French loudspeaker manufacturer Focal knows how to run the gamut when it comes to products, providing options from the low hundreds to the six-figure Grand Utopias. One thing that always signifies to me, when speaker companies carry such a wide range, is that you can trust their technology to be superb at just about any level, because those $180K whopper speakers don’t just come out of nowhere.
So I kept that in mind when I recently had the opportunity to set up Focal’s chic Dome 5.1 subwoofer-satellite system in my living room. It would replace another compact 5.1 system, and I tried to keep expectations unbiased though at an MSRP of $2,500 for the full system one thing I wanted to discern was would the Domes be worth the $1,000 step up from what they were replacing.
I’ll simply answer that one off the bat by saying that the Focal Domes are the type of loudspeakers that if you placed a curtain over them so you had no idea how large they were, you’d be surprised when you found out. These are overachievers for their size, which certainly puts them well above your typical sub-sat HTIB (home theater in a box) systems and justifies the heftier price tag.
Of course, the mammoth and detailed low-frequency bang you get from the subwoofer—a decidedly un-boxy model (we’ll get to that later)—doesn’t hurt, either.
Setup and installation
Hooking up the Domes was more of an adventure than traditional compact or bookshelf speakers. The models themselves are, as their name suggests, spherical and each satellite has a base.
When you turn the base upside down, or look in the back, to find the connectors it may throw you for a loop. You have to peel back the rubber bottom to find the connectors, and you’ll also find a slickly stowed miniature Allen wrench that you use to loosen and tighten the binding posts for inserting the speaker wire.
The only problem I found with this was occasionally having to press and then re-press the rubber matting so the base lay truly flat on the surface.
Once that was accomplished, and the subwoofer was hooked up as well, I could sit back and take a good look at these stylish speakers, which are finished in high-gloss black lacquer aluminum. They’ll obviously look a bit more natural in a more modern or contempo room than my mid-century living room, but they did add some sleekness to our space—and because they’re only 6 3/4 x 5 11/16 x 5 5/8 inches they would really fit well in an urban high-rise that may not have much room (you can make it a 2.1 system if you want).
Another plus of the loudspeakers is their flexibility. In my case, they’re standing on the base, but the speakers can be adjusted to tilt, or they can mount on stands, or they can mount on walls to meet the acoustic and aesthetic needs of your room.
Listening and Performance
Connected to my late-90s Sony A/V receiver and using LG’s new BD390 Blu-ray player as the main source, the Focals delivered smooth, effortless and detailed audio from a range of demo material.
For a sub-sat system, the Domes produced a nice, open soundstage for music, as I loaded the Blu-ray player with concert DVDs and concert Blu-ray discs played in both stereo and multichannel formats, studio and live CDs, surround-sound DVD albums and even 24-bit-/96-kHz concert downloads burned to DVD-Rs.
The two-way satellites feature 4-inch polyglass mid-bass drivers and 1-inch inverted dome tweeter. Mids and highs on CDs such as Derek Trucks’ Songlines, Led Zeppelin III and James Taylor’s Never Die Young were full and crisp, maintaining great emphasis on Trucks’ ripping guitarwork, Jimmy Page’s acoustic strumming and Taylor’s signature vocals. Wanting to push the stereo ability, I cranked up a 24/96 high-res recording of an Assembly of Dust concert and it shined without any distortion. Also popping in a classical disc, Yo-Yo Ma and Friends’ Songs of Joy & Peace—a phenomenal recording with loads of special guest instrumentalists and vocalists—I gave it some volume boost and the Focals delivered without strain and maintained a fine level of detail, especially to the beauty of Renee Fleming’s vocals, for example.
The PCM stereo mix on Blu-ray concerts Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds: Live at Radio City Music Hall and Chris Botti in Boston really reproduced the intimacy of the venues, while switching both over to 5.1 uncompressed audio via my receiver’s analog inputs added further envelopment.
On surround sound, with the subwoofer included, is where I found the Domes really impactful within the full media room setup. On surround-sound movies and TV shows, the rear satellites gave the content a good amount of pop—especially for broadcast material, where frequently I find that surround effects just aren’t mixed as prominently as the front channels. During the NBA and NHL playoffs the crowd was loud and clear around me, as was stadium music that generally pipes in through the surrounds.
As previously mentioned, the subwoofer definitely delivered. The only gripe is that, depending on your view, the top-rounded, high-gloss black sub could be mistaken for a small trash can, or a dark R2-D2 (my wife also thought maybe Darth Vader’s helmet). There’s no mistaking the performance on the relatively compact sub, however—it rocks. Swapping it into my system produced an instant and noticeable difference from that in my sub-sat system, and the down-firing Dome sub (8-inch woofer) did so at very little volume. I actually had to turn it down on some DTS 5.1-channel Genesis music discs because it was hogging the spotlight, all the while maintaining solid detail on the low end without being “boomy.” At lower levels, it added a very pleasant and warm bottom-end sound, and at medium levels it made some movie scenes scary as hell with its room-rattling bass.
If you’re looking for a high-quality sub-sat system, the Domes will be up your alley. The subwoofer by itself can hold its own with larger, box-type models, while the stylish satellites can be flexible or pretty unobtrusive in your room, depending on your design preferences. If you’ve got the means to step up from HTIB 5.1 systems, the Domes are worth the investment.
(Focal is distributed in the U.S. by Audio Plus Services)
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Arlen writes about home technology installations and product news and reviews for electronichouse.com
and Electronic House magazine.