With Dolby Atmos-equipped AV receivers now available for less than $500, the Focal Dôme 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 Dôme 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 Dôme 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 Dôme 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 Dôme 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 Dôme 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 Dôme 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 Dôme 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 Dôme 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...
Here are the measurements for the Dôme Flax speakers(click on each chart to view it in a larger window).
The first chart shows the frequency response of the Dôme Flax speakers, including the satellite, in-ceiling speaker, and subwoofer. (For clarity of presentation, I scaled down the in-ceiling results by -10 dB at 1 kHz, and I used lighter colors for the chart traces.) The second shows the impedance of the satellite and in-ceiling speaker. For frequency response of the sat and in-ceiling models, three measurements are shown: 0° on-axis (blue trace); an average of responses at 0, ±10, ±20° and ±30° off-axis horizontal (red trace); and an average of responses at 0, ±15° horizontally and ±15° vertically (green trace). I consider the 0° on-axis and horizontal 0°-30° curves to be the most important for the satellite, and probably the ±15° curve would be most important for the in-ceiling speaker (at least for Atmos applications). Ideally, the 0° should be more-or-less flat, and the averaged response should look the same but should tilt down slightly as the frequency increases.
I'm going to call the satellite's response "sculpted flat" because, while its plus/minus variance is admirably small, it does have two anomalies that are likely to be audible: a response bump about 1.3 octaves wide and centered at 1.5 kHz, and a gently rising treble response above 2.8 kHz. Off-axis response in every direction is smooth, so the tonality should remain consistent no matter where you're seated in the room.
The in-ceiling speaker's measurement clearly bears some resemblance to the satellite, but it doesn't have the midrange peak and its lower treble dip, centered at 2.9 kHz, is deep. Off-axis response is very good; as with the satellite, response changes through the measurement windows were trivial.
Sensitivity of the satellites and ceiling speakers is below average at 82.3/83.2 dB, respectively (measured at one meter with a 2.83-volt signal, averaged from 300 Hz to 3 kHz). Impedance is also low, averaging about four ohms through most of the audio band for the satellite and five ohms for the in-ceiling speaker. I don't expect this system will often be played at high volume, and of course the AV receiver won't be tasked with reproducing frequencies below 120 Hz, but still these speakers are a little tough to drive, considering their lifestyle vibe. I'd suggest getting a decent AV receiver for them, maybe something around $1,000, preferably with a published four-ohm power rating.
The Sub Air's CEA-2010 bass output is fine for what it is: a small eight-inch sub with a low-powered amp. The measurements were comparable to what I got from the Velodyne EQ-Max 8, which I thought was a pretty good eight-inch sub. Note that the Sub Air has no measurable output below 31.5 Hz, so you can't expect any super-deep bass out of it, but for most action movies and music it'll work fine. You can get more output for less, from subs such as the SVS SV-1000 and PB-1000 or the Rogersound SW10S, but those don't have the Sub Air's flat, wall-hugging form factor.
Incidentally, the latency of the wireless connection to the subwoofer was just 13.3 ms, which from a phase standpoint is roughly like moving the sub 13 feet away. You can easily compensate for that in your AV receiver's distance settings. Some of the wireless subs I've tested have a latency of 30 or 40 ms, which is tougher to compensate for (although the audible effects are usually surprisingly minimal).
Here's how I did the measurements. I measured frequency responses using an Audiomatica Clio FW 10 audio analyzer with the MIC-01 measurement microphone, and the speaker driven with an Outlaw Model 2200 amplifier. I used quasi-anechoic technique to remove the acoustical effects of surrounding objects. The satellite was placed atop a two-meter-high stand. The in-ceiling speaker was mounted in a four-foot-high faux wall made from 16-inch-on-center 2x6s and drywall, placed on a 17-inch-high stand that put the speaker's tweeter 58 inches off the ground. The mic was placed at a distance of two meters at tweeter height, and a pile of denim insulation was placed on the ground between the speaker and the mic to help absorb ground reflections and improve accuracy of the measurement at low frequencies. Midwoofer response was measured using close-miked technique, and spliced to the quasi-anechoic result at 280 Hz. Subwoofer response was measured using ground plane technique, with the microphone placed on the ground two meters from the speaker. All measurements were made with grilles on. Post-processing was done using LinearX LMS analyzer software.
