Focal Arche Headphone Amplifier/DAC/Preamplifier

Impressive Debut

Equipment report
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters
Focal Arche Headphone Amplifier/DAC/Preamplifier

Focal is known principally for its transducers, both great and small. Given that fact, the Arche headphone amplifier/DAC/preamplifier/headphone stand may seem like a major departure from its usual offerings. But when you consider what can be done to tailor and optimize the sound of a headphone amplifier to a particular set of headphones, the Arche is exactly the kind of new product that a forward-thinking headphone manufacturer should be making.

Priced at slightly under $2500, the Arche is designed to be a fully featured and flexible component, and it certainly is. With both balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA outputs, the Arche can be the control center for a complete desktop or room-based system. Inputs include one coaxial SPDIF, one TosLink, one USB, and one pair of single-ended analog. The front panel has provisions for both balanced XLR and single-ended ¼" stereo headphone outputs. A centrally positioned screen relays all the vital info, such as volume level, input source, bit-rate of digital source, and current gain-level setting. By pushing the volume knob in you access the menus for input, gain, phase, display intensity, sleep (which isn’t what you think), and perhaps, the most interesting, amplifier.

The amplifier control on the Arche lets the user select one of several options which include, voltage, hybrid, Utopia, Elear, Clear, Stellia, and Elegia. The settings with Focal headphone monikers were optimized for those particular Focal headphones. The voltage and hybrid settings are for other manufacturers’ offerings. Focal offers these headphones with the Arche with bundled pricing (see Specs & Pricing). I mentioned that the sleep control is different—it’s not for dozing off to music. Instead, it gives users the option of keeping the Arche on continuously or having it shut off after 30 minutes of sonic inactivity. The reason for this option is that the Arche has some components that get warm, bordering on hot, whether it is actively playing music or merely idling. Audiophiles who don’t need an additional small space heater can opt for the sleep option.

During day-to day operation I used the Arche with the sleep option on and off. With the 30-minute limit before sleep kicked in, it meant that many times I found the Arche sleeping when I needed sound from my desktop system, and the wait-time when coming out of sleep was a distraction. Finally, the overall sound for the first fifteen minutes after the unit was asleep was not as fully realized as when it had been running overnight. The Arche does get quite warm when left on, so don’t even think of stacking gear on top of it. I suspect this heat generation could be a problem if you wish to also utilize the Arche’s optional headphone stand feature. Since heat rises, and pleather and leather hate heat, best practices for stand use would be the sleep mode.

One ergonomic oddity that I hope will be corrected in a firmware update is that when you plug headphones into the Arche’s front panel the rear outputs are not automatically muted, which is standard practice on most DAC/pre/headphone devices. This means for late-night, don’t-disturb-the-other-humans headphone listening you must remember to turn off your external amps and subwoofer or else they will be merrily playing along, thoroughly defeating that silent listening concept.

The Arche does not have a remote control, which may limit its applicability for a room-based system. I used the Arche principally in a desktop system where a remote wasn’t missed, but for added flexibility it would have been a nice addition.

Sonically, I could find little fault with the Arche’s performance. Especially tethered to one of Focal’s premium headphones using the special amp settings for that particular can. I had the Stellia on hand to mate with the Arche. The sonic pairing was easy listening personified. I never had to strain to hear even minute details buried way back in a mix.