Visit to the Focal Loudspeaker factory - Cabinets

Ed Selley

AVF Reviewer
Since their founding in 1979, Focal JM Lab has become France’s largest speaker manufacturer and now has a strong product portfolio across domestic, professional and in car audio. A group of the UK press was invited over to their facilities in France to learn more about the company and their technologies.


Focal’s production facilities are spread out over more than one site. The visit concentrated on two of them- the cabinet factory for the Electra and Utopia ranges which formed day one of the visit and then the largest of the sites, the company HQ and driver manufacturing facility we visited on the second. As well as looking at the domestic loudspeaker range, Focal also showed their pro and car audio models to good effect as well.

The two sites are actually 175km apart (one of the reasons the trip was split into two days) and for many years, the cabinet factory (situated in the brilliantly named and achingly pretty town of Bourbon-Lancy) was an independent concern.

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This factory was originally founded in the 1930’s and concentrated on furniture manufacture. After Focal began to order cabinets from them, the plant became ever more devoted to making loudspeakers. After investing in the factory in 2002 to facilitate the production of the Utopia range, they took the logical next step of buying it outright in 2007.

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The Electra and Utopia ranges are both high end products but at the most basic level; the raw material for the cabinets is still MDF. This may sound a bit prosaic for speakers that can cost in excess of €100,000 but it is still one of the best options available for high quality cabinets. MDF arrives in pre-cut sections and cabinet assembly begins from here.

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Focal immediately begins to apply processes to this raw material that set it apart from many other brands. Shaping and forming of sections is carried out by a single machine that can work over five axis of movement. This ensures that very complex shapes can be made in such a way as to avoid placing undue stress on the MDF and at the same time create very complex shapes.

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The component parts are them assembled into basic cabinets. Different thicknesses and weights of MDF are used for different purposes. As you can see above, the framework of this Electra floorstander is strong but relatively light but the front baffle that the drivers will attach to is much more substantial to keep resonance to minimum. The cabinet assembly is a strange mixture of high and low technology. Focal has put a great deal of thought into their glues to ensure an ideal balance between reasonable speed of assembly and long life. After the glue is apple to the cabinets, the workers use a combination of tape and clamps to keep the speakers together. The tape might seem like an odd choice but it has just the right amount of “give” when used correctly to let the cabinet breathe slightly as the adhesive takes hold.

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Once the cabinet is set, it is sanded and prepared for painting. All the edges on the Utopia and Electra speakers are finished by hand to ensure the result is absolutely correct. Flat surfaces are mechanically sanded as consistency is easier to achieve. Consumption of sandpaper as you might expect is prodigious.

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After sanding, the complete parts for a pair of speakers are assembled into a single batch. This will comprise the main cabinet and the peripheral sections that will be attached after painting and/or veneering. Instructions for finishes start appearing on cabinets at this point.

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Veneering is carried out by applying incredibly thin strips of wood to the MDF sections under considerable heat and pressure. As well as the “standard” wood finishes, the Utopia range can be specified in custom wood that requires Focal to source, match and then finally secure suitable veneer for what is a very complex process.

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The paint shop is a significant corner of the factory. Even speakers that have veneered bodies have painted sections so pretty much everything passes through here. Focal uses a two stage primer to show any cabinet imperfections before the speakers go into the spray booth for the final coat.

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The finished article is then left to dry before going through a polishing process that is the equal of most similar undertakings in the luxury car industry. This is probably as well because the sheer numbers of finishes available would put the car industry to shame. As well as the Porsche Carrera white pictured above, Lamborghini orange is a popular choice as well.
What is important to point out is that even though this factory is only devoted to two models in the Focal range, it is still incredibly busy. Cabinet production is roughly 500 units a month and this includes between four and eight examples of the mighty €130,000 Grand Utopia. This is an impressively high level of production for very high end speakers. Once the cabinets are completed, they are crated up and head to St Etienne to be partnered with their drivers.
 

Ed Selley

AVF Reviewer
<H3>Driver factory and HQ</H3>

Focal’s impressive HQ was originally used as petroleum research facility but has been effectively converted to serve as the company’s driver factory, logistics base and demonstration facility. The new demonstration areas we visited at the end of the day are seriously impressive and break down into domestic, professional and in car divisions. Drivers are a significant area of Focal’s business. As well as producing all the drivers for their own loudspeakers, other speaker brands make use of them as well.

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One of the most visually distinctive aspects of the Focal design philosophy is the “W Sandwich” drivers. This is the result of a twenty year development program from Focal and one of the most distinctive areas of the company’s products. At its heart this is Plexiglas foam that is heated over specific moulds into drivers of varying sizes.

The resulting mould is very thin and very light. What further separates the W Sandwich drivers from many other designs is that two superficially identical drivers can perform in a completely different way. By using different levels of foam and varying the treatment applied to the foam, two drivers can be made to perform optimally in completely different parts of the frequency spectrum. This places lower demands on the crossover and improves performance. The “flecked” finish is deliberately added to the drivers for visual identity.

