Focal Arche - DAC/Amp - Official Thread

The Arche is Focal’s first source and amplifier offering for the world of audiophile heapdhone listening. It is closely matched to Focal’s line of high-end headphones, and in fact has pre-set configuration options for each of them, intended to get the best match.

In addition to the very obvious, included, and removable, headphone stand (inspired by the Focal logo), it is a simple, elongated, black metal affair.

Unlike many “all in one” or DAC/amp solutions, Arche has both digital and pure analog inputs. You can feed the DAC (an AKM4490 based unit), via USB or SP/DIF via Coax or TOSLINK, but it also has a true analog RCA input that directly feeds the analog amplification stages. If you have an additional source, such as a turntable, or just want to use a different DAC with it, this is a very welcome feature.

The amplifier works in two, selectable, modes, a voltage-drive mode (which is what most amps are) and a “hybrid” mode. Gain is also adjustable. The pre-sets for different headphones adjust these settings to get the optimal performance for each one. Output power is a more than respectable 2W per channel into 32 Ω (or about 215mw into 300 Ω) and is delivered from a pure-class A topology.

Headphone output is via both 4-pin XLR and 1/4" (6.35mm) TRS connections on the front panel. A simple, very clear, screen shows input selected, sample rate (if using the DAC), and volume settings, and is also used for configuration with the main volume dial (which can be pushed to make selections).

And there are both single-ended and balanced analog outputs if you want to drive other amplifiers or active speakers from the unit as well.

This is the place to discuss the Arche … which is available at $2,499 …

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We had the Arche present at a local mini-meet, courtesy of @Andrew and @taronlissimore, recently, so I got to spend some time listening to it … a few thoughts on that follow:

First Thoughts

When this was first announced, I was rather disappointed to learn this wasn’t a joint venture with NAIM (instead of Micromega). That’s not meant to be uncharitable to Micromega, but as a Brit the former is always going to carry way more gravitas than the latter.

Features are minimal, but interesting. Selectable gain levels, selectable phase, analog and digital inputs, and balanced and single pre-outs and headphone outputs. The pure-class A amplifier stage (and you can tell it really is class-A just from the warmth emanating from the box) can operate in traditional voltage-drive or in a “hybrid” mode, and perhaps most interestingly has pre-sets for the entire line of Focal headphones.

The unit is a bit bigger than I expected, and lighter than you’d think when you pick it up. I’m undecided about the (removable) built-in headphone stand. On one hand it’s actually quite useful … on the other it is a bit odd to look at. Though the curve of it PERFECTLY fits Focal’s own line of headphones, as one might expect.

Sound

Well, the first word that comes to mind is “rich”. Rich enough it makes the another new unit I had around (the Matrix Element:X) sound a bit lean. There’s some underlying AKM “Velvet Sound” going on here, which will be apparent to anyone that is familiar with it, but the richness exhibited here is more than just some extra presence in the lowest registers.

It’s a VERY pleasant and engaging sound, and that remains true whether using a Focal headphone (I tried the Clear, Stellia and Utopia, both on their pre-sets and with the unit just in “Voltage” mode … and while they’re audibly different if you pay attention, I didn’t have a clear preference for either the specific settings or the general with any particular can) or other headphones.

I had been pretty much primed to dislike this thing, or at least seriously question its price-point, since it was announced. And the truth is, I don’t. At all. On either count. I really enjoyed listening to it and it’s performance and value proposition is much better than I had expected.

At a high-level I’d say this is comparable to the DAC section of an RME ADI-2 DAC fs combined with a truly proper headphone amplifier that’s been voiced for some extra tonal weight and density AND that has the ability to be driven from something other than the built-in DAC.

It does a great job of extracting and relaying details, timbre is natural above the lower-bass registers (where things like double-bass take on a bit more “mass” than they perhaps should), and the “richness” doesn’t detract from it’s speed or impact at ALL (this thing hits pretty hard).

Playing with the just the analog in/out chain, I’m not even sure where I’d place the amp section. On par or probably ahead of the Pro iCAN I think, in SS mode. A bit richer than the Azure, but with a similar projection of stage and layering. Definitely more engaging than the current-darling THX AAA 789, and highly resolving both in terms of raw detail and micro-dynamic resolution.

The Matrix is purer sounding and perhaps a little more technically adept … but this is just much more fun. And the amp-stage on this runs rings around the Element:X.

If the Arche had a built-in WiFi Roon end-point I’d put this next to the bed, hang my Stellia off it, and call it good. As it is, I might just stick something like a microRendu on it and do just that anyway.

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You mentioned a “price point” (if my memory serves) but not an actual price?

It’s $2,499.

