What don’t we like about soundbars? Well, their goal is supposed to be the simplification of lounge life, a sound solution for TV and movies (and maybe music) that is relatively neat compared with a set of speakers wired all round the room.
But soundbars are still potentially messy things. They sit out in front of your TV, with a varying number of wires running to their always-too-small rear connection bays. Then most of them come with a subwoofer, often wireless these days but still a big box that you need to stick somewhere near a mains socket.
Messy bar, inconvenient subwoofer — and sound that can’t match a dedicated surround system — all in the cause of neatening things up. Where did we go wrong?
Well, with the Dimension, Focal shows that it doesn’t have to be that way.
We’ve long recognised the advantages of a platform-type sound base over a long thin sound bar. The connections are hidden away, the TV sits on top, the physical volume of a platform can be as large as a floorstanding speaker.
So here Focal has developed a platform subwoofer. It’s a classy gloss-topped unit 115cm wide, 33cm deep and a little over 11cm high (so check your TV will fit on it or over it). Unlike most podium TV systems the sub’s two elliptical drivers (each 20cm × 8cm) fire to the sides rather than the front, so as well as filling your bench space, it needs breathing space on either side.
As you can see from the pictures, the reason this tabletop subwoofer doesn’t fire forward is because its sloping front face perfectly matches the rear of the Dimension soundbar itself. By putting the bar in front of the sub Focal has delivered a neat, attractive yet inconspicuous solution — the mess of connections is more or less hidden in the space between the two units, wires can trail under the sub to emerge at the rear, and of course there’s no separate sub to accommodate in the room. It’s a clever solution, and brilliant design.
The soundbar uses five separate and unusual drivers — very shallow paper cones 10cm in diameter, visible as scoops out of the front cloth cover. One of Focal’s core design criteria was that any 5.1-channel sound system should use five identical drivers for consistency of sound. But those shallow drivers, while keeping the bar thin, had fairly low directionality, no good for aiming sideways to bounce sound off walls, in the manner of many competitors.
Instead Focal has gone for sound manipulation, using phase on the lateral surround channels, but across the whole range of sound, not just the higher frequencies. Phase manipulation has long been used to create fake surround effects in soundbars, almost always with terrible results that can affect centre-channel intelligibility in particular. But the Dimension is a little different, with Dolby and DTS processing onboard to differentiate genuine surround information, plus retaining a dedicated centre channel, to keep dialogue clear. Focal describes its treatment of the outside driver’s surround information as “like an optical lens”, displacing the apparent source without requiring wall bouncing.
Those shallow drivers have also allowed Focal to keep the depth of the Dimension soundbar to just 6.5cm, making it a candidate for wall-mounting (a mount is included in the box). In these situations a more conventional subwoofer might be a better pick, and Focal has several options, the Sub Air being the leader in design terms. So a line-level subwoofer output is provided for active models, while the platform sub with the Dimension has a powered speaker-level connection (see below).
So far so good. Focal drops points for a crowded and fiddly connections bay at the rear — though to be fair, it’s a rare soundbar that doesn’t have this problem. Connections are fairly simple, with optical in, analogue minijack in, and two HDMI sockets. One of those would normally be used as an input, perhaps from your Blu-ray player, and the other as the output to your TV. It supports ARC, the Audio Return Channel within HDMI, so that the Focal can receive audio from other inputs on your TV, including the TV’s own tuners. But ARC is only patchily successful, so if it doesn’t work (or your TV doesn’t have ARC), then you can use the optical input for TV sound, remembering that many TVs will deliver only stereo via this path.
Behind the HDMI sockets there’s only 6cm of patch bay space, tight to turn a decent cable, so our HDMI cables simply exited to the left, tucked into the gap between bar and sub.
Then there is a short bare-wire speaker cable link provided to connect from the bar to the sub. It connects to the underside of the subwoofer where there are a couple of reasonably-sized spring clips — no problem. But on the soundbar the springclips for the other end of the cable are the smallest we’ve ever seen — too small to easily accept the provided cable, and a frantic fiddlefest to connect; we don’t know what Focal was thinking here.
