Having visited China and witnessed the building boom firsthand, I must admit that I suspected corners were being cut in construction—so I wasn't surprised by how many buildings came down. Considering all the construction accidents happening in NYC this year, who am I to look askance at China?
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.
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.
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>.
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.
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.
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.
This dashing zouave graced an antiques store in Bourbon-Lancy. What did it sell? Why, military antiquities, of course. I was tempted by a Hussar's sabre, but I was pretty sure I couldn't carry it on the airplane home with me.
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.