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Thread: Sierra Towers with RAAL vs Focal Aria 936

  1. #1
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    Feb 2016
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    Default Sierra Towers with RAAL vs Focal Aria 936

    I just started to build out my system after doing my research here. I wanted to build a 2.1 system that would be used about 75% for music and 25% for HT. Most of my listening would be for jazz and classical but I listen to just about anything that sounds good to my ears. Originally, I started out with Epos Epic 5 towers which sounded great for a pair of $750 towers. But then, because of this forum, I began to wonder if I could do better if I set a budget of $2,500 or so for a pair of tower speakers (seriously dangerous hobby ). It turned out that there were so many options to choose from in this price range but I settled on two:

    Focal Aria 936 & Ascend Acoustics Sierra Towers with RAAL

    Now, I purchased the Focal Aria 936 from MusicDirect for $2,499 (on sale from approximately $4,000). I have had these speakers for about 3 weeks. Since MusicDirect have a 60 day return policy, I had to try the Ascend Sierra Towers because everyone had amazing things to say about them (literally have not read a single negative review). Now, the Ascend Sierra Towers in Satin Espresso with RAAL costs approximately $2,800 so there is an approximate $300 difference in pricing here to take into account. Ascend allows a 30 day return policy.

    Now, keep in mind with the following review that I am a newbie in this space. I don't know the technical terms and have relied solely on my own ears to assess the differences between the two speakers. I won't be referring to frequency or any technical charts because to me, that is not what I cared about. I hope this helps some others out there as you guys have helped me.

    Powered By: Anthem MRX 510 AVR, Marantz 5007

    Appearance and Quality of Build:




    The Aria are taller and bulkier (both width and depth wise) than the Sierra towers.


    A glimpse of some of the details of the Aria and the Sierra side by side. The Sierra's RAAL tweeters versus the Aria's.



    Both speakers are beautifully constructed. The Aria appears more high end due to its walnut siding, glass black top, and leather face/backing. The Aria's are constructed in France and in terms of materials used, the Aria certainly exudes quality. The Sierra is no slouch either though. From my perspective, the Sierra's may look simple but to me, they look incredibly sleek. The black on dark espresso works well together it just looks so well put together.

    However, from a pure looks perspective, I would probably give the nudge to the Aria simply because it has a WAF in my case

    Sound Quality: As soon as I got the speakers up and running, I ran a few tests and switched between speakers frequently to try and hear any audible differences. I also made my better half do blind listening tests to get her opinion as she used to play in an orchestra. Since she has a much sharper ear than me, I figured it would be best to get her impartial thoughts. They carry more weight than mine at the end of the day

    Miles Davis - Autumn Leaves - I love this track. This was used as my benchmark song when I first started this hobby. The mixture of instruments and high and low pitches make this a good song for me to test the dynamic range of a speaker. In this case, the performance of the Sierra and the Aria was not very noticeable. Both played the song very well. The sax and trumpet reproduction was fantastic - you really hear each note being played at a pitch that would have been representative of the live performance. The detail in both speakers were fantastic and there was no harshness in the high's at any point (I was listening at a fairly high volume). The trumpet in the Sierra was so good that it felt like you were sitting right in the audience. The piano in this recording is a little recessed to me but that is the recording and not the speaker's fault. My wife couldn't tell the speakers apart in this one.

    Nils Lofgren - Keith Don't Go - A very high quality recording so this sounds good on a lot of speakers but the high end speakers should accentuate the details (good and bad). Let's just say that both speakers sound amazing with this track on. The individual strings being plucked is very audible for both. However, when the vocals started, the Sierra hit me hard. The vocal reproduction from the Sierra sounded different - almost a little more airy but so clear. The experience with the Sierra is such that you feel like you're in the crowd sitting right in the middle of it all. The reverberations of the strings and vocals (especially when I closed my eyes), seemed to completely immerse you in the Sierra's. I would say that the Sierra's presented more details and nuances that I may not have heard before came to light. The Aria's are no slouch when it comes to the vocals either but the Sierra's just sounded different in a pleasant way. With the Aria's, the term I would use is that they are smooth. Just so smooth and not overly bright or warm.

