CE Pro Europe took a trip to Focal’s HQ in Saint-Étienne, France, where the company conceives and creates its products. The trip was both a treat for the ears and eyes, and gave us a fascinating insight into what makes the brand special.
Focal’s HQ is situated near the city of Saint-Étienne in central France and consists of a modern industrial complex including several buildings housing around 250 staff. All of the company’s R&D, sales, manufacturing, logistics and support is carried out at this site, there is one other site in Burgundy which makes some of the equipment including cabinets, but for Focal, this is its beating heart.
The company is run incredibly efficiently, even with the resources it has at its disposal, 30,000 SKUs, which cover every component that goes into making its products, is a tall order to keep under control.
The company moved to its present site 17 years ago and has consistently developed its capabilities here. In recent times a new headphone production area has been completed and a new larger construction area for some of the company’s largest and most high-end products has been created.
Our main host for the day was Nicolas Debard, a hugely knowledgeable product manager for Focal.
First stop is the impressive showroom which gives an overview of some of the brand’s most impressive creations. Front and centre are its ‘Classic Hi-Fi’ speakers covering the Kanta, Sopra, Electra, Aria and Utopia lines. The showroom also underlines the company’s increasing interest in the integrated and home cinema categories as well as its headphones.
Formed as a genuine engineering force, Focal holds many patents, with more being added all the time via its highly-qualified 30 strong RnD team.
Nicolas explains, “Our strength in engineering allows us huge flexibility and we feel keeps us strong in the market. When we have a goal we want to reach, or a problem we need to solve, we can either look to one of the many technologies we have already created, however if that does not provide the answer we need, we can invent one.
“As an example, our Beryllium tweeter technology took four years to complete, it was a huge investment, but has delivered huge benefits to many of our speakers.
“Developing everything in-house allows us to test and measure at every point in the innovation and manufacturing process and so we retain control and deliver the performance we need.”
High-quality, knowledge and a simple approach to audio reproduction are themes which crop up time and time again during the visit. The company is a believer in keeping the signal path as simple as possible from creation to the ear, but while less is definitely more, this is far from simple to do well. Things like the company’s cross-overs do take a very minimalist approach, but the care and accuracy that goes into their creation is what makes the difference.
Getting onto the main factory floor, CE Pro Europe was shown the path that the company’s ‘W’ drivers go on during their creation. The W cone is used on the Electra series in the C.I. range, as well as Electra, Sopra and Utopia series in the classic range Hi-Fi family.
These drivers use a cone formed by a sandwich of glass-fibre and a foam core called Rohacell developed by specialist manufacturer, Evonik. These cones are used in many of the company’s high-performance speakers including the Electra installation line as well as Electra, Sopra and Utopia series in the classic Hi-Fi range.
First, the special foam, which is used for dampening, is shaped into the correct cone configuration ready to be bonded with the glass-fibre. Both are incredibly light, but when ‘treated’ incredibly stiff, key to creating the right sound. However, before being treated, the glass-fibre feels more like silk. At this part of the process it is vital to avoid any air bubbles between the foam and the glass-fibre, even the tiniest amount of air will affect the performance.
Once both are bonded together using heat, the familiar cone shape begins to emerge. The amount of time the two materials are ‘cooked’ to bond them will depend on the type of driver being created, more time equals more rigidity, so as a rule of thumb, the more bass you want, the longer the materials are left in the bonding chamber.
Much of what goes on in the factory uses sophisticated machines (many created in the factory itself) but when human eyes, ears and hands getting involved delivers an advantage, the skilled staff take over.
Once the cone of the speaker is formed, the edges are trimmed and a whole is cut into the centre in preparation for being fitted into the main electronics and rest of the speaker assembly. Again, the process uses human skill, but also a laser cutting machine which delivers the accuracy needed.
Applying adhesive to various parts of the speaker is a real focus point in getting the manufacturing right. As Nicolas underlines, extra mass is the enemy, so excess adhesive is a huge no, no.
Not only is care taken to select the right substances to bond the components together, but their application once again uses machinery and human interaction too, to make sure exactly the right amount needed to get the job done is applied.
Next process is starting to build the chassis and electronics up into a product around the cone. On this line the voice coils, crossovers and all the other components are added, soldered and thoroughly checked, once the whole driver array is assembled.
Detailed manufacturing like this often throws up new ways of doing things and Focal has developed plenty of unique approaches. For example, it wont reveals exactly how it is done, but the company has a special way of keeping voice coils cool to promote better performance.
The final part of the whole process is testing. The test bench makes sure each unit is delivering the exact output desired using controlled pulses of sound and showing the response on the display.
Again the company does not just rely on machines, part of this final process involves experienced human ears passing judgement over each finished speaker, only when it is approved, does the speaker receive its serial number sticker endorsing it as ready for fitting into a cabinet.
The serial number carries lots of information that means the company can reproduce that exact same driver under the same conditions at a later date.
The most high-tech part of speaker production is the room where the beryllium tweeters are created. Beryllium is a high value substance used in other areas such as high-end watches and Formula One.
Beryllium is incredibly stiff, however it is also incredibly light. Holding one of the finished tweeter cones in the hand, you hardly notice its mass at all weighing in at just 45mg.
Another advantage is that it is incredibly fast at moving vibration through its structure. A chart on the wall of this part of the plant illustrates how far sound would travel down a tube made of various substances, beryllium beats its nearest rival by a huge margin traveling 12.455 kilometres in just one second, the second highest performer is Aluminium-magnesium which delivers 5.186 kilometres.
