomy, sibilant, or shrill. I was surprised to hear how dynamic this little system sounded even with this fairly dynamic soundtrack; the Sub Air reproduced all the punches and explosions with satisfying (although nowhere near floor-shaking) volume and no distortion or other signs of strain. In fact, I had the system playing pretty loud; yet, despite the speakers' small size, I promptly forgot I was supposed to be evaluating them and got about halfway through the movie before I remembered to listen for fidelity. This system does have its limitations (which I'll discuss below), but it doesn't sound like a little plastic HTiB system.
Click over to Page Two for Measurements, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...