    Ryuichi Sakamoto - Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence - This is a great track to test the piano reproduction. Again, I had to close my eyes but me and my wife both commented on how you could hear the pitch of each individual key being struck. She commented that this is exactly how I would have thought the piano would have sounded like in the performance. Because she had no idea which speaker was playing, she was actually convinced that the Focal's were the one that she was listening to. When I told her that it was the Sierra's she thought I had tricked her haha. Both speakers played this track really well but to us, the Sierra's were more clear, more detailed and more life like.

    Norah Jones - Come Away With Me - Me and my wife sat down and listened to this on Tidal the other night. I have to say that this is where I noticed the Sierra's because of how natural they sounded. In the Focal's, while the sound was still very good, you could really hear the brushing of the drums. Almost to a point where I would describe the sound of the track... "grainy". Not sure if that makes sense. The Sierra's seem to smooth that out and bring out the vocals of Norah's voice in a more forward and clear way. I would have to say that I enjoyed the Sierra's version of this song more in all honesty. My wife didn't hear a huge difference but agreed overall.

    Anne Bisson - September in Montreal - The Sierra's presented the background detail of this track clearly. Another audible difference was that the Sierra's could pick up the little nuances in the vocalist's voice towards the end of the song that were not as prominent in the Focal's. Now, that's not to say that both speaker's didn't sound great because they really did but the Sierra's showed that they were slightly more transparent and neutral in this one.

    TV (Netflix/Oscars on HD/Bluray) - What can I say? Both speakers were excellent in this regard. I did not turn on the center speaker so that I could focus on the towers but in both, the dialogue was clearly audible in either case. For movies such as Captain America - Winter Soldier, I thought that the dialogue during louder scenes were somewhat clearer with the Sierra towers but that the lower end was more prominent in the Focals. A bit of a trade off but if you have a sub, the lower end compromise shouldn't be a problem.

    Conclusion: After much consideration, I've decided to keep the Sierra's and go for the Horizon center. It was close between the two but the thought of having a center sound as good as the towers in my system was too much to pass up. This should be a setup that can last for a good long time so it will satisfy that itch and get rid of that "what if" thought

    Additionally, the Sierra's themselves sound the way I prefer them to - natural and supremely detailed. I have been looking forward to sitting back every night, listening to music as I chill out after a day of work. This was just the way I wanted my speakers to influence me.

    The Focals are fantastic speakers in their own right and it's hard to pin this decision on anything they did wrong. At the end it came down to the transparency that the Sierra's were able to produce and the center speaker preference. The Sierra's also have the aesthetics that mesh better with our current furniture and they also have a smaller foot print compared to the Focals.

    Thanks for everyone's help and tips! I hope to be enjoying these speakers for a long time

  2. #2
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    Sep 2015
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    Default Re: Sierra Towers with RAAL vs Focal Aria 936

    Great review and fantastic pictures. Enjoy your Sierras.

  3. #3
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    Feb 2016
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    Default Re: Sierra Towers with RAAL vs Focal Aria 936

    The Sierra towers are incredible! Enjoy them.

  4. #4
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    Default Re: Sierra Towers with RAAL vs Focal Aria 936

    Quote Originally Posted by freesole View Post
    Additionally, the Sierra's themselves sound the way I prefer them to - natural and supremely detailed. I have been looking forward to sitting back every night, listening to music as I chill out after a day of work. This was just the way I wanted my speakers to influence me.

    The Focals are fantastic speakers in their own right and it's hard to pin this decision on anything they did wrong. At the end it came down to the transparency that the Sierra's were able to produce and the center speaker preference. The Sierra's also have the aesthetics that mesh better with our current furniture and they also have a smaller foot print compared to the Focals.
    Finally took the time to read your review and it was very interesting and well thought out. I totally agree that the natural and detailed attributes of the Sierra Tower are true bliss. They really blow everything else away in terms of sound and value.

