A Visit to Focal in France

"When good Americans die, they go to Paris."—Oscar Wilde

There is a particular art that many Americans have mastered, involving the collective lamentation of the unwelcoming nature of the French towards American tourists—whether this has been experienced firsthand or not is irrelevant—coupled with inexplicable, unwavering desire for all that the French stand for. The art, the wine, the cheese, the architecture, the haute couture—it is all of these, yes, but it is (I believe) the all-encompassing French vibe that we are drawn to.

Naturally, I was a Francophile before I ever was an audiophile. Though, when it comes to French audio manufacturers, it seems there is little divide between the two allures.

It was all this that summoned me to France for a personal getaway last November, during which I snuck in a brief day trip to the factory of renowned audio giant Focal. Located in Saint-Étienne, a city in east-central France, Focal's headquarters—or self-described "undercover facility, production site"—is no more than a couple hours from Paris by train.

Focal's headquarters employs roughly 230 people, spread across 188,000 square feet—for reference, three American football fields and then some—which comprises distinct multilevel buildings for individual departments. There's even a petanque court and an outdoor shelter for smoking—an act only the French manage to keep despicably elegant.

Nicolas Debard—sound tuner and product manager (for hi-fi speakers, high-end headphones, and studio monitors)—was my tour guide for the day. Those who frequent CanJams will be familiar with Nicolas. Those who do not, might mistake him—with his dusky eyebrows, salt and pepper goatee, and concentrated stare—for a covert operative or classical music critic. (He is neither, to my knowledge, and rather prefers electronic music.) Dressed in a raspberry gingham button-down and a hefty snow coat with a fur-lined hood, he walks me to the front of the main building, where I exchange my drivers license for a nondescript Focal ID on a lanyard.

Across the way, Nicolas raises an industrial garage door, revealing a fine Peugeot 304 cabriolet—a classic French car produced between 1969 and 1980. "A customer just brought this in earlier today to be equipped with Focal speakers." Now, I won't pretend to know anything about cars—though I did, as a child, possess a fair collection of Hot Wheels—but I found myself regretting handing over my license just then. It was a beautiful blushing ruby red—almost blending in with the red of the room—with chocolate leather seats and the occasional tattering here and there.

The room itself showcased three different car audio kits, ranging from $99–$10,000: the entry level Integration Series ("very fast and easy to install"), the Performance Series ("higher sound quality rate and longer install time"), and the Elite Series ("the very top end product") that can take anywhere between a couple days and a week to install, depending on whether the installer needs to create custom fiber-glass for the dashboard or not. In the interest of Focal's founder, classic car enthusiast Jacques Mahul, Focal originally entered the car audio sector in 1989, and now depends on car audio for 35% of its turnover.

Up a spiral flight of stairs, we climb to the showroom. It begins with a timeline that spans from the company's humble inception in 1979—as Focal-JMLab—to its merge with Naim in 2011, all the way to the recent release of the Kanta loudspeaker in 2017. Past the timeline is a meeting room, then, further down, the showroom itself, used primarily for passive demonstration—with the exception of the headphone systems.

A single speaker from each current line is on display: Chorus, Aria, Kanta, Electra, Sopra, Scala, and—front and center, a custom Grande Utopia EM, with a glossy black front and swanky orange leather sides. "And here, we've got something quite unusual." Nicolas gestures towards a holographic spacey purple-blue Sopra that seems to shift in color with light. "We don't properly sell this. It's just here to highlight what we can do in terms of finishes. Let's say, more or less...everything."

Focal also has a smaller location to the north, in Bourbon-Lancy, with about forty employees, where all the hi-fi cabinets are made, including painting, finishing, and fulfilling custom requests, like this one. Strewn along the side are the Elear, Utopia, and Clear headphones, paired with a selection of electronics by Luxman, Woo Audio, Feliks Audio, Auralic, and PS Audio. And in the back, there are home-theater and audio/video compact systems, including the Sib Evo with built in Atmos solutions, and an Electra in-wall speaker. "High fidelity sound in complete discretion."

Downstairs, through two doors and into what resembles the insides of a massive black and wood zebra, is Focal's dedicated custom listening room. It's for both stereo and audio/video purposes, Nicolas notes. Thin wooden strips line the walls and curvaceous ceiling, in a seemingly random—yet very much calculated—zigzag fashion, designed to escape standing waves and parallel surfaces, to ensure an appropriate amount of reverb. The system uses a Naim Uniti Nova linked to a NAS drive as the source, with a Naim Statement preamplifier (NAC S1) and monoblocks (NAP S1s), out through a pair of Focal Grande Utopias—with power supplies to adjust the bass frequency settings depending on room acoustics. He smiles, adding, "Of course, we have very good acoustics and a fairly big room, so it's pretty easy to adjust the system in such a room."


