Focal JMlab Dôme 5.1 Speaker System

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While perusing products at the 2008 Festival Son et Image this past April in Montreal, I stumbled across a number of products that captured my attention. One of these products was a set of 5.1-channel speakers from a brand new series called Dôme from French speaker maker Focal JMlab. I enjoyed what I heard from these compact, sophisticated-looking speakers at the show and I was able to strike a quick deal with Canadian distributor Plurison, which allowed us to bring them back to our test lab right after the show.

As it turned out, these speakers were actually prototypes of the soon to be released Dôme series. There’s a certain kind of exclusivity when reviewing a preproduction product or for that matter a product that hasn’t yet been reviewed by other magazines. So when I set the speakers up for the first time, that sense of exclusivity definitely filled the air.

My review set of the Dôme speakers consisted of five identical satellites and a powered subwoofer. The 5.1 set will retail for $2600 and should be available by the time you read this. The speakers can also be purchased in a 2.1-channel configuration for $1595 or a pair of Dôme satellites for $750. Two of the satellites were provided to us with floor stands, while the other three speakers had table top stands. The table top stands can also be used to mount the speakers on the wall or on the ceiling. I used the speakers with the stands as the front channels, placed the centre channel on my TV stand, and positioned the surround channels on end tables beside the couch. The speakers offer very flexible placement options since each Dôme can be tilted up or down toward the listening position.

Each of the Dôme satellites features a sealed two-way acoustic design, combining a 4-inch (10 cm) Polyglass mid-bass driver and a 1-inch (25 mm) Aluminium/Magnesium inverted dôme tweeter. The frequency response of each satellite is rated from 28 kHz down to 80 Hz, with the crossover set to 2500 Hz. Other specs include a nominal impedance of 8 ohms and a sensitivity of 88 dB.

The Dôme subwoofer looks a bit like a designer garbage can, minus the foot pedal. If you draw in a couple of eyes, it could also look like one of the bad guys from Pac-Man! But let’s not digress. This unique subwoofer shape was certainly a welcome change from the typical box shape. The low frequencies from the sub come courtesy of a down-firing 8-inch (21 cm) Polyglass subwoofer and a 100 watt BASH amplifier. The Dôme subwoofer has a frequency response rated from 200 Hz to 42 Hz. Its rear panel offers knobs for volume and crossover (adjustable from 50 Hz to 200 Hz), as well as switches for power and phase adjustment. The low level input RCA socket accepts the subwoofer output from an A/V receiver.

The entire Dôme series, including the subwoofer, are housed in black high-gloss lacquered aluminium cabinets and carry a modern contemporary look. The soft curves and the compact size of the speakers will without doubt allow these speakers to complement just about any living room or home theatre. Visually, I couldn’t be more satisfied.

I connected the Dômes to my reference Pioneer Elite VSX-84TXSi A/V receiver and kicked things off with the first chapter of the Band of Brothers DVD TV series. One of the first things that I noticed was the overall clarity of the sound that came out of the Dômes. Over the years I have learned to accept the limitations of satellite/sub speaker packages and approach them without any high expectations. Let’s face it, many satellite speakers sound tiny and obviously frequency restricted. But I’m glad to report that the Dômes were nothing of the sort. From the instrumental intro to the actors’ voices, these speakers sounded natural with just the right amount of airiness. The sound was clean, distortion-free and non-fatiguing when played for extended periods of time, even at very high volume levels. The dialogue was appropriately distinguished from the rest of the soundtrack. But it wasn’t until I hit the action sequences that the Dômes got their workout. In a scene when the US paratroopers jumped from the planes over enemy territory, the speakers managed to formidably involve me in the on-screen action. The space around me was filled with roaring aircraft engines and powerful explosions from anti-aircraft artillery. The Dôme satellite speakers may not have been able to play with exactly the same impact that bookshelf speakers can generally deliver, but they were not that far off either. Nevertheless, the integration between the satellites and the subwoofer was superb.

Next up on the test list was the Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith disc. The THX introduction sent chills through my body that only a respectable sound system can. Does anyone get the chills from this intro or is it just me? The opening battle sequence which I’ve watched and listened to a ridiculous number of times had just the right impact to satisfy my ears. At times, I caught myself glancing over at the satellites and thinking that the sound really outdid their compact size. Just because a speaker is compact doesn’t mean that it has to sound tiny – the Dômes proved this point very well indeed. During the action sequences, as starships and gunfire filled the soundfield, the sound shifted swiftly from channel to channel. This produced a very believable, three-dimensional experience and a sensation of being part of the action.

While watching Star Wars I came up with yet another resemblance for the subwoofer – it could also double as a black R2 unit. How cool would it be if it had wheels and a remote control? Imagine how easy finding ideal placement for it would be! The Dôme subwoofer produced a respectable and tight bottom-end of the sound spectrum. The only issue that I experienced during my tests was a slight rattle that came from inside the subwoofer when playing some low frequencies. I attributed this to a manufacturing imperfection of the preproduction unit (after all this was only a prototype) but it could have also been a result of the subwoofer being shipped around without the proper packaging (our unit came without the original box). Nevertheless, this barely deterred me from enjoying the overall sound since it happened only during certain bottom-end frequencies. All in all, the Dômes proved to be a great match with the Pioneer A/V receiver that I was using.

There was no time like the present to also try my newly acquired Gran Turismo 5 Prologue for the PS3. The clarity of the audio in this game was pretty awesome. Surrounded by a variety of songs played by all of the channels, I raced my heart out for an entire evening. Cars that I passed faded naturally in the surround channels. Cars that passed me (more often than I’d like to admit) transitioned very smooth from the rear to the front. The role of the multi-channel audio was undeniable in creating the full experience of this game. For a moment, I wondered how many people were playing this game at the same time but only in stereo and missing out on so much. If space concerns are your reason for not enjoying 5.1-channel sound, the Dômes may be just the solution that you have been holding out for.

To round out my tests, I listened to a selection of music including the Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis album on Blu-ray disc. Familiar tracks like “The Panther” and “12 Year Old Boy” sounded rich and very lively through the Dômes. The large variety of instruments on this disc sounded crisp and detailed, without ever sounding harsh, even at high volume levels. I didn’t expect the Dômes to have the same fullness that my current floorstanding and bookshelf Sinclair speakers have, and they didn’t. But somehow these much smaller speakers were able to deliver a similar life and richness to the sound. I ended up enjoying almost the entire album with the volume cranked and my ears never got tired.

I’ve listened to many satellite and subwoofer speaker systems over the last few years and few would be able to match the performance of the Focal JMlab Dômes. The majority of the less expensive speakers I’ve heard sounded downright tiny. Other, more expensive sets often focused more attention on aesthetics rather than sound. I can confidently say that I thoroughly enjoyed these speakers for both movie watching and music. If you’d like to fill a smaller space with sound and have a budget of $2600 that can be dedicated to speakers, give them a try. The Focal JMlab Dômes may be just what you’re looking for.

Manufacturer:
Focal JMlab
www.focal.tm.fr
Distributed in Canada by Plurison
1-866-271-5689

Focal JMlab Dôme Speakers
Price: $2600 (5.1 system), $1595 (2.1 system), $750 (pair of satellite speakers)

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