Review: Focal On Wall 301 – You don’t want a soundbar and you don’t have room in the living room for separate speakers. Breaking open everything to place built-in models is also not for you. What options do you have if you want to listen in higher quality? How about hanging it on the wall? In this review we look at the On Wall 301 speakers from Focal, passive speakers designed to be placed next to a television.
Wall speakers or speakers that you can hang are often the forgotten option when it comes to speakers. Maybe because everyone then thinks of weatherproof boxes that you encounter on terraces of eateries? However, there are also nicer hi-fi speakers that you can hang and that are intended for living rooms. A nicer finish and a better sound are the things you can expect with this type. In this review we look at the new On Wall 301 speakers from the French Focal.
The Focal On Wall 301 are not the first wall speakers we ever meet. In the past we have already tested models from DALI and Sonus faber and have already become acquainted with wall speakers from brands such as Audiovector and Canton. In terms of design, the On Wall series differs somewhat from these rivals, which all have a rather traditional design. The most important question, however, remains: can these wall speakers really be a full-fledged alternative to separate speakers for music and sound bars with a TV? The Focal On Wall 301 is positioned higher than many soundbars at 999 euros each. Since they are passive loudspeakers, you also have to supplement them with an appropriate amplifier to drive them. That also carries a price.
|What||2-way wall speaker|
|Frequency range||53 – 28,000 Hz (+/- 3dB)|
|Impedance||8 Ohms (with a minimum of 5.5 Ohms)|
|Dimensions||80 x 15.5 x 9 cm|
Focal is a French brand that likes to emphasize design. Something that is clear to us because we once tested the Kanta and Sopra loudspeakers and experienced demonstrations of the extremely high-end Utopias. The On Wall 301’s are not as lavishly finished as those expensive models, but they nevertheless make a good first impression. The speakers that we receive are made in a white that Focal describes as a high gloss, but we think it is a more matte shade than expected. To be honest, we also prefer that dust and dirt are less likely to show up. The On Wall 301s also come in a non-gloss black.
A matching grid is included with each color. The white 301s that we hang on a white wall therefore disappear in the interior in a relatively subtle way. They are not really invisible either, but that is never the case with wall speakers. If you really don’t want to see anything, it’s better to choose the installation track that you can plaster over. You can also choose to omit the grid. You then look at two midrange speakers with a brown, natural-looking cone made of flax fiber – a specialty of Focal – with a pressed dome tweeter made of aluminum and magnesium in the middle.
Many wall speakers have a rectangular shape. The DALI Rubicon LCRs that we have in the listening room for surround testing, for example. Focal opts for a different design that should better match a TV. The On Wall 301 is an elongated trapezoid, with a smaller front and a wider back. The top and bottom run obliquely outwards. In these areas you always discover a bass port that should improve the bass reproduction.
Quite an unusual shape, but more universal than a rectangle. The baffle or front corresponds almost perfectly to the height of our 55-inch TV, the back does stick out a few centimeters higher and lower than the screen edges. But that doesn’t really matter. According to Focal, you can also combine these 301s with a 60-inch TV, then the visual picture is also correct. Owners of larger TV screens of 65-inch and more may opt for the larger On Wall 302. Of course, this is only necessary if you want the wall speakers to match the TV screen in terms of proportions. Also good to know: Focal offers stands if you prefer these speakers but don’t want to hang them on the wall. That seems like an unusual scenario to us.
Easy to hang
Since the On Wall 301s are tall speakers, it is very important that you hang them straight. And that’s even more crucial when you place them to the left and right of a TV screen that’s hanging on the wall. It is very noticeable if they are not placed completely perpendicular. Fortunately, Focal has made it relatively easy to hang up, but a laser level – preferably one that you place on a tripod – and a good drill are indispensable.
To simplify hanging, Focal supplies a paper template. Each side shows a slightly different technical diagram; you choose whether you mount the speaker vertically (for left and right) or horizontally (for a center channel). This template is really useful, partly because it has a center line. If you mark the center of the TV screen with a laser line, you can easily hang the template correctly with some tape. Do this tightly and you can drill precisely through the indicated markings without any problems. The only thing to pay attention to is that there is a top and bottom of the speaker – which is visually not noticeable – and that the drawing on the template is not centered. You have to take the latter into account to prevent the speakers from being hung asymmetrically when placed to the left and right of a screen.
You drill four holes for each speaker. You don’t have to go for gigantic screws, since an On Wall 301 weighs less than 6 kg. Of course you make a suitable choice in function of the substrate and it is also best to choose a better plug.
However, the speakers do not hang directly on the screws that you install in the wall. Instead, attach two triangular attachments onto which the On Wall slides in turn. This provides a tight, almost-against-the-wall mounting and you can also easily remove the speakers. Handy if, for example, you want to lay the cables differently or if you want to paint the wall. By the way, the On Wall 301 does not rest completely against the wall, there is still a gap of a millimeter or two. This is not visible, but it is useful in terms of cable management. You don’t have to make an extra trench for the speaker cables, working with a cable duct is enough (in our own photos it still has to be applied). You can of course hide it in the wall if you wish.
The finishing touch: both on the grille and on the front there is a Focal logo that you can twist. This way the picture is correct whether you use the 301 as a stereo reproducer or for a center channel.
Room correction is an interesting option
For our setup, we hang the On Wall 301s on either side of an LG OLED55C9 that is also mounted on the wall. Placing them tightly against the screen might visually be nicer, but we still leave a 15 cm between screen edge and speaker. This gives a slightly wider stereo experience and still allows future placement of a 65-inch screen. It never hurts to plan ahead a bit.
