That’s a serious-looking box, like $2500 well spent.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 …).
Now that I’ve Had More Time with It …
My first comments on sound for the Arche were based on just having a single day with the unit, and with it essentially fresh out of the box. Revisiting it here, it has now been run for several hundred hours, and has been fully warmed up and “broken in” (for those that are concerned about such things).
After a solid week of listening and comparisons, with multiple headphones, and against multiple DACs and amplifiers, I believe I have a good sense of where the Arche falls both in terms of performance and value, and the relative merit of each of it’s sub-systems (DAC vs. Amp) I’ve already talked about here.
I continue to feel that the Arche offers a slightly “richer” presentation than many solid-state amplifiers. This manifests as more body to the sound of individual instruments and voices, and a greater sense of weight to the overall presentation. This “richness” is not really synonymous with “warmth” … the general tonality of the unit is neutral.
Focal’s “Arche” plies its trade against a coal-black background, both in terms of DAC and amplifier. This is fully exploited in the units performance here, whether it is the first, subtle, hint of the oboe’s song hauntingly emerging from total void, emphasizing just how dark the background really is, or the sudden staccato onslaught of a Dropkick Murphy’s intro illustrating Arche’s ability to go from nothingness to shock-and-awe in an instant. Arche builds on this deep, dark, canvas delivering a fast, crisp, tonally neutral, rich and engaging sound.
Bass-heavy music, be it classical church-organ pieces that would rattle your ribcage in person, or more modern electronic bass lines (Trentmøller’s “Chameleon” is a track I often use here) with significant sub-bass content capable of driving one’s room into overpressure with speakers, comes across with a suitable sense of power and energy, with no hint of stress or unease in the delivery - even with very demanding headphones like the Abyss.
In some cases there is a hint of bloom to the lowest registers - something I’ve heard before with other AKM4490-based DACs, and this is something you’ll either like or you won’t. It’s not a very pronounced effect, and might actually be welcome for many if pairing this unit with the Elex, Elegia or Utopia.
The midrange is lucid, fast, and detailed, with excellent tone. Both voices and mid-centric instruments are projected in an even-handed manner, with no tendency for one to override the other. The “richness” I mentioned is most apparent here and adds some body to instruments, notably with those using wooden bodies, and voices exhibit some extra fleshiness. The effect isn’t one of “warmth”, nor is it “tube like” - the best word I can think of is “luxurious” - which probably makes little sense to anyone else …
Theres no hash, nor harshness, in Arche’s delivery. All the way up to the highest registers it plays in a silky-smooth and refined manner, without feeling liking it is rounding off any rough edges that happen to be in your recordings. Brass still retains its full bite, cymbals crash, but it never oversteps the mark here. The same is true with higher-pitched female vocals that can push some units into sibilance; those remain edgy but controlled here, while still allowing any such transgressions in the original material to come through.
Speed is another notable trait of the Arche, apparent both in its raw transient response as well as when following major dynamic shifts in the flow of music. The pizzicato elements in “Anitra’s Dance” (Act IV of Greig’s “Peer Gynt”) are delivered with impressive bite and immediacy, while the rest of the melody swells and flows smoothly - unperturbed by the rapid rise and more measured decay of the strings. And the staccato passages of “Die Another Day” (Madonna, “Die Another Day: OST”) demonstrate Arche’s ability to start and stop in an instant, with no overshoot nor lag. This is an area of particular synergy with Focal’s own headphones, where they are well known for their dynamics and raw speed - something Arche takes full advantage of.
Another area in which Arche has similar behavior to that of Focal’s headphones is in terms of stage rendering and how it conveys the sense of space in an acoustic venue. While the open hollowness of the church acoustic (“Mining for Gold”, Cowboy Junkies, “The Trinity Session”) is well conveyed by Arche, the acoustic doesn’t feel as large as with some other units. The already narrow stage projected by Utopia isn’t narrowed further here, but nor is it expanded at all.
