When they’re not producing the world’s best headphones, French audio wizards Focal spend their time producing some rather good speaker systems. These range from monstrous, $20,000-a-pair floorstanding speakers to surprisingly affordable home theater packages. We recently spent a month with one of these, the Focal Sib Evo 5.1.2, and it surprised us in more ways than one. In this review, we break down the Sib Evo’s design, sound, packaging and accessories, specs and more, as well as how it compares to other models. You can also check out our video review.
The big selling point of the Focal Sib Evo 5.1.2 is that it can do Dolby Atmos sound. And that’s one hell of a selling point.
A quick primer. Most 5.1 surround systems – that is, systems with two front speakers, a center speaker, two side speakers and a subwoofer – aren’t compatible with this particular type of surround sound, which relies on height speakers and height effects, and which is commonly found in larger home cinema rooms and bigger movie theaters. The reason for this is simple: you actually need height speakers to make it work, and adding these speakers to a standard 5.1 setup means it becomes a 7.1 setup, which is a different beast entirely - not to mention a more expensive one. But the Sib Evo bypasses that with some very clever digital jiggery-pokery.
The key is on the top of the two front speakers, where you’ll find a pair of upward facing drivers. The grille on the front of the speakers actually extends all the way round the top edge. Essentially, this forms a bridge between 5.1 and 7.1 systems – a 5.1.2 (the .2, obviously, refers to the speaker drivers on top of the front speakers). It’s a unique, cost-effective, and intelligent way of boosting the power and functionality of what should be a standard 5.1 system, and as you’ll see when we talk about the sound quality below, it works incredibly well.
The speakers themselves are attractive beasts: orb-like blobs that recall the shape of something like the KEF EGG speakers (full review here). They are versatile, too: the center speaker can be positioned in multiple orientations, and the lightweight and slim form factor of the speakers in general means they can easily be moved around, should you feel the need. Overall, the design works very well indeed, although it does have at least one major glitch.
These speakers do not have traditional binding posts – nothing you can unscrew to insert speaker wire into. Instead, there are small plus and minus ports on the back of each speaker, with a button below them. Holding down the button opens up the ports, allowing you to insert the speaker wire into them. Nice idea, but in practice, it ends up being fiddly and annoying to deal with. To get both wires inserted at the same time, you have to hold down the button, slide in one wire, then try to hold it in place while sliding in the other before releasing the button. Having to do this five times is deeply irritating, and one of the few things that we disliked about this particular system.
The subwoofer was probably the best surprise of the entire lot. As you’ll see when we talk about the sound quality of the system, it more than does its job, but initially the biggest impression was that it was very small – much smaller than we were expecting. While this did cause us to worry (needlessly, as it turns out) about the amount of power it would put out, it did at least make shifting it around a lot easier than some other 5.1 systems. Compare this to the SVS Prime 5.1 system which, while excellent, has an absolute beast of a subwoofer.
Overall, then, the design works exceptionally well. The speakers are light enough and robust enough for you to move around and tweak the sound to your liking, and despite the fiddling us of inserting the speaker wire, there’s absolutely nothing to dislike here. For the most part, Focal have done a terrific job.
Couple housekeeping bits: unfortunately, the only color you get here is black – not a problem, necessarily, but if you want a hot pink home theater system, you’re probably better off looking elsewhere. And in terms of warranty, it varies depending on the country and dealer you buy from. We’ve never heard of anybody having a problem with the company’s warranty, however, and they have a reputation for quality such that we can’t imagine these speakers going south on you. Nothing to worry about here.
So, the very first question that needs answering: do the additional Dolby Atmos speakers do the job?
Short answer: yes. Longer answer: Hell yes.
We connected them up to a Denon AVR-S920W A/V receiver, which incorporates Dolby Atmos functionality up to 5.1.2, and queued up some good movies. While the Sib Evo system is never going to beat a pair or a foursome of dedicated, downward facing height speakers, it does an absolutely terrific impersonation of them. The system works by firing audio up towards the ceiling, and bouncing it back down towards your listening position. It’s imprecise – you aren’t going to get quite the positioning you would with a pair of height speakers – but it’s leagues ahead of a basic 5.1 setup. Instead of having the sound around you on a horizontal plane, you’re now having to contend with vertical elements as well: planes flying overhead, bullets whizzing by, and the crashing of explosions reverberating around the room. The idea of adding up-firing drivers into conventional front speakers isn’t particularly new, but it’s rarely been done as well as it has here. It really is quite something.
And overall, the sound of the system is really quite impressive. While we don’t feel it beats setups like the extraordinary KEF T-305, which delivers about the best 5.1 sound on the market right now, it’s still bloody good. The speakers might be tiny, but they pack a decent punch, outlining some good details along with solid kick and dynamics. The spacing is good, as you’d expect from a multi-speaker system, but it feels like it’s been tuned just so.
The speakers will accept amplifier power from 25 watts up to 200 watts, and the company says they are suitable for filling rooms from around 100 to 500 square feet. In our experience, that’s more than enough for most people. It certainly filled our testing room, which is square in the middle of that range, with sufficiently loud sound for a few good movie nights. Admittedly, it’s not going to be ideal for bigger rooms – those with larger living rooms or home cinema spaces are definitely going to need to look at a dedicated 7.1 system – but for apartments or small houses, it’s absolutely perfect.
