Focal Arche headphone DAC/amp review: It doesn’t get much better than this

It’s been less than 10 years since Focal entered the headphone market, but in that short time, the company has established itself as one of the preeminent makers of ultra-high-fidelity cans. TechHive has reviewed four models so far—the Clear, Elegia, Radiance, and Stellia—and all were judged to be excellent, though they will set you back quite a pretty penny.

To round out its headphone-related portfolio, Focal recently introduced the Arche DAC/headphone amp. Does it occupy the same rarefied heights of performance as the company’s cans? Is it a match for the glorious Stellia (which I had on hand for this review)? The answer is a resounding yes!

If you can pull the trigger before the end of 2020, and you already own a Focal Clear, Stellia, or Utopia headphone, Focal will give you a $1,000 voucher that you can apply to your Arche purchase. You’ll find more details on that at the end of this review.

Features

The Arche is a solid brick measuring 7.8 x 2.5 x 11.4 inches (WxHxD) and weighing a hefty 10.25 pounds—the build quality is obviously of the highest order. Inside, the electronics are no less impressive. The DAC (digital-to-analog converter) is an AK4490 from Asahi Kasei Microdevices that provides two channels of conversion for PCM up to 768kHz at 32 bits and DSD up to 11.2MHz (aka DSD256). The Arche’s inputs, however, have somewhat lower limits, which I’ll discuss shortly.

focal arche headphone amplifier and DAC Focal

The Focal Arche is a solid brick of high-end electronics.

One feature that’s missing is the ability to decode MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) files. MQA is a lossless encoding scheme developed by Meridian that reduces the size and bandwidth requirements of high-resolution audio files. MQA titles from a provider such as Tidal must be decoded before being sent to the Arche.

True to its audiophile aspirations, the amplifier section is a completely dual-mono, pure Class A, fully balanced design that provides up to 1 watt/channel at 1 kHz for headphones with an input impedance of less than 32 ohms. The amp can drive impedances from 16 to 600 ohms with a frequency response from 10Hz to 100kHz, THD less than 0.001%, and signal-to-noise ratio greater than 116dB at 32 ohms. Those are some seriously impressive specs!

Interestingly, the Arche offers several presets that tailor the amp in various ways. For example, there are presets that match the impedance of the amp to the impedance of five Focal high-end headphones—Clear, Elear, Elegia, Stellia, and Utopia. In addition, there are two additional presets: Voltage and Hybrid. As you might expect, the Voltage setting puts the amp in voltage mode, while the Hybrid setting is a combination of voltage- and current-mode amplification. According to the company, the Voltage setting is designed to sound tube-like, while Hybrid is supposed to provide more of a solid-state sound.

On the back panel are three digital-audio inputs—coax and optical Toslink S/PDIF and a USB-B port—along with a pair of unbalanced RCA analog-audio inputs. Also on the back are a pair of balanced XLR outputs and a pair of unbalanced RCA outputs, which let you use the Arche as a standalone DAC in a 2-channel audio system. Rounding out the back panel is a USB-A connector that is used to update the firmware, a power on/off switch, and an AC power-cord receptacle.