I’m sure there’s some “badge” and “lifestyle” factors going on there, but it’s in the ball park based on my listening and compared to an equivalently capable DAC/amp combination.

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$2500 Seems a figure many have settled on as reasonable for either headphones, source or amplification.
Ten years has seen a sea-change in the headphone world.
It’s from 2013 but is still an interesting (and IMO still relevant) take on high end audio by J.Atkinson in Stereophile…

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Beautiful photography Torq!

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Great handle :wink:

Ha ha! A fan? :wink:

Well, I’d say to get something that I think sounds as enjoyable, and as capable, you’d be looking spending right in the same ball-park on separate DAC/amp components (or you’d likely wind up losing the analog input).

I think most audiophiles will wind up passing this over in favorite of discrete components anyway, and suspect it’s targeted more at the “lifestyle” segment of the market (much like the presentation of the Stellia).

That’s a bit of a shame, because the synergy is fantastic (as one would hope for products from the same brand/umbrella, but is more often than not disappointed about).

While the back-panel is not especially fascinating aesthetically … it does have one feature that is almost always omitted on all-in-one or DAC/amp solutions:

Specifically, the analog input. Other such units, especially at lower price points, have only digital inputs OR they run the analog input through an ADC and then through the DAC (which most vinyl users will shudder at the mere thought of).

I ran my DAVE through this for a bit, and the amp did a very nice job with it. Far more so than I had expected. The amp is not quite as good as a dedicated unit like the Phonitor X, but is on par with, say, the iFi Pro iCAN.

But I will say that using the Arche as a DAC/amp sounds better than using the Phonitor X as a DAC/amp. The Phonitor is definitely the superior amp, but the DAC192 card for doesn’t do it justice. Where as with the Arche, the DAC and amp are very well matched AND independently accessible, so as an all-in-one solution it’s actually a better bet (signature preferences not withstanding).

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If you mean “a fan” of the person from whom you borrowed your handle, then yes, I believe he is a good man.

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I´m a huge fan of the simple design

Not that I would not enjoy a space saving non complicated thing like this!
would prefer 2(or 3) discrete components instead of this all in-one solution.

so I could easier save up a few months for a under 1k DAC use it with what I already own and save up again for the under 1k amp part
maybe they could add a streamer to the portfolio later
and they should put the headphone stand on each component - so you have to fill them with their headphones
somewhere on the line a vu-meter would be a nice touch :slight_smile:
and some tube along the line…

this won´t happen - not with the named price points

SMSL did such a thing with the SMSL SU-8 and the Amp + the other box or the old panda stack
Schiit tries it at least but fails with some components using slightly different materials - from what I read

I could sell the discrete Focal Design to my wife - with a warmer display colour like amber even better

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You could always mod an amber film over the display =) I made my THX788 display purple =)

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It’s interesting that the Focal pictures show the the display as blue, when it’s definitely white (and the settings for it do not include color).

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have some cto gels here - so … the Arché only missing brahaahaa
huge purple and blurple(Spyderco S110v) fan over here!

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maybe they had a prototype for catalog images before with another display or photoshoped the on/lit display in?

“white is ok” - my wife says

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That’s a serious-looking box, like $2500 well spent.

This post is part of the Focal Arche “episodic” review, that begins here.

Amplifier Modes & Frequency Response

One of the more interesting aspects of the Focal Arche is the option for different settings on the amplifier. These include a conventional “voltage” output mode, a “hybrid” mode (presumably biased more towards a current-output topology - Focal aren’t specific here), as well as specific options for all of Focal’s current “audiophile” line-up of headphones.

Focal simply describe these as being optimized for their various headphone offerings, currently covering the Elear, Elegia, Clear, Stellia and Utopia (the Arche has user-updatable firmware, so presumably if Focal release more headphones in the future they can be added to the list of selectable models).

When I first got my hands on the Arche, a couple of months ago, I was most interested to see what differences there are between these settings and whether they were audible or not - but didn’t have the time to do a proper evaluation of the differences. My initial take away was that you could hear a difference … i f you really paid attention , but that I didn’t have an obvious preference for one mode or setting over another.

Now that I have the Arche back in my hands for more extended evaluation, I decided not only to do more comparative listening, but also to measure the frequency response with the amplifier in different modes and with different headphones. You can read about my measurement rig and practices here.

Voltage vs. Hybrid vs. Focal Preset Modes w/ Focal Headphones

The goal here was simply to first listen to a couple of Focal’s headphones in each of the Arche’s different modes and try to characterize any differences I heard. Then, after listening, measure the frequency responses in each mode and see if there was any delta and/or if such correlated to what I was hearing.

