French aggregation Focal makes loudspeakers and headphones. Some of its headphones are appealing high-end. As are some of its loudspeakers. So the aggregation has afresh taken to bearing high-end electronics to drive them.
For example, the Focal Astral 16 A/V processor and amplifier runs to added than AU$30,000. Actuality we’re spending some time with the added abundantly priced Focal Arche DAC and headphone amplifier.
In one way the Focal Arche looks actual different. It comes with a arced area of metal. The straighter end has a home amidst the calefaction bore slots on top of the unit. Install it there and it forms a beautiful headphone angle for your Focal (or other) headphones.
Apart from that, the blueprint of the assemblage is adequately accepted for this affectionate of product: added than it is wide, a collapsed able-bodied (over 4kg) slab of electronics.
On the advanced is a blue-on-black affectation screen. To its larboard is a 6.35mm stereo headphone socket. And to the larboard of that is a 4-pin XLR atrium for counterbalanced headphones. To the adapted of the affectation is a aggregate rotary control/press button. The arch use of that is for achievement akin and switching the assemblage in and out of standby. But it additionally invokes the capital menu, in which axis the caster takes you through the options.
On the aback console are the bandage outputs: a brace of asymmetric RCA sockets and a brace of counterbalanced XLR sockets. The inputs are additionally at the back. There’s a USB Type-B for active into your computer, an optical agenda audio input, a coaxial agenda audio ascribe and a brace of RCA sockets for alternation inputs.
The USB Type-A atrium is abandoned there for beforehand the firmware of the unit. As we write, the Focal Arche is on its aboriginal factory-installed firmware and no newer adaptation is accessible for download. The approved agenda audio inputs abutment PCM up to 192kHz sampling with 24-bits of resolution.
With a affiliation to a computer via USB, the assemblage supports PCM with up to 384kHz sampling and 24-bits of resolution and Direct Stream Agenda in regular, bifold and cloister acceleration versions (i.e. DSD64, DSD128 and DSD256). The disciplinarian objected to 32-bit audio. For Windows, it’s best to accept the ASIO disciplinarian rather than WASAPI. The closing formed with aggregate except for DSD256.
Every time I approved DSD256 with the WASAPI driver, not abandoned did no complete appear through, but it bankrupt article in the driver, acute a reboot of my computer afore the DAC would aftermath any complete at all (with any format).
The Focal Arche employs bifold AK4490 DAC chips for agenda to alternation decoding. These are defined to abutment sampling ante up to 768kHz, use up to 32x oversampling, use 32-bits of resolution, action bristles clarify curves and run with a THD Babble amount of 112dB.
The Class-A headphone amplifier is dual-mono and is rated at 2x one watt at 1kHz for impedances beneath than 32Ω. The abundance acknowledgment is defined at 10Hz to 100kHz, S/N adjustment at 116dB and THD at beneath than 0.001%. No added belief are provided for those numbers. I acceptance that these specs are for the amplifier alone. (16-bit PCM is activity to bottom-out at a signal-to-noise adjustment of about 97dBA for example.)
In the settings card the assemblage can be set to ‘Low’ or ‘High’ accretion and an amplifier approach can be called for anniversary of the accepted archetypal Focal headphones, additional there are non-Focal settings labelled ‘Voltage’ and ‘Hybrid’. There was a aural automated bang from aural the assemblage aback switching from some settings to others, suggesting to me that there’s a broadcast accomplishing article in there.
I did the abundant majority of alert and testing application my computer as the source.
For abounding use that adapted that I install USB Audio Class 2.0 drivers from Focal’s website.
Keeping one’s web attendance in alignment with slower-moving academic affidavit can be tricky, nonetheless it’s a acceptable abstraction to booty some effort. So aback account the ‘Firmware Update’ area of the manual, in which the aboriginal footfall is to ‘Go to http://www.focal.com/arche’, one absolutely should not be confronted with a ‘403 Forbidden’ message.
Oh, you can cross your way there through the accepted links (here you go) but why put it in the chiral if it’s activity to be wrong? And why not put a redirection on the now-defunct folio to accelerate new owners to the actual page?
That wobble aside, there were no problems installing the drivers, and no problems with any of my Windows amateur software in application them. Windows appear accurate PCM resolutions of 16- and 24-bits from 44.1kHz up to 384kHz.
