Focal Aria 936
Design - 93%
Movies performance - 92%
Music performance - 92%
Inputs and Features - 90%
Price / Quality - 92%
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In terms of brand selection and model diversity the home theater and HiFi speakers market is a huge one with an enormous amount of speakers to choose from both between the more known players and the many less known but equally good manufacturers. So when you are in the market for a new set of speakers this can really become a daunting task. In our Focal Aria 936 review today we will be looking at a set of floorstanding speakers made by a manufacturer that is well respected in the field and are known for building all their speakers in-house in their manufacturing facilities in France.
Focal has created a wide selection of models that are meant either for home cinema systems or for music and they range from a few hundreds of dollars for the most affordable ones up to extremely crazy prices for models like the Focal Grande Utopia EM EVO. The Aria lineup was created as a mid-range series and actually this is not the first time we come across this one as we had previously reviewed the bigger floorstander in the series, the Focal Aria 948, and we got extremely good impressions from our testing.
The Aria 936 is the second biggest floorstander in a series that includes three floorstanders, the Aria 926, Aria 936 and Aria 948, the Aria 906 bookshelf speaker, the Aria CC900 center speaker and the Aria SR900 surround loudspeaker and if there is one aspect that really stands out from the rest this is definitely the new flax cones that are used and being manufactured in-house. Focal has used various materials over the years and the flax cones are an interesting and intriguing technology which we will analyze shortly.
But as we have said before it doesn’t matter how exotic or out of the ordinary materials manufacturers use as their real performance will determine how good all these technologies can bind together. So without further delay lets start our analysis.
Design, Inputs and Features
We will be starting with the cabinet quality and design. The Aria 936, being the second in line in terms of size is slightly different than the Aria 948 but surprisingly it’s still a big speaker as it measures a hefty 45 1/4 x 11 9/16 x 14 5/8″ (1150 x 294 x 371mm) and weights 64 lbs (29 kg). From the dimensions we see that Focal has kept the height of the cabinet the same which is a bit unusual but changed the width and depth to be smaller as these speakers are using smaller drivers. Also the 936 are still using a bass reflex design but as the sound ports are located at the front this doesn’t have such a big effect on the distance from the wall as having a back firing sound port.
The Aria 936 is following the same design principles we saw in the 948 and obviously the whole Aria lineup. An elegant design but without anything fancy or extreme as Focal seems to have put a lot of attention into creating a cabinet that is both simple but also has a degree of finesse. The material used here is as usual ultra-rigid MDF in order to lower internal resonances as much as possible.
The side walls are non-parallel and have rounded edges towards the front which is a trademark design among all the Aria speakers. As we had seen in the 948 the front baffle is also covered here with artificial leather while the top plate is covered in glass in order to give the speakers a more premium feel. The cabinet comes equipped with what Focal names a Multiple-port Powerflow system but the 936 has a slightly different configuration from the 948. Dual bass ports are placed on the bottom of the front baffle while a floor-facing vent is used at the bottom of the enclosure. The two ports work together at the front giving the speakers more impact while the bottom one provides increased depth.
As far as color variations we get the same ones as we saw in the 948. The finish is vinyl and comes in three color variations with Black High Gloss, Noyer and Prime Walnut finishes the ones you can choose from and to be honest all three of them look exceptionally good.
The Aria 936 comes with the same type of stand that all the Aria floorstanders have. This happens because all of them use the floor-facing vent and as such a special stand was needed in order to compliment the design both aesthetically and practically. For that reason Focal designed a special aluminium alloy base that looks nice and certainly doesn’t feel cheap. Integrated adjustable spikes are available for soft surfaces like carpets or you can use the special spike protectors in case you want to place them on hard floors.
The grilles used cover the whole front baffle and have rounded corners in order to follow the design of the cabinet. They use an acoustically transparent fabric that is placed on a convex plastic frame while they attach on the cabinet magnetically which is a major plus in case you want to use the speakers without the grilles and you don’t like the sight of holes in the front baffle.
Turning the speakers around we find that the entire back face is also covered with the same artificial leather that is used at the front while at the lower back we get the usual wire connectors, as usual, in a special inset.
If you have seen any of the Arias before then you know what to expect from the 936. All of them basically have the same design lines and although they obviously have different layouts for their drivers and ports in total Focal created a very nice look cabinet with good quality. The Aria 936 looks and feels like a premium HiFi speaker and will certainly be a looker in any room you place them.