Detail/resolution is very good-to-excellent, though perhaps not at the absolute pinnacle of capability that the Stellia and Utopia are capable of delivering. When comparing to my primary rig, with focused “audition style” listening, little things - such as being able to tell when a triangle was hit slightly off, or a brush on brass is splitting, are not as easily heard here. Of course, generally that sort of listening is not is how one spends time enjoying music as a whole, and as such is not the sort of thing that one would hear without listening for it specifically.
Overall, this is a highly-competent, convincing and engaging listen, with solid technicalities, neutral tone, and just a hint of extra tonal weight/richness, which plays well with its “lifestyle” positioning and the nature of the headphones it is most likely to find itself paired with.
With FOCAL Headphones
In my last week of listening, I included a fair amount of blind(ish) comparison. This involved having my wife choose the amplifier mode between “voltage”, “hybrid” and the actual preset for the headphone I was using and/or not actually changing anything. And then taking advantage of my earlier measurements and the digital volume control to compensate for the changes in output level that accompany the different modes, so that the comparisons were all level-matched.
The results of this were that I consistently preferred the rendering of the Arche when it was set to the actual headphone I was listening with. This shouldn’t be surprising, but it was nice to see that this is how things turned out. Though it is worth noting that we’re not talking about major changes here. If you weren’t focusing on what you were hearing, the differences could easily be missed.
In particular on the “Utopia” setting, the Utopia headphones play with more low-end presence and weight than is typically ascribed to them. Not to the degree that you’d confused them for a different headphone, and not in a manner that you couldn’t exert more control and a bigger change using EQ, but enough to be apparent and in almost all cases, quite desirable.
The Stellia go from being slightly bass-elevated and naturally warm and rich in their “normal” state (e.g. in “Voltage” mode) and those traits get slightly emphasized in “Stellia” mode, while at the same time there’s a sense of just a tad more treble presence and air, which helps keep things from becoming too warm or rich. Again, the shift is small and subtle, but pleasant and engaging - and is easiest to appreciate in longer listening sessions vs. back-and-forth comparisons.
With Other Headphones
Results with other headphones were generally excellent and the overall sound was never less than engaging and enjoyable. Switching between “Voltage” and “Hybrid” mode and, where needed, “High” and “Low” gain settings, mostly affected the sense of authority and immediacy rather than anything else - but it was still evident that some settings worked better than others with different headphones.
My preferred settings for the various other headphones I tried with the Arche are as follows:
- Audeze - LCD-4 - “Voltage” mode, “High” gain
- JPS Labs - “Abyss” AB-1266 Phi CC - “Hybrid” mode, “High” gain
- LB-Acoustics - MySphere 3.2 - “Voltage” mode, “High” gain
- Rosson Audio Design - RAD-0 - “Hybrid” mode, “Low” gain
- Sennheiser - HD800S - “Voltage” mode, “High” gain
- Sennheiser - HD820 - “Voltage” mode, “Low” gain
- ZMF - Vérité (Open) - “Voltage” mode, “Low” gain
Focal’s Arche gives an excellent account of itself. Of the all-in-one DAC/amp combinations I’ve had a chance to listen to properly, I am hard pressed to name anything I’ve enjoyed more at a similar price-point. Nor can I cite another unit in its class that is as well balanced in terms of the relative merit of its individual capabilities - most DAC/amps are heavily skewed towards one aspect or the other, and not to their favor.
The value proposition here is interesting. I do think there’s a certain amount of “badge” and “brand” as well “lifestyle” factors at work in the pricing of the unit. And $2,499 is still $2,499 no matter how quickly you say it. But I don’t think it is out of line for the combination of features, sound and, especially, particular synergy with Focal’s own line of headphones.
I think it probably makes the most sense for those of a less “headphone enthusiast” persuasion, who are simply looking for a great-sounding, elegant, no-fuss way to enjoy their premium headphones - especially if those headphones happen to come from Focal. And it’s very easy to see Arche being sold as part of a package to well-heeled types buying their headphones from their local Focal dealer; but it’d be a shame for those of a more “enthusiast” persuasion to pass this over without giving it a listen.
