This post is part of the Focal Arche “episodic” review , that begins here .
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!
See the updates to First Impressions of the Focal Arche for links to other parts of this review.