Focal Aria 906 Review
Earlier this year, our blog covered the Bristol based Sound & Vision Hi Fi show, providing a critical overview of the event's peaks and troughs in our typical objective fashion (whilst throwing in a few petulant rants for a bit of added spice). Back then I outlined the diminutive Focal Aria 905s as one of the clear standouts of the entire show - few speakers being demonstrated that weekend managed to sound so natural and involving while costing so little. I sung their praises to anybody who would listen (and to many who would not) and, as time passed, my enthusiasm for the tiny bookshelf speakers began to wane as they became nothing more than a pleasant memory.
Six months went by until one day the guys at Nintronics casually mentioned that they had the Aria 900 range in stock. Never one to pass up an opportunity, I pounced on the chance to review as many of Focal's fine offerings as possible - and the rest, as they say, is history.
If you've perused the other reviews on our blog, you will have learned that our speakers of choice are the frankly astounding KEF LS50s. Why is that relevant in a Focal Aria 906 review ? Well, mostly because both pairs of speakers retail for a similar price at RRP and are natural competitors when it comes to someone choosing a pair of capable bookshelf speakers but wanting to keep their expenditure within reasonable limits. So, without further ado, let's take some time to explore what the Aria 906s bring to the table (or indeed the bookshelf).
The first thing you need to know about the Aria 906s is that they are the next model up from my Bristol show favourites - the Aria 905s. They cost a little more than that sterling little pair and come with a tweaked spec sheet that *should* ensure that they sound even better.
Speaker manufacturers don't always experiment with new materials for their drivers, although every company tends to have their own proprietary designs and technologies that they harness to try and win over a market that is very well catered for. For the new Aria 900 range Focal have turned to flax as their new material of choice. As they state in their glossy marketing collateral "an ideal cone should be light, for rapid acceleration, stiff so as not to distort the sound, particularly in the bass, and finally, damped - that is to say neutral - so as not to add sound colouration from its component materials.".
Established materials that bring about the kind of performance that Focal is aiming for, such as Focal's own 'W' sandwich cone, are hand built and their manufacturing costs put them outside of the "affordable" bracket. To get around this reality of capitalism Focal have experimented with new materials and have settled on flax fibre as their solution. Grown in the singularly unique climactic conditions of Flanders, Picardy and Normandy it has the mechanical qualities that match what Focal are seeking to achieve. Of course the proof for any such marketing claims is always in the pudding and using the most exotic materials won't matter if you don't deliver sound-wise.
When you first unbox the Aria 906s you immediately spot the flax speaker cones - they have a mottled beige quality to them and are as original as B&W's yellow kevlar. The enclosures themselves are pleasantly upmarket and have polished, reflective wood finish, except for the back panels where they have been treated with a leather effect. The overall feel is altogether impressive and it shows that Focal have thought hard about the aesthetics of their product as well as the sound characteristics. You also get some speaker grilles and some bass port plugs - all very standard when it comes to bookshelf speakers.
With the Aria 906s hooked up to a Rega Brio-R via QED XT40s all being pushed by a Denon DM37 connected via Epiphany Acoustics Atratus interconnects we set to tasking the speakers with something to do to see how they would cope with some of the more leftfield genres out there. Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Coldplay will probably sound fine as they're not exactly challenging to render. Mathcore, ambient doom and various mutant strands of dubstep are another story though.
From the get-go the Aria 906s retain the natural sounding signature of their smaller, cheaper 905 cousins. What these speakers seem to absolutely excel at is replicating the timbres of instruments, particularly strings, as well their clear imaging of instrument separation and rendering of voices. The B&W 685 S2s are speakers that have a similar 3D timbre quality, but where the S2s only slightly hint at how an instrument might sound live the Aria 906s render all of it in high definition and manage to do so in a gentle and enjoyable manner.
The 906s also exhibit considerable bass quality, but sadly not extension. Pushing them with Kode 9's "Kingstown" doesn't quite result in the sort of subsonic rumble that the very best speakers out there are capable of. Instrument separation is uncanny - these units gently spread apart the layers of recordings to show their constituent parts. When listening to Soundgarden's "Superunknown" at volume hitherto undiscovered guitar licks and bass flourishes were suddenly rendered distinctly - quite a few hi-fi reviews tend to fall back on this old descriptive chestnut, and probably devalue it in the process somewhat, but I can say with confidence that I've heard very few speakers where the separation is so palpably clear and spacious, particularly when using such budget sources and amplification.
And yet, because of that lack of bass extension, they simply do not sound sufficiently full to give energetic music the impact intended as can be heard on Lamb's "God Bless". Give that they are bookshelf speakers this is not surprising and many other lauded bookshelf models don't handle bass reproduction as well as a good set of floorstanding speakers might. Shining examples of speaker design like the KEF LS50s have them bested on bass extension if not other parts of the frequency spectrum. A crossover with a good quality sub (or even a pair!) would certainly fill out the sound.
The 906s may not be proper studio monitors but they definitely do provide insight into any well recorded track. Their detailed mid-range and gentle high frequencies contribute to the clarity that one hears when auditioning all the while managing to do so in a non-fatiguing way - a difficult act to pull off given the propensity of some manufacturers to tune their speakers' tweeters to strident levels.
In fact, during testing I never once thought to myself that the 906s are in any way harsh or unpleasant - they are supremely skilled in their politeness. I can see them being a big hit with any genre that doesn't require a lot of bass to shine - jazz, blues, acoustic, vocal performances, classical (with the aforementioned bass limitations) - all of these would suit the Aria 906s just fine and bring their owners a lot of enjoyment. They also look rather handsome when placed on some dedicated speaker stands. No they're not quite Sonus Fabers in terms of fit and finish, but they're far better than the rather plain finishes you see on the slightly cheaper B&W 685 S2s. For the money they're a very good proposition, particularly if you spot them on offer. So long as you are aware of their strengths and limitations they prove to be a solid contender for the sub £1K bookshelf speaker spot.