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FOCAL DIMENSION REVIEW

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While its competitors were clamoring over themselves to produce a sound bar, French audio manufacturer Focal took a more reserved position, waiting to see how the landscape would develop. Having built its reputation on high-quality bookshelf and floorstanding speakers, the company wasn’t interested in producing just another slim sound solution. The result of its patient efforts is the Dimension sound bar and subwoofer, a pairing that aims to match exquisite sound quality with functional form.

The Dimension sound bar is versatile enough as a solo act, but the matching subwoofer delivers a convincing performance in its own right, making the pair a formidable proposition. Of course, at $1400 (online) for both components, the system should deliver a serious wallop. The question still remains, though: Is it worth it to spend as much on these two components as some spend on a full 5.1 home theater system? We dove in to find out.

Out of the box

The Dimension comes with a power cable that includes a large, heavy brick — juice required to run both the sound bar and subwoofer. Additionally, there are two L-shaped brackets which act as a stand, one wall mount, a small remote control, and a user manual.

The subwoofer box includes even less accessories, with only a very short speaker wire packed with the unit.

Features and design

Focal makes clear in its marketing photography that the Dimension sound bar and subwoofer are meant to be joined together. With a matching contoured slant and a really short audio cable to link them, Focal obviously means its sound bar to sit neatly in front of the accompanying sub. Doing so creates something more akin to a sound base from a visual perspective, though with a bit of doing, it would certainly be possible place the subwoofer elsewhere. Still, the idea here is to place the TV on top of the whole setup, and if that’s something you have in mind, be sure to check the dimensions of both your TV stand and the sound bar/subwoofer combo first.

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Alone or together, the sound bar and subwoofer look refined enough to fit well within the confines of a neat and tidy space. The Dimension series isn’t particularly flashy, and it doesn’t need to be. The clean lines and all-black color scheme make the components neutral enough never to look out of place.

Inside the Dimension sound bar is 450-watt, 6-channel amplifier – 75 watts for each of five dedicated drivers. The sixth amp is dedicated to the sub because it’s passive. If you’d rather use your own subwoofer, you can either wire up a passive sub, or use the subwoofer line-out jack on the back of the sound bar to connect a more conventional powered type. We most certainly recommend the latter.

The Dimension sound bar supports 1080p and 3D via HDMI, but not 4K Ultra HD. Multichannel audio with DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 is also natively supported, but not DTS-HD or Dolby TrueHD.

A touch-capacitive control panel is situated to the right when facing the unit. When on, the control layout will light up as the sensor inside recognizes a simple wave of the hand in front of it. It’s important to mention here that not all available (and necessary) functions can be accessed through this panel. Some functions are only available on the tiny card-style remote – an issue that would later cause us some trouble.

Setup

The two L-shaped stands that come with the sound bar are required to prop it up on a table, and Focal smartly utilized a sliding bracketing system to lock them in place instead of having to screw them in. In a scenario where the subwoofer isn’t in the picture, the wall mount offers a different placement option. In spite of Focal’s short audio cable, it would be possible to mount the sound bar and still connect it to the subwoofer laid out, perhaps, on a table or entertainment console below using a longer length of speaker wire. For some, the subwoofer is even slim enough that it could be placed under a couch, though you’ll need a good length of speaker wire for that, and hiding it may take some doing.

The back of the sound bar features various useful inputs and outputs, albeit tightly packed together in a recessed bay toward the middle. You get HDMI In 1.4 (CEC), HDMI TV 1.4 (ARC and CEC), RCA analog out, optical digital input, Aux-In and a mini-USB port for firmware upgrades. Next to that are four settings selectors that you can flip based on the sound bar’s position, distance to the viewer, room acoustics and whether the sub is in play or not. It also supports Bluetooth aptX via a separate adapter that Focal sells with the sound bar. Using that adds audio streaming from mobile devices and computers to the mix.

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This all presents a number of different connection options, and we tried a few. We didn’t have an audio receiver to pass through the various components we had, but we did use an HDMI splitter for a short time. We also used the optical digital input directly from our TV to have the audio work with anything we already had plugged into the back of the TV. And we also tried connecting a cable box and Apple TV to the TV directly, with another HDMI cable going to both HDMI ARC ports and a Blu-ray player going to the HDMI CEC port on the soundbar.

After encountering some bizarre issues with unresponsiveness on the included remote, we added the Dimension to a Logitech Harmony remote and took it from there.

