In the latest installment of our series of no-nonsense architectural speaker reviews, we turn our attention from the Brits at Kef to the profoundly French Focal 300 IW6 LCR in-wall speaker Oui, Oui!
Table of Contents
About the 300 Series
Starting with nerdy essentials, each Focal 300 IW6 LCR comes loaded with dual 6 1/2″ Woofers, a 4″ Mid-range, and a 1″ aluminum/magnesium tweeter.
The 300 series marks a manufacturing transition point in Focal’s custom install line, assembling all models in the same factory in France that produce their high-end signature products like Kanta, Sopra, etc.
Focal claims these are “coherently aligned” with their Kanta towers utilizing the same woven flax cone material but a different tweeter configuration. This makes them a perfect complement to a two-channel Kanta system when perhaps floor space or budget prevent placing full-size speaker cabinets throughout the room.
In both of our most recent installs, we decided to build MDF back boxes for the speakers since they were installed behind fabric in one case and an acoustically transparent screen in another.
Unfortunately, Focal doesn’t provide any guidance for enclosure volume, but based on our experience with other similar units, we opted for roughly two cu ft and were pleased with the result.
Installation is simple and makes use of Focal’s “Easy Quick Install” system. Rather than relying on traditional speaker dogs and screws, Focal uses eight high-tensioned plastic spring clips to securely hold the speakers in place.
As long as you make use of the included template to cut out your openings, it really does take less than a minute to install each speaker.
A word to the wise, these are a little less forgiving than speaker dogs, so leave at least an inch and a half between the sides of your opening and any framing members.
Full stop; you will not be disappointed. In our test environment, not only did the IW6 LCRs exhibit the signature “Focal” sound, but they also offered low-frequency extension I’ve yet to experience from any other open-back architectural speaker.
Again, I’m not claiming these could go toe to toe with a set of gargantuan hi-fi towers, but they certainly qualify as full-range, which is in and of itself quite a feat for an in-wall speaker. When paired with a capable sub, the end result is fantastic and nearly invisible.
Bass performance is going to vary greatly depending on the volume of your enclosure, but in the average 8ft – 10ft wall should be more than adequate, and it will be even better with a properly sized MDF enclosure.
If you haven’t had a chance to experience the timber of Focals in person, I will describe their midrange to low-frequency crossover as exceptionally smooth and well-engineered.
Their tweeters tend to be a bit more on the sweet or articulate side, but there is a pad for you to EQ to taste if you prefer a more mellow top end. It’s a bit more forward than something like Kef’s UniQ but never sibilant or sizzly.
With a price of $1199 each, are they worth it?
I think these speakers occupy a comfortable spot at the edge of a precipice. The 300 series offer a step into the world of true audiophile sound in a compact in-wall package. Yes, at a higher price point, there is room to improve.
If you have a larger space, budget, or want the very best, there are next-level options out there (The Focal 1000 Series or Kef Reference come to mind), but for most people, the 300 series represent an investment that’s easy to justify by both their pedigree and sound quality.
If you’ve noticed some changes in the weather in the South recently, you’re not alone. The number of severe storms and tornados striking Nashville and the rest of Middle TN has dramatically increased, resulting in a surge in storm shelter construction. While practically speaking, a storm shelter is a great thing to have; these spaces are often only used for a few hours a year.
The story of this build begins when our client approached us with the desire to reclaim his shelter space as a proper home theater while taking full advantage of the acoustic isolation provided by the 12″ thick poured concrete walls.
Home Theater in a (Concrete) box
With a pre-build width of only 96″, space was at an absolute premium. A design requirement of having at least five fixed seats led us to create staggered wall depths in each section of the theater to help squeeze both the seating and speakers in.
This layout opened the door to employing varying types of acoustic treatments and bass trapping while at the same time creating some visual interest through the use of diffused LED accent lighting.
The crown jewel of the build is a 104″ acoustically transparent projection screen by Screen Innovations. It’s paired with a light blasting HDR projector from LG that makes high-impact viewing possible, even with the lights on.
The room’s soundtrack is voiced by a full accouterment of seven 300 Series in-wall speakers from Focal. All of which are stealthily concealed behind the screen or in the walls around the room.
We wanted to find a way to provide illumination that would be fun but at the same time not distract too much from the theater’s prime directive. Several scenes were created including one inspired by “Stranger Things” (my personal favorite).
Our client chose a fully motorized option for home theater seating by Octane. Trimmed in top-grain leather and equipped with USB power outlets, underlighting, and plenty of storage, these home theater chairs make it easy to settle into a movie or binge your favorite show.
Lights can be controlled by the keypad on the wall or even turned on and off individually with the Elan remote control.
When you’re shopping for speakers or any other piece of AV gear, the internet is typically a great resource, with tons of review sites offering a vast diversity of opinions. You can aggregate all of that information and decide what you think the best option would be. Easy as pie.
