To Hans Wetzel,
I’ve been researching floorstanding speakers that cost between $4000/pair and $6000/pair for several months and have narrowed my decision to Focal's Chorus 836 W Prestige ($4499/pair) and KEF's R900 ($4999.98/pair). I’ve had the opportunity to audition the Focals, but the nearest retailer that carries the R series is over four hours away, assuming that they have R900s on the floor. Your review of the R900s was very helpful to my research. Could you compare and contrast the Focal Chorus 836 W with the R900?
You've picked two great brands, and two solid loudspeakers. But there are certainly differences here. The most obvious one is the design of each speaker. The French, undoubtedly, have a much better notion of style and presentation than the Brits. So the Focals are a lot more interesting to look at, while the KEFs are -- while well-constructed -- a bit staid looking. Different strokes for different folks on that front. On the other hand, the Focal uses a traditional three-way approach of tweeter, midrange, and three 6.5" bass drivers, while the KEF uses a coaxial driver sandwiched in between two larger 8" bass drivers. I can almost guarantee that the $500 premium for the KEFs will get you deeper bass response than the Focals.
Doug Schneider, who reviewed the Focal Chorus 836 W last year for SoundStage! Hi-Fi, a sister site, was smitten by their "rich midrange," and found them quite capable on the whole. The Focal company has a long history, and know their way around a loudspeaker, so I have no doubt they are well designed and sound every bit as good as Doug explained in his review. But there's a primary difference between the two that's worth exploring. We measured the Chorus 836 W in Canada's National Research Council's anechoic chamber. It is a reasonable performer with a relatively flat listening frequency response. It also offers an amplifier a pretty benign electrical load. Take note of the "Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise" graphs, however. There is some distortion in and around the midrange that is not ideal. Contrast this with measurements we took of KEF's $2599.98/pair R500 loudspeaker, the R900's baby brother. In the "Listening Window" graph, you can see that the frequency response is approximately as flat as that of the Focal's, but with two differences. Whereas the Focal has a bump up in the bass around 100Hz, and a non-linear top end, with a fall in treble energy followed by a sharp rise, the KEF remains pretty flat on both ends. Furthermore, in the "Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise" graphs, you'll see the KEF has pretty much zero distortion from the midrange on up. While it has a sharper rise in distortion in the bass region, we are not nearly as sensitive to this distortion as we are distortion in the midrange, where many vocals and instruments play. Blame evolutionary biology for that.
Measurements alone can't tell you that one speaker is definitively better than another, but they can provide insight into a how a speaker will perform. In this instance, the almost-$2000-less-expensive KEF R500 in some ways outperforms the far-more-expensive Focal. The R900’s measurements will not be exactly the same as the R500, but you can expect them to be similar, with what I suspect to be significantly less distortion in the bass, thanks to the much larger and more capable bass drivers on offer.
Which one's better? Judging from the measurements above, I would bet that the R900 can play cleaner, louder, and deeper than the 836 W. On the other hand, the 836 W is a lot more interesting to look at, is several hundred dollars per pair cheaper, and, based on what Doug Schneider wrote about the pair he listened to, is likely to have a more alluring midrange. Which, I hate to say it, means that you need to clear out your schedule one Saturday to make the trip and hear the KEFs. Call ahead and make sure they have a pair of R900s for you to hear. For a pair of speakers that will probably serve as your daily companions for the next decade or so, I think it's a minor hassle in the grand scheme of things. Whichever you choose, you're getting a quality loudspeaker. Let us know how it goes! . . . Hans Wetzel