I begin I had to be a little accurate application the bandage outputs. There wasn’t a ‘fixed’ bandage akin output. It was controlled by the front-panel akin control, aloof as the headphones were.
I initially fabricated the acceptance that, like some added DACs which abridgement a anchored line-level output, the adapted activity to do was artlessly to beforehand the accretion to the best position – an adumbrated ‘99’ on the advanced console – and again use my amplifier’s aggregate ascendancy for level.
When I afterwards arrested the manual, that is absolutely what Focal suggests. Note, also, that there is abandoned one system-wide level. The assemblage does not advance abstracted levels for headphones and bandage output. Indeed, inserting headphones does not stop the bandage output. If you accept it on 99 for your capital adjustment and again adjudge to accept with headphones, do accomplish abiding you about-face bottomward the level.
But as the assemblage consistently switches on with the aggregate akin set to ‘20’, which is way too low both for headphones and the bandage output, I’d acclaim you never about-face the assemblage off at all. This will additionally beggarly that you will additionally charge to go into the settings card to about-face the Arche’s automated standby action off.
Also, I would added advance that you don’t use the ‘High’ accretion setting. I approved it at one point while the RCA outputs were affiliated to my audio system. It did assume rather louder than accepted for a accustomed adjustment achievement akin setting. But as I played the benefit Yes awning of Simon and Garfunkel’s America from Fragile, there was this awe-inspiring burst on the adapted channel.
Well, not absolutely a crackle, but rather a ‘crack’ on assertive actual loud notes. For a few moments I revelled in this: a little article ahead unheard! But again I started to worry. Was there article amiss with the right-hand KEF LS50 apostle I was application (supplemented by a Krix subwoofer, but that’s not accordant here).
So I started bribery with levels. I angry the Focal Arche bottomward to ‘80’ achievement instead of ‘99’, and angry up the amplifier to restore the apostle achievement to the aforementioned aggregate akin as previously. There were no added ‘cracks’… which I begin a bit odd, because it was apparently ascribe afflict distortion, but ascribe afflict baloney doesn’t commonly complete like that.
I should agenda that the assemblage does not break MQA. If you use TIDAL, the TIDAL app will disentangle any MQA high-resolution agreeable and the Arche will announce on its advanced console affectation the college sampling rate… or at atomic it will if you columnist the advanced console ascendancy button or circle the knob.
The absence accompaniment of the affectation is a ample brace of digits advertence the achievement level, with the called ascribe antecedent in abate blazon aloft it. To see sample amount and agenda audio architecture you accept to dispense the control. Afterwards a few abnormal it reverts to the antecedent state. There’s no advantage for alteration the affectation approach permanently.
It’s acceptable that the architecture and amount can be seen, but I’d adopt to accept them assuming by default. This was brought home aback I apparent at one point that 192kHz advance were advancing out at 96kHz. I was application JRiver Media Centre and had ahead set it to catechumen annihilation aloft 96kHz sampling to 88.2kHz or 96kHz as adapted because it had ahead been acclimated in affiliation with my analysis of an AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DAC.
As I accumulate adage in all my reviews, it’s actual accessible to accidentally use the amiss achievement settings, but, of course, best accustomed bodies are not hi-fi reviewers and will accordingly be ambience up their computers for aloof the one DAC, not darting about amid altered ones.
I didn’t accept an amplifier with XLR inputs available, so for loudspeaker alert acclimated the RCA outputs. Generally the assemblage articulate excellent, aloof as I’d expected. But every so generally there was aloof a little accomplishments noise, aural somewhat like accidental electrical noise. Which of advance had me apprehensive some advance of the babble from my home computer network, delivered by the USB connection.
I accordingly accessible the computer from the adjustment as able-bodied as from mains power, but it fabricated no difference. I abandoned heard it in one alert session, so afterwards a while I started to agnosticism that I’d heard it at all. There was absolutely no such babble aback application headphones. And, of course, it’s with headphones that one is best acceptable to apprehend such adverse things.
I acclimated a brace of Focal Elear activating headphones – Focal’s ‘entry level’ model, priced at AU$1,599 – as able-bodied as Oppo PM3 collapsed alluring headphones (the cast has now accomplished to accomplish in this space), a brace of age-old Sennheiser HD-535 open-back models and a set of Final Audio B3 in-ear monitors (AU$729). The Arche’s achievement was set to ‘Elear’ for those headphones, of course, and to ‘Hybrid’ for the others.
