AUDIO EXPERIENCE FROM FRANCE
This blog cannot discuss the French HIFI market without talking about Focal, a company that has become a vital player in the field in France and throughout the world.
It is a morning in early December. Focal’s headquarters, which are located in the city of Saint Etienne, still bear the marks of a harsh winter. As soon as I arrive on site, I come face to face with a modern-style glass building that houses the company’s administrative staff. This structure looks like a tiny Lego piece compared to the imposing neighboring buildings dedicated to storage and production. Welcome to the heart of Focal.
I feel a little dizzy as I look up at the gigantic building that is dedicated to storing products that are ready to be sent out; its size says a lot about the company’s production capacity. I have to enter into a second building to discover the heart of Focal’s work: the production of loudspeakers, which are the result of ongoing and constantly evolving research and development efforts that began many years ago. Palettes of loudspeaker baskets are stacked up in the hallway: their numbers are impressive, and they will very quickly be whisked off to the production lines. A loudspeaker basket is a steel structure that holds all the parts that come together to make the loudspeaker. Production lines allow a company to increase its output, and what I am witnessing here is a semi-automated approach to production, which utilizes complex machines designed by Focal’s highly specialized engineers that are custom-made for the factory’s production units.
The membrane: Focal’s signature product
In a dedicated space located a bit further along, loudspeaker membranes (or diaphragms) are manufactured. The membrane is a sensitive organ that is comparable to the vocal cords of a singer. Manufacturing a membrane is technically challenging because the membrane must have a suite of seemingly incompatible traits: lightness, rigidity, and damping. As a solution to this problem, Focal came up with the first sandwich cone (a foam core sandwiched between two sheets of fiberglass) around 20 years ago. More recently, Focal invented an innovative flax sandwich cone, which has the same general form but uses sheets of flax fibers instead of fiberglass. Flax is two times lighter than fiberglass, environmentally friendly, and produced locally; it comes from the north of France, one of the primary flax-producing regions in Europe (please check out my previous post on this topic). The first step of cone assembly, during which the sheets of woven flax are handled, is manual. The more complex steps are then entrusted to a machine that is under the strict control of a human operator.
Upstairs, the ambiance is different. I feel like I have moved from a workshop to a laboratory. Here, workers take advantage of the natural light to manufacture tweeters (loudspeakers responsible for reproducing high frequencies, that is to say those within the treble range). These tweeters are another Focal trademark, especially the inverted dome tweeters. Their innovative design results in highly efficient sound production; sound is spread more widely, and there is an improved dispersion of the higher frequencies. My host has asked me not to take a picture of the machine carefully enclosed in a windowed chamber. It is an oven that serves to bake the beryllium tweeters. The “cooking” time and temperature are kept secret, and Focal holds an industrial patent for the process. This tweeter model is the first of its kind in the world. It is included in Focal’s high-end speaker models (Utopia and Electra), and its bandwidth spans over 5 octaves, which allows the listener to appreciate the minute details of the sound it produces.
Soundproof room measuring 350 m3 that is used to refine prototypes
Focal’s innovation extends beyond these two core products. Later in the day, Gérard Chrétien, the CEO of Focal, tells me that a significant amount of research has been conducted on the types of glue used to manufacture the membranes and affix them in the loudspeakers. He confides, “You cannot imagine how much glue can affect the sound produced by a loudspeaker.”
As I leave the building, I pass by the assembly line that is responsible for filling the speaker cabinets with their innards: loudspeakers, tweeters, filters, and other components; this is the final step in the manufacturing process. In the case of the high-end models (Utopia and Electra), the cabinets are made in Focal’s woodworking studio in the small town of Bourbon-Lancy in Burgundy. Cabinets for the other models are furnished by a variety of European and Asian suppliers. All of Focal’s speakers are assembled in Saint Etienne, and the company is committed to completely mastering all the steps involved in the manufacture and assembly of their products.
After a long conversion with Gérard Chrétien during which we discuss technical aspects of the business as well as the company’s industrial saga and future perspectives (my interview with him will be posted in January), I end my visit to Focal with a private listening session. I have to state right off the bat that the listening conditions are not those found in the typical living room. Instead, I find myself in Focal’s new and magnificent auditorium, which is characterized by excellent acoustics. I will not deny myself such a pleasurable experience. After having tried out three sets of speakers from the Easya and Aria lines that were coupled with a varied range of Naim electronics (which is icing on the cake), I am offered the chance to listen to a set of Grande Utopias, exceptional speakers that Gérard Chrétien himself has called entirely unreasonable!
The music is conveyed with quiet authority. I am living a rare and sublime experience; I am completely and utterly immersed in a sea of sound. I do not reach out for the music, but it comes to me instead, and I absorb it. In this moment, time has stopped and the music offers itself up to me with uncommon generosity.
A complete photo album of my visit is available on Facebook
Some of Focal’s figures : The company occupies an area of 17,000 m2 and employs 180 people. Each day, Focal produces 550 speakers,400 car audio systems, and 3,400 loudspeakers. About 70% of Focal’s production is exported to 160 countries.The company was founded in 1979, and its revenues reached 42 million euros in 2012.After its purchase of Naim in 2011, Focal became the first company on the European audio market whose financing is exclusively European.