It’s often said that less is more in the pursuit of high performance. Take race cars, for example: Weight is the enemy and anything that slows the car down is immediately tossed back into the parts bin (except for the seatbelts). Engineers know that lightness equates to speed, and speed spells victory on the track. This same philosophy finds application in the world of loudspeaker drivers. Case in point, Focal’s latest cones that recently debuted aboard its newest Aria loudspeaker series.
Focal of France is already well known for the sophisticated and virtually hand-built “sandwich” composite cones that bedeck its premium line of Utopia III speakers. These “W” diaphragms combine high internal damping and rigidity with the speed and lightness that Focal engineers demand. How to duplicate this level of performance on a broader scale and spread these qualities among a wider range of models was the challenge for Focal R&D. After five years or so, Focal found the Holy Grail in its own backyard. As if reflecting the intensity of the effort, it’s a four-letter f-word: flax. (You were thinking something else?) Before delving into the facts about flax and the resultant F-cone, an introduction to the Aria Series is in order.
Just the Flax, Ma’am
The Aria line comprises five models—three floorstanders, the 906 stand-mount reviewed here, plus a center channel. A side/ rear surround and a subwoofer will join the team this spring. The Aria Series replaces Focal’s popular Chorus 800V and 800W.
The $1499 906 reviewed here is the lone two-way compact in the Aria line. It uses a bass-reflex enclosure with a front-firing port. Its tweeter is an aluminum/magnesium dome that uses a Poron suspension (a cellular urethane foam) derived from the Utopia’s beryllium tweeter. It’s touted as a material with great damping qualities and shape memory, in that it maintains its original contours over time. Additionally the tweeter is set in a shallow ovular waveguide meant to promote even off-axis response. The mid/bass driver is a 6.5" F-cone (this is where the flax comes in). The crossover frequency is 2.8kHz. The 89.5dB sensitivity and 8-ohm impedance make it an easy-to-drive loudspeaker for any competent amplifier.
Focal has also applied the less-is-more philosophy to the visual design of the Aria. Compared with the busy, neo-Deco profile of the Chorus range, the Aria appears elegantly understated with a gloss-black glass top plate, a leather-like covering on the front baffle, and brushed gunmetal trim rings accenting the drivers. Surfaces are clean with no visible screws, plus the grilles attach magnetically. The Aria enclosure is a combination of high-density fiberboard of varying thicknesses (between 18mm and 25mm). Sidewalls are non-parallel although not radically so. The standard finish is walnut, but the 906 is also available in a dramatic gloss-black at no additional cost.
So why flax? For one, this natural fiber is all French—never a bad place to start for a Lyon-based company. France is actually the main cultivator in Europe of flax fiber—principally in Flanders, Picardy, Normandy, and the Pas-de-Calais regions—and its flax is considered the best in the world. As cone material goes, flax fibers are advantageous in that they are hollow and weigh in at roughly half the mass of a comparable amount of fiberglass. Focal’s researchers also liked its rigidity and high internal damping characteristics. The finished F-cones are composed of a flax-fiber core enclosed in two thin layers of glass fiber, a sandwich construction not unlike that of Focal’s exclusive W and K2 cones. Focal also points out that playing a role in the F-cone development were certain global realities—some economic and some environmental—including the fact that the costs of synthetic fibers or foams which originate from petrochemical resources are impacted by escalating crude oil prices, making an organic or ecological textile like flax more price competitive.
The Flax of the Matter
Obviously loudspeakers are much more than just cone material, so I won’t pretend that I could isolate the F-cone’s unique attributes from everything else happening within the 906. But one thing is certain: There is a whole lot of music going on here. The speaker’s sonic character is vivid, fast, vibrant, and dynamically engaging. Befitting its size and bones, its output reflects a slightly lighter overall cast, but thanks to an impressive and pacey midbass the speaker always feels grounded. Bass response is excellent for this class—defined and controlled, reliably extending into the fifty-cycle range, as advertised, with a quick roll-off from there.