The aboriginal activity to agenda was that with none of the headphones was there any adventitious of the achievement banned of the Focal Arche actuality approached. ‘Ample’ is not the chat to call the achievement on tap. It could be annihilative if one wanted. You charge not anguish about your headphones actuality supplied bereft power.
And that translated into a absolute ascendancy in performance. At this point I’ll abeyance to hardly affliction the acclimation in which I did things. As is my accepted practice, the abstracts were fabricated afterwards the alert sessions had been completed. I do that carefully because I’m aflutter that my alert impressions may be coloured by ability of the unit’s cold performance.
But in this case I was afterwards to ascertain that the one activity done by the called amplifier achievement settings was about-face amid three altered achievement impedances. That agency that to the admeasurement that a set of headphones has an asperous impedance curve, its tonal antithesis will alter according to the ambience of the amplifier.
That seemed to accept an affect aloft the achievement of the Final Audio B3 in-ear monitors. These use bifold balanced-armature drivers (sans crossover) and delivered a fuller, richer, added counterbalanced achievement with the Focal Arche than they did with the DragonFly Cobalt mini-DAC. It turns out that the ‘Hybrid’ ambience of the Arche accouterments a 10Ω inline achievement impedance, and I’m cerebration that this provided a accidental acclimation of tonal balance.
The aftereffect was subtle, and the B3 buds articulate accomplished anyhow with the Cobalt, but they articulate alike bigger with the Arche. I would accept admired to agreement added with alert application the altered modes, but the loaner analysis assemblage was by again already behind for return.
With the Oppo PM-3 headphones, the complete was added acceptable (they are bankrupt back). They accept an alike impedance above the aural abundance bandage so they don’t absolutely affliction about (modest) achievement impedances. They delivered an acutely solid achievement with the Focal Arche amplifier. I went aback in time to the admission Black Sabbath album. The barrage at the aperture of the aboriginal clue was absolutely apple-pie and deep. Aback the aboriginal riff cuts in, the drums broken through the mix to hover aloft it all, alike the toms. They were amidst by abundant air, abounding with their accustomed reverb. The hi-hat bit appropriately.
Going aback to the Final Audio B3 in-ears, there was astronomic activity and activating ambit above all the music genres I approved (including breeze rock, jazz, changeable vocalist, bizarre and classical). The best complete came from the open-backed Elear headphones. Focal knows what it’s accomplishing by accouterment a capital arresting to drive its own products: The Elears were accessible and airy, limitlessly abundant and beautifully balanced.
If you’re afterwards a aerial affection DAC to drive your Focal headphones (or really, any cast or archetypal of headphones at all), the Focal Arche is a accomplished unit.
My aforementioned agog advocacy will additionally be the case if you intend to use the Focal Arche in your capital system… but abandoned if you’re application the XLR outputs.
I affected the centralized impedance of the Focal Arche’s headphone achievement at 2.5Ω. It delivered 1.9VRMS into a 300Ω load, which is about 12mW or about 11dB aloft the acuteness appraisement acclimated by best headphones. Into a 16Ω ohm load, it delivered 1.65VRMS, or 170mW and added than 22dB aloft acuteness rating.
I ample that was that… but a brace of canicule afterwards I started to admiration about the altered amplifier settings. The Voltage ambience is declared to be a voltage amplifier, in which the assemblage charge not accommodate abundant current. The Hybrid ambience is declared to amalgamate voltage and accepted amplifier functionality. And the added bristles settings affection outputs optimised for accurate models of Focal headphones. Would they accomplish a difference?
Indeed they would! To four cogent abstracts at nine altered altitude criteria, the Voltage achievement ambience was unique, while the Hybrid and Elear settings were the same, and the Utopia, Clear, Elegia and Stellia settings were the same. It was with the Voltage ambience that the centralized impedance of the Focal Arche was about 2.5Ω. With the Hybrid and Elear settings, it was about 10Ω. With the Utopia et al ambience it was about 17.5Ω.
I did not echo the abstracts on the ‘High’ accretion setting, aloof did a quick analysis to see what aftereffect that had on level: it additional it by 12dB. Into high-impedance endless you can apprehend the best achievement from the headphone amp to be about 7.5VRMS. Clearly there’s never activity to be a curtailment of ability alike with high-impedance, low-sensitivity headphones.
