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It’s been less than 10 years since Focal entered the headphone market, but in that short time, the company has established itself as one of the preeminent makers of ultra-high-fidelity cans. TechHive has reviewed four models so far—the Clear, Elegia, Radiance, and Stellia—and all were judged to be excellent, though they will set you back quite a pretty penny.
To round out its headphone-related portfolio, Focal recently introduced the Arche DAC/headphone amp. Does it occupy the same rarefied heights of performance as the company’s cans? Is it a match for the glorious Stellia (which I had on hand for this review)? The answer is a resounding yes!
If you can pull the trigger before the end of 2020, and you already own a Focal Clear, Stellia, or Utopia headphone, Focal will give you a $1,000 voucher that you can apply to your Arche purchase. You’ll find more details on that at the end of this review.
The Arche is a solid brick measuring 7.8 x 2.5 x 11.4 inches (WxHxD) and weighing a hefty 10.25 pounds—the build quality is obviously of the highest order. Inside, the electronics are no less impressive. The DAC (digital-to-analog converter) is an AK4490 from Asahi Kasei Microdevices that provides two channels of conversion for PCM up to 768kHz at 32 bits and DSD up to 11.2MHz (aka DSD256). The Arche’s inputs, however, have somewhat lower limits, which I’ll discuss shortly.
One feature that’s missing is the ability to decode MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) files. MQA is a lossless encoding scheme developed by Meridian that reduces the size and bandwidth requirements of high-resolution audio files. MQA titles from a provider such as Tidal must be decoded before being sent to the Arche.
True to its audiophile aspirations, the amplifier section is a completely dual-mono, pure Class A, fully balanced design that provides up to 1 watt/channel at 1 kHz for headphones with an input impedance of less than 32 ohms. The amp can drive impedances from 16 to 600 ohms with a frequency response from 10Hz to 100kHz, THD less than 0.001%, and signal-to-noise ratio greater than 116dB at 32 ohms. Those are some seriously impressive specs!
Interestingly, the Arche offers several presets that tailor the amp in various ways. For example, there are presets that match the impedance of the amp to the impedance of five Focal high-end headphones—Clear, Elear, Elegia, Stellia, and Utopia. In addition, there are two additional presets: Voltage and Hybrid. As you might expect, the Voltage setting puts the amp in voltage mode, while the Hybrid setting is a combination of voltage- and current-mode amplification. According to the company, the Voltage setting is designed to sound tube-like, while Hybrid is supposed to provide more of a solid-state sound.
On the back panel are three digital-audio inputs—coax and optical Toslink S/PDIF and a USB-B port—along with a pair of unbalanced RCA analog-audio inputs. Also on the back are a pair of balanced XLR outputs and a pair of unbalanced RCA outputs, which let you use the Arche as a standalone DAC in a 2-channel audio system. Rounding out the back panel is a USB-A connector that is used to update the firmware, a power on/off switch, and an AC power-cord receptacle.
The coax and optical inputs are limited to PCM digital-audio resolutions up to 192kHz at 24 bits. I tried to find out the maximum PCM resolution of the USB input, but Focal did not respond to this question by the time this review was due. DSD can be accepted only by the USB input. In all cases, the digital-audio signal is converted to 384kHz/32-bit PCM internally.
The front panel has a center-mounted electroluminescent (EL) display with a large multifunction knob to its right and two headphone outputs to its left. In its default mode, the display shows the volume setting and selected input, while the knob adjusts the volume. When you adjust the volume, the display also reveals the gain setting (low or high) and the PCM sample rate of the incoming signal. Press the knob twice to display the main menu, turn the knob to select the parameter you want to tweak, and press the knob to select that parameter.
Actually, there are two pages of parameters. The first page includes input selection, gain (low/high), phase (normal/reverse), and amplifier (which lets you select an amplifier preset). The second menu page lets you control the brightness of the display, enable or disable sleep mode after a period of inactivity, reset the unit to factory condition, and display the firmware version and serial number of the unit.
The two headphone outputs include a standard 1/4-inch unbalanced output and a 4-pin balanced XLR output to use with the corresponding cable included with Focal’s headphones. When I reviewed the Stellia, I assumed the connection to each earcup was not balanced because the connector to the earcup has only two conductors, which my contact confirmed. At that time, it didn’t really matter, since I was using the unbalanced cable anyway.
With the Arche, however, I would use the 4-pin balanced cable, so I wanted to verify that the headphone itself does not have balanced internal wiring. This time, the company said the internal wiring is, in fact, balanced. Wait, what? I finally got the story straight after talking with the Focal product manager.
With that 4-pin cable, two of the pins carry the positive and negative signals for the left channel and the other two pins carry the positive and negative signals for the right channel. The two conductors on the connectors for each earcup convey the positive and negative signals for that channel to opposite ends of the voice coil, which is the definition of a balanced configuration. By contrast, in an unbalanced connection, the voice coil is driven only by the positive signal; the negative ends of both voice coils are tied together and to a common ground.
One nice touch is the solid-aluminum headphone stand that comes with the Arche. You insert it into one of the slots on the top of the unit, and you can hang your headphones on it so they don’t get lost.
Connection, Settings, Cables
I started by connecting the Stellia headphone to the Arche using the 4-pin XLR cable. Next, I connected my iPhone XS to the Arche’s USB input using a Lightning-to-USB camera adaptor and a USB-A-to-USB-B cable. When I turned on the Arche, the phone reported that the device requires too much power and wouldn’t connect. Why would the Arche require any power at all? It’s plugged into an AC wall socket.
