Focal • Chorus 807 W Prestige Loudspeakers

by Roy Gregory | April 5, 2013


Way back when, I wrote a short review in praise of Focal’s excellent 807 V loudspeaker, a stand-mount design of deeply unfashionable size and shape, but one that possesses that rare ability to satisfy musical cravings on a beer rather than a champagne budget. The $1199-per-pair 807 V has competition from slim floorstanders and diminutive two-ways; but the one thing these speakers all have in common is a 4" or 5" bass-midrange driver. Compare that to the 7" unit found in the 807 V and you’ll notice a distinct paucity of surface area -- around 39 square inches versus a maximum of 20 for a 5" unit or 12.5 for the 4"! This helps explain why 8" two-ways deliver rather more satisfying sounds than the undernourished alternatives -- and why budget systems these days fail to deliver the addictive musical satisfaction most of us remember from our misspent youth (and misspent allowance).

Of course, every playground has both swings and roundabouts, and speaker designers will be quick to point a finger at the difficulty of getting a 7" or 8" driver to cross over smoothly to a typical 1" dome tweeter, and they do have a point. Read the 807 V review and you'll see that, yes, it suffers from a dip in midband energy that can leave the upper mids sounding a shade thin and exposed, but the bottom line is that I’d much rather have that than the emasculated bottom end that goes with a puny driver and even punier motor. Give me musical satisfaction over a flat frequency response every time.

But what if you could have both? I can almost hear your brain laboring with the prospect and eventually spewing forth the inevitable response, "Oh sure, but at what price?" I’ll admit that this is exactly the question I asked myself -- only to have the off-stage Greek chorus yell, "How’s about $400, schmuck?"

Okay, so it didn’t happen quite like that, but no sooner did the original review appear than Audio Plus Services, Focal’s US distributor, got in touch to say that whilst they couldn’t disagree with my observations as regards the 807 V, what I really needed to hear was the 807 W -- which left me a little confused. You see, look up the 807 W on Focal’s UK website and it doesn’t exist -- but it sure as shootin’ exists in the US, and herein lies a tale. The 807 W is a version of the standard Chorus 807 that replaces that model’s polyglass woofer cone with one constructed using the same W-cone technology found in Focal's far more expensive Electra and Utopia ranges. Now, that obviously raises the interesting possibility of directly comparing the two cone technologies, but it is also remarkably revealing about the way in which Focal deploys its in-house technology base to give its product range a broader footprint that can be tailored to different markets and deployed to increase its appeal and longevity.

Lifespan is a critical factor in the profitability of any product. The longer its shelf life, the longer it has to amortize its development, tooling and launch costs; the longer the product cycle the longer the gaps between the lump-sum investment required to rejig a production line and launch a new range. In these days of economic downturn and increasing competition from other growth markets in consumer electronics, that could easily be the difference between a company staying competitive and staying in business -- or not! So in a world of ever-increasing standardization and volumes of production, it is fascinating to see Focal taking the opposite route, allowing regional distributors to specify models from a quiver of technological options to hit specific market demands or price points. Of course, building your own drivers based on a raft of in-house technologies, each offering a range of different options, certainly increases the available menu or toolkit, but it’s a typically pragmatic approach from this internationally successful French manufacturer.

Fascinated by the prospect of comparing the two versions of this speaker, I set about getting the necessary samples -- which took a while as, naturally enough, there were no Chorus 807 Ws in the UK, or an order code to get them here. Eventually the wrinkles were ironed out and a pair of remarkably handsome, suitably substantial two-way stand-mounts duly appeared. Which is when it became apparent that although in terms of material and performance the only difference between the 807 W and the familiar V version is the W-cone woofer (and the other minor changes necessary to accommodate it), the newcomer had an ace up its sleeve. I hadn’t twigged that the Prestige suffix applied in the US referred to the finish! The 807 V has a perfectly acceptable, even attractive wood-effect vinyl wrap on its cabinet sides. But it looks distinctly dowdy against the high-gloss lacquer being flaunted by the W. It’s a good thing I tend to listen with my eyes shut, because this surely is a little head-turner, one that looks way more costly than it is.

When it comes to setup, there are two golden rules for the Chorus 807s -- whichever version you might be using. The first is: Don’t skimp on the stands, either when it comes to quality or height. The 807 might be a bigger box than many of us are used to these days, but it really benefits from being hoisted to a decent height. I used Track Audio’s excellent 24" design, with the deeper top-plate that fits the 807s almost exactly. At close to the price of the speaker (the 807 W, that is) that might seem like overkill, but not only is the speaker worth it, the combination will challenge anything out there at equivalent price.

