Focal-JMlab Nova Utopia Be loudspeaker The French Touch
Back in February 2003, I accompanied AudioPlus Services' Daniel Jacques and some of his US sales representatives on a trip to the Focal factory in St. Etienne, a medium-sized city outside of Lyon, in southeastern France.
Focal is no boutique operation. In its 20 years it has risen to become what I was told is the second-largest manufacturer of speaker drivers and complete speaker systems in all of Europe. While CEO and founder Jacques Mahul (the "JM" in JMlab) has recently chosen to de-emphasize OEM manufacturing in favor of complete speaker systems, the company remains a supplier of drivers to a number of high-end speaker builders. Versions of Focal's famed Tioxid titanium-oxide tweeter are seen in many exotic models, including those from Wilson Audio. Focal has diversified its offerings enormously, and makes speakers and systems for all budgets and applications, from car audio all the way up to the $80,000/pair Grande Utopia Be. Focal neglects no price point; whether you want to spend $500 or $80,000, they have a speaker for you.
Our first stop was a small workshop in St. Etienne where the patented W cones are fabricated—yes, Focal makes in-house nearly everything that goes into every Utopia—and it was nothing like what I'd expected to see. A spare handful of white-coated technicians produce the vast number of cones that Focal requires. The feather-light foam cores of the cones are vacuum-formed, then covered with layers of spun-glass fibers that are as transparent and gossamer as something out of the Victoria's Secret catalog. Foam and glass fibers are then heat-fused under pressure in a second vacuum device. The result is a cone with tremendous stiffness but extraordinary lightness. When Gérard Chrétien, Focal's managing director, dropped a finished 13" Nova woofer cone (sans dustcap) from a height of 6', it literally fluttered to the floor.
The factory proper, where the cabinets and non-W-cone drivers are built and the speakers are assembled, is an airy, spacious building on the Focal campus on the outskirts of St. Etienne. While the factory bristles with high-tech fabrication and testing equipment, human hands and ears perform many of the most specialized steps of assembly and evaluation. "We let machines do what they do best and let people do what people do best," said Chrétien.
I had a chance to observe the making of the beryllium domes for the Utopia line's new Be tweeters. This is done in a tiny, tabletop drop forge that's set up in a locked room in the tweeter-assembly area. Dominic Baker fired up the forge and we went to lunch—the forge needs at least two hours to heat up to the +2000 degreesF needed to form the microns-thin metal wafers into tweeters. When we returned, Baker unlocked the safe in which the beryllium is kept and carefully inserted metal into forge. The hammer slowly descended, and a few seconds later a perfect little dome was revealed.
Baker picked up the dome with a pair of tongs and told me to open my hand. I did, and he dropped the dome into my palm. It was no hotter than the ambient air temperature. That's a neat party trick, but the physics are simple: next to no mass equals virtually zero heat retention.
While Focal builds the cabinets for most of their speaker systems, the Utopia line is given special attention. On the third day of our visit we piled into a van and headed for the charming Burgundian town of Bourbon-Lancy, a couple of hours away from St. Etienne. In this ancient (on our way to lunch, we walked under an arch built in the 1300s), picturesque little city is the cabinetmaking facility of Jean-Paul Guy. A third-generation family business, Guy's factory is the source of all Utopia cabinets. Again, high-tech machines are used where most appropriate, but the detail work is all done by patient, perfectionist human beings, some of whose families have worked for Jean-Paul's family for 60 years.
Each cabinet used to make a Nova is a thing of beauty even in its unfinished state, and the glowing finish of every Utopia is the result of a careful and elaborate process in which coat after coat of finish is layered onto the painstakingly crafted woodwork. I observed a young woman in a cavernous paint booth, conscientiously spraying piano black onto the front panels of half a dozen Nova Utopia woofer cabinets. These were people who care passionately about what they do, taking the time and making the effort to do it as well as it can be done.
Mahul mentioned that he and Jean-Paul Guy had discussed moving the woodworking operations closer to St. Etienne, but that Guy had decided against it, despite the obvious efficiencies. Guy pointed out that he would lose most of his employees, and that it was they who were responsible for the quality and precision of the cabinetmaking. Mahul agreed that this was something worth preserving, and to continue trucking finished cabinets from Bourbon-Lancy to St. Etienne.
There was almost a quiet fanaticism in evidence among the employees of the two factories. These people were obviously very serious about their jobs, but I've never seen production facilities of any kind where there were as many happy-looking people as I did at Focal and J-P Guy. Their happiness and professionalism comes through in every Utopia—to appreciate the results of their labors, all you need do is look and listen.
And yes, French food and wine were everything I expected, and then some. Vive la France!—Paul Bolin