    My Dad has a Triad setup and I've also found that the transparency of the Ascend speakers is leagues above the Triads. The center channel is also far more detailed and capable, but part of that might be positioning because I sit closer to my center and it's right at ear level.

    Hope you are as thrilled with the Horizon Center as I am. Please post your impressions when you get it in, and I suggest that you buy a couple of 5.1 concerts as well, even if you don't have surrounds. It'll really blow you away. My Steven Wilson and Katatonia concerts in particular sound incredible. Perhaps even better than seeing them live in a great venue, which is really saying something. Can't wait to get my setup into a dedicated theater room.

  5. #5
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    Default Re: Sierra Towers with RAAL vs Focal Aria 936

    Quote Originally Posted by sludgeogre View Post
    Finally took the time to read your review and it was very interesting and well thought out. I totally agree that the natural and detailed attributes of the Sierra Tower are true bliss. They really blow everything else away in terms of sound and value.

    My Dad has a Triad setup and I've also found that the transparency of the Ascend speakers is leagues above the Triads. The center channel is also far more detailed and capable, but part of that might be positioning because I sit closer to my center and it's right at ear level.

    Hope you are as thrilled with the Horizon Center as I am. Please post your impressions when you get it in, and I suggest that you buy a couple of 5.1 concerts as well, even if you don't have surrounds. It'll really blow you away. My Steven Wilson and Katatonia concerts in particular sound incredible. Perhaps even better than seeing them live in a great venue, which is really saying something. Can't wait to get my setup into a dedicated theater room.
    Certainly will! I'm really looking forward to getting the Horizon - I've already placed my order. Just need to wait for the cabinets to be back in stock again...

  6. #6
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    Feb 2016
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    Default Re: Sierra Towers with RAAL vs Focal Aria 936

    Quote Originally Posted by freesole View Post
    Certainly will! I'm really looking forward to getting the Horizon - I've already placed my order. Just need to wait for the cabinets to be back in stock again...
    Ouch, hope they get in soon. I know I snagged one of the last few they had when I got mine. I'm Glad that Ascend is doing well and moving so many units, but it sucks that you have to wait!

  7. #7
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    Default Re: Sierra Towers with RAAL vs Focal Aria 936

    Quote Originally Posted by freesole View Post
    I just started to build out my system after doing my research here. I wanted to build a 2.1 system that would be used about 75% for music and 25% for HT. Most of my listening would be for jazz and classical but I listen to just about anything that sounds good to my ears. Originally, I started out with Epos Epic 5 towers which sounded great for a pair of $750 towers. But then, because of this forum, I began to wonder if I could do better if I set a budget of $2,500 or so for a pair of tower speakers (seriously dangerous hobby ). It turned out that there were so many options to choose from in this price range but I settled on two:

    Focal Aria 936 & Ascend Acoustics Sierra Towers with RAAL

    Now, I purchased the Focal Aria 936 from MusicDirect for $2,499 (on sale from approximately $4,000). I have had these speakers for about 3 weeks. Since MusicDirect have a 60 day return policy, I had to try the Ascend Sierra Towers because everyone had amazing things to say about them (literally have not read a single negative review). Now, the Ascend Sierra Towers in Satin Espresso with RAAL costs approximately $2,800 so there is an approximate $300 difference in pricing here to take into account. Ascend allows a 30 day return policy.

    Now, keep in mind with the following review that I am a newbie in this space. I don't know the technical terms and have relied solely on my own ears to assess the differences between the two speakers. I won't be referring to frequency or any technical charts because to me, that is not what I cared about. I hope this helps some others out there as you guys have helped me.

    Powered By: Anthem MRX 510 AVR, Marantz 5007

    Appearance and Quality of Build:




    The Aria are taller and bulkier (both width and depth wise) than the Sierra towers.


    A glimpse of some of the details of the Aria and the Sierra side by side. The Sierra's RAAL tweeters versus the Aria's.