Focal is known for using different materials for their cones over the years and the Aria series could be no different. So except from a fresh design for their cabinets they also created new cones and a new tweeter with Focal claiming that both have better properties than their previously created designs. Specifically the Aria 936 uses a three-way design with three Flax bass cones sitting at the bottom, a flax mid-range cone above them and a single inverted dome tweeter at the top.
The flax cone is obviously being advertised as one of the new elements that they put a lot of attention during the design process of the Aria series. Focal was in search of a new material to use in their cones, one that would be cheaper than some of the more exotic materials used in HiFi speakers, be in abundance in France and have specific properties.
It has high internal damping, high velocity and high flexural rigidity. Flax is twice as light as fiberglass, because the fiber is hollow. It also has very low elasticity which makes it ideal to increase the flexural rigidity of a sandwich structure. This resulted in the “F” Sandwich technology which basically is a thin, 0.4mm layer of flax being sandwiched between two 0.04mm layers of glass and this the one used in many of Focal speakers since 2013.
As for the Aria 936 specifically we see that they have used three 6 1/2″ (16.5cm) Flax bass cones for more articulated bass while the mid-range uses a 6 1/2″ (16.5cm) flax midrange cone ensuring improved midrange-to-treble transition, very natural sound and impressive presence. So in essence the difference between the 936 and the 948 we had previously tested is in the number and size of the bass cones as everything else seem to be the same.
At the top we find a 1″ (25mm) Al/Mg TNF inverted dome tweeter which again Focal is using in all the Aria lineup and certainly has some unique characteristics. The suspension between the dome and its bracket uses Poron, a material with shape memory. This suspension method is directly derived from the famous Utopia Beryllium tweeter, making it possible to reduce distortion by a factor of three in the 2-3kHz range, where the human ear has very great sensitivity.
The inverted dome’s spatial characteristics and very low directivity make it in theory superior to other conventional domes used by various speaker manufacturers. This guarantees an incredibly stable sound stage which makes the listening position much less critical.
The combination of the inverted dome tweeter, mid-range flax cone and the three flax bass cones give the Aria 936 a frequency range of 39Hz – 28kHz with 8 ohms of nominal impedance, 92dB of sensitivity while Focal has set the recommended power at 40 – 300W. Lastly the crossover frequency has been set at 260Hz and 3100Hz.
The Aria 936 connectors, found at the lower part of the back face inside a specially designed inset, provide reliable, multi-purpose contacts for stripped cables (up to 4 mm diameter) or fork terminals. They are exactly the same we had seen in the 948 and while they don’t ooze with quality they will do the job just fine. It’s just that with such a nice cabinet you would expect to find something better than what we got here. Lastly keep in mind that the Aria 936 does not provide any bi-amp or bi-wire capabilities.
Next we prepare our testing area for our movies testing and for their placement we follow exactly the same principles we always do. With bass reflex speakers placement can always be a tricky thing to do and in general there is no perfect spot for every situation. The Aria 936, being a front bass port floorstander, gives us a bit more flexibility in terms of how close to a wall we can place these. Keep in mind that even with front facing bass ports wall proximity will still alternate the final sound output but it is not affected in such a degree as with rear bass port speakers.
So after we carefully unpack them we placed these around 2 feet from the back wall as we usually do with all our floorstanders while the distance between the two is kept at around 9 feet. In term of toe-in this really depends on your listening position and you need to try out various angles to get the best result for you but in our situation we did toe-in them facing our listening position.
As always if your pair of speakers is new then you should give them the necessary break-in time in order to perform at their peak. Many manufacturers suggest between 50-70 hours with some going as high as 100 hours in order to be sure they have reached their full potential so you need to be patience if in the beginning they don’t sound as you would expect them to.
One thing we should mention is that when it comes to floorstanding speakers we always go for a 4.0 channels setup by leaving out the center channel as well as the subwoofer. This way we can determine better the strengths and weaknesses of each speaker and how much the front channels can cover the omissions in our home cinema setup. On the other hand when it comes to our music testing we opt for a 2.0 channel system as this is the setup of preference for most music fans and audiophiles alike. So having mentioned the above we completed our calibrations using our good old Onkyo AV receiver and went ahead with our testing.