 

Audio performance

Most of the different settings options Focal makes available on the back of the Dimension sound bar seem to have very subtle effects on the resulting sound quality, save the subwoofer settings. Here, there are three options available, one for a setup wherein the sound bar acts as a standalone speaker – resulting in more bass from the sound bar itself – one which trims bass from the sound bar to pass more of it along to a passive subwoofer, and the last which also trims bass from the sound bar and routs a subwoofer signal to an available subwoofer line-out jack. It’s worth taking the time to make sure all the settings are correct, but know that special attention must be given to these sub settings.

We did most of our testing seated from our TV and the sound bar system from a 9-foot distance, and watched and watched as diverse a set of content as we we could over a three-week span, including a healthy dose of all kinds of sporting events, as well as TV shows and movies served up via Netflix, Plex and Blu-ray disc. We also watched music videos and casted YouTube videos via Chromecast to gauge performance.

The beauty of the Dimension sound bar is that it treats all content neutrally – a very good thing. Our feelings about the Dimension subwoofer are a bit more mixed, though. In our experience, the sub didn’t seem to provide a significant benefit over the sound bar’s own impressive bass response unless we kicked up the overall bass level and pushed the volume up significantly. Pronounced, but never too thick, the subwoofer’s low frequency prowess was expressed like a groundswell that rumbled on cue. This approach benefits dialog, which didn’t have an underlying baritone making it sound unnaturally beefed up, freeing the excellent drivers built into the sound bar to deliver crystal-clear center channel effects.

The midrange was a little restrained, yet remained prominent out since the bass and treble never spoke out of turn. Indeed, the highs, even when pushing the volume up, avoided ‘screaming’ at us with overpowering stridency and sibilance. Rather, we enjoyed the sparkle and detail the sound bar reproduced with calculated refinement.

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This kind of balance was a little surprising for a sound bar that has five drivers so tightly packed together. Stereo separation is impressive, and while we recognize there may be better sounding sound bars at similar price points, we can’t help but heap praise on Focal for putting together a solid sonic debut here.

The Dimension particularly excels with music playback. Focal’s wireless Bluetooth adapter does simplify streaming, which is great for users of all stripes, and we liked the consistently good feedback we were getting, no matter what we played. With that said, we’re not sure why Bluetooth is made an option at this price point – why not just build it right in?

Bluetooth isn’t exactly the audiophile’s first choice for wireless playback, but at least there’s an Aux-In jack on the sound bar to provide alternatives. We made use of that by plugging in a Chromecast Audio to give the sound bar Wi-Fi compatibility for streaming at higher bitrates. Google’s dongle is still somewhat of a walled garden in that it doesn’t support too many music apps, so we also tried high-resolution audio tracks directly from a laptop to see how they fared. The results were highly encouraging, though we knew we could get cleaner sound from a really good two-channel setup.

Having not mounted the Dimension on a wall, we couldn’t assess how effective its boundary compensation switch was for mitigating chesty bass effects. However, we did audition the sound bar on its own for a while, and although the bass is impressive for a sound bar in general, it didn’t take long for us to conclude that it’s worth paying an extra $300 to bring the sub in for those who don’t like the idea of placing a more expensive, dedicated sub in another area within the room.

The challenges we experienced were less about audio performance and more about positioning. As an example, plugging in the Chromecast Audio over a week after first setting up the speaker wasn’t particularly convenient because of how the sound bar rests in front of the sub. And because the connections are packed so closely together, it was difficult to make adjustments. A slightly larger bay and a couple more HDMI ports would be appreciated, given how ubiquitous the latter are in any home theater.

This puts the whole thing in a unique situation where you have to measure deployment of the system with the audio quality you get from it. For us, the trade-off is worth it, in spite of whatever headaches there might be in getting the two components placed, hooked up, and ready to go.

One final (and important) note: Focal positions the Dimension sound bar as a discrete 5.1 surround sound solution. And while it may be true that some of the drivers are producing discreet surround signals, and there is a dedicated center channel at play, the sound bar in no way imparts that immersive feeling most folks want out of a surround sound setup. If that’s a focus for you, consider one of Yamaha’s advanced Sound Projector solutions.

Conclusion

 

While Focal’s Dimension is no substitute for a good multichannel surround system it does a wonderful job of delivering high-fidelity sound in smaller spaces where multiple speakers simply aren’t an option – that goes double if musicality is a critical part of what you want from a compact sound solution.

The Dimension system isn’t the best in its class, but it fills a specific need in a very unique way. If you get a chance to give it a listen somewhere, we advise you do. We think you’ll come away impressed.

Highs

  • Great, consistent sound quality
  • Versatile setup options
  • Solid connectivity options
  • Attractive, neutral design

Lows

  • Setup requires thinking ahead
  • Inadequate speaker wire for sub
  • Wish for more HDMI ports

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