    Both speakers are beautifully constructed. The Aria appears more high end due to its walnut siding, glass black top, and leather face/backing. The Aria's are constructed in France and in terms of materials used, the Aria certainly exudes quality. The Sierra is no slouch either though. From my perspective, the Sierra's may look simple but to me, they look incredibly sleek. The black on dark espresso works well together it just looks so well put together.

    However, from a pure looks perspective, I would probably give the nudge to the Aria simply because it has a WAF in my case

    Sound Quality: As soon as I got the speakers up and running, I ran a few tests and switched between speakers frequently to try and hear any audible differences. I also made my better half do blind listening tests to get her opinion as she used to play in an orchestra. Since she has a much sharper ear than me, I figured it would be best to get her impartial thoughts. They carry more weight than mine at the end of the day

    Miles Davis - Autumn Leaves - I love this track. This was used as my benchmark song when I first started this hobby. The mixture of instruments and high and low pitches make this a good song for me to test the dynamic range of a speaker. In this case, the performance of the Sierra and the Aria was not very noticeable. Both played the song very well. The sax and trumpet reproduction was fantastic - you really hear each note being played at a pitch that would have been representative of the live performance. The detail in both speakers were fantastic and there was no harshness in the high's at any point (I was listening at a fairly high volume). The trumpet in the Sierra was so good that it felt like you were sitting right in the audience. The piano in this recording is a little recessed to me but that is the recording and not the speaker's fault. My wife couldn't tell the speakers apart in this one.

    Nils Lofgren - Keith Don't Go - A very high quality recording so this sounds good on a lot of speakers but the high end speakers should accentuate the details (good and bad). Let's just say that both speakers sound amazing with this track on. The individual strings being plucked is very audible for both. However, when the vocals started, the Sierra hit me hard. The vocal reproduction from the Sierra sounded different - almost a little more airy but so clear. The experience with the Sierra is such that you feel like you're in the crowd sitting right in the middle of it all. The reverberations of the strings and vocals (especially when I closed my eyes), seemed to completely immerse you in the Sierra's. I would say that the Sierra's presented more details and nuances that I may not have heard before came to light. The Aria's are no slouch when it comes to the vocals either but the Sierra's just sounded different in a pleasant way. With the Aria's, the term I would use is that they are smooth. Just so smooth and not overly bright or warm.

    Ryuichi Sakamoto - Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence - This is a great track to test the piano reproduction. Again, I had to close my eyes but me and my wife both commented on how you could hear the pitch of each individual key being struck. She commented that this is exactly how I would have thought the piano would have sounded like in the performance. Because she had no idea which speaker was playing, she was actually convinced that the Focal's were the one that she was listening to. When I told her that it was the Sierra's she thought I had tricked her haha. Both speakers played this track really well but to us, the Sierra's were more clear, more detailed and more life like.

    Norah Jones - Come Away With Me - Me and my wife sat down and listened to this on Tidal the other night. I have to say that this is where I noticed the Sierra's because of how natural they sounded. In the Focal's, while the sound was still very good, you could really hear the brushing of the drums. Almost to a point where I would describe the sound of the track... "grainy". Not sure if that makes sense. The Sierra's seem to smooth that out and bring out the vocals of Norah's voice in a more forward and clear way. I would have to say that I enjoyed the Sierra's version of this song more in all honesty. My wife didn't hear a huge difference but agreed overall.

    Anne Bisson - September in Montreal - The Sierra's presented the background detail of this track clearly. Another audible difference was that the Sierra's could pick up the little nuances in the vocalist's voice towards the end of the song that were not as prominent in the Focal's. Now, that's not to say that both speaker's didn't sound great because they really did but the Sierra's showed that they were slightly more transparent and neutral in this one.

    TV (Netflix/Oscars on HD/Bluray) - What can I say? Both speakers were excellent in this regard. I did not turn on the center speaker so that I could focus on the towers but in both, the dialogue was clearly audible in either case. For movies such as Captain America - Winter Soldier, I thought that the dialogue during louder scenes were somewhat clearer with the Sierra towers but that the lower end was more prominent in the Focals. A bit of a trade off but if you have a sub, the lower end compromise shouldn't be a problem.