When I asked Focal about this, they said this is a known issue with some DAC/amps, though they are not sure why it happens. They recommend using the Apple Lightning-to-USB 3 camera adaptor, which has a separate Lightning port that you can connect to power. This is pretty kludgy, and I doubt that many people will use the Arche with their iPhone anyway.
So, I connected the Arche to my iMac via USB and played tracks from the Tidal Master library using the Tidal app, which worked fine. During my initial listening, I tried different amp presets, but I heard virtually no difference at all. The Clear preset might have been just a tad brighter than the others, but the difference was so tiny that it could easily be dismissed. I suspect it would make a bigger difference with headphones that have a much higher impedance.
I also tried the Voltage and Hybrid settings. The Voltage setting was a bit louder and richer, and the sound was slightly more present. I ended up sticking with the Stellia preset for most of my listening, but I could definitely recognize how the Voltage setting might be appealing.
In addition, I tried the low and high gain settings. As expected, they sounded the same except for level; I could easily match the perceived level at both settings with the volume knob. I was happy to discover that the Arche comes out of sleep mode with the volume set to 20, no matter what the level was when it went to sleep, which is great to avoid unpleasant surprises.
My last comparison was between the balanced and unbalanced cables. Again, the difference was very minor. The balanced connection sounded a bit more open and present, but not by much. Still, I recommend using it with the Arche.
It’s December as I write this, so I started with Jacob Collier’s new single, “The Christmas Song.” This is a rich, dense, a cappella arrangement that’s classic Collier with just a bit of synth bells and a melodica solo. It exhibits a wide pitch and dynamic range, and the Arche rendered everything beautifully. The lead vocal was entirely natural, and the backing vocals were perfectly balanced in a clear, open presentation.
I’m a big fan of Donald Fagen, co-founder of Steely Dan, so I cued up the title track from his 2006 solo album Morph the Cat. It starts with a low bass line, which sounded deep and rich from the Arche. The vocals, horns, guitar, electric piano, and drums were similarly exquisite—well-balanced with superb imaging.
For some relatively out-there jazz, I listened to “Autumn Pleiades” from Dimensional Stardust by Rob Mazurek and Exploding Star Orchestra. This piece is in the musical form of a canon played by a large jazz orchestra, slowly building by adding instruments and melodic variations over a repeating bass line and harmonic progression. All instruments were clearly delineated, yet they formed a cohesive whole in a clean, open sound stage.
Solo piano is always a challenge for any audio system, so I listened to “Over the Rainbow” from Dave Brubeck’s album Lullabies. The sound of the piano was rich, well-balanced, and open with no hint of congestion.
One of my favorite discoveries this year is “Lonely Alone” from the album Threads by Sheryl Crow. On many of the tracks, she’s joined by famous singers—in this case, Willie Nelson. It’s an amazing mix, deep and immersive, almost as if it’s in surround. The vocals by Crow and Nelson were entirely natural and right up front, while the rest of the instruments, including deep bass, guitar, brush drums, organ, and harmonica, were clearly delineated within a wonderfully cohesive whole. This is how to mix a country song!
And now for something completely different: “Scuba Scuba” from Underwater Sunlight by Tangerine Dream. This rhythmic ambient track is almost entirely electronic with a wide frequency range and lots of stereo effects. The Arche rendered it all beautifully: clean, clear, and open.
For some classical music, I listened to the first movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Mandolins in G Major as performed by Avi Avital, Alon Sariel, and the Venice Baroque Orchestra on Art of the Mandolin. As I had come to expect, the sound was clean and open; I could hear each mandolin clearly along with each section of the orchestra. Even the super-low notes from the theorbo came through beautifully.
Finally, I cued up “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as orchestrated by Ravel and performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Simon Rattle. This piece has wide dynamic range from super-quiet passages to a crashing finale, and I could hear each section and solo instrument clearly. I was surprised, however, that the overall sound was a bit restrained—not veiled or congested, just not as present as I had heard on other tracks.
I wondered if it was the recording, so I played another big orchestral favorite, “Pines of the Appian Way” from Respighi’s Pines of Rome as performed by Filharmonica della Scala under Riccardo Chailly. Much better! The overall sound was more present and unrestrained, and the almost subterranean bass drum came through beautifully.
The Arche is a worthy companion for any of Focal’s high-end headphones as well as just about any headphones you care to use with it. Its sound quality is impeccable: clean, clear, open, and utterly neutral. Every track I played sounded completely natural with no congestion, wide dynamic range, and effortless reproduction throughout the entire audible frequency spectrum.
The feature set is equally impressive. It offers impedance-matching presets for Focal’s headphones along with other settings to optimize the output for a wide range of cans and a variety of inputs and outputs. It can even act as a standalone, fully balanced DAC for speaker-based 2-channel audio systems. The only thing missing is MQA decoding.
As you might expect, all that capability and performance doesn’t come cheap: The Arche’s list price is a whopping $2,490. But if you’re thinking about investing in one of Focal’s high-end headphones and a comparable headphone amp, the company is offering some great package deals on Amazon through the end of the year. You can get the Arche and Clear for $3000 (a savings of $980 off the separate prices), the Arche and Stellia for $4,000 (a savings of $1,480), or the Arche and Utopia for $5,000 (a savings of $1,480).
And if you already own one of those headphones, Focal is offering a $1,000 voucher toward the purchase of an Arche through the end of 2020; click here for details.
If you’re a headphone enthusiast with very deep pockets, the Focal Arche is a worthwhile investment in your listening pleasure. And if you also have a high-end 2-channel audio rig, the Arche can serve double duty as an outstanding DAC with a fully balanced output. That’s two components for the price of one, which makes it a smart investment in my book.