Also round the back are a series of switches to tailor performance to your particular situation — one to define your distance from the soundbar, one to select whether the unit is on a wall, flush with the front of a table or back a bit, and finally one for the type of subwoofer in use (or none).
There are clever illuminated touch controls on the bar itself (though whenever we flipped the bar over to make or check connections, the volume ramped up through contact with the bench surface), with options for volume, input selection, to tweak the level of bass, to invoke night mode, and (bonus points) for adjusting sync.
“We developed this with an English agency specialising in ergonomics,” says Focal proudly. Sadly we doubt the same is true of the remote control that you’ll be using most of the time — a cheap credit-card remote control with no ergonomic priority… you wouldn’t guess which were the volume keys when using it in a darkened room. It’s also weak in IR terms — we had to point it right at the IR receiver for operation to work, and several times found the missus shouting ‘It doesn’t work!’ while pointing it at the centre of the soundbar. It’s a choice that cheapens the whole Dimension user experience.
So brilliant design, then a bit annoying on a couple of basics — and then brilliant again. Because the sound quality is highly impressive, everything you might hope for at this price level.
The sound balance is well-pitched, not throwing the significant available bass in your face until required. For the ballgame in Interstellar, the clear-sky scenes are matched with clear dialogue and mild crowd effects. Set your levels on that and when the dustcloud hits and the sirens wail, there’s a massive storm of bass that filled our listening room with impressive scale and depth, even while that centre speaker kept dialogue perfectly audible over the noise. (Thinking this a good time to try ‘night’ mode, we invoked it, with no effect at all — turns out it works only with Dolby Digital soundtracks; Interstellar’s English soundtrack had only DTS-HD, so we switched to Spanish to hear its effective reduction of Dolby Digital extremes, both bass content and high dynamics.)
Music is also extremely well presented. It might be considered an omission in this age of streaming not to have Bluetooth or networking on board, although Focal plugs the gap by suggesting its optional aptX receiver could be (with an adaptor) plugged into the back of it. We listened to music primarily by playing CDs and stereo/multichannel Blu-rays via HDMI. We were pleased to find stereo signals are not restricted to two drivers (as some upmarket soundbars have chosen to do) — they are dished up across all five drivers and low-pass filtered to the subwoofer as well.
We settled into the superb 2002 ‘Concert For George’ Blu-ray, switching between stereo and 5.1, enjoying the width and atmosphere of the 5.1 mix but preferring the clarity, particularly of central vocals, from the stereo version. The complex live mix was kept clear and well separated, the bass guitar (tighter in stereo too) was fully realised in tone right down to its bottom open E string, perhaps a slight softness compared with high-quality conventional speakers, but this only appearing a distraction when we pushed things up to enjoy concert levels of sound. (One side note — our energy meter indicated the Focal was using only 20W or so of power at this level, even though it idled when silent at 12W and pulled 5-6W in standby. This is highly efficient power use by the quoted 450W of amplification behind the Dimension’s six powered channels. It also has the largest power bricks we’ve ever seen.)
In particular the co-positioning of bar and subwoofer prevented the common physical sub-sat separation between the lower bass and upper frequencies, so that music was presented as an enjoyable whole, and tied accurately to the picture too.
Brilliant design, a couple of niggles, then brilliant sound. Focal has reinvented the soundbar and subwoofer combination with the Dimension, and in sonic performance terms, it’s a great success.
Price: $1499 soundbar, $599 subwoofer
+ Top quality soundbar sound; Neat platform subwoofer; Great aesthetics
- No streaming options; Basic remote control; Micro-springclips for sub connection
Soundbar drivers: 5 x 10cm ‘ultra-flat’ paper-cones
Subwoofer drivers: 2 x elliptical 20 x 8cm
Integrated amplification: 6-channel 450W total (in soundbar)
Connections: 2 x HDMI (in/out), optical digital, analogue minijack, RCA subwoofer out, 2 x micro-springclips for powered subwoofer connection
Soundbar dimensions (whd): 1155 x 115 x 65mm (depth 120mm when on a table)
Subwoofer dimensions (whd): 1155 x 115 x 325mm
Weight: 5.5kg (bar), 14kg (sub)
Warranty: Two years