Focal, with its fine heritage in high-end speaker design, made the decision to join the soundbar club probably after it saw how successful Bose and B&W were doing at the premium end of the market. But neither the Bose Cinemate 1SR or B&W Panorama 2 have external subwoofer options and only the latter has the HDMI inputs that Focal’s Dimension offers.
Does this make it unique? No. Harman/ Kardon’s Sabre SB35 totes several HDMIs and a separate sub, as does Monitor Audio’s ASB-2, which (unlike the Dimension) also has AirPlay.However, the Dimension is uniquely versatile in that it can operate either as a soundbar (£890 including Bluetooth adapter) or as a soundbase, when used in conjunction with its optional plinth-style subwoofer, in which case the price is £1,200 – this is what I've tested here. A third option is to use the Dimension 'bar with the £600 wireless Sub Air, which sports a traditional form factor.
Unusually for a soundbar, the Dimension sports five identical full-range drivers. These are newly-designed for the task but are based on a pre-existing patent for an in-car speaker with a 60Hz to 20kHz frequency response. They employ ultra-flat full-range paper cone drivers with an extrusion of just 3.65mm and do not, says Focal, use treble directivity to create surround sound. Instead, phase and delay are tailored to deliver the surround left and right channels. Explains Focal MD Gérard Chrétien: ‘The centre channel is usually moved back to emphasise the surround effects but here it remains in total coherence to provide intelligible dialogue.’
The Dimension is made from extruded aluminium while the Dimension Sub is fashioned from MDF, and has a glass top. Both seem solidly built. Aesthetically, I wouldn’t say the 'bar is a stunner. It's finished to a very high standard but there’s something rather dominating about its immense blackness that some households may reject readily (this is code for my partner took against it). The soundbar has bass reflex vents, while the Dimension Sub has dual elliptical woofers, working in a 'push-push' configuration to limit cabinet vibrations.
Intended to be used with screens of 50in and over, the Dimension represents Focal’s biggest ever launch in terms of technology and investment. Amplification is a hefty 6 x 75W (the sixth amp powers the subwoofer) and the DSP is provided by a premium-grade 4th-gen Sharc floating point chipset. Low frequencies (below 200Hz) are mixed in mono and reproduced by the four lateral channels into the bass vents, which Focal claims is the equivalent of an 8in woofer. Throw in the additional subwoofer and an 80Hz filter comes into play, with the soundbase reaching down to a claimed 36Hz.
The HDMI count is a tad mean in my book for a premium product, with one input and one output, although the latter is capable of accepting an ARC signal from a TV. The input is able to accept DTS-HD MA and Dolby TrueHD bitstreams, but only able to handle the core lossy 5.1 DTS or DD soundtrack (although this all happens automatically so the user doesn’t have to fret). There’s also a digital optical input, a 3.5mm aux input and aptX-compatible Bluetooth streaming. The lack of AirPlay is disappointing as it would allow the Dimension to be used in a multi-room context.
The Dimension subwoofer connection is made using (whisper it) spring-clip terminals. Adjacent are selector switches for calibration. If using the Dimension and Dimension Sub together all sockets and switches disappear from view as the rear of the soundbar slides up against the fascia of the subwoofer. This requires the threading of all cables under the subwoofer to reach your AV kit. It’s not inelegant, unlike the implementation of the Bluetooth receiver, which hangs off the end of a lengthy adapter cable and has a separate power cable and socket.
Calibration consists of choosing the most suitable of three settings each for distance, position and room type. On the right side of the soundbar's fascia is the touch-sensitive control panel. You’re more likely to use the credit card-sized remote though, which allows you to select the input, alter the volume (unless using ARC, in which case your TV remote assumes the role), adjust the bass level, engage Night mode and tweak lip sync.
It took me a couple of tweaks with the calibration switches to get the optimal sound for my room, with the subwoofer proving far too overbearing on its middle setting and risking shaking the curtains from their hooks during a Bluetooth listen of Lorde’s Royals.
This was easily fixed but the most significant improvement in terms of overall clarity and power came by switching from using the HDMI ARC (connected to a Samsung 46in screen) for Blu-ray playback to hooking up directly to the deck.
With a total of 450W and a maximum SPL of nearly 105dB (subwoofer attached) there was never likely to be much concern about the Dimension’s performance in terms of power. Indeed, I could never get it anywhere near its maximum volume without risking damaging my ear drums. But my greatest concern was for the ability of the drivers to deliver intelligible dialogue. I need not have worried – the Dimension skillfully handled the awesome soundtrack from F1 drama Rush. Pin-sharp details in the mid-range, such as revving engines, blistering tyres, camera shutters being fired and tyres skidding, were all delivered with aplomb. And amid all the cacophony the vocal interaction between the drivers and their teams on the grid came through easily and naturally.
Bass, once properly adjusted, was meaty yet tight with subtle low-end noises – rumbling thunder, the humming and throbbing of the car engines – all delivered with zest.
There's depth to the soundstage, too. When Lauda quits the Japan race and speaks to his mechanic, a car zooms past him in the background. The Dimension lived up to its name with a three-dimensional sound that transported me to the trackside and panned markedly across the soundscape.
With Sky HD fodder such as Sky News, Pointless, Fargo and live football commentary the Dimension proves itself an ideal everyday soundbar, easily used thanks to CEC operation that turns it on and off automatically. The only gripe is adjusting the lip sync, which lacks the finesse of the bar’s acoustic performance.
And musically the Dimension is a decent performer with impressive imaging and more muscle than Prince’s security team. Martin Garrix’s electro anthem Animals, streamed wirelessly by Bluetooth from a MacBook Pro, was frighteningly impressive. Some may find the presentation a tad too clinical, lacking in warmth, but you can’t argue with its sheer energy and clarity throughout the frequency range and no hint of distortion at club-filling volumes.
Taking the subwoofer out of the equation only shows how good the soundbar itself is in terms of bass. Unless you really dig low-end weight, or want the soundbase configuration, I reckon the soundbar alone is well up to the task.
Overall, the Dimension is a success. It might not be the most chic-looking product, but it delivers the sonic goods. In a nutshell, it has great power and its six channels have finely honed levels of clarity with a performance that’s more polished than the contents of Niki Lauda’s trophy cabinet.
£1,200 Approx, www.focal.com
Highs: Well crafted, powerful sound with dynamism and clarity; good Bluetooth music playback; simple to use
Lows: Heavy, dominating appearance; low HDMI count; no AirPlay or USB media playback
Drive units: 5 x 4in ultra-flat paper cones
Connections: 2 x HDMI (1 x ARC); digital optical input; analogue 3.5mm input; spring-clip terminals for Dimension Sub: sub line out (low-level output)
Dolby TrueHD/DTS-HD MA: No.
Separate sub: Yes. Passive, dual 8in x 3in elliptical woofers
Remote control: Yes
Dimensions: 115.5(w) x 11.5(h) x 41(d)mm (including Sub)
Weight: 19.5kg (including Sub)
Features: Apt-x Bluetooth audio streaming via optional adapter; HDMI CEC with auto power; adjustable bass; adjustable sound and picture synchronisation; Night mode; optimum acoustic integration through settings on the rear panel of soundbar for positioning, room acoustics and sweet spot
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