01 December, 2009

HiFi Letter from New York 2009 (4): Focal Chorus 705V, Linn Kan

HiFi Letter from New York 2009 (4): Focal Chorus 705V; Linn Kan

Toiling with Bookshelves.
Do they all sound the same?

Focal Chorus 705V
The smallest bookshelf in the Focal Chorus range, these speakers have garnered good reviews (HiFi Choice; What HiFi!; TAS "Best Buy"). I first read in TAS Steven Stone's short review of the 705V, which is somehow not on the web. I have always been cautious about what Stone says because of his associated equipment and small listening environment. This is one reviewer who starts a bookshelf review by listening to them on his DESKTOP, with a sub. He said they were beautiful but became less and less attractive in his bigger room (still small). I'd not have pursued further if not for the fact that the more dependable Robert Harley had earlier given the bigger brother 706V a great review (both are TAS recommended components). I actually auditioned both in Sound by Singer's small room (as an aside when we went to audition Vienna Acoustics' marvelous Haydn Grand), where they were hung against the wall. Using Cambridge electronics, both delivered a good performance; actually the smaller 705V's sounded more refined.

About a year ago I chanced on a second-hand pair and the bargain was irresistible. When I tried them out in my living room (which is quite a bit larger than Stone's), inside of the ML's (see earlier pics), I was greatly disappointed. They disappeared and imaged well; but then they simply sounded small and lackluster. I relegated them to the bedroom and did not find them great either.

As mentioned in the last post, by drastic re-positioning the improvement I got this time was eye-opening. Almost flush against the side-walls, with a good degree of toe-in and driven by my second station (see last post), everything snapped into place. The speakers delivered a big-sounding, smoothly textured and nuanced performance that belies their price. Images were focused, but tall and fleshy like larger monitors. The treble quality surprised me greatly. In a brief comparison (below), it's at least the equal of the venerable LS3/5A. No doubt a tube preamp helps a great deal. In many ways the tweeter here has many of the strengths of its more expensive brethren (Beryllium included) and little of their weakness. The midrange is well-integrated and transients quick and life-like. The bass, while limited and truncated at the bottom, was full and agile. In fact, the rhythm and pace was surprisingly excellent, and on Van Morrison's Moondance one immediately noticed the bass to have a wonderful walking quality. For my taste, the 705V's easily trumps the Usher S-520's in most aspects (except bass and dynamics), especially in refinement. On music that demands loud playback the 705V's still did surprisingly well. Haitink's Shostakovich 5th rang out loud and true. Yes, a small degree of politeness noticed by the better British reviewers was indeed evident, but that was more than compensated by the smooth dynamic expression, no mean feat.

Another notable thing is the efficiency of the 8-ohm 705V's. This did not come entirely as a surprise, as Focal has usually been relatively efficient and a rather friendly load. Yes, you guessed it, here's another speaker that responds beautifully to SE amps. The Almarro 205A (probably 5-6 watts) partnered it really well, even at my real-world listening level. soft-clipping only occasionally during the loudest passages. Remember my living room is not small. The larger 706V's probably would do even better, and I'd be curious to hear them.

The paradox is, contrary to what Stone said, these speakers perform better in a large room than near-field, PROVIDED a good degree of wall reinforcement is introduced. Caution here, the usual mid-room placement on stands would NOT work. In a coming article I shall tell you how they did in my new bedroom setup.

I almost forgot to mention that (like the Usher S-520) the woofers are long-throw types. Another reason for my success this time I suspect is because I used an ss amp to pump it for a while before listening. I suspect these require longer break-in's to sound their best.

Linn Kan I vs Focal Chorus 705V vs LS3/5A
This time I also acquired a very handsome mint pair of Linn Kan I of black veneer, a finish I much prefer to its later reincarnations. This is the first generation, which uses the 3/5A KEF woofer but Linn's proprietary tweeter in a box identical to that of the BBC 3/5A. When they arrived, I conducted a small test, comparing these three speakers. Here are my observations:

  • With these small boxes, the placement I used for the Focal 705V worked equally fine for the Linn Kan and the Audiomaster LS3/5A (15 ohm). All had similarly wide soundstage, good imaging, fleshy presentation, with even tonal balance and no significant anomaly. In a way, they sounded more similar than different. In other words, the room effect was minimal. One could imagine further component matching with different gears could result in even closer match.
  • Using the 8 ohm tap of the Almarro, sound of the Linn Kan was superbly fast and dynamic (way ahead of its time), edging out the Focal. The LS3/5A suffered from a little sluggishness in comparison.
  • All had good rhythm and pace, but Linn Kan took the palm for boogie factor.
  • Linn Kan had the airiest treble, very modern in fact. On the other hand, with some material it could be a tad bright. Focal's treble is the smoothest.
  • In terms of details rendered, they came very close.
  • Though darker, the LS3/5A is just a little bit more subtle and dynamic than the Focal, perhaps even the Linn Kan, in the mid-range.
That the Focal 705V could compete in the same company says a lot about the quality of the entry product. There's not a loser amongst the three. Looked from another angle, Focal is a real bargain (though quirky) but the Linn Kan is even more of a good buy given its similarity and parity with the LS3/5A. As a matter of fact, many (likely jazz and pop fans) may prefer the Linn Kan to the LS 3/5A (I could be in that camp). Given that it costs only a fraction of LS3/5A, it's a bargain. Even if you have the LS3/5A, you would want a pair.

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