For our first film in today’s testing we went with the 4K UHD version of Saving Private Ryan. There is no better scene to test the capabilities of your home theater system other than the opening scene with the Allied soldiers landing on Omaha beach. The Dolby Atmos mix may not be the most active when it comes to overhead action but in terms of overall dynamics, low end activity, panning effects and raw quality it’s really up there with the best.
The Arias 936 are not shy of details and this was immediately apparent from the first moment where the watercrafts were approaching the beach. As the waves hit the metal bodies splashes came in clear and distinct. The watercraft amphibious engines has a natural raw sound to them as they struggled to keep the crafts moving forward while in the far distance the ominous shells of the German artillery was preparing the soldiers for what is coming with a low but increasingly powerful thump.
Now when the soldiers reach the beach the real action starts. What was particularly impressive was how the Arias were able to keep the dialogue in all this mayhem completely isolated from the action. Even with no center speaker they did an excellent job at keeping the dialogue at the middle with little to almost no overlapping with the rest of the effects. Yes, a dedicated center channel could provide more depth and better imaging but we were pleasantly surprised how could results we got even without one.
Front soundstage extension was pretty good as we felt the sound wall in front of us stretching further into each side although maybe it was slightly less than the Arias 948. Depth was also very good creating a very three dimensional atmosphere as the action progressed around the camera on the beach.
With Steven Spielberg keeping the camera exactly in the middle of the action we were able to get amazing panning effects as bullets from the German machine guns were flying all over the place. Going from left to right and the opposite all sounds came in with extreme accuracy, no delays and with smooth transients.
Channel shifting was smooth and accurate and the Arias had no problems to cooperate with our different brand of surround speakers giving us an extremely immersive 360 degrees immersion bubble. Obviously we were missing any Atmos speakers to get this extra overhead layer but the front speakers did a very nice job with sound dispersion giving us the illusion of slight elevation that could really fool you from where the sounds originated.
On the low end the speakers were missing some of the power we had heard in the Aria 948 but in terms of quality, texture and low end extension the 936 did very good in order to portray the battlefield the way it should be. Each artillery shell blast shook our room and the three 6 1/2″ (16.5cm) Flax bass cones had enough articulation and no audible weaknesses in terms of balance even if they lacked a bit in peak power.
As for the rest of the frequency spectrum we could not say that we felt the speakers were particularly lacking. The mid-range was good enough with a neutral tonality while the high end felt energetic without being outright bright.
Now for our next test we decided to try out the Blu-ray version of Underwater which features a neat DTS-HD Master Audio mix. The film may have been one of the most underrated films of 2020 but in terms of sound performance this is no slouch. With the events of the film taking place in an underwater facility atmosphere relies a lot on ambient sounds and atmospherics to up the tension and the Aria 936 take advantage of this to the maximum.
Although the movie has its fair share of loud moments with explosions and heavy action we were more impressed with how everything is handled during the more quiet moments. After the initial blast and with the underwater facility under stress from the extreme pressure it was amazing how the speakers were rendering all the metal sounds as they could be heard from the distance indicating the imminent structural integrity failure. More than once we turned our heads in search of where the sounds originated either on one of our sides or from some point at the front which was not fixed close to the speaker cabinets.
Equally impressive were the scenes where the actors were walking on the ocean floor trying to reach another facility. The silence, the ominous sounds of the deep where a single wrong step could mean the end, the heavy breathing of our heroes as their phycological condition was becoming apparent with each single step they were taking into the unknown, everything was rendered with exceptional clarity, resolution and accuracy.
The film is pretty busy on the low end and not only because of the explosions which are more than enough for those hungry for destruction but also a lot of the low end activity came from various sources keeping the bass drivers busy throughout the running time. Dialogue once again felt very distinct and you could sense their emotional status as they were trying to escape this underwater human trap. Dialogue was kept very much at the center and the lack of a center speaker, although slightly obvious, was not overall distracting.
The high end was very controlled and the speakers were never let it go overboard to the point of being bothering. High pitched electronic sounds and environmental effects were clear and energetic but at no point distracting.
Closing this part of our review the Aria 936 are the kind of floorstanders that certainly have a lot to go for. We would classify them as great all around speakers that can do well in pretty much all kinds of movies weather it is a blockbuster action film or a quiet drama. They are delicate and handle sounds with a degree of expertise when they are asked of this but they have no problem going loud and outright blast your ears when all hell breaks loose. They have shown us great details, good resolution, nice dispersion and masterful handling of the whole frequency spectrum no matter where you like to settle on the dynamic range.
