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- Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created: 01 June 2019 01 June 2019
Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
Through no fault of the speaker or its manufacturer -- last year, shortly after Focal announced the launch of the Kanta No1, they sent me samples -- I wasn’t able to review it as soon as I’d hoped to. Other things got in the way. Better later than never, you might say, but really, it’s too bad -- when at last I got to seriously listen to the Kanta No1s, I wished I could have gotten out the word on them long before this.
Focal’s Kanta models are at the center of their five series of loudspeakers: below the Sopras and the flagship Utopias, and above the Arias and the entry-level Choruses. There are four Kantas: two floorstanders, the No2 ($8999/pair, all prices USD) and the larger No3 ($11,999/pair); the Center center-channel ($2999 each); and the subject of this review and the only stand-mounted model, the No1 ($5999 USD/pair). (The No1’s dedicated N*1 stand is available for $999/pair; my review samples arrived without them.)
The Kanta line debuted with the No2 -- but while the No2 sounded very good at shows, I didn’t like its looks. Mostly, I had a problem with the long, slightly angled (when viewed from the side) front baffle, made of a high-density, acoustically inert polymer. It looked a little too long to me -- it drooped down, kind of like some hipster’s obnoxious beard. Appearances shouldn’t play a big a role in my choice of speakers -- it’s the sound that counts -- but I knew the Kanta No2 wasn’t a speaker I’d want in my room.
When I unboxed the No1s, which also have angled front baffles of the same polymer, I had the opposite reaction -- I loved the look. So did my wife. I think much of my reaction has to do with the No1 being a good bit less than half the No2’s height and much smaller overall (if only 3” narrower), which makes its baffle look less droopy. That baffle is a little wider and taller than the No1’s wooden cabinet, which tapers slightly toward the rear, and joins the rear panel in rounded vertical edges. Overall, the No1 measures 16.6”H x 9.2”W x 13.4”D and weighs 28.1 pounds. Its positive impression was further reinforced by the review pair’s finish: a dark gray baffle, and side and rear panels of solid walnut. Eight finishes are available: the Dark Grey/Walnut of my review samples, as well as Gauloise Blue/Black High Gloss, Carrara White/Black High Gloss, Black Lacquer/Black High Gloss, Solar Yellow/Black High Gloss, Gauloise Blue/Walnut, Warm Taupe/Walnut, and Ivory/Walnut.
Regardless of the finish selected, each No1 is capped with a thin plate of dark-colored glass, while the bottom panel, and the portion of the rear panel devoted to the binding posts and port, are painted flat black. There are two nice little touches: a small, round, plastic-and-cloth grille that covers only the single midrange-woofer; and “Focal” stamped into the barrel of each binding post. I like it when a speaker maker is concerned with the finish of all parts of one of its models. With or without those little grilles, my review pair looked elegant and modern -- here were two Focal Kantas I loved having in my listening room.
The No1’s two drivers are unmistakably Focal and, like the rest of the speaker, are manufactured in France: a 1” tweeter with an inverted beryllium dome, and a 6.5” midrange-woofer with a flax cone, crossed over to each other at 2.4kHz. Beryllium is a light, strong metal that, while toxic and costly, is not uncommon in speakers -- Focal has used it in their upmarket models for years, as have many other companies. Shaped properly, a beryllium dome tweeter can reproduce frequencies higher than 40kHz before starting to break up. The breakup frequencies of most aluminum domes are far lower in frequency. Making driver cones of flax, though, are rarer -- as far as I know, only Focal does it. They say flax provides a combination of lightness, rigidity, and damping.
The No1’s basic specifications are: a frequency response of 46Hz-40kHz, ±3dB; a low-frequency limit of 42Hz, -6dB; a sensitivity of 88dB/2.83V/m; and impedances of 8 ohms nominal, 3.9 ohms minimum. The recommended range of amplification is 25-150W.
I listened to the Focal Kanta No1s in the context of my current reference system. Immediately upstream from them were a pair of Constellation Audio’s Revelation Taurus Mono solid-state amplifiers ($44,000/pair), which pump out a whopping 500W into 8 ohms or 1000W into 4 ohms. I also used the Kanta No1s with JE Audio’s VM60 monaural tubed amps, which produce 60W each into 8 or 4 ohms and cost a lot less: $6400/pair. The speaker cables were from Meitner Audio.
