Focal are known principally for their transducers, both great and small. Given that fact, the Arche headphone amplifier/DAC/preamplifier/headphone stand may seem like a major departure from their usual offerings. But when you consider what can be done to tailor and optimize the sound of a headphone amplifier to a particular set of headphones, the Arche is exactly the kind of new product that a forward-thinking headphone manufacturer should be making.
Priced at slightly under £2,500, the Arche is designed to be a fully-featured and flexible component, and it certainly is. With both balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA outputs the Arche can be the control centre for a complete desktop or room-based system. Inputs include one coaxial S/PDIF, one Toslink, one USB and one pair of single-ended analogue inputs. The front panel has provisions for both balanced XLR and single-ended 6.35mm/¼” stereo headphone outputs. A centrally positioned screen relays all the vital info such as volume level, input source, bit-rate of digital source, and current gain-level setting. By pushing the volume knob in you access the menus for input, gain, phase, display intensity, sleep (not what you think) and amplifier.
The amplifier control on the Arche lets the user select one of several options which include, voltage, hybrid, Utopia, Elear, Clear, Stellia and Elegia. The settings with Focal headphone monikers were optimized for those particular Focal headphones. The voltage and hybrid settings are for other manufacturer’s offerings. I mentioned that the sleep control is different – it’s not for dozing off to music, instead it gives users the option of keeping the Arche on continuously or having it shut off after 30 minutes of sonic inactivity. The reason for this option is that the Arche has some components that get warm, bordering on hot whether it is actively playing music or merely idling. Audiophiles who don’t need an additional small space heater can opt for the sleep after 30 minutes option.
During day-to day operation I used the Arche with the sleep option on and off. With the 30-minute limit before sleep kicked in, it meant that many times I found the Arche sleeping when I needed sound from my desktop system, and the wait-time when coming out of sleep was a distraction. Finally, the overall sound for the first fifteen minutes after being asleep was not as fully realized as when the unit had been running overnight. The Arche does get quite warm when left on, so don’t even think of stacking gear on top it. I suspect this heat generation could be a problem if you wish to also utilize the Arche’s optional headphone stand feature. Since heat rises, and pleather and leather hate heat, best practices for stand use would be the sleep mode.