Nicolas Debard shows me the Kanta and Sopra speakers in the showoroom.

To demonstrate the system's low end, Nicolas cues James Blake's 2010 hit cover "Limit to your Love." (Most people don't realize this—but yes, it was actually written by the Canadian musician Feist; not Blake!) A minute in, there's a deep, throbbing sustained sub-bass—suspected on audio forums to be a squarewave through a low-pass filter modulated by a low frequency oscillator, heavily EQ'd, among other things. Blake, himself, put it best in a 2011 conversation with the Guardian where he said, "I set out to make the bass feel amazing in a club." The Grande Utopias succeeded in conveying precisely that.

In borrowed slip-on steel toecap shoes, I clumsily follow Nicolas through the manufacturing and R&D building. (Note that cameras were not allowed inside, so I do not have any photos to accompany this section.) "There are two types of companies: those who buy drivers from catalogs, and those who design and manufacturer drivers right from the cone design." It was a highly efficient, large-scale operation that had me feeling like a child exploring Santa's workshop. Heavier materials—like subwoofers and woofers—are built downstairs, while tweeters are on an upper level. Nicolas showed me each of their patented technologies at different stages of completion.

When we got to the W-composite sandwich cone—two sheets of woven glass tissue "sandwiched" around a Rohacell foam core (used in Utopia, Sopra, and Electra)—he explained the reasoning behind their marbley outer space-looking finish. "It's pure aesthetic. You know, we had a funny experience at the time that we developed that technology. We did some listening tests with two pairs of speakers—exact same speakers, exact same drivers—one pair with white cones, and the other with that finish. All the people who listened to both pairs preferred the sound of [the finished cones], where it was exactly the same sound!"

Finally, we visit the office—a glassy, reflective building with light wood floors, live plants, open stairs, natural light, and an abundance of charming Frenchies. The office houses general admin work, IT, supply chain (critical given that most products are built in-house), and the communication department (which handles everything—user manuals, product pictures, packaging, press releases—in house.)

In the right corner of the first floor is the unassuming office of Christophe Sicaud—CEO of VerVent Audio Group, the holding company of Focal and Naim. He is a rangy man with angular features, towering above me in a sky blue button-down and crisp black blazer. Like with all sizable companies in audio, there is an overwhelming sense of highly polished brand passion, "Where Focal has delivered interestingly in the long run is in the design story." Christophe tells me the strengths of their brands lie in providing both good taste of sound and good sound experience. The latest Naim Uniti line, for instance, leaves customers feeling as though, "they didn't just buy a pair of wooden or black boxes with amplifiers inside. They also want to have something nice that fits with their interiors."

On the current market and the future of audio he shares, "For us, it's also very important that the apps you get on your iPad, iPhone—the experience should be great, easy to use—your music listening, your listening platform should be perfectly integrated into our apps. Where the market is definitely going today is: the experience should be as simple as possible. Customers do not care to spend hours and hours in the shop anymore to experience different products."

"One very interesting market is the growth of the top high-end headphone market. As an audiophile, I owned some competitors' headphones before we developed the Utopia and Elear headphones. For me, explaining how a great driver and speaker company like Focal is able to deliver to these types of customers is very important. Most customers live in apartments and cannot use a big pair of speakers even though they could definitely afford them. They enter [the audiophile world] because they have money and would like to have the best from this segment. All the statistics we get from this market says they are far younger than traditional audiophiles. It's very important that we get younger customers interested in both our brands."

I ask him about his feelings—in the general sense—about fellow audio companies. "We need competitors. For sure, we hate some of them, because they—" he pauses for a moment, choosing his next words carefully, ". . . they push the market in a stupid way. We will not give you a name, but it's easy to say: it's a French company who's spending a bunch of money on marketing and not a lot on their products."

A light chuckle, then he goes on to explain, "For us, innovation is not just traveling to China then engineering and developing products shipped from there. In our industry, a lot of parts come from that market but one really critical path for our engineers is to experience what manufacturing is, in order to understand where they can improve; why the product doesn't fit perfectly with what they had imagined in research and development. Both Focal and Naim keep these trends to have key manufacturing facilities not too far from their headquarters, in order to be sure that we can keep control of our critical elements inside both companies."

After visiting this European audio powerhouse, it is clear that the pride behind their "Made in France" ideology is an inspiring vision that Francophiles and audiophiles alike can embrace.

