Focal Aria 948
Inputs and Features9.0/10
Price / Quality9.1/10
- Excellent dynamics
- Very natural sound
- Great flax cones
- Nice cabinet quality
- Slightly soft low end
- They need space to breath
- Need a good amplifier to get the best out of it
- No bi-wire or bi-amp capability
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Today we have the pleasure to review another brand of speakers for the first time that may not be the biggest name in this segment but over the last 40 years they are in business they have certainly made a name for creating quality speakers both for music and home cinema alike. This is no other than the French-based Focal and in our Focal Aria 948 review today we will be looking at the biggest floorstander speaker they created for the Aria series that was released a few years back and goes strong till to this day.
Make no mistake, the Aria series is a true HiFi series and Focal made sure to create a complete lineup of speakers for the series that consists of 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. Focal has totally redesigned from scratch the Aria series and have gone through a lot of trouble to find components and materials that would really make the series a new benchmark in audio quality.
The most highlighted new development is no other than the new flax cones that are used and being manufactured in-house with Focal looking for a new material to use in their cones instead of other materials like polyglass or even kevlar and with flax they found a material that was in abundance in France and had the properties they were looking for. But the speakers are more than just the cone materials used so has Focal managed to once again create a quality speaker as the the Aria 948 claims to be? Read on to find out.
Design, Inputs and Features
First of all let’s talk about the cabinet and it’s design. The Aria 948 is the biggest floorstander in the Aria series and these are little monsters we have here as they measure an impressive 45 1/4 x 14 5/8 x 16 9/16″ (1150 x 371 x 420 mm) and weight a hefty 77 lbs (35 kg) each! That’s some serious construction you get there and these are the kind of speakers that do need certain space to breathe in order to reach their peak performance. Also being a bass reflex design makes things a bit trickier but as the sound port is 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 948 uses a simple yet elegant design and it shows that Focal takes very seriously the construction of the cabinet. That’s why the one being used here has as much as 1″ (2.5 cm) thickness and is made out of MDF in order to minimize internal resonances as much as possible. Its looks isn’t something out of the ordinary as some of the more higher profile speakers Focal have created and uses the generic boxy design we have seen many times before.
The side walls are non-parallel and have rounded edges towards the front. The front baffle is covered with artificial leather while the top plate is covered in glass. The cabinet comes equipped with what Focal names a Multiple-port Powerflow system which basically consists of a single bass port on the front baffle under the dual flax bass cones and another that is placed at the bottom of the enclosure. The two ports work together with the front giving the speakers more impact while the bottom one increased depth.
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 amazing.
And since we talked about the stand, having the port at the bottom of the cabinet meant that a specially designed stand was needed in order to let the port breath but also keep the cabinet stable enough. For that reason Focal designed a special aluminium alloy base that really fits the rest of the design and is in line with the quality of the rest of the cabinet. 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.
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 in a special inset.
The Aria 948 is an amazing speaker both in terms of looks but also on how much engineering went into them. The cabinet is of high quality and the small touches like the top glass, the front leather and high quality vinyl finishes really make them great lookers.
For the Aria series Focal not only redesigned the cabinet but also created new cones and a new tweeter with Focal claiming that both have better properties than their previously created designs. Specifically the Aria 948 uses a three-way design with dual flax cones sitting at the bottom, a flax mid-range cone above them and a single inverted dome tweeter at the top.
The flax cones is obviously being advertised as one of the new elements that they put a lot of attention in 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.
But the Aria 948 has a lot more to show than just the material used for the cones. The dual 8 1/4″ (21cm) flax bass cones are of bigger size than what we usually see in floorstanders, 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.
At the top we find a 1″ (25mm) Al/Mg TNF inverted dome tweeter which 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 dual flax bass cones give the Aria 948 a frequency range of 37Hz – 28kHz with 8 ohms of nominal impedance, 92.5dB of sensitivity while Focal has set the recommended power at 40 – 350W. Lastly the crossover frequency has been set at 280Hz and 2600Hz.
The Aria 948 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. We cannot say that these connector reflect the quality of the rest of the cabinet or the drivers being used but they will do the job just fine. Also there is no bi-wire capabilities provided here.
Placing the Aria 948 in our testing area was done like in all of our other reviews. Having bass reflex speakers can always be a little tricky to find the sweet spot but in the case of the Aria 948 having a forward bass port helps a little with that as the effects of placing them near a wall are not as direct as having a rear looking port. Our testing area doesn’t allow for much moving around but as you will read below this didn’t bother them at all although our space size is towards the lower limit that Focal suggests.
