Focal Chorus 826W Loudspeaker Journeyman Audiophile

By Jeff Dorgay

If you’ve ever auditioned the Focal Grande Utopia EM loudspeakers, you know what a breathtaking musical experience they provide, from the deepest bass note to the highest high, with a clarity that few other models can muster. Focal is one of the world’s only speaker companies with a full research facility and manufacturing complex under one roof. All of the company’s drivers are made in-house, accompanying all of the necessary research, design, and fabrication that go into every aspect of speaker design.

Audiophiles that inquired about the cost of the Grande Utopias were probably a little bit freaked out at the $180,000 price tag. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend that much money to get a great pair of speakers from Focal. The Chorus 826W retail for $3,695 per pair and epitomize how cutting-edge engineering and design get distilled into real-world products.

Visually and Audibly Exquisite

Unboxing the 826Ws is a sensual experience. The black-lacquered finish is as smooth as glass, and the cabinet quality fantastic. Everything harmonizes with each other, and the “W” logo is engraved into the tweeter baffle. Fit and finish is better than expected at this price category, no doubt the result of utilizing a production facility trained in making the Utopia series. Because Focal also has pro and car audio divisions, it boasts incredible economies of scale that are the equivalent of a small speaker company that purchases off-the-shelf drivers from one place and cabinets from another in order to sell decent $10-$20k speakers. Few compete with Focal in this area.

The second I set the stylus down on Lynryd Skynyrd’s Nuthin’ Fancy, the track’s omnipresent opening amplifier hum instantly lets me know these speakers can rock. Courtesy of a 91.5db sensitivity rating, a 50- to 70-watt amplifier gets the job done with power to spare. For most of my listening sessions, the PrimaLuna Dialog Six monoblocks with EL-34 power were awesome. Unless I was blasting King Diamond, I took advantage of the Dialogs even sweeter-sounding triode mode because of the 826W’s sensitivity.

An inverted dome tweeter is a Focal hallmark. However, the 800 series uses a 1-inch aluminum/magnesium membrane whereas the Utopia system uses a beryllium dome that’s far more costly to produce. The tweeter in the 826W easily resolves ultra-fine musical detail, with low distortion and high speed. And that speed feels a lot like a high-quality electrostatic speaker system with a massive soundstage. W versions of Chorus speakers also boast the same W composite material used in woofers of Utopia models.  Where many speakers at this price rely on off-the-shelf drivers, Focal applies technology from its flagship models. The pair of 6.5-inch woofers is remarkably free of upper bass coloration and lower-bass distortion.

Fans of well-defined imaging will be smitten with the 826W. The piano in the Allman Brothers’ “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” comes in way off to the right side of the sound field, as Duane Allman’s famous slide guitar snakes in from the right and both instruments blend in with the band. Everything on Eat a Peach sounds incredible. Small details abound: A drumstick clicked on the side of the kit here, tiny percussion bits there, and the sound of a guitar slide gently moved across a guitar neck while bongos float in the distance. Such resolution is often unavailable in under-$10k speakers.

At Ease Everywhere

The 826W is equally articulate at low volume; it is not a speaker that you need to blast in order to achieve musical engagement. Even at conversation levels, the speaker’s virtues shine. A few of my audiophile buddies unfamiliar with Focal initially believed these speakers fetched much more than their list price.

Closely concentrating on Neil Young’s Harvest reveals the intricacies the 826W produce, the experience easily rendering the superiority of the 24/192 version of the album. At the beginning of the title track, the piano swells up out of the background to meet the banjo, splendidly yielding an abundance of texture and tone.

A series of test tones reveals solid bass down to 40hz, with worthwhile output at 35hz. A quick romp through a series of discs with deep, low-frequency energy is highly enjoyable. More importantly, whether playing Pink Floyd, Snoop Dogg, or Mahler, the 826 exhibits control and plenty of low-frequency detail as well. The hard-hitting beats of Mr. Scruff’s “Sweetsmoke” provide sufficient, non-fatiguing gut punch when the volume gets cranked up to party levels. Equally sublime dynamics come via the beginning of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter,” where neither the distorted bass line nor the pounding bass drum overpowers the other.

I even notice a few sonic bits on my favorite Doug and the Slugs album, Cognac and Bologna, I wasn’t expecting. The texture in the tom fills and keyboard riffs are rousing.  Rush’s “The Trees” offers similar surprises, as the Canadian trio is presented with the grand scale it deserves even as the chirping birds at the beginning of the track are rendered in full color.  Moving down in latitude from Canada to California calls for Van Halen. After about an hour of high-decibel use, and switching to the mighty Burmester 911mk.3, the Focals are no worse for the wear.

Environmentally Friendly

Occupying just an 11 1/8 x 14 ¾-inch footprint (282 x 375mm), the 826W physically parallels a pair of compact speakers on a pair of stands but adds the deeper bass response of a floorstander. The 826W’s ported enclosure system is called “Powerflow,” and includes one port on the front face of the speaker and another port that fires downward.

Don’t forget to mount these speakers on their stands, or you will be sorely disappointed with bass performance. Oh, yeah: The stands also receive the Utopia treatment, as they’re produced from stylish cast aluminum and include threaded leveling spikes.

Once securely mounted, the 826W is a breeze to set up. The dual-port design seems to be less sensitive to room placement than many single-port speakers we’ve tried, and because these speakers are not terribly heavy at 56.8 pounds (25.8kg) each, shuffling them to their optimum position requires minimal effort.

Award-Winning Performance

Of course, the 826Ws don’t go as deep or play as loudly as the Grandes, but all of the attributes associated with the landmark latter speaker attributes are represented:  tonal purity, wideband frequency response, and high dynamic range coupled with excellent low-level detail retrieval.

The 826W’s only potential drawback? The high resolution reveals shortcomings in the signal path more than most speakers at this price point. Its inverted dome tweeter is not harsh, but ultra-resolving. After spending a little time with the 826Ws, listeners with budget amplification will be shopping for a new amp.

Given that it incorporates so many features from Focal’s top speaker systems, the 826W could be the best bang for the buck the company has yet produced. The model is more than worthy of our Exceptional Value Award for 2012.

Focal Chorus 826W Loudspeaker

MSRP: $3,695/pair  (Factory)  (US and Canadian importer)