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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
Lyon, I was told, has an extensive network of underground tunnels, which helped its citizens hide Jews during the Occupation. As I walked by this wine shop, I snapped a photo of its stairs to underground Lyon.
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.
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.