    Conclusion: After much consideration, I've decided to keep the Sierra's and go for the Horizon center. It was close between the two but the thought of having a center sound as good as the towers in my system was too much to pass up. This should be a setup that can last for a good long time so it will satisfy that itch and get rid of that "what if" thought

    Additionally, the Sierra's themselves sound the way I prefer them to - natural and supremely detailed. I have been looking forward to sitting back every night, listening to music as I chill out after a day of work. This was just the way I wanted my speakers to influence me.

    The Focals are fantastic speakers in their own right and it's hard to pin this decision on anything they did wrong. At the end it came down to the transparency that the Sierra's were able to produce and the center speaker preference. The Sierra's also have the aesthetics that mesh better with our current furniture and they also have a smaller foot print compared to the Focals.

    Thanks for everyone's help and tips! I hope to be enjoying these speakers for a long time
    As someone who is looking at ordering the Sierra Towers with RAAL and Horizon Center, I was curious if you had received your center yet? Even if you have not, could you elaborate more on TV/Movie watching? I want something that has very clear dialogue but dynamic performance for home theater. My current speakers require me to adjust the center really high and sometimes turn the volume down during loud scenes. I hate having to do that. I have also looked at Revel F208s with C208 center as an option, but I'd love to hear what you have to say about the Ascend speakers.

  8. #8
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    Feb 2016
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    Default Re: Sierra Towers with RAAL vs Focal Aria 936

    Which speakers do you currently have? I am still waiting on my Horizon center as they are still backlogged but I will say that my RAAL towers have such good clarity right now that I rarely ever feel like I have to turn my center on. The RAAL tweeters really do excel at expressing sound in as clear and detailed yet neutral way. I love listening to music on them and I use these speakers the majority of the time for music. When I do use them for HT though, they do a fantastic job as well.

    I haven't heard the Revel F208's but I hear great things about them. In terms of clarity though, I think you would be hard pressed to find many options better than the Ascend RAAL towers at this price point.

  9. #9
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    Default Re: Sierra Towers with RAAL vs Focal Aria 936

    Quote Originally Posted by freesole View Post
    Which speakers do you currently have? I am still waiting on my Horizon center as they are still backlogged but I will say that my RAAL towers have such good clarity right now that I rarely ever feel like I have to turn my center on. The RAAL tweeters really do excel at expressing sound in as clear and detailed yet neutral way. I love listening to music on them and I use these speakers the majority of the time for music. When I do use them for HT though, they do a fantastic job as well.

    I haven't heard the Revel F208's but I hear great things about them. In terms of clarity though, I think you would be hard pressed to find many options better than the Ascend RAAL towers at this price point.
    I currently have pretty lower end speakers: 2 Polk TSi400 towers, 1 CS20 center, and 2 TSi100 surround bookshelf speakers. I am also currently using an Onkyo 608 to power them.

    My planned setup is either: 2 Ascend Sierra Towers with RAAL, 1 Horizon center, and 4 HTM200se for surround with 2 Revel in-ceiling speakers for Dolby Atmos;

    OR

    2 Revel F208s, 1 Revel C208 center, and 4 HTM200se for surround with 2 Revel in-ceiling speakers for Dolby Atmos.

    I am nearly all home theater--about 80%. Price of the Ascends versus the Revels is almost the same.

    Also, I would be powering my new setup with a Marantz SR7010.

  10. #10
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    Feb 2016
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    Default Re: Sierra Towers with RAAL vs Focal Aria 936

    From the times that I have used my Ascend's for HT work, it has performed really well. I don't feel like I'm missing out really. The Horizon center has been touted by some as the very best speaker in Ascend's lineup - that is really saying something when the RAAL towers are already that good. My personal thought is that it would be hard to be better than the Horizon when comparing against other centers on the market. Since HT performance is impacted so heavily by the performance of the center speaker, I really think Ascend is a very strong choice.

    I haven't heard the Revels like I said but would love to. I always thought the F208 was closer to $3,700 or more? Must be getting a nice deal if the price for you is relatively the same

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