Back in April, Daniel Jacques of Audio Plus, Focal's North American distributor, invited me to visit Focal's factory in St. Etienne. Since I'd never reviewed any Focal loudspeakers, I didn't know a lot about the company, but I have spent many happy hours in Jonathan Scull's ribbon chair, listening to his Grand Utopias, so I was eager to go—and to learn more.
Focal combines high-tech work stations with a phenomenal amount of hand labor. Metal drivers and inexpensive dome tweeters are heavily automated, but many drivers are assembled by hand, especially Focal's "W" composite cones.
Stiff, extremely light "aircraft" foam is stretched over a mold by hand and gently heated to maintain "dimensional stability," according to Dominic Baker, Focal's export sales director. The molds have different flares, depending on the driver's purpose—and they are produced in-house by Opus 42.
Another hand process is stretching and fitting various layers of adhesive-impregnated glass-fiber material to the front and back of the foam center. Again, depending on the driver's purpose, different amounts of glass fiber layers are employed. Since Focal controls the flare, drive system, and crossover, the company has massive amounts of control over elements like mass and Q.
One of Focal's core technologies is its use of "multi-ferrites," Mahul having realized that it was more precise to use multiple magnets in big drivers than it was to rely upon finding enough truly huge, uniform magnets.
Focal allowed me to visit the Be facility in which it manufactures its beryllium tweeters in a HazMat room. They would not, however, allow me to take photographs within it—saying that some of the machines were secret. So they gave me this factory authorized image of their technician examining a completed tweeter.
Of Focal's 200 employees, only 15 are "allowed" to build the Utopia line of loudspeakers. "Utopia, to Jacques Mahul's way of thinking, represents the finest expression of Focal—so only the most experienced employees can build Utopia products. They are also the most critical employees and we do not push them to produce mass numbers—we push them to produce perfect products," said Gérard Chrétien, Focal's managing director (and former editor of L'Audiophile>.
Fewer loudspeaker companies have anechoic chambers than you realize. They take up an awful lot of space, for one thing. Focal has one, and it has a twist—rather than have a suspended floor, the company puts its speakers on a hydraulic jack and suspends it 30' above the floor. This makes getting massive speakers into and out of the chamber a lot easier and safer.
Guy.HF is located in Bourbon-Lancy, about two hours north of Focal's St. Etienne factory. The facility has produced Focal's cabinets since Jacques Mahul founded JMLab in 1980. The front of the cabinet-making facility is the original woodworking shop Guy's father Emile founded in 1945—the back end of the factory is newly built and state-of-the-art. Focal and Guy.HF were so intertwined that Focal bought a 49% interest in Guy.HF and the cabinet maker's entire output is now 100% Focal.
It seems as though there's a QC employee for every assembly employee at Guy.HF. Not exactly, Jean-Paul Guy explained. Every G.HF employee is responsible for the work that comes to him or her—so after each employee signs off on a product as good to go, the next, um, guy inspects it before accepting it. "Mistakes get made," M. Guy told me, "but we try not to perpetuate them."
As a sometime wood-butcher myself, I assumed that the multifaceted Focal cabinets would require some pretty fancy clamps. Not so, Jean-Paul Guy explained. Modern materials technology has given us a stretchy, incredibly strong, adhesive film that's quick to apply, infinitely versatile, and also cheap.
Here's another example of how Guy.HF combines hand processes with modern technology. The finish room is state-of-the-art, combining heat with super-sophisticated polymer finish formulations. "Yet," Jean-Paul Guy told me, "there is always some orange peel. Machines can't detect it and they can't correct what they can't sense, so a human being carefully checks each piece and makes it perfect."