The second rule of 807 ownership is to make sure you keep the fixings securing the bass/midrange driver tight. Six nice Allen bolts might look like a step in the right direction, but only if they’re snuck up tight. But beware overdoing it with the wrench -- these might look like bolts but they’re actually self-tapping screws, so overtighten them and you’ll simply strip the wood they bite into. Transit causes most fixings to loosen, so gently apply the 4mm Allen key and tweak them up as necessary.

Electrical/acoustic characteristics of the two speakers are stated as identical, with a 50Hz to 28kHz ±3dB bandwidth, 92dB sensitivity and an 8-ohm (4.2 ohms minimum) impedance. Outwardly, apart from the glossy side panels, the only visual difference is the characteristic speckled gray appearance of the W cone, its smooth surface a stark contrast to the rough matte of the polyglass in the 807 V. As noted in the original review, the 807 makes an enthusiastic partner for even modestly powered integrated amps, quality rather than quantity being the order of the day. But in this instance I was interested in the differences between the two models, and one that quickly emerged is what might be termed their ability to grow with the system. I started out with the same Icon Audio Stereo 60 integrated that I’d used with the 807 V, but graduating up the ladder through the likes of the Avantgarde XA all the way to a full Connoisseur/Conrad-Johnson combination quickly established just how willing (and able) the 807 W was to stretch its legs.

Being confronted by upgraded components always presents a challenge. Hearing a difference is never an issue; there’s always a difference. The question is, is it just different or is it actually better, and if so by how much? Well, with the 807 W I needn’t have worried. As engaging, enjoyable and musically generous as the 807 V already is, the W version elevates performance into a totally different league. It’s just plain hands down better in virtually every way.

I started out by listening to the 807 V at some length to reacquaint myself with its considerable charms. I also reread my original review to see if the intervening year of use had altered the performance of the speaker (it was the very same pair) in any substantial way: the answer to that was no, the Focal being instantly recognizable, in both character and detail. Substituting the Chorus 807 W Prestige (to give it its full and slightly clumsy moniker) came as something of a shock. I was in the process of wading through the RCA Living Stereo Box Set [RCA 88765414972] -- 60 discs for a little over a pound each (and barely a duffer in there!) -- and fastened on the reference to the Fischer/Mozart Sinfonia Concertante in the original review. Disc 53 features the Heifetz performance of the same piece, a 1953 recording with Primrose, Izler Solomon and the RCA Victor SO. I was intrigued to see whether the same tonal ambiguity that bedeviled the 807 V would survive into the W version, despite the huge difference in the style of the performances and recordings -- modern SACD with small-scale, original-instruments orchestration versus early Living Stereo, big band, classical tuning.

The 807 V leaves you in no doubt as to the scale of the orchestra employed, or the warmth of the recording itself, but the bottom end is muddled and indistinct, with no differentiation of cello and bass, while the violin and viola are separated in pitch but not clearly differentiated in terms of tonality or texture. Changing to the 807 W, the performance was bigger, bolder, more immediate and far more purposeful. There was a greater range of instrumental color, far better instrumental separation and that all-important distinction between the violin and viola, the very basis of this musical "conversation," was plain to hear. The larger instrument now had its characteristically woody tonality and rougher texture, contrasting with the fiddle’s tonal brilliance, but more than that, the two instruments were clearly separated in space and also style, the agility and darting precision of Heifetz so different from the smoother, more stately playing of Primrose.

To understand why the musical difference between these two speakers is so substantial, we need to start at the bottom. The 807 V thrives on an energetic, driven bottom end underpinning the music. It loves the thud and thump that normally push rock or pop along and make a more than fair fist of the carefully spaced rhythms that propel much jazz. But the Mozart -- especially as played in the late ‘50s -- is an entirely different kettle of fish. Rather than the minimalist orchestration and careful transparency of the Fischer SACD, qualities that help the 807 V shine, the RCA disc offers bigger forces, a warmer acoustic with RCA’s characteristic midhall balance, and a lot more instruments to muddle up. Introducing the 807 W to the equation sorts out the bottom end, bringing a sense of clarity, texture and pitch to those lower strings. What were muffled and barely distinct thuds on the V are now pizzicato bass notes, the subtlety and understated nature of the instrumentation and its contribution to the whole far more apparent. Those quietly forceful cello interjections have both shape and energy, the quiet, sustained notes that underpin the opening bars, pitch and texture.

This increase in low-frequency transparency and resolution is only part of the story. It seems to go deeper, because you can actually hear what’s happening rather than because there’s any real increase in extension, but more obviously the 807 W is also noticeably more dynamic, with a crisper and more immediate sound that gives the music more impact and drama. It’s the cleaner, clearer bottom end that also sorts out the mids, letting you hear those subtle instrumental distinctions, but it’s the quicker dynamics and greater, more even energy that fills out the midband presence and tonality, bringing life, space and color to the performance.