So after the initial unpacking we placed the speakers around 2 feet away from the back wall while the distance between them was measured around 9 feet. As we always like to do we had to slightly toe-in them towards our listening position in order to get better imaging but this really is a test as you go thing and how much toe-in they need you mostly determine after you start listening to them. Lastly the speakers we tested had a few working hours but not as much as the usual break-in period suggests so we are sure that they can do even better than what we would be listening after giving them the necessary time to flex their muscles.
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 trusted Onkyo AV receiver and went ahead with our testing.
For our first movie test we chose to go with Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) in its 4K UHD version that uses a thunderous DTS:X mix. The film is a visual extravaganza and the audio doesn’t fall far behind with great atmospherics, natural dynamics and chest pumping low end. Obviously the lack of a subwoofer will certainly affect the impact we will be getting but this was the point really. To see how much the Aria 948 can cover the low end and if they can give us a respectable outcome.
The first thing that immediately strikes you was the clarity of the sound as well as the natural tones the flax cones can give. Although the film begins slow in the city dialogue came in clear and distinct and the speakers did a good job at covering the missing center speaker. The Arias did such a good job that you could close your eyes and feel like there was a center speaker at place and while the end result may have lacked slightly in depth it never undermined the overall dialogue performance or clarity.
But the front speakers not only did a good job with the dialogue but were also exceptional at creating a very wide soundstage as the busy city streets were full of cars roaring to their destinations, people walking around going about their businesses and in general you are placed right in the middle of a city full of life.
But if you think that this part was impressive the real surprise came when we finally reached Skull Island. When the expedition is going through the jungle the environmental immersion goes through the roof. The Arias were perfect in rendering every bit of detail of foliage sounds, insects flying past the camera, the wind blowing, water splashing and the likes. Everything was in such high resolution and with such a warm and natural tone that you really felt like being there. The Aria 948 is the kind of speaker that is never scared of details and Skull Island offers plenty of moments to show their quality.
And while the 948s may be kind to details they are not afraid to go wild when the moment asks for that. An excellent scene to test was obviously the brawl between the big ape and the three Vastatosaurus rex. The front speakers had plenty of punch and had given the scene the punch and vigor it required. Obviously many will wonder how the speakers fared in the low end and here things were pretty good, even impressive we might say.
The Aria 948 with its dual 8 1/4″ (21cm) flax bass drivers managed to cover very respectfully the missing subwoofer with good low end that had enough punch, good control and enough clarity without feeling muddy or loosing in cohesion. Obviously a dedicated subwoofer can fare better overall but the Aria did a really good job and if there is one thing that we could find against it, that would be that it felt slightly softer that what we would like.
These are the kind of speakers that can certainly do great for films that base a lot of their immersion in atmospherics and increased spatial details as they never shy away from such demanding scenes while when they needed to go loud and dirty they did it with a pleasant attitude. The low end felt good enough, their natural and warm tone was a feast for our ears while their tonal control and exceptional resolution left us with a smile in our face.
Next we wanted to try another film that could push the Arias in the low end so we opted for the Blu-ray version of Battle: Los Angeles. Unfortunately there is no 4K UHD yet so the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 of the Blu-ray disc is what we get here. The film blasts you in the action from almost the very beginning. As the alien invasion starts explosions are front and center while the element that certainly impressed us the most was when the group of soldiers finally touches down on the ground and you can hear all the action in the distance without showing you what is going on. This way you get a sense of a grander stage but with the film obviously focusing mostly on our heroes.
Again the Aria 948 was exceptional at bringing forth the brutality of a war scene and were never afraid to go loud and dirty. Battle: Los Angeles has a more raw texture to it’s mix compared to King Kong but the speakers were never afraid to reproduce it faithfully. Gun fire, explosions, laser blasts, fires burning and debris exploding were all rendered as they should.
The front speakers did an amazing job at filling the entire front soundstage and giving certain elevation to the sound wall in front of us upping the immersion even more. Dialogue once again felt very distinct and even when things went crazy we never lost a single line as the other sounds never overlapped dialogue.
Battle: Los Angeles may not be a delicate sound mix but certainly asks for raw power, prowess and a lot of low end punching and we believe that the Aria 948 did a fine job even in this situation. The low end was satisfying considering there was no subwoofer and if you don’t mind the slightly softer tone, it has what it takes to give the necessary depth to the performance. Mid-range was very balanced and full of energy while the highs were spot on.
Before we close we did one last test with the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and it’s amazing DTS-HD Master Audio track. The scene we usually like to try here is the Mines of Moria and the confrontation between Gandalf and the Balrog. First when the group is travelling through the Mines it’s amazing how the Arias manage to expand the scene in our room as their voices echoes through the vast mines. With such quiet scene every tiny bit of sound comes forth and the front speakers managed to render them faithfully and with amazing precision. Nothing was lost in the process and this helps to elevate the overall immersion of this scene tenfold.