Further upstream were EMM Labs’ Pre preamplifier and DA2 Reference DAC, the latter linked via USB to an Asus UX303U laptop computer running Windows 10 and Roon, and streaming from Tidal. The USB link from computer to DAC was AmazonBasics, while the interconnects running between the EMM DA2 Reference and Pre, and from the Pre to the Constellation or JE Audio monoblocks, were Crystal Cable CrystalConnect Standard Diamond. The No1s sat atop 24”-tall Foundation stands, the speakers and my listening seat describing a 9’ equilateral triangle; their rear panels were about 7’ from the wall behind them.
I’ve reviewed many Focal speakers over the years, and listened to more, and with all of them, two things have stood out: prominent highs and very punchy upper bass. This has resulted in what I call a Technicolor sound -- not so far from strict neutrality to sound unnatural, but far livelier than what I typically hear from my reference speakers, Revel’s Ultima2 Salon2s ($21,998/pair), which exaggerate no frequencies, and which I and most listeners would describe as dead neutral.
Connected to the Constellation Revelation Taurus Monos or the JE Audio VM60s, the Kanta No1s sounded similar to but slightly different from other Focals I’ve heard. Yes, there was the same liveliness, but the highs weren’t quite as tipped up -- and the upper bass, while punchy enough, didn’t seem as overemphasized. Granted, the lowest bass was missing -- I heard nothing below 40Hz, which is only to be expected from a pair of two-way minimonitors. But low bass aside, the first thing I thought was: These are the most neutral-sounding Focal speakers I’ve heard.
The Kanta No1s also sounded very open, regardless of which amps I used -- even more than did Focal’s floorstanding Sopra No2s ($13,999/pair), which I reviewed in 2015 and absolutely loved. The result was a complete divorce of the speaker cabinets from the sound they produced -- the music seemed to emerge from the very air. For example, Michael Bublé’s Bublé! (24-bit/48kHz FLAC unfolded to 24/96 MQA, Reprise), the soundtrack of an NBC TV special that aired in March, is a wonderful live recording with a clean, spacious, ballsy sound. With the No1s hooked up to the Constellations and playing the medley of “It’s a Beautiful Day”/“Haven’t Met You Yet”/“Home,” the soundstage was slightly wider than the speakers themselves, and so deep that it sounded as if it were coming from beyond my room’s front wall, which itself was some 7’ behind the speakers. I couldn’t fault the No1s’ tonality -- the instruments sounded very natural, and Bublé’s voice as authentic as possible. In fact, his voice was the highlight, firmly anchored at center stage, where it focused all of my attention. The real magic happened when I shut my eyes and tried to forget that I’d set up the Kanta No1s the same way I almost always do. This wasn’t hard to do -- I heard no boxy resonances, or aural images pulled toward this speaker or that, that would have told me exactly where the speakers were in the room. Musically speaking, the Kanta No1s had vanished.
An even better example was pianist Kris Bowers’s score for Green Book (16/44.1 FLAC, Milan/Tidal), a film based on a brief period, in 1962, in the life of African-American musician Don Shirley during a tour of the South. I played “Water Boy,” a remake of Shirley’s 1961 hit: the cello is hard left, the piano hard right, and the double bass is at the center, about 6’ back from the plane defined by speakers’ front baffles. It was the sound of the cello that most intrigued me -- it emanated from the place in the room occupied by the left speaker, but the sound definitely didn’t sound as if it was coming from that speaker. It was entirely detached from the Kanta No1, with no telltale cues of cabinet resonances or driver discontinuities to spoil the stereo illusion and let me know that the sound was coming mostly from the left speaker. Instead, the cello sounded as if it had replaced the speaker.
The effect of the piano in this recording was similar -- its aural image was holographically suspended in space, beginning at the rear panel of the right-channel speaker, and extending about 5’ farther back as well as toward the center of the stage -- as if the piano was placed not quite perpendicular to the front of the stage. Once again, the sound seemed utterly independent of the size or position of the right speaker -- combined with the equally free sounds of the cello and bass, this added up to a strikingly convincing illusion of three musicians playing those instruments in my room.
At that point I began to wonder how much of the boxlessness of the Kanta No1’s sound had to do with its interesting-looking baffle, which is not only acoustically inert, but also provides a very smooth and thus nondiffracting surface for the soundwaves from the tweeter and midrange-woofer to be launched from.
The Kanta No1s’ re-creation of the acoustic space in which “Water Boy” was recorded was just as impressive. With the speakers 9’ apart and the double bass centered between and apparently 6’ behind them -- that is, about 14’ from my listening chair -- its size seemed to be in proportion to the relative sizes of the cello and piano on a small stage or in a room. Afterward, I searched on the Internet for pictures of them recording this, but found none. Later, when I saw the film, the actors playing the musicians seemed to be sitting and standing about the same distances apart as I heard in my room, and the piano was positioned as I’d “seen” it in my room: not quite perpendicular to the front of the stage.