Unfortunately, this is not the case with architectural speakers.
Some of this plight is caused by the fact that most custom install brands aren’t available for sale directly to the public. It’s also understandable that built-in speakers are a much smaller market than soundbars or even traditional Hi-Fi speakers that sit in the room.
There is an unmistakable void for honest opinions and unbiased reviews of architectural speakers. If you’re building a new home or dealing with a custom installer, you’re pretty much flying blind.
Here at Audilux, we’re going to change that going forward. This post is the first of a series of in-wall and in-ceiling speaker reviews. I promise to do my best to avoid the typical audiophile sensory wankerism and offer clear and level-headed insights.
This is important since, in all likelihood, you won’t be able to demo any of these speakers yourself.
We’re going to start our new series near the very top of the food chain of in-wall speakers.
The Kef Ci-3160-RL: THX Ultra Certified
Kef speakers are manufactured in Tovil, England, just as they have been for the last sixty-plus years. While most of the industry’s component production has shifted to Asia, Kef is one of only a handful of companies to maintain control of every aspect of their supply chain by manufacturing custom drivers and electronics in-house.
If you’re not familiar with the rest of Kef’s Architectural offerings, they offer three different series that can be specified depending on the quality level desired; ER (Value), CR (Good), and QR (Best). The Ci-3160’s happily occupy a notch above the rest of the QR series and one rung below the flagship reference series.
Unboxing & First Impressions
The first thing that’s apparent when unboxing each speaker is the staggering build quality and weight. 25 lbs. is formidable by any standard, but even more so for a product that lacks a cabinet. Everything about the package exudes attention to detail and high-quality construction.
On a typical in-wall speaker a “dog” tab provides pressure at regular intervals surrounding the baffle. The tabs are tightened and sandwich the outer frame of the speaker with whatever substrate you are installing into. With the Extreme Series, KEF has opted to use a secondary frame that encompasses the entire perimeter of the unit.
This might seem like a subtle difference, but it’s one of the many details that add up to next-level performance.
Pro Tip: One side effect of this design is that the rear frame has to be slid into one side of the rough opening and then pulled back to the intended center location. This does limit how closely the speaker can be installed to any framing, so I would suggest adding at least two inches of clearance space to either side in order to facilitate a smooth install.
Stunning Good Looks
It’s no coincidence that the Ci-3160RL made the top of our list of speakers your interior designer will love. The faceplates are machined from a solid piece of aluminum that provides an undeniable bit of visual interest to your decor.
If you’re passionate about hi-fi or an unrepentant audiophile, you’re going to love the look.
In their bare form, the Kefs are an elegant conversation starter and a great excuse to put on a record. Kef also includes paint-able magnetic grills in the box if incognito is more your style.
Sonic performance is a very subjective metric, but I would describe the overall tone of the Ci3160-RL as very focused, punchy, and smooth. One of the significant benefits of using 6″ bass drivers is the very fast transient response. Sure, you’re not going to get earth-shaking low frequencies (or frankly, get much action below 60hz), but that would be a silly goal anyway.
When paired with a sub to handle ultra low-end duties, the Kefs offer an accurate representation of the frequency spectrum that’s sure to delight.
As far as the top end is concerned, the equipped Uni-Q tweeter was enjoyable despite my militant preference for smooth or warmer-sounding tweeters. (Read: I Love Ribbon Tweeters) I found it to be very musical and articulate, but it never hinted at taking my head off, even at very high volumes.
It’s very pleasantly detailed but mercifully lacks the skulking razor-sharp armament of a Babadook Klipsch horn threatening pain around every corner.
Home Theater Performance
Using the Kef CI3160’s for movies is a walk in the park. They’re capable of nonchalantly delivering soul-crushing volumes without breaking a sweat and then quietly retreating into dialog before you even know what happened.
My test install was in a room that measured 25′ x 30′ x 15′, which is far beyond the purview of the THX Ultra spec.
They easily filled the space at reference level.
It’s probably time I address the elephant in the room regarding the KEF Extreme THX in-wall speakers. They’re undoubtedly expensive.
At $2000 per speaker, the real question is are they worth it? That requires answering a few more questions.
Are you in an 8+ seat dedicated home theater or a big open-concept living space?
Do you want a speaker that offers audiophile performance but blends into your decor?
Are you someone who lives their life by the mantra “Buy the best, buy it once”?
If you can answer yes to any of these questions, I think not only are the CI-3160’s worth it, but they’re a great deal.
Keep in mind these are the install equivalent of the Kef R7, which will set you back an additional $300 each and a lot of floor space.
The Kef Ci3160-RL is one of the few circumstances where choosing in-wall is no compromise at all.
If you’re interested in purchasing these speakers or have any particular questions about your room, feel free to reach out! We’d be happy to put together a package that’s perfect for your space.