COMMENTS
foxhall's picture

Really enjoyed this piece and, as a Focal speaker owner, am very intrigued by the company's model and control over components and process.

My Aria speakers opened up a new world for me. I still can't get over the tweeter which is so SO smooth but extends - remarkable engineering.

allhifi's picture

I too was fascinated with Focal, although it was the Utopia 'Maestro'? featuring Naim Statement amplification at TAVES a few years ago.

It just so happened that a Pink Floyd track (from The Wall) was playing and it didn't take long at all for me and an associate to nod in impressive agreement that what we were experiencing was indeed SOTA (State-of-the-Art).
That few minute "memory" remains seared in my noggi'n -what great hi-fi has always done; very difficult to forget -as was a Roger Waters concert, also in Toronto (Molson Ampitheatre (circa 1996/7?).

In any case, I wish the same could be said for the remainder of the Focal line.

pj

Allen Fant's picture

Another great piece and trip for you- Jana.
I am curious about the JMLab portion of Focal?

dalethorn's picture

I bought the new Focal Listen Pro headphone - $300 USD. I liked the older Spirit Pro's sound OK, but it was a large metal tank-like beast that would make an ancient Roman soldier proud. The new Listen Pro is much nicer physically, but the sound is not good, charitably speaking. I wonder what they had in mind for it, since it's a cord-only headphone in an era of $200-$300 wireless headphones, many of which sound a lot better.

bengl3rt's picture

Thanks for sharing. Just got one of my cars back from having a Focal Flax subwoofer (among other things) installed in it. Glad to buy car audio products from a company that also has a ton of home audio (and headphone) credibility - shows an ability to think holistically about sound regardless of listening environment!

tonykaz's picture

... reputation for being a Company with Integrity .

Naim too !

Tony in Michigan

ps. I just ordered James Blake after listening to a download version that my Sennheiser system had no trouble with . Whyyyyy is the Album cover blurry?

brenro's picture

Along with Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, a good demo for bass junkies. (and for rearranging knickknacks on shelves)

Stevens's picture

The difference between French (and Italian) audio is that it is designed from the outside in, everyone else from the inside out.

Focal are a class act. So are their speakers.

AlMaNaAx's picture

Hi everyone, FOCAL being well known internationally, there are two other brands, more like sound artisans if you will, that deliver insane speaker systems and they are :

* Jean Marie Reynaud (JMR)
* Pierre Etienne Leon (PEL)

Dig them out.

Cheers

Wdw's picture

“We will not give you a name, but it's easy to say: it's a French company who's spending a bunch of money on marketing and not a lot on their products."
Love your work but I truly question you posting this remark.
Only left wondering. I own some seriously great French audio gear (Devialet) and this attack should not be posted without some serious thought.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

The comment is honest reporting of a carefully considered manufacturer's comment that was on the record. Granted, it's a comment that will undoubtedly make owners of products from the unnamed French company uncomfortable. But is it our job to make everyone happy, or to report what we hear and observe without censorship? Do you prefer your news hard-boiled or over easy? Or would you rather have it reconstituted?

Wdw's picture

......or simply slander without proof or verification. Think that better editing would have simply ignored the hubris.

HJC001's picture

slander has a legal definition in U.S.A. It is a very complicated measure of facts which this article (likely) does not attain. Also, it is not incumbent upon the journalist to defend nor prosecute mr sicaud's SPEECH about his FEELINGS as such speech is Constitutionally protected in this country. As for the "attack", it appears to be an off-hand comment, not an "attack". Sir, Mr. Wdw, have you never misspoken, never unintentionally revealed a personal belief, even if in the performance of a professional obligation? Let's not throw stones at glass houses. Finally, Basic Journalism: if speaker does not request "off the record", then it prints. The article is a very entertaining piece. The writing moves along well, despite a bit of awkward (or maybe just challenging for me) phrasing. It is to-the-point efficient. I sometimes write and post things after having slept very little and drank wayyyy too much coffee, regrettably. That's a lesson for all of us, right? Best Wishes, sir. And, may you always, first and foremost, enjoy the music. Thank you :)

PeterG's picture

Slander? ROFL? Objections to a journalist including a juicy bit of competitive snark? LMAO--lighten up!

Devialet obviously places more emphasis on marketing and style than Focal/Naim and the vast majority of hifi manufacturers. Presumably, one has to pay for that. Ergo, the price/performance ratio, as measured only by sound quality, is going to suffer. This is pretty much self evident. So there should be no surprise when a competitor throws a bit of shade on this score.

Wdw's picture

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