Bottom line? What sounds syrupy and sluggish on the 807 V sounds big, bold and dramatic on the W, allowing you to enjoy and celebrate the differences between this performance and the Fischer SACD, rather than simply dismissing the older recording as "of its time."

What works on the early classical music of Mozart goes into overdrive on more modern material. Vocals were always a strength of the 807 V, and the W version adds focus, character and articulation to the mix, facets that are particularly apparent on duets. Whether it’s the delicate relationship of Stephen Dawson and Diane Christiansen on their album Duets [Undertow 2003], or Eliza Gilkyson and the backing vocals of John Gorka on "Promise Me" from Red Horse [Red House RHR 233], the interplay of the two voices has a presence and intimacy that is engaging and affecting in equal part -- and quite beyond the expectations of a speaker at this price. Denser and more dynamic material, be it the drums and bass underpinning "Pump It Up" -- Elvis Costello, of course, from This Year’s Model [Radar RAD 3] -- or the crunch of the bass on Nick Cave’s "Water’s Edge" from the brilliant Push the Sky Away [Bad Seeds, Ltd. BS001V], has presence and the necessary intent, driving, dragging or shunting the music into place. The sparse, contrasting drum and guitar patterns of a track like "Jubilee Street," the slow build and accents that underpin the attitude and power of the sublimely controlled vocal delivery, capture all the bleak darkness and emotional desolation of the song.

The 807 W’s easy clarity and coherence, the evenness in the way it delivers top-to-bottom energy, makes for better integration, leaving the detail and resolution of the tweeter less exposed, delaying the onset of glare when overdriven or playing nastier recordings. It also narrows the gap in performance between CD and vinyl, giving the digital disc a handy step up in this regard. In fact, introducing the W-cone technology to the 807 platform has created something of a monster. Not only does it serve as a remarkably effective advocate for Focal’s proprietary cone construction, it takes what was already an engaging and musically generous performer and adds such a level of finesse, resolution and insight to the mix that it becomes far more than the sum of its parts -- or the digits on its price ticket suggest. As a speaker to sit on the end of a classic starter system it has enough control and musical manners not to expose its partners, while its inherent quality will let it grow and blossom as those partners improve. If ever a product deserved the description "budget esoteric" then this is it, but then look at the parts and perhaps that should come as no surprise. Add the W-cone technology to the alloy iteration of Focal’s inverted-dome tweeter and then put them in a cabinet with differential wall thickness and you’ve literally got a lot of what goes into the Utopia series writ small.

Focal expect you to pay a $400 premium for the inclusion of those two W cones and a prettier appearance. In musical terms that is an absolute bargain. The 807 V is a great budget speaker, with all the attributes to make the most of low-powered or low-priced partnering equipment. It remains fantastic value. But if you can stretch that extra $400, the 807 W Prestige is a class apart. Not only will it last longer in the context of an improving system, making it a much better investment, even when you change it out you’ll want to hang on to it as the basis of a second system and a more than capable emergency standby. Its balance of virtues and the inherent quality of its drivers make this an affordable speaker that has an honesty, insight and subtlety that could easily embarrass many a highly touted competitor (or, I suspect, compatriot). Underestimate the 807 W at your peril.

In musical terms, this is what budget speakers used to be like -- just a whole lot better. Now all I have to do is persuade the UK distributor to add the 807 W to their range!

Price: $1599 per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

BP 374-108 due de L'Avenir
42353 La Talaudière cedex
(33) 0477 43 5700

Focal-JMlab UK, Ltd.
Southampton Road
Salisbury, Wiltshire SP1 2LN
0845 660 2680

Audio Plus Services
156 Lawrence Paquette Industrial Dr.
Champlain, NY 12919
(800) 663-9352

Associated Equipment

Analog: VPI Classic 4 turntable with JMW 12.7 tonearm, Lyra Titan i and Dorian Mono cartridges, Zu Audio Denon 103 cartridge, Nordost Blue Heaven tonearm lead and Tom Evans Audio Design The Groove+ phono stage, Nordost Odin tonearm lead and Connoisseur 4.2PLE phono stage.

Digital: EERA DL1 or Wadia S7i CD players.

Preamplifiers: Avantgarde XA, Connoisseur 4.2LE.

Power amplifiers: Avantgarde XA, Conrad-Johnson LP125sa.

Integrated amplifier: Icon Audio Stereo 60 Signature.

Interconnects and speaker cables: Nordost Blue Heaven LS or Odin.

Power products: Quantum QBase 8 and QX4.

Accessories: Track Audio loudspeaker stands, a precision spirit level and laser, a large tape measure, masking tape and a test disc with LEDR test tones on it -- all essential to optimizing the placement of any loudspeaker.