If I had to choose a single term to summarize my experience with the Focal Aria 948, it would be “detail.” And, as I will explain, this descriptor encompasses different forms and senses of the word across myriad aspects of my reviewing time, from setup to audition.
Although I’m a self-described “audiophile by osmosis” (not to mention a lifelong music junkie), I’m still acclimating to the finer technical points of hi-fi. Even at that, as soon as I took my first listen to the Focal Aria 948s I knew immediately that they were dramatically different than the PSB Imagine X2Ts I reviewed in Issue 253—and that I would have to adjust my ears from the PSB speaker’s darker balance to the Focal Aria’s brighter, more neutral one. Call it a night-to-day difference. (Or perhaps an apples-to-oranges one, given the near-polar differences in price, configuration, design, etc. between the two speakers.)
The first time I experienced Focals was at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest this past year—where I heard the esteemed French manufacturer’s flagship Grande Utopia EMs. (Interestingly, they were demo’d in two rooms nearby each other, with one pair driven by VAC tube amps and the other by Soulution solid-state—practically a head-to-head battle!) In fact, those same Focals made it to the top of my favorites list from that show. So I jumped at the chance to review any speakers from this company, but especially ones that, at $4995, a greater number of folks might be in the market to buy.
A three-way, bass-reflex floorstander, the 948 is the top model in Focal’s Aria 900 line. Like all the transducers in the 900 Series, the 948 uses Focal’s unique Flax sandwich drivers—two 8" woofers and one 6 ½" mid/bass in a vented enclosure—along with an aluminum/magnesium alloy TNF tweeter with Focal’s exclusive inverted dome. The tweeter’s new suspension system uses Poron, an open-cell polyurethane microcellular foam designed to ensure dimensional stability and to minimize material degradation.
Speaking of materials, the exclusive Flax membrane fiber used in the woofers and the mid is an “eco-textile,” and looks the part. In an au naturel way, it does resemble raw flax/linen in its variable, slightly stripey gradations of muted greyish, straw-like tans and beiges. As well as adding a striking yet subtle design element to the speaker’s appearance, the membranes have desirable structural properties: They’re light and stiff, but well-damped, for better timbral neutrality and sharper definition. Indeed—as I’ll soon describe—the degree of detail and neutrality I heard with the Arias was rather astounding, particularly for loudspeakers in this price category.
The 948 weighs in at a hefty 77 pounds, and its handsome MDF box has the sturdy feel you’d expect with such quality drivers. The finish is vinyl, but looks very much like wood veneer. In classic Gallic fashion, Focal clearly focuses on and values manufacturing precision. And across all aspects, its attention to detail shows. But consider that while details play an essential role in the pleasures we take from high-end audio, the devil is also in them. Setup of these loudspeakers proved rather challenging, for instance.
According to Focal’s online catalog, the Aria 948 was designed to reproduce “the very essence of acoustics for those who are passionate about music.” By contrast, the corresponding blurb for the slightly smaller and less powerful Aria 926 model includes the phrases “easy to install” and “all kinds of music lovers will be thrilled with its acoustic qualities.” Without seeking to read too much into ad copy, this does rather support my impression that, while in some ways a friendly speaker—it doesn’t require heaps of power to drive, for example—in other ways, the 948 is designed less with novices than devoted audiophiles, who are a bit more obsedé, in mind.
The user manual offers better guidance in certain respects rather than in others, but it does contain some helpful diagrams. The instructions for attaching the stands consist only of a tiny diagram; happily, more pages are devoted to proper speaker placement and relative positioning (the 948s require a fair degree of toe-out). Although a few troubleshooting tips are also included, the set-up process proved to be more varsity-level than I’d expected. So I was glad that I enlisted JV for assistance with set-up detail, and to point me in the right direction for fine-tuning the various electronics (and subs) we paired with the 948s. While setup (as well as break-in) definitely took a great deal of time, energy, and patience, boy, did those efforts ultimately pay off!
Upon a very first listen, what struck me immediately was the degree of detail and transparency (so far as one can claim this about sources that aren’t mastertapes). Mind you, this was straight out of the box, before any break-in. My inaugural tunes were the first couple of cuts from the English Beat’s Special Beat Service LP [MoFi], “I Confess” and “Jeannette,” both of which boasted incredibly crisp percussion, razor-sharp definition, and high-octane transient speed—partly thanks to the Odyssey Stratos solid-state amps’ driving energy. In stark contrast to the aforementioned, darker-balanced PSBs, I immediately recognized that the 948s deliver a far more neutral sound, quicker transient response, and a greater amplitude of treble energy. During the early break-in, these traits resulted in some occasional flashes of brightness and harshness in certain reaches of the upper midrange (the horns on the tracks mentioned above, for instance), but upon further listening (and swapping of electronics), I came to realize that these mild concerns were partly owed to the way certain albums were recorded, and partly to the 948’s more “top-down” treble and upper-midrange balance. I also guessed that the design of the tweeter was playing a role, as well. Focal’s inverted dome uses a waveguide that focuses the sound and limits dispersion. As a result, it can almost take on some hornlike qualities, offering enhanced precision, but also maximizing directivity. This could be heard loudly and clearly in music where the treble ranges of certain instruments—such as flutes, piccolos, and some brass—were spotlighted. As I’ll note, this occasional treble brightness improved markedly after some break-in time and fine-tuning set-up adjustments. (A disclaimer: I might be more sensitive to treble than most. JV joked that I should become his “treble detector.”)
Next I spun Brian Eno and David Byrne’s groundbreaking 1981 LP My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (the remastered and expanded 2006 version). The complex layering and interplay of this experimental recording’s unconventional vocal tracks, multifarious instrumentation, and oft-strange sampling made for a fascinating listening experience. The speakers’ accuracy and resolution served the Eno/Byrne disc well, underscoring its wildly diverse East-meets-West percussion and rhythms, particularly on “Help Me Somebody” and “The Jezebel Spirit,” which were also presented with pretty deep and tightly controlled bass. Each sound source became so distinct, detailed, and meticulously clear, it felt like the speakers were peeling back an onion (a sweet one) with nearly endless layers. Transient attacks full of hyper-real snap resolved into lingering, lifelike decays. Overall, the sound was relatively front-projected, yet still pleasantly open and spacious. I got the impression of emphasis on both the higher and lower ends of the midrange.