Where the Kanta No1s came up short was put in bold relief when I compared them with GoldenEar Technology’s super-large Triton One.R floorstanders ($5999.98/pair), which were in my room because I was reviewing them at about the same time. I played Bublé! again. Even driven by the powerhouse Revelation Taurus Monos, the Focals couldn’t come close to the bass depth and power of the Triton One.Rs. No surprise there -- built into each One.R is a 1600W amplifier that drives the speaker’s three woofers, assisted by four passive radiators. This results in bass that extends with power down to 20Hz, the very bottom of the audioband. The Kanta No1, tiny by comparison, stops at 40Hz, a full octave above that, and with a bit of a whimper. And when I drove the Focals from the 8 or 4-ohm taps of the JE Audio VM60s, the bass got a touch lighter. That told me that most people will likely be best served by the No1s if they drive them with a powerful amplifier -- probably a solid-state model that can put out at least 100Wpc into 8 ohms, and handle an impedance that drops below 4 ohms without blinking.
But above the deep bass, with either the Revelation Taurus Monos or the VM60s, the Kanta No1s charged ahead of the Triton One.Rs by sounding a little more open, more free of their enclosures. The No1s also sounded a touch cleaner in the midrange and highs, which I particularly noticed with the Carpenters’ With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (24/48 FLAC unfolded to 24/96 MQA, A&M/Tidal). The plucked guitar notes that begin “For All We Know” sprang more freely and cleanly from the No1s than from the Triton One.Rs -- but it was the voice of Karen Carpenter, who enters at 0:38, that sealed the deal: its tightly focused aural image at the frontmost part of the stage sounded slightly clearer and more open through the Kanta No1s.
The last track I played was “No Landing (Lucknow),” from Greg Keelor’s Gone (16/44.1 WAV, Warner Music Canada), at a realistic volume level for an actual person standing 10’ in front of me and singing -- in a word, loud. This recording is perfect for a test like this -- accompanied by only acoustic guitar, cello, and tabla, Keelor’s voice, close-miked at center stage, sounds uncompressed and unrestrained as it soars. When this track is played at high volumes, lesser speakers will distort, or begin to sound edgy, or noticeably compress -- all of which is painfully obvious even to novice listeners. After all, we all know what voices should sound like. The Kanta No1s didn’t commit any of those sins. They may have lacked the deep-bass authority of the GoldenEar Triton One.Rs or Revel Ultima2 Salon2s, but they sounded just as effortless and clear at high volumes as those much larger speakers. A two-way, stand-mounted speaker that can reproduce sound that cleanly and effortlessly at realistic volume levels is not merely commendable, it’s remarkable.
Focal’s Kanta No1 greatly impressed me in two ways. First, I liked its looks a lot. It’s beautiful, and its styling and build quality are things you’d be proud to display. Second, in terms of being transparent to the music signal fed it, other than the No1’s inability to reproduce the bottommost octave of the audioband, it’s the most accurate and revealing Focal speaker I’ve reviewed, while retaining a touch of that liveliness the brand is known for. The result is a speaker that delivers what’s on the recording, but with just a hint of fun to its the sound. Which means that while the Kanta No1 is by no means inexpensive at $5999/pair, that price isn’t outrageous for all that it offers. If I were looking for a topflight two-way minimonitor, this is the one I’d go to first -- and maybe last. I just wish I’d got the word out sooner.
. . . Doug Schneider
- Speakers -- GoldenEar Technology Triton One.R, Revel Ultima2 Salon2
- Preamplifier -- EMM Labs Pre
- Power amplifiers -- Constellation Audio Revelation Taurus Mono, JE Audio VM60 (all monoblocks)
- Digital-to-analog converter -- EMM Labs DA2 Reference
- Computer -- Asus UX303U running Windows 10, JRiver Media Center 20, Roon, Tidal
- Digital link -- AmazonBasics (USB)
- Analog interconnects -- Crystal Cable CrystalConnect Standard Diamond
- Speaker cables -- Meitner Audio
- Power cords -- Shunyata Research: Alpha NR, Venom HC, ΞTron
- Power distributor/conditioner -- Shunyata Research Venom PS8 with Defender (2)
Focal Kanta No1 Loudspeakers
Price: $5999 USD per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
108 Rue de l’Avenir
42350 La Talaudière
Phone: +33 4-77-43-57-00 (France), (450) 585-0098 (US)