But central to its performance is its irresistible midrange body, which lends the 15" tall 906 a nicely weighted tonal balance and dynamic composure. At moderate levels its imaging is well focused, and the spread of a soundstage is broad and unbroken. Even when called upon to reproduce full-range orchestral music like the double-string orchestra of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, the 906 has enough heft and energy in the lower mids and below to impart genuine timbral authority and soundstage scale. Outside of string sections, other instruments that routinely stir things up in the lower middle octaves are piano, woodwinds like bassoon, and heavy brass along the lines of tuba and trombone. The 906 captures the tonal and resonant densities of these instruments like few speakers in this class have before.
Not that the 906 doesn’t have limits, for as composed as the 906 is, a full representation of the resonant, venue-enveloping body of these instruments is a little beyond this compact’s abilities, but the Aria 906 gets you comfortably in the ballpark. Impressive too is the relative quiet, though not entirely invisible, way in which the enclosure/port goes about its business. Focal has done its homework keeping port noise low and low-frequency rhythmic action and pace high.
As for vocals, I’ll make no bones about it—they are the crucible upon which I judge a compact loudspeaker. A veritable deal-breaker. To reproduce a voice naturally, the tweeter and midbass need to cohere as one—anything that implies a bias of one driver over another or any disparities due to material colorations completely break the spell. Thus, I expect the speaker to reproduce music with a single continuous voice. As I listened to a variety of vocalists, a pure coloratura soprano like Anne Netrebko, the deeper golden luster of mezzo Renée Fleming, or the smoldering jazz-inflected artistry of Holly Cole, there was a lively and harmonious of-a-piece quality to the output of the 906 drivers. Even as singers moved between vocal registers the character, speed, and color of the sound didn’t shift as it often does with cones and metal tweeters. I think this trait in and of itself was validation of Focal’s faith in flax. Judged on an absolute basis, I felt that a smidge of chest resonance was often missing with a bass-baritone like Bryn Terfel and that a soprano’s top register sometimes indicated a hint of dryness in the Aria tweeter. However, in the grand scheme of things these were minor and unobtrusive issues.
While its relative tonal neutrality is important, the key virtues that set the 906 apart are its wide micro-and macro-dynamic envelope and quick transient attack. This is the engine of its performance, the spark that separates the authentic from the canned. It gives the 906 a commanding presence as well as a tender intimacy on tracks like “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” where Charlie Haden’s acoustic bass was rich and extended and Pat Metheny’s guitar playing had an ideal combination of warmth, articulation, and harmonic bloom. As I listened to Peter Gabriel’s remake of “Mercy Street” from New Blood, I found the bass viols to be nicely weighted and appropriately moody. The transient energy from the percussion section all the way down to a distant triangle was smooth and swift. I’ve heard these same cues sound a bit tighter or more transparent on costlier compacts like the ATC SCM19 (review to come)—a little sonic wool lightly attaches around some bass resonances on the 906— but the speaker never loses sight of the fact that an acoustic bass is a resonant wooden instrument. On another pop example, I can’t say enough about the rush of excitement I felt listening to Jerry Marotta’s inventive percussion expositions during Marc Cohn’s playful “29 Ways.” The explosive textures and tonal colors the 906 extracted from this recording were exhilarating.
My quibbles are minor. The upper mids/lower treble range loses some intensity, which can be heard as a softening of orchestral presence, with violin sections receding into the greater body of the orchestra, and interior images and inner detail growing a bit more ephemeral. And though the 906 can’t quite physically manifest the full sub-harmonic body of bass instruments, there is still a notable amount of air and dimension.
With the debut of Aria, Focal has unleashed a powerful and persuasive range ready to go head-to-head with the likes of Sonus faber, Revel, KEF, and other notables. As compacts go, the 906 touches all the right sonic bases for me. But more than that, these factors all dovetail into a single conclusion—that time and again, the Aria 906 just gets music right and at fifteen-hundred bucks, does so for a song. And true to its name, that’s a lot to sing about.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Two-way bass-reflex compact
Drivers: 1" Al/Mg inverted dome, 6.5" mid/bass
Frequency response: 55Hz–28kHz +/-3dB
Nominal impedance: 8 ohms
Dimensions: 15.3" x 8.9" x 9.8"
Weight: 19 lbs.
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