The Focal Kanta No. 2 (website) speakers first caught my eye at an RMAF a year or two ago, speckled up in a brilliant citron yellow and sounding, well, swell. The sound was performing that tricky balancing act between leaping out into the room and providing a picture into a recording without launching full-scale ear assaults. Intriguing. I made a mental note of it, filing away the experience into my aural-cerebral notebook.
Words and Photos by Grover Neville
Fast forward to this year, and when Focal-Naim America approached us about a review and gave us a choice of pretty much their entire lineup I knew immediately which one I wanted to hear. A little while later, though not much later–Focal-Naim America’s shipping department is fast —I had the Focal Kanta No. 2s in house.
A floorstanding speaker is a bit like a full, traditional American Thanksgiving Day meal. It serves up everything, satisfies all our pleasures, including the guilty ones, and generally departs with the same sense of gravitas and satisfaction it entered with. So too was the Focal Kanta No. 2 a hefty and satisfying listen, though it’s with considerably less satisfaction that I say goodbye to it.
To begin with, the Focal Kanta No. 2 ($9,990/pair) comes in an enormous box, nearly twice as large as the speakers themselves, which allows ample space for the prodigious packing materials, included spikes and cups-feet, and the very nicely packaged paperwork. Everything in the box oozes Gaulois class, subtle but seamless, over-delivering but never ostentatious.
After unpacking the speakers I was left with a real sense that these are ten thousand dollar speakers–they look every bit the part in a way photos don’t quite capture. The top is a polished black glass, the front colored baffle is a kind of smooth, matte high density polymer that feels a bit like polished stone. I found the original bright yellows and sky blue colors the most attractive, but Focal has, perhaps sensibly, switched to more subtle offerings. Mine are in a slightly grey navy blue, and I find the color stunning. The equally matte walnut side panels remind me of mid-century Scandinavian woods, with an ultra smooth, bright but rich stain that catches the eye yet also blends seamlessly into its surroundings.
In this sense the Focal Kanta No. 2 is a series of contradictions visually and sonically, and the personality I mentioned remembering at my original hearing still rang true on my first listen. The Kantas are a rewarding speaker to listen to, not least because they’re also easy to set up. I found them remarkably unfussy with regards to toe-in and relative distance from walls, side or front. According to Focal, the Power Flow dual-port technology helps manage and minimize bass compression, but I also found the speaker had some of the advantages I would typically associate with a speaker that is only front-ported. I could get extremely close to the wall with nearly no deleterious effects on the bass and when I put my hand down there on very low bass notes, the rear port never seemed to be chuffing at all.
In the treble and midrange, the Focal Kanta No. 2 was similarly carefree. This is near, and this is far, as Grover states in his histrionic Sesame Street performance, but no matter what spacing I chose the Focals seemed game with it. I ended up with them moderately further apart than my reference ProAc D30RS, and with moderately less toe-in, but I would have been happy with nearly any of the spots I’d chosen. This is truly an easy speaker to live with.
Speaking of easy to live with, the Focal’s tonal balance was just as easy. The first thing I noticed was the exceptional bass performance. It’s huge, tight and punchy. Kick drums slam, snap back and retain their shape like a fresh rubber band. Precision and punch happily coexist with this speaker.
I noticed more than an increased level of bass compared to some of the smaller speakers I have in house–the Focal seemed to have more dynamic capability. The bass was not louder, it was simply capable of greater range. The punchier, tighter parts, were punchier and tighter, the looser sounds were looser, the quiet parts quieter. The balance was perhaps ever so slightly above neutral by a dB or two, but I think this is a very good thing in a home speaker. I like a little extra bass and I found that I rarely ever had too much, which is an indication that this is a carefully tuned speaker.
Focal’s Tuned Mass Damper and Neutral Inductance Motor circuits both have a large part to play in this bass control. The motor inductance system is a particularly clever one and I suspect that helps the Focal Kanta achieve its specified 91dB at 2.83V/1m sensitivity. My experience was that I could run with tube amps down in the 30W and even sub 30W power ranges and I was still getting exceptionally tight and clear bass, with all of the tangible midrange and treble benefits pure triode and low-loop-gain, low transistor count solid state designs can offer. The ampsandsound Zion monoblocks, which are in for review, and the Manley Snapper monoblocks in triode mode were highlights in the tube amplifier category.
These amps highlighted the Focal Kanta No. 2’s ultra-transparent inverted dome IAL3 beryllium tweeter. In this regard, the Kanta No. 2 is a ten thousand dollar speaker with a tweeter that sounds like it belongs on a twenty-five thousand dollar speaker. Focal’s IAL gen 3 tweeter sounded as transparent and revealing as some of the best ribbon and AMT tweeters I’ve heard, yet with the wide dispersion and broader sweet spot of a more typical dome tweeter. The tweeter seems to morph like a chameleon to suit the program material, much in the way the bass on the Kanta No. 2 seems to have greater dynamic range.