We lead the cables behind the screen and through a cable thimble to the back of a TV cabinet. We bring them to a Lyngdorf TDAI-3400, a more expensive all-in-one stereo amplifier with all possible inputs and streaming options. This model has been expanded with an HDMI module, so that we can play the TV sound on the Focals via HDMI-eARC. The Lygndorf even has three HDMI inputs, so that we can connect external video sources to it. The TDAI-3400 is of course a fairly expensive device, and there are certainly alternatives. If you want that connection with the TV, a better AV receiver is recommended, if you only want to listen to music, you can simply opt for a classic stereo amplifier. The sensitivity of 87 dB does mean that you should opt for an amplifier with some power.
There is another reason why we bring out the Lyngdorf for this setup. This Danish amplifier comes with its own room correction system, RoomPerfect. We think this is worthwhile for several reasons. For starters, we know that there are a few acoustic problems in the living room. In addition, we want to use the On Walls when watching movies, and therefore want a little more body in terms of bass. Initial listening tests made it clear to us that the On Wall 301s were not sufficient in this area in this area. It is important to note that the living room in which we are testing is approximately 25 m2 – but opens on the left to two similar spaces.
Adding a subwoofer is very easy with the highly configurable TDAI-3400 and RoomPerfect also helps with the integration. Personally, we would recommend opting for an amplifier or receiver with room correction. When it comes to AV receivers, that feature is usually present, with stereo products it’s rarer. However, there are more and more options, ranging from something like the Yamaha R-803D over the Arcam SA-30 to the NAD M10 . There is also the cheaper Lyngdorf TDAI-1120 . For our part, we can say that RoomPerfect delivered a spectacular improvement, especially in terms of imaging and clarity.
Lots of detail and attention to voices
The listening tests we list below are with the room correction turned on and with a GoldenEar subwoofer. The reason why we are looking at this solution is that we do not often experience a really good quality for music from soundbars. So we focus on that first, with a random shuffle through our large test playlist in Roon. Rodrigo y Gabriela’s crazy ‘Mettavolution’ immediately sounds very much like Focals, with clear keys and a prominent midrange through which the dexterous guitar playing of the two Brazilians is delivered very directly. Still, the general display is a bit more subdued than we usually experience with the French brand. This number is very fast and changeable, which is exactly what the On Wall 301s can handle well. We are happy that the sub is there, to better convey the deep cabinet sounds of those acoustic guitars. That addition also enriches the bass guitar in Bobby Womack’s soul classic ‘Across 110th Street’, for the rest made very insightful by the On Wall 301 speakers. The quieter funk guitar sounds and the hi-hat, for example, really pop out of the mix.
The Focals perfectly convey the vastness of the soul-jazz songs of Dominique Aimé-Fils on ‘Stay Tuned’. The limitations of compact wall speakers in general means that the soundstage is ‘only’ slightly wider than the speakers themselves; on our big Focal Sopra n°2’s you are almost enveloped in tracks like ‘Constructive Interference’ or ‘When There Is Smoke’. The difference in footprint is of course immense. We think this is a very successful reproduction, with a pleasant focus on vocals. We also notice a strength of the brand in ‘Hurt’ by Arlo Parks, while the repetitive cello by Peter Gregson on Prelude 1.1 of the Recomposed Bach suites is played with a lot of character.
We are therefore very curious about how the combination of Lyngdorf and On Wall 301s perform while watching TV. A first impression when viewing a clip from ‘Paddington 2’ is that the Focals have no problem with more complex audio scenes. Having just tested a range of soundbars, this is a pleasant change. There is a lot of musicality, which is certainly nice with a film like this with its playful soundtrack.
We often use ‘Roma’ to test Atmos performance, but there is one scene that is also worth checking out in stereo. Engine sounds and classical music over the car radio dominate, while the family beams as the father manages to steer his American sled into the barely more spacious garage. Micro detail comes to the fore, including when the exterior mirror gets a tap from the wall. A great stereo experience too, with the music that changes from left to right depending on the camera angle. We hear a lot of subtle things in the soundtrack that we wouldn’t get through the TV speakers. And that’s nice with a masterpiece of audio design like this Alfonso Cuarón. Also in ‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’ there is a lot of agility to note; sound effects move widely around the screen. The car race in ‘Ready Player One’ is another scene that is very impressive in a Dolby Atmos setup. Yet less of the spectacle feeling disappears than you would expect with this stereo setup. That’s because the Focals do create a wide soundstage around the TV – much wider than most soundbars – and show a lot of clear details. And those higher-sounding effects, like rolling coins or screeching tires, give a strong sense of direction. As full-fledged action movie fans, we do miss the big impact of crashes or of King Kong dropping his fists to the ground, even with the powerful GoldenEar subwoofer. Presumably RoomPerfect has compensated for a lower tone here, so that deep booms are slightly attenuated. The downside is that the placement of effects and dialogues remain clearly intelligible.
Conclusion – Focal On Wall 301
The On Wall 301 is not your average loudspeaker. Focal mixes a number of attributes here, such as its distinctive sound, unconventional shape and wall mounting, to create a speaker that is truly designed to match your TV. By opting for an old-school approach, you still have to invest in a suitable amplifier. But you do get a system that reproduces music and movie sound in detail and spaciously. The bombast of a large soundbar may not be there and a large floorstander will appear more dynamic. But these French speakers do what they do, very well. The On Wall line can also be hung subtly and is easy to integrate. In short, these Focal speakers offer a nice sound experience without the drawbacks of separate speakers or a soundbar.
Pros of Focal On Wall 301
- The size of a 55-inch TV
- Easy to hang
- Good stereo imaging
- Detailed and broad appearance
- Elegant and graceful design
Negatives of Focal On Wall 301
- Adding a subwoofer is almost a must
- Need some power