It’s the year 2020 and the Dolby Atmos experience available to you and your living room varies greatly.
In its most humble form, an Atmos-compatible TV can do its best to create a broader-than-average soundfield from its built-in speakers. At its most extreme and impressive, a fully-fledged surround speaker package comprising in-ceiling speakers delivers truly immersive, all-encompassing surround sound.
The new Focal Chora 826-D Atmos floorstanding speaker, announced at CES 2020, aims to give you an experience as close to the latter as possible for around £1699 per pair.
The next-best thing to deliver an Atmos track’s height channels than in-ceiling speakers is an upward-firing driver on top of a speaker, which works to direct sound towards the ceiling so that it can bounce off it down towards your listening position to give you the sense of sound coming from above.
The Chora 826-D has such a driver module in its top panel, but that aside it’s very much a Chora 826, the original floorstander in the Chora series when it launched last September. It too has three forward-facing Slatefiber composite cone drivers (a fusion of thermoplastic polymer and recycled, non-woven carbon fibres) and an aluminium-magnesium TNF tweeter (which is exclusive to the Chora range) on its front.
The Atmos driver is a proprietary design by Focal, who hopes to patent it (and we'd guess use it for future speakers). It's familiar in its Slatefiber composite cone make-up, and enhanced with a distinct waveguide to help its directivity. Focal has designed the driver to direct the sound towards the ceiling at a carefully calculated angle so that it reflects around the entire room.
Even the magnetic speaker grilles that hide its unique form are peppered with directivity guides on their insides to aid angled dispersion. It seems Focal has thought of everything, too, as the grilles have been designed to only fit atop the driver one way to ensure they're always effective and not counteractive.
To cater for the deep inset of the Atmos driver, the 826-D is slightly taller than its non-Atmos sibling overall. Otherwise, though, the two are largely indistinguishable in their matching black, light wood and (our favourite) dark wood finishes – a good thing for speaker package matching, of course. Naturally, Focal would point you to its Chora Surround, Center and Sub 600P to round out your speaker set-up.
Despite their modest price, for Focal floorstanders anyway, these are made in the company's factory in France so it's not surprising that their aesthetic appeal is complemented by a fine build.
After eyeing up, and learning of, the 826-D's technological we sit down in a hotel suite to see how they perform with a variety of clips on a Dolby Atmos demo disc that's very familiar to us. Making up the 5.2.4 configuration are two pairs of 826-Ds for the front, rear and Atmos channels, the also-new centre speaker and the previous-gen subwoofer, modestly paired with an Xbox and Onkyo amplifier. We're looking at a sub-£10,000 system here.
The Leaf clip, which follows a leaf falling from a ground to demonstrate the height channels of Atmos, is some proof of the speaker's ability to fill a soundfield's headroom, but it's the plane battle scene in the film Unbroken that provides confirmation of that. As planes and gunfire fill the room there's a real sense of overhead action – much more so than you get from any Atmos soundbar we've heard, and indeed as if there are speakers actually above you.
There are no gaps between the fronts and rears in any direction either, although admittedly the set-up, while living room-like in design, is fairly compact. We'd like to see whether they fare as well in our much bigger test room.
It's not only the 826-Ds' upward-firing drivers that prove able performers, the other drivers doing their bit to help create what is a muscular and dynamically engaging presentation. The centre speaker is impressively clear and direct, too.
The benefit of having matching drivers across the package, which isn't always the case if people add separate Atmos modules to existing speaker packages, is of course tonal consistency – and that is apparent here.
The purpose of Dolby Atmos soundtracks is to completely envelope the viewer in immersive, precise sound, and as far as we can tell from a brief (15/20-minute) demonstration that's just what the Focal 826-D's do.
For those after a convincing Atmos experience but who can't drill speakers into their ceiling, these newcomers promise to be a great high-end option. Do they truly justify their not-insignificant outlay next to their competition in the speaker package market? We look forward to finding out.