But when Balrog appears things get even more interesting. The scene asks for more power as the Balrog growls and the 948s try to give this ancient beast the size and menace it deserve. Each of its steps make the ground shake while the orchestra give that moment the necessary weight. The front speakers couldn’t really make this scene more justice. They really rendered everything perfectly from a very energetic mid-range, an exceptional high-end and a very focused and controlled low end.
The speakers did manage to expand the scene in size as it was necessary in order to make it feel bigger in size and this shows how good the Aria 948 can be when it comes to such demanding scenes. The speakers handled the mix like a master chef handling onion peeling through its multiple layers with expertise and delicacy. Such a film demands good quality speakers that can make it real justice. We believe the Aria 948 are these kind of speakers.
Closing this part of our review we could not be more happy from what the Aria 948 managed to give us. The speakers can do justice just any kind of film and any kind of scene and they are not afraid to go about their business now matter what you throw at them. Focal has really created an amazing floorstander and any home theater fan should consider them.
Next in line is our music test and for this, as always we do, we selected a few favorite music tracks in FLAC format in order to get the best possible quality we can that we streamed through our Onkyo AV receiver. For this part we switched to a pure 2.0 channels audio setup using only the pair of Aria 948 at hand. After re-calibrating our system we threw some tunes to see what we would get.
The speakers managed from the first moment to create an amazing stereo imaging. Spatial awareness was very high while we could very easily distinguish all musical instruments in the space in front of us. This resulted in the speakers recreating the music stage so faithfully in our room that was very impressive. And all this was easy for the speakers along the entire dynamic range. No matter how low or high we would push the volume the speakers reacted naturally and never lost cohesion. At extreme volumes we never sensed any distortions from the cabinet or the front bass port.
Once again we liked very much the natural and warm tone the flax cones would give to the performance. Now although this is somewhat of a personal preference we do like when a speaker will go this way and this made us fall in love with the Aria 948 almost immediately. Clarity and high resolution were in abundance and the speakers are really HiFi material for those that take their music seriously and want to pair them with a good set of electronics.
The higher and lower ends of the mid-range felt slightly more pronounced and it was like the speakers were giving slightly more priority to them but this never threw off balance the whole performance. The highs were again very clear, alive and playful and had exactly the perfect tone in order not to become tiresome.
The bass was very good and even when it came to music that was more demanding the speakers followed accordingly and we never sensed that they were left out of breath or struggled to follow. The softer tone of the bass may find supporters but it never failed to give the music the necessary depth and weight in the low end.
If you are serious about your music pleasure and you are looking for a set of floorstanders the Aria 948 is the kind of speakers that really can make justice any performance with their excellent tonality, clarity and resolution along with their great control over the full frequency spectrum. Focal didn’t hold anything back and this test really showed that.
We have to slowly close our review and what we can say is that Focal really created an amazing series with the Aria speakers. The flax cones were an amazing achievement in the manufacturer’s search in creating a new cone with the properties they were looking for. After going through so many different materials it shows that speakers development is never ending and we are curious to see what else Focal will try to use in their journey toward the unreachable perfection.
The Aria 948 is an exceptionally nice speaker. The design may not be anything out of the ordinary, although when you have the driver exposed the flax cones have certainly a unique look. The cabinet is of very high quality while the color variations available are all great and you will certainly find one fitting your space. The grilles are magnetically attached which is a major plus for any HiFi speaker while the aluminium plinth and design fits the rest of the cabinet.
As for the flax cones and the inverted dome tweeter although we have analyzed them in depth it was really their performance in our tests that showed how all these engineering efforts translated in the real world. They can produce a very natural and warm sound without loosing in resolution or clarity and at the same time have the punch and power required by more demanding sound mixes and music.
There are so many good things to say that it is a bit hard to find what we didn’t like on these. Maybe the slightly softer low end is one but this was just a very tiny stumble in the whole performance and it was not something that affected the whole reproduction of sound. Also keep in mind that these speakers are beasts and need certain breathing space in order to perform accordingly. Even Focal suggests a minimum of 30 square meters for these speakers and from what we saw we would say that this is just about right.
With the Aria 948, engineers went back to the drawing board and redesigned everything. The cabinet, the cones and the drivers. The end result speaks for itself and if you want a good quality speaker that can even sometimes sound like being more expensive than it really is the Focal Aria 948 is really worth a consideration. At least in our case we didn’t want to finish this review, and this must mean something. Highly recommended.