The tweeter cones are created in a ‘white room’ where dust and other contaminates are kept at bay. The staff member working in the room wears a full hazmat suit giving the process a touch of drama and tension like something from a sci-fi movie.
The driver material itself is just one micron thick, thinner than a human hair. The beryllium tweeter creation process is another area where the exact process is kept under wraps, and the voice box that holds the finished tweeter is another of the company’s patents.
If adding adhesive to the rest of the products is important, it is perhaps the most important here, the weight of the tweeter means that extra mass is avoided at all costs.
CE Pro Europe also got to see a new production area dedicated to producing the Electra, Kanta, Sopra and flagship Utopia lines. Utopia products are large and heavy needing plenty of special machinery and equipment to assist in their production.
Powerful automated lift tables allow the workers to move the units around as they are constructed. The largest of the Utopia products is two metres tall and weighs 265 kg. Other specialist equipment in this area includes a special lighting rig to show any potential imperfections in the finish on any of the products.
A favourite feature of the Utopia line is the ability to adjust with a special key, the angle of the different drivers located on top of the main unit. This gives the products the ability to be tuned to the exact needs of any size and shape of room.
Again, testing is a huge part of what goes on in this area using a full anechoic chamber for when the cabinets and drivers have been married together.
Another patented component on view in this area of the plant and used in many of the larger speakers, is the ‘power flower’ magnet assembly. Developed 20 years ago, the technology offers an innovative way of creating more power and control from the same size component of competing approaches.
Focal uses an array of several double stacked ferrite rings, on a circular open pattern regularly distributed around the voice coil. The energy created is more powerful than a conventional magnet of the same size, but also delivers a cooling effect from the circulation of air in the space in between the magnet stacks.
Another new part of the factory is the dedicated area creating the expanding headphone lines. Accuracy in the production here is very important and again any adhesive applied is done so with extreme accuracy and care.
Focal has innovations it is proud of here with some of the headphone having a voice coil which has no former, retaining its own shape and rigidity. This reduces weight and increases performance. The Utopia line also features unique open-backed full-range speaker drivers with pure beryllium ’M’-shaped domes to deliver high performance.
Home cinema and integrated expansion
Wanting to offer the same high performance and innovation found in its ‘Classic Hi-Fi’ lines, Focal began its journey into home cinema over five years ago taking soundings from the industry on exactly what the market wanted.
The company concluded that it needed to produce a high-performance, but easy to understand and focused range of products that could cope with lots of different demands from as few skews as possible.
The Custom and Chorus products were the first to be produced, but these have now been replaced with new lines, the 100 Series, 300 Series and the Electra 1000 BE 2. All fully integrated with in-wall and in-celling options, the products can be finished with round or square grilles which can be painted to match décor.
The 100 Series represents the entry level option, the 300 its mid-priced option with the Electra offering the top end for this family.
All the ranges have been created to be able to deliver full home cinema or multi-room options all with Focal’s signature sound as all the speakers are based around the same drivers and technology used in the rest of the company’s products.
This means that if users want to mix and match from the integrated and other lines, they can as the sound will marry.
Innovations include the in-ceiling loudspeakers of the 100 Series featuring a compact design, with the speaker driver’s basket and chassis designed as a single unit.
The 300 Series features other Focal technologies, such as its Flax cone and the aluminium-magnesium inverted dome tweeter, designed to provide audiophile sound quality.
These products also provide the EQI system which stands for Easy Quick Install. Whether they’re used as in-ceiling or in-wall loudspeakers, they require no tools to install.
Already available before the 100 and 300 series were introduced, the Electra lines will also be enhanced with new skews this year.
Nicolas says, “So far the response has been really positive. Installers are already asking us to tackle other areas with other high-quality products too, so we are already looking at additions to the existing lines.”
Focal is keen for installers to not just look at its integrated options but its ‘classic Hi-Fi products too. Not only can they be matched with integrated lines, but the maker is keen to encourage installers to sell more two-channel systems arguing the client base is there, so why not?
Ce Pro Europe feels the recently introduced Kanta range is a particularly good option here, they look and sound fantastic.
Andy Oattes, head of sales for Focal UK is also keen to underline some of the other advantages of working with the brand, not least the very attractive points of margin available on the integrated lines and access to the floor-standing products, which also deliver strong margin.
The utopian demonstration
Of course, Focal is going to have an absolutely screamingly good demo space.
Witnessing the company’s Grand Utopia speakers working in concert with Naim’s Statement amplification (part of the same group now) as we did is an awesome experience. Sound so good that it defies easy description, suffice to say that this set up must amongst the best in the world.
An extremely generous host, Nicolas allowed CE Pro Europe access to the Tidal feed delivering the audio to this awesome set up. Deciding to go with two extremes Little Fluffy Clouds by the Orb and Dr Rock by Motorhead were selected. Detail and power on display to a quite staggering level.
However, you expect a very end system to be able to do that, what perhaps impressed even more was the demo of the in-wall 300 Series.
Remember this is speaker which fits with no tools and in this instance was demonstrated in a simple stereo configuration with no sub.
The 300 IW LCR 6 models demonstrated delivered clear, warm, room filling audio that at this price point is very impressive (£799 inc. vat).
A hugely gratifying trip this one, a real treat to see behind the scenes at a company which so clearly cares about quality.