Normally the Focal Chorus 816 V is a very tidy-looking thousand pound floorstander which sits midway up the Chorus 800 V range and, thanks to its balance of style and sound, probably ticks over at a steady rate in sales terms.
But this wasn't good enough for the UK trade, who demanded a 'go faster' version of this model. One that retained the domestically friendly size and styling, but which had something extra under the bonnet to whet the appetite of the sonically sensitive music lover.
Focal's speaker technology
So Focal's design department decided to incorporate the cone technology from its more upmarket ranges, specifically the Electra and Profile models. In fact, if you look at the drive unit complement, it is very close to that in the Profile 918 and the Electra 1027 Be, which sells for considerably more than the sum being asked here.
The difference between an 816WSE and an 816 is hinted at in the suffix: SE stands for special edition, W stands for 'verre verre' or 'glass glass'. This is how Focal refers to its W cones, which combine layers of epoxy-impregnated glass fibre with a Rohacell foam backing designed to achieve low mass, high stiffness and high internal damping.
The Chorus V range normally sports polyglass driver cones, but the 165mm mid and bass drivers on the 816WSE have the same cone material as Focal's top-of-the-range Utopia models. The midrange cone is a single glass layer with a foam backing, while the bass unit is made up from multiple layers of glass either side of the foam to give it greater stiffness.
The tweeter is made of aluminium and magnesium and takes the company's preferred inverted shape, one which it feels offers greater rigidity at the appropriate frequencies. The 816 cabinet is attractively proportioned and very neatly finished.
Honed from HDF and with its central portion covered in polished black acrylic, the flanks are vinyl wrapped in either 'Ebony' or 'Moka'. The box is bolted to a cast aluminium plinth which adds to the air of "affordable luxury" as Focal likes to call it, as well as creating a specific gap for the downward-firing reflex port to work with.
There are two reflex ports, one being forward- firing, while the other exits out of the base. Focal's reasoning is that power handling increases with port area. Doubling the port area like this also adds to the contribution that this part of the equation gives to the low frequency output of the speaker as a whole.
Focal also continues with the single pair of cable terminals approach, arguing the point that things remain more predictable with only a single wire connection (if you use different cables into bi-wire terminals you can subtly change the signal going to the two halves of the crossover).
In this case, the terminals are rubber coated for easy clamping and extra tactile appeal. Spikes are included in the cast plinth and are very easy to adjust from above which makes a pleasant change.
Initially, we set these up at the more open-end of the listening room with a lot of space behind and beside them resulting in a good open sound with fast, tight bass.
The midrange, however, didn't seem to come through all that well, so we switched seating and speakers around to give the 816 WSE something to work against in the form of a relatively close rear wall. While the bass wasn't quite as clean, probably because our floor is suspended rather than solid, it did result in significantly improved imaging and all-round coherence.
Listening commenced with the Resolution Audio Opus 21 CD player and a visiting Leema Tucana integrated amplifier - a pairing that proves to be very much up the Focal's alley - the speaker revelling in the great timing and immediacy on offer and revealing a good deal of the weight and dynamics coming off of the Avanim disc Third World Love.
This contains a very realistic-sounding kick drum, which the speaker makes a fine job of reproducing, delivering a sense of slam that you don't often hear. It also does a good job with the trumpet at the other end of the scale, the inverted tweeter making a great case for its approach by reproducing high-power, high frequencies without sounding strained.
Seeking out more bass adventure, we put on a bit of Grace Jones and were treated to Robbie Shakespear's very tuneful underpinnings on Warm Leatherette in full effect.
It would seem that the combination of precise, clean highs with the impressive low frequency extension and control on offer makes the 816 WSE a highly capable loudspeaker when it comes to rhythmic definition. In fact, timing is pretty strong across the board thanks to the way the bass moves with the same speed as the midband.
The latter invokes good imaging, allowing voices and instruments to project away from the cabinets with a good recording such as the Blind Boys of Alabama's Born in Bethlehem. There could be a little more sparkle in the midband, perhaps, (some tracks can seem a shade less colourful than they do on more expensive speakers), but it is always well articulated.
Imaging is also very sensitive to the recording with the better ones throwing up a tall and wide soundstage with good, if not outstanding depth and others hanging low and not really escaping the cabinets. Differences like this reveal that the Focal is adding little of its own character to the result, which is a very good sign.
A difficult system to beat
The nearest speaker we have on hand for reference purposes is ATC's SCM19, a £1,499 standmount which has a rather more dry sound that reveals more detail, but doesn't extend as well in the bass.
The 816 WSE produces a bigger soundstage with more fulsome bass and a perceptibly 'louder' character. It's a more forgiving speaker and probably has wider appeal than the relatively puritanical, but rock-solid ATC.
To see how forgiving the Focal is we partnered it with some more down-to-earth electronics in the form of Cambridge's well regarded Azur 840C CD player and 840A amplifier. The result, while more forward, is very coherent and detailed with a leaner bottom end and a cruder top.
Back with the high-end electronics, Rodrigo y Gabriela's Live disc provides the highest entertainment of the session. The live atmosphere being reproduced to gripping effect and the scorching playing being totally indulged by this speaker's superb dynamics and ability to project the twin guitars.
The WSE treatment makes this neatly finished design a highly entertaining speaker and one which will give alternatives from Focal's competitors a benchmark to beat.