I did CEA-2010A measurements using an Earthworks M30 microphone and M-Audio Mobile Pre USB interface with the CEA-2010 measurement software running on the Wavemetric Igor Pro scientific software package. I stood the subwoofer straight up, pointing forward toward the mic, with the bass level set to maximum. I took these measurements at two meters peak output. The two sets of measurements I have presented here -- CEA-2010A and traditional method -- are functionally identical, but the traditional measurement employed by most audio websites and many manufacturers reports results at two-meter RMS equivalent, which is -9 dB lower than CEA-2010A. An L next to the result indicates that the output was dictated by the subwoofer's internal circuitry (i.e., limiter), and not by exceeding the CEA-2010A distortion thresholds. Averages are calculated in pascals. (See this article for more information about CEA-2010.)
Earlier, I said that everything in the system's stereo reproduction of the Ralph Towner LP sounded natural. But one thing didn't sound realistic: the snare drum, which the little satellites couldn't reproduce at a loud enough volume. When I cranked the system up, the sound didn't really distort noticeably, but it did thin out to the point where I preferred a lower volume. The same happened with the piano that appears later on Batik--it sounded extremely realistic in the mids and treble, but it didn't have as much weight and heft as a real piano would. This is partly because of the limited output of the four-inch midwoofers; I can't remember hearing small satellites or desktop speakers that didn't share this characteristic. And perhaps some blame goes to the satellites' lower-than-average sensitivity; I had to crank the Sony receiver pretty loud to get the system to deliver satisfying output.
Likewise, on the John Coltrane/Don Cherry tune, the sound got a bit bright when I cranked it to the volume I really wanted--which, granted, was pretty loud. (If you listened to the YouTube clip of this recording and hear how hard it swings, you'll understand why I like it loud.)
More demanding action movies did occasionally betray the system's small size. When I played The Edge of Tomorrow, the Sub Air wisely didn't attempt to play the woofer-busting 16-Hz tone at the beginning of the movie, but impacts and explosions didn't have the power they would with a larger system, and voices got a bit thin-sounding when I played the system as loud as I really wanted to. However, similar systems I've tested had the same problem. I don't think it's possible to get such tiny woofers to blend seamlessly with a subwoofer.
Comparison and Competition
Higher-end 5.1 packages such as the Dôme Flax system are rare; there's plenty of competition for about $1,000, but not so much around $2,000. The closest competitor I can think of is Paradigm's MilleniaOne system, which like the Dôme Flax system uses five aluminum-bodied satellites with one-inch tweeters and four-inch woofers. Paradigm's MilleniaSub is 5.5 inches thick, even flatter than the Sub Air and, to my eyes, cooler-looking. (According to my measurements, it also has about two dB more output at 63 Hz.) But a MilleniaOne system currently runs $2,409 on Paradigm's site. Adding a pair of Paradigm's smallest in-ceiling speakers, the PV-50R, costs $190, so the premium for the MilleniaOne system is $100. The systems sound pretty similar; the MilleniaOne satellites measure slightly flatter than the Dôme Flax satellites, though. Both can deliver satisfying performance, and both have similar limitations. You might well choose among them based on looks.
It's easy to put together a less expensive system built around larger, box-shaped satellites and a more conventional subwoofer, using speakers from Elac, Rogersound, SVS, or others. Those systems will play louder without strain and deliver deeper, more powerful bass. But they'll look like speakers.
I suspect the number of people who want a sleek, ultra-compact surround sound system AND who are willing to install ceiling speakers for Atmos is pretty small. But if that's you, the Dôme Flax 5.1.2 system will deliver exactly what you want, and probably more than you expect. From a design standpoint, the versatile satellites and innovative flat sub are clear winners. In a relatively small room at non-crazy volumes, the Dôme Flax 5.1.2 delivers satisfying performance with movie soundtracks, as well as stereo performance that's downright captivating.
• Check out our Bookshelf and Small Speakers category page to read similar reviews.
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