Obviously no review would be complete without testing some tunes so next is our music test and for this we switch to a 2.0 channels system with just the two front channels connected. We also selected a few of our FLAC music files which we streamed through the USB port of our Onkyo AV receiver for the best quality possible. After going through the necessary calibration we were ready for our test.
The Aria speakers seem to have great stereo imaging and the 936 continued that as we had previously seen in the 948. Every musical instrument, every tone and rhythm had a very distinct point of origin in space which only helped in making the music stage in front of us more alive and realistic. The speakers had the ability to keep their control and cohesion in the entire dynamic range which was amazing and they never felt like bulking under the pressure when pushed to their limits. The cabinets kept vibrations to a minimum while we didn’t sense any major distortion originating from the front ports.
One characteristic of the Aria speakers in general seems to be their very warm and natural sound and this is probably the result of the flax material used in the cones. Obviously this comes down to personal taste but we always loved speakers that went down this route so as we had fell in love with the Aria 948 beforehand the 936 could not be no different.
But while tonality is what certainly make these speakers unique what was undeniable was how the speakers managed to render everything with such a high degree of detail making them ideal for anyone looking for some mid-range HiFi speakers without going over-budget.
One characteristic we were particularly fond of was the fact that the sound coming from the 936 didn’t have this boxy tone that we had heard in some other speakers. It felt natural, transparent and with great volume and dimensionality as if they were coming from the environment and not from a boxy construction. As for the frequencies while on the bigger 948 we sensed the low end to slightly overcome the rest here things seemed to be slightly better as the bass was more in line and not so aggressive while the high frequencies had an excellent flow and sense.
And since we talked about the bass we went ahead and tried out a few tracks that were more bass demanding but the speakers didn’t feel like struggling at all. They followed the rhythms each time with amazing control and vigor and never stumbled or grasped for air. And lastly we should not forget to mention the vocals as the Aria 936 handled them with a delicate touch in order to transmit us the whole extension of feeling and emotions of the performer. Simply amazing!
To be honest we had no doubt how the Aria 936 would do in this part. We already knew how the Flax cones behave and how they handle sounds so more or less we knew what to expect. The speakers are amazing for most kinds of music and they will offer you a great HiFi experience on a relatively modest budget. No matter what music you play on them, either it be pop, rock, classical, jazz or even heavy metal, the Aria 936 knows how to handle them all with a high degree of control and finesse for each delicate piece.
If there is one aspect of the Aria speakers that needs particular mention then this is no other than the Flax material that is used in the cones. They gave the Aria series such unique properties that shows how extensive research and development Focal is doing on new materials to be used in their cones that can only result in performance that exceeds the asking price of these units.
The Aria 936 had all the qualities we had seen on the 948 beforehand but slightly more constraint without affecting its overall sound signature and tone. Design of the cabinet is very nice and with good quality of materials without Focal going overboard while the color variations available are really nice. The magnetic grilles and the specially designed stand give these speaker a more premium stature to compete in the mid-range HiFi market.
Once again the flax cones proved to us that it doesn’t take exotic materials to create high quality sound and all it takes is good research and thorough engineering to bring the desired results. With their warm sound and natural tone the Aria 936 were particularly good at rendering everything in high resolution and with plenty of clarity across the whole dynamic range.
To be honest we could not say that there is something particularly bad about the Aria 936. Obviously the bass is not the beast you may seek if you are particularly hungry for the lower end and while it scores high in almost all categories it doesn’t reach a perfect score, but in all honesty what speaker does? Also keep in mind that while these are a bit more flexible when it comes to room size limitations they still need some space to breath and perform accordingly. Focal suggest a minimum of 270ft2 (25m2) and a listening distance of 10-12ft (3m – 3.5m) as anything less may make the Aria 936 sound more boomy than they should.
There is so much satisfaction when you see a new design from the ground up taking form and performing to such high standards. Focal’s design team started from scratch as the they had to redesign everything from the cabinet, the new cones material and the drivers. But the end result really showed that with hard work comes great results and the Aria 936 is the culmination of Focal’s efforts into creating a mid-range floorstander that is affordable but its performance exceeds the price asked. Excellent work and we cannot but highly recommend them.
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