Utopia

For the Utopia, audible differences were not highly tonal in nature. Low-frequency replay had more impact and slam in “hybrid” mode and more still using the “Utopia” preset, the highest frequencies seemed smoother and both treble and mid-range were slightly less emphasized vs. either “voltage” mode or when I drive the Utopia from other well-matched amplifiers. There was also a sense of improved speed (on what is already a very fast headphone), perhaps a hint more micro-dynamic subtlety, a feeling that the presentation was slightly more balanced and the overall sense of tonal “richness” or “weight” that the Arche seems to exhibit in general.

As far as the actual frequency response comparisons go, while they bear out a slight increase in bass level from “voltage” to “hybrid” and then “hybrid” to “Utopia” modes, they are fundamentally identical across the rest of the frequency spectrum. The change in bass-level is small, but should technically audible, and it’s impossible for me to say if this is responsible for what I perceived when listening or not … though my listening impression wasn’t of “more” bass, just more “impact” to what was there … even if the overall “feel” of the headphone wound up seeming more balanced.

Stellia

Audible and measured behavior here can be described in exactly the same terms as for the Utopia. The same, apparent, audible changes exist, and the differences in frequency response across the three different modes offered by Arche were essentially identical.

Voltage vs. Hybrid Modes w/ Non-Focal Headphones

Having seen essentially identical changes in frequency response for the two Focal headphones across different operating modes, I was interested to see if the same effect was apparent with other headphones. For these I just used the “voltage” and “hybrid” amplifier settings.

Rosson Audio RAD-0

Since the Focal headphones are low and medium impedance designs, I wanted to include both another headphone of lower-impedance as well as use a different driver technology. I settled on the Rosson Audio RAD-0 for this purpose.

Sound, overall, was excellent (I’ll cover that in more detail in a subsequent “episode”) here … but switching from “voltage” drive to “hybrid”, other than a sense of better low-end grip or drive-authority with energetic bass lines I didn’t not perceive any difference at all here. No tonal changes I could detect, nor any other apparent difference beyond Arche’s seemingly-innate “richness” (apparent in any mode).

Measurements show no difference at all. So other than, perhaps, the low-impedance nature of the RAD-0 fitting better with the available current in “hybrid” mode (which is speculation on my part), there’s nothing in the numbers here that suggest there should be a difference. I was expecting there to be a slight up-tick in bass level here, in hybrid mode (based on what I’d seen with the two Focal headphones) but that did not occur.

Sennheiser HD800S

To add a high-impedance headphone to the mix, I chose the Sennheiser HD800S. This might be one of my favorite solid-state pairings for the HD800S, where the already-mentioned-to-death “richness” of the Arche really plays well with the typically somewhat lean and brighter signature of the Sennheiser headphone. The end result, in either “voltage” or “hybrid” modes was thoroughly engaging, but was not audibly different in any other way.

Amplifier Modes & Frequency Response - Summary

While there are subtle, but measurable, frequency response differences among the settings for Focal headphones, this isn’t really reflected with non-Focal headphones. Similar, the differences in overall sound are more apparent in the “model specific” modes here and are less, or not apparent with some other headphones (this may change with others).

Other performance metrics, such as distortion, available power, and so on may show bigger differences when it comes to measurements.

And for now, if I was using the Arche as my day to day amplifier, I would choose to run it using the appropriate model preset if using Focal headphones, in “hybrid” mode for low-impedance non-Focal cans and “voltage” mode for higher impedance headphones.

See the updates to First Impressions of the Focal Arche for links to other parts of this review.

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As a Clear owner myself, the Arche definitely piqued my interest when they announced it. I’ve been surprised how hard it is to find impressions though, so thanks for the usual high quality review you’ve provided here, Torq.

Something I admittedly don’t like is how they effectively don’t disclose anything about all of the different presets and what they actually do from an engineering perspective. Even if you look in the Arche user manual, it simply says “We recommend that you use this setting for (insert model here) headphones”. The lack of measurement differences only makes it more puzzling.

I suspect it is largely because of what you mentioned though, they market it from more of a “lifestyle” approach (if I recall correctly it was released at the same time as Stellia).

I’m definitely still strongly in the separate component camp, so don’t see myself ever getting a combined amp/dac (even if I can use a separate dac with it). Cool to hear that the Arche actually is worthy of the price tag though.

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This post is part of the Focal Arche “episodic” review, that begins here.

DAC vs. Amp vs. All-in-Ones

Products like the Focal Arche, that incorporate both source and amplification make it somewhat challenging to understand the relative/individual performance of their DAC and amplification sources. In most cases where that has been possible, I have typically found that one element will be significantly stronger than the other - to an unbalanced degree.