The real surprise, however, is the subwoofer.
We aren’t entirely sure why Focal call it the Cub, unless it’s some kind of in joke within the company. This thing is not a Cub. This thing is a rampaging, roaring, snorting bear, stuffed into a very tiny package. It’s a down-firing subwoofer with a 8.25” driver and ported front end, and holy moly is it good. It only puts out 200 watts of power, which isn’t much compared to many other sub woofers, but it’s all about what you do with what you have, and this subwoofer more than delivers on that count. It kicks like a mule, putting out tight, elegant, controlled bass that feels like it should come from something much bigger and with much more expensive electronics. The tuning and thought that has gone into this little beast is absolutely extraordinary, and it was the big surprise of this package. Focal might have led with the Dolby Atmos capability, which is far more marketable, but this sub has to be heard to be believed. It’s really, really good.
We tried very hard to think about any blindspots in the sound, so to speak: any elements that could have been done better. It was really hard to find any. Most of what we came up with was stuff that could be solved just by adding a few additional speakers, and once you start doing that, you start moving beyond the remit of the product. To our mind, then, for the amount of money you pay and for the package you actually get, the sound is absolutely spot on. If anything, it over-delivers, making this easily one of the top 5.1 systems available.
Open the package very carefully; Focal have included a huge number of Things, all of which will make your system more functional, and all of which are wrapped up in their own plastic packaging. You get multiple mounts, stickers, rubbery feet things…all manner of strange and wonderful gizmos.
It’s all very functional and not particularly exciting, but it gets the job done. The biggest issue will be in deciding what to do with the inevitable leftover feet and sticky bits that you don’t actually use, after you’ve set up your system. They are the kind of things that inevitably end up in the bottom of the junk drawer in the house, to be discovered 10 years down the track with a muttered “Now what the hell is this?”
The packaging is straightforward, with basic polystyrene inserts surrounded by standard cardboard box. Nothing worth more than a couple of sentences.
We really, really liked this particular system. Just in case that wasn’t totally clear.
For one thing, it offers tremendous value. The Dolby Atmos system we’ve featured here runs for around $1,299, which is already fantastic for what amounts to a very good 7.1 setup, but even if you have no interest in height speakers – which would be a shame – you can buy the system without the Dolby Atmos modules for $999 on Amazon. Really, that’s very good indeed. Considering the sound quality that you’ll get out of this thing, and the years of enjoyment it will bring you, we would have been willing to pay far more.
Let’s review. You get excellent sound quality, height functionality that does a very good impression of actual ceiling speakers, bass that can give any dedicated subwoofer manufacturer a run for their money, mostly good design, lightweight builds on the speakers…all things worth giving a crisp high-five to. This might not be the best 5.1 system out there, but it is definitely in the top ten. And if Focal can sort out that nonsense with the binding posts, it might come within sniffing distance of the #1 spot.
What We Like:
- Dolby Atmos functionality.
- Great build quality.
- Terrific, powerful subwoofer.
- Overall sound quality is excellent.
- Great value.
What We Don’t:
- Fiddly binding posts.
We’re going to cheat a little here. For our first alternative, we’re not actually going to give a complete 5.1 system. Very few complete systems actually include Dolby Atmos-enabled front speakers - Focal is one of the few – so here, we’re going to talk about two speakers that you can add to an existing 5.1 setup to turn them into a 5.1.2.
The Pioneer Elite SP-EBS73 are a pair of speakers, designed by the legendary Andrew Jones, that incorporate up-firing modules in the same way that the Sib Evo 5.1.2 does. They are a little pricier, at around half the cost for the entire Focal system, but you get a commensurate boost in sound, with a little more weight behind it. And if you’re looking for 5.1 at alternatives, fear not: we have two below.
So: you don’t get the Dolby Atmos functionality here. No up-firing speaker wizardry – which, as we mentioned, is quite rare in in-the-box surround setups. What you do get is SVS’s terrific build quality and sound.
At roughly the same price as the Sib Evo, this offers slightly heavier sound, with a little bit less emphasis on the treble, and much more powerful bass, if you can believe that. A solid alternative, and one we think feels just a little bit more elegant than the Focal system, although they are very close.
It was only a matter of time before SONOS offered their excellent wireless speakers as part of a dedicated home theater setup. You’ll pay through the nose for this – the price is over $2,000 – but we consider it well worth it, especially if you have a little bit more cash to spend. It’s definitely a viable alternative.
In the package: the excellent PLAYBASE (full review here), two PLAY:1s, two bigger PLAY:3s, and a SUB. Without wires to deal with, it’s a convenient and fun way to create a surround system, although you will pay for the privilege, and you can’t add in additional speakers later, so be warned.
|System||Price||Rec. Amp Power||Lowest Freq.||Highest Freq.|
|Focal SIB EVO ATMOS 5.1.2||$1,299||25-200/6Ω||30Hz||20kHz|
|Pioneer Elite SP-EBS73||$499||140/4Ω||50Hz||20kHz|
|SVS Prime 5.1||$999||20-150W/8Ω||20Hz||25kHz|
|SONOS Playbase 5.1 System||$2,194||N/A||30Hz||30kHz|