Forward material is forward, laid back music is laid back, and dynamics, much like the Focal Utopia, possesses a startling dynamic range and sense of punch. I never encountered any recordings that I felt were edgy or bright. Although the beryllium tweeter is definitely on the more revealing side, this isn’t a soft, warm treble. Bells ring and decay with a sense of “in the room” clarity every bit befitting a truly high-end speaker. This tweeter shows off everything that the high-end is about.
A Deeper Look
I was initially curious about how the beryllium tweeter would mix with the flax midrange and bass, considering how different the two materials are–one is a soft organic material and the other is an extremely stiff metal. Listening to the beryllium tweeter, there was a distinct absence of harshness or overt character, but how would it fare in combination with its soft-coned brethren?
The midrange of the Focal Kanta No. 2 works fascinatingly well in this case. It is a very coherent speaker, but it goes about achieving that coherency in a rather different way than I’m typically accustomed to. Typically gentler crossover filters, fewer drivers and matching driver materials determine what we, or at least I, think of as coherency–the sense that all the drivers are working together and presenting a musical whole without one driver or frequency range sticking out more than another.
This stands in contrast to separation, which is the relative sense that elements of a mix are easily discernable from each other and can be identified in the soundstage and between frequency ranges. The aforementioned speaker designs which use a “less is more” approach achieve separation by making everything the same, and attempting to do so to a high degree, whether through good tuning, speed, resolution, etc.
The Focal Kanta, by contrast, is in an interesting group of speakers where it is balancing several disparate parts, a metal dome tweeter, with soft cones, a 3-way complex crossover, but high efficiency. I found the results spectacular in that the Focal Kanta No. 2, rather than trying to make all the drivers sound the same, embraces its character in a way that highlights each component’s strengths, and downplays its weaknesses. Those flax midrange drivers have an almost invisible, soft, perhaps even ever so slightly relaxed sound to them that invites the listener deep into a recording’s midrange. They’re spacious and have an extremely pleasing decay characteristic, never edgy or too sharp, while still being revealing.
How does this co-operate then, with the extremely detailed top end, and super tight and punchy bass? To my ears, Focal has achieved coherency through excellent damping and transient control and smooth FR. The character of the midrange and tweeter may be ever so subtly different, but they blend seamlessly and they have a similar high-dynamic capability so that they still blend, yet also have an extremely high degree of separation and are perhaps even more chameleon-like than a speaker that filters everything through one high-coherency sonic lens.
The Focal Kanta No. 2 also sorts out these apparently disparate characteristics by being very easy to place in the room. The revealing nature of the tweeter can simply be dialed in by toeing the speakers in more or less without negatively effecting the midrange and bass, which as I mentioned are consistent no matter where in the room I placed it. The tweeter seemed to almost place the high end in the room, allowing the midrange to exhibit a separation of depth.
The resulting sound was only uncanny in its realism. The speaker did not sound at all like separate drivers, but a single whole, drawing my attention to whatever frequency response the mix engineers had chosen to highlight. Forward, treble happy music was forward, relaxed, warmer tunes had depth and punch. Rather than cutting everything from the same cloth, the Kantas dealt with each song on its own terms, crafting a presentation which was unique in its sense of depth or forwardness. To me this reasonably deserves the words separation and coherency.
Focal-Naim America was also kind enough to send a set of IsoAcoustics Gaia feet to test with the Focal Kanta No. 2s. I’ll be doing a full follow up piece on these, but suffice to say they are among the best isolation products I’ve tried. I’m typically a bit wary of assigning big gains to these devices, but in this case bass and imaging tightened up immensely and the coherency and solidity of the entire soundstage presentation snapped into focus. For the price, I would not hesitate recommending them.
The defining characteristic of the Focal Kanta No. 2 was largely its dynamic punch. This speaker slams hard and fast. On my first listen I almost interpreted this as a slight v-shape in the frequency response, but on further auditioning this wasn’t the case. It was merely the speed and dynamic capability of the speaker revealing itself.
Before I conclude, I’d like to return to my previous mention of good amp pairings. The Manley and ampsandsound were certainly top notch tube pairings, but what about solid state? A special mention has to go out to the Naim Uniti Nova, which I also have in for review, as a special match with the Kantas. This is a hands down beastly all-in-one, but the Kanta took the system to another level. Grip, control, refinement… everything in the system suddenly sounded expensive through the Nova and Kanta combo. Whatever collaboration Focal-Naim has done since the merger has clearly paid off as this combination is so good I’m almost hesitant to recommend anything else. The separates I had to chosen to square off against the Naim were several times more expensive than the speakers and Uniti Nova combined. A highly recommended match.
The Focal Kanta No. 2 is likewise a recommendation from me. If you’re looking for a big-boy tower, with huge punch, dynamics, top to bottom coherency and technical ability, this one should firmly have your attention. If the Kanta No. 2 were a city, it would be Brooklyn. Tough, ready to take on anything, distinctly American, and yet with a hidden refinement that hints at the European roots, a certain panache and sophistication that Europe seems to have perfected.
This speaker is proof that the heyday of large, multi-way floorstanders isn’t over; it is perhaps in its golden age.