I’ve really enjoyed listening to the Focal Arche and think it’s overall presentation is both technically capable as well as being highly engaging and enjoyable. If it had a ROON end-point built-in I would just buy one as a convenient bedside rig, drop my Stellia on it, and call it good. I might wind up doing that anyway, with a small dedicated external ROON end-point.
Arche is well worth taking the time and effort to audition if you’re shopping for DAC and amp, or all-in-one unit, around this price point!
Hi, I currently have the Focal Clear headphones and am considering the Arche. This thread has been very useful. I want to confirm what I think is the case, that the RCA source input signal remains entirely analog and is not converted to digital? I ask because my primary use for the Arche would be for turntable setup (turntable -> phono stage -> Focal Arche -> Focal Clear).
Yep, that’s how it works - the analog inputs go straight to the amplifier.
There is no ADC in the Arche…
Got it, thank you.
Hello and welcome @JohnLA. The focal Clears are a fine set of headphones and from what has been said around this forum the Arche is a great pairing.
I have the Arche over two months with Stellia. Honestly at the begining did not expect much but wow what a surprise I listen to this amp everyday.
Despite having my attention focused entirely elsewhere lately … I have heard some wittering about pending deals on bundle-deals with the Arche and both Clear, Stellia and Utopia headphones … as in savings of between $1,000 and $1,500 …
I might just have to pick up one of those bundles myself …
That is correct!
Arche + Clear is $3000
Arche + Stellia is $4000
Arche + Utopia is $5000
The bundles are live for most dealers but they just haven’t started shipping from Focal yet.
Arche, especially paired with Focal headphones, is an uncommonly good unit/value. The synergy there is very high. I’d be hard-pressed to name a better solid-state amplifier option for the Focal headphones at all, and certainly nothing comes to mind at the effective price it goes for in these bundles.
Starting to think my on-boat (sail) rig could be a Chord 2Go/2Yu feeding an Arche …
I would have to agree. It’s one of my favourite synergies with the Utopia / Stellia, placed slightly ahead of the Phonitor X. The Phonitor X wins out for me if we’re talking about synergies with other headphones but if I was looking at strictly having Focal in my collection there’s no doubt in my mind that the Arche is the best.
The language around the Arche at launch was a little confusing which is why I think it didn’t get the traction it rightfully deserves but I have a feeling with these new bundles it’s going to be on a lot more people’s radars pretty quickly.
That’s how I feel about it.
Especially where the DAC in the Arche easily trumps that of the Phonitor X. But even if just using it is an amplifier, fed with an external source, I found the Arche to be preferable with Focal’s own headphones.
What was most interesting to me there, was that it held true even if the Arche wasn’t configured for the specific Focal headphone in use at the time (though that was better still).
I haven’t actually tried the Arche with Focal headphones outside of their specific presets so I think this week is the time to give it a try. As well as giving it a run with some other headphones as I’d be interested to see how the DAC performs with some of the warmer headphones we have in the office.
I’m really enjoying the Focal Arche with my Stellia’s. But something has appeared on my screen that wasn’t there in the beginning? I reached out to Focal and they said “it probably
Thank you @Torq for another excellent review! How would you guys compare the Arche to the Hugo 2?
Well I’m not a Brit and purchased the V1 for 2 reasons: it was a demo on sale and it was the DAC Focal suggested acquiring for the Elear and Utopia at the time I purchased the Elear. I knew of Naim through their amps even though I had never owned one myself. I’m Canadian, can’t afford Moon so had to stick with Bryston or NAD (that one we stole from you guys, sorry about that) but since most reviewers here were fond of Naim I saw no reason to complicate things any further and got the DAC the same time I picked up the Elear. Never had any regrets as it’s a fairly easy DAC to get along with for many headphones and heck! it even made friends with two of my vintage receivers, the Pioneer SX-650 and 1250. He didn’t like the 1010 though, God knows why, and with the Sansui he produced an annoying hum even before I could connect the two. Not worth troubleshooting, I barely use the Sansui anyway. Say, the Arche looks a lot like the Naim, could this unusually elongated, half-width unit it be a Focal signature spec? I ask because Focal appears to be one of the most distinctive look-oriented manufacturer I know of and AFAIK it fetches good returns.