In the case of a DAC-equipped SPL Phonitor X, for example, the amplifier is much more capable than the DAC192 module, to the point where I can only regard the DAC option as something to use when you really need a one-box solution and/or its more for convenience/monitoring than critical listening (also known as “most people should pass on the DAC192 module). And then the RME ADI-2 DAC fs has a DAC section that is significantly more convincing than its headphone output. I actually pair these two units, opting not to use the DAC in the SPL unit, nor the headphone output on the RME, and instead feeding the DAC output from the ADI-2 fs to the balanced inputs on the Phonitor X to get the best out of both of them.

With the Arche, while the unit is clearly intended to be used as a combined DAC and amplifier, its support for an additional analog source and both balanced and single-ended analog outputs make it possible to evaluate the unit’s analog amplifier stage independently from it’s DAC (and vice-versa) to get an idea of their individual performance.

So how does it fair?

DAC

This is one of the better built-in DAC implementations I have heard. It’s a dual-mono AKM4490 configuration, and supports the full range of input formats and bit rates that the chipset is capable of. The only thing you can’t do is choose between the 4490’s onboard digital filters.

Sonically it is roughly on par with the DAC output of the RME ADI-2 fs and more enjoyable than, say, the significantly more expensive Bryston BDA-3, although it has the AKM “velvet sound” in evidence which always seems to add a bit of, often pleasant, “bloom” to the bottom end - where the RME unit manages to dial this out for a more neutral overall delivery.

As a source feeding a speaker rig, via the analog output in pre-amp mode, the DAC portion still gives an excellent account of itself. At the same time, you wouldn’t want to buy an Arche just to use it as a DAC/pre-amp … value wise I feel it only makes any sense if you’re going to be spending more time with it for headphone listening than anything else. Otherwise you can get the same level of DAC performance elsewhere for around half the price of the Focal piece.

Amplifier

The “richness” I hear from the Arche is present both when using the internal DAC as well as feeding the amplifier from an external source via it’s RCA inputs. This indicates that what I’m describing as “richness” is down to the amplifier and not the DAC - so that is going to carry over onto any other source you connect to the unit also. If you like the effect, this is a good thing … and if not, well, you probably won’t like the unit overall anyway.

I would say I enjoy the amplifier performance here more than say the Massdrop THX AAA 789 and the iFi Audio Pro iCAN in solid-state mode. It’s not quite on the same level as the SPL Phonitor X, though the Arche has a less matter-of-fact presentation than the SPL unit (making the Arche technically less accurate, I suppose, but rather enjoyable nonetheless).

I’ll revisit the amplifiers detailed performance in the full “sound” related episode of this review - here I’m more concerned with determining if it’s the “weak link” or is “holding things back” here … and it’s pretty clear when using it with other sources that this is not the case at all.

All-in-One

This is a very nicely balanced unit - to the point it becomes a bit more than the raw “sum of its parts”, especially when paired with Focal’s headphones. In other words this is a solution that has some appreciable synergy in evidence both as a DAC/amp and especially as “a complete Focal solution”. This fits the apparently life-style-targeted marketing rather well, but unlike a lot of such products is actually an excellent listen as well. I have found it fairly easy to simply get drawn into the music with the Arche - coming to my sense only several albums later.

Neither the amplifier or DAC performance is way out of whack in relation to the other. It’s a highly complementary pairing, and at no time did I feel like the performance was really skewed one way or another. To the extent that there is a “value proposition” to a $2,499 DAC/amp/pre setup, then using the Arche as an all-in-one is easily the best way to realize it.

At a push I’d say the amplifier is the slightly more capable side of the Arche. That opens the door to upgrading overall performance in the future with a better, external, DAC - but it makes no sense to me to buy an Arche and immediately pair it with a different source. But the tilt towards amplifier-capability here isn’t huge and results in perhaps the most balanced and enjoyable all-in-one solution I’ve heard to date.

See the updates to First Impressions of the Focal Arche for links to other parts of this review.

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Those of you that have Focal headphones, and that are thinking about DAC/amp upgrades, should really try and get your ears on this thing. It works well with every headphone I’ve tried, but there’s a definite “Focal Synergy” going on here.

Though most of today has involved running the Arche into my Vérité (also an extremely compelling pairing … clearly favoring “voltage” mode) … tonight I intend to put the Stellia back on my head with this thing.

The more I listen, the more I wish I had a specific need for another DAC/amp! And the harder it is to resist jumping on this instead of waiting for a proper comparison with the other strong contender for my “next bedroom rig” … the Matrix Element:X (wireless Roon integration/DAC/amp in one box is very tempting … though they do need to do a black version too …).

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