The assemblage has adequately advancing achievement protection. Aggregate went calmly at low gain, but aback I approved to admeasurement best achievement at aerial accretion into low impedance endless (16Ω), I kept benumbed the protection. Oh, don’t anguish that this may aggregate some limitation on performance. Oh no… the aftermost abstinent achievement voltage with a 1kHz analysis arresting into that low impedance was about 5.2VRMS. That equates to 1.7 watts – not milliwatts, watts – output. Add 32dB to the acuteness appraisement of your earphones or headphones, and that’s the best it will bear with the aerial accretion setting. Enough, in added words, to do aloft accident to you or your ear accessory in actual abbreviate order.
All that was in voltage mode, which you will anamnesis has a low achievement impedance. In Hybrid mode, with an achievement impedance of about 10Ω, the assemblage could be anguish up to the best akin at which point it was bearing a ‘mere’ 4.7VRMS output. Or 1.4-watts and 31dB aloft the acuteness rating.
The asymmetric bandage akin outputs were a bit lower in voltage than the norm, carrying about 0.95RMS in ‘Low’ accretion approach and 3.8VRMS in ‘High’ accretion mode. Of course, that’s with the akin ascendancy set to best in both cases.
Speaking of the akin control, it has 100 adumbrated levels. Bottomward actual low anniversary after accession amounts to about 1.5dB. At college levels that drops to 1dB per adumbrated number, again 0.5dB and again from akin 60 and up, 0.5dB per two cardinal increments.
Graph 1 shows the abundance acknowledgment of the Focal Arche with 44.1kHz signals and you can see that the abundance acknowledgment is sensible: it rolls off a little aloft 8kHz to be bottomward by about 0.35dB at 20kHz, again drops rapidly above that. There’s additionally a actual slight roll-off in the bass, with achievement bottomward by 0.4dB at 10Hz.
Graph 2 shows the abundance acknowledgment with 96kHz sampling, and you can see that the bass was the aforementioned while achievement was bottomward by 0.3dB at 20kHz, 0.7dB at 30kHz and 1.2dB at 40kHz.
Graph 3 shows the abundance acknowledgment with 192kHz sampling, and you can see that the the 96kHz achievement is artlessly continued: –1.8dB at 50kHz, –2.6dB at 60kHz, –3.4dB at 70kHz and –4.3dB at 80kHz.
Clearly Focal has called the DAC clarify settings to acknowledgment a flatter, added continued abundance acknowledgment than abounding added DACs.
With 24-bit audio, activated with both 96kHz and 192kHz sampling, the babble achievement I abstinent from the Focal Arche was artlessly weird. Let’s alpha with the easiest bit.
With the XLR outputs, the babble was at –108dBA consistently with again measurements. And that amount was maintained irrespective of whether my Surface Pro 2017 was acquainted in or not. Aback it was acquainted in, it was affiliated by wire to my home network, and that is one angrily blatant affair. The abundant majority of DACs let some of this babble out into the alternation output.
The Focal Arche did not. Measurements, acquainted in or not, were identical… at atomic they were aback I was application the XLR outputs. But aback application the RCA outputs, things were actual different. First, the after-effects I acquired were inconsistent. From altitude to altitude they ranged from –79dBA to –97.6dBA.
Again, it didn’t amount whether the computer was acquainted in or not. To double-check that, I pulled out a adjustment banderole and affiliated it to the Focal Arche by optical agenda audio, aloof to ensure that there was no way any electrical arrest could be carried. It resulted in a middling –89.8dBA babble level.
To double-check the analysis setup, I again switched in a altered DAC which I knew to accommodate acceptable performance. Its RCA outputs delivered a babble achievement of –114.5dBA aback application absolutely the aforementioned rig I acclimated for the Arche.
Graph 4 illustrates the about-face of the babble levels depending on the achievement used. I accept included a brace of the RCA outputs with and after the affiliated computer acquainted in, additional the optical connection. They are the bristles traces up almost high.
The white and blooming traces abreast the basal are via the XLR outputs. The amethyst trace adapted at the actual basal is the RCA achievement from the allegory DAC. The point of that is to authenticate that the analysis adjustment wasn’t the problem.
Note, also, that all the achievement abstracts – afar from the one for the allegory DAC – had a awe-inspiring bang in the babble about 60–70kHz of capricious levels. This would not, of course, be audible, but it is aloof a little bit strange.
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