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So as not to compromise the cone integrity, cutting is carried out by laser. This results in perfectly cut drivers where the minimum amount of time has been spent with them under stress. The cutting process also leaves an indentation around the edge which is then filled with the glue that is used to attach the surround. I didn’t have much joy trying to photo the laser cutter at work but rest assured every Bond villain should have one.

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After this, the cones have their voice coils added and are built up into drivers. This is still regarded as an absolutely critical process and is done by hand on all W Sandwich drivers.

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With assembly completed, the drivers are given a visual check and put through a frequency sweep to look for any issues. This isn’t some brief bleep test either. Everything does a full frequency sweep followed by stop start tests all of which are checked by ear and measured.

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Less expensive drivers in the range are made using polycarbonate which is a good compromise of rigidity and lightness. Focal has brought production of these drivers back from the Far East which as required some impressive refinements in production to retain cost effectiveness. Perhaps the most telling example of just how profound these processes have been is that a driver in the Far East took eight hours to complete. The current process in St Etienne takes nine minutes. Although more of this process is automated than is the case with the W Sandwich drivers, there is still an impressive amount of individual care and attention that goes into each one.

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Focal tweeters are equally bespoke. The company has made use of an inverted dome design for some years now as the dispersion characteristics are superior to convex one. The company initially used titanium but although the result was very light and very strong, the tweeters themselves suffered from ringing at certain frequencies. Moving to aluminium created a tweeter that was fractionally less stiff but considerably more resistant to the same issues.

Where Focal has really pushed development is with their high end tweeters. The company has been working with Beryllium for over a decade now and uses a Beryllium tweeter in the Electra, Utopia, some pro models and even some in car audio. The challenges in using Beryllium are immense. The employee in the photograph is not wearing the protective clothing through paranoia. In its natural unrefined state, Beryllium is highly toxic. The problems don’t end there. It is considerably more expensive than gold and the simple act of turning it into an inverted dome requires a special machine that heats the sheet of metal to over a thousand degrees and encases it in Argon during the process. The payoff is a tweeter that is hugely rigid and weighs just 15 microns. When you drop one, they actually flutter to the ground!

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After the drivers have been fitted to cabinets and packaged, they proceed to the warehouse for shipping around the world. As you can see, the numbers involved are considerable and why the factory now produces nearly 2,000 drivers per day.

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Having visited the production facilities, we then visited the demonstration areas. The pro audio demo area is a studio setup featuring the all new flagship SM9 active monitors. These also make use of Beryllium tweeters with over 400 watts of internal amplification. The results were seriously impressive and it is easy to see why there is a considerable backlog of orders for them.
Finally it was time to visit the all new domestic demo room that featured the flagship Grand Utopia. Only completed the day previously, the room still has some tweaking required to reach its best but there is no doubt that it has huge potential to show off the engineering prowess of the company to great effect.

The visit was a great demonstration that Focal are using some incredible technology and impressive production techniques to further loudspeaker design. That they work extremely hard on the flagship models is perhaps no surprise but the engineering integrity that goes into the less expensive models show that this is a company to be reckoned with at all price points.
 

Simba

Distinguished Member
Interesting article. thanks
 

Chester

Well-known Member
A most enjoyable read, thanks for that. I'm a Focal in-car customer (well the wife is at the moment, and I'm hopefully following suit in the coming weeks as we're pleased with the results), and I must say that the kit looks great, let alone sound good!

I wonder how they compare to British loudspeaker manufacturers?
 

KoThreads

Well-known Member
Bought the Chorus 816 V and CC800 V speakers. Beautifully made and fantastic sounding speakers. Shame they are so overlooked. The videos don't joke, all in house designed and manufactured. The speakers are boxed with more packing than you can imagine, then each part is wrapped, or boxed and wrapped, then the entire speaker is coated in thick plastic film. The finish is faultless. You have to see these things. I've owned speakers from a lot of companies, some more expensive, but for sound quality and finish these have yet to be beaten and there not anywhere near the top of their range. Our speaker industry should have carried on like this.
 

marieb1231

Novice Member
Very well written & precise review. However imho what you didn't seem to mention was just how PASSIONATE these people really are about their speakers.
As the Passion they have for what they do imho says a lot about then.....:)

P.S. I've been to this factory 3 times
 
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marieb1231

Novice Member
Yeah three times I think it is....;) Very interesting place. The smaller part of the company is actually in town & this was mainly where the Utopia range of drivers where assembled & painted. As regards the afor mentioned speckled effect of the cone being a signature of the Utopia range we were also told that the paint is also measured to a precise micron level as it added balance t the sandwitched cone. Then we went to the main site which is huge. This is where r&d is done & the rest of the ranges are manufactured & assembled. Last time we went they had a bit of fun & blind tested us to see if we could tell what speakers we were listening too.
 

potshot

Well-known Member
Good to see a speaker company keeping production in their native country. Respect to them.
 

l34052

Active Member
I have a set of focal speakers in my car and they are very good, super clean and tight sounding with airy open trebles.

Im still running them in so the gains are set quite low but the sound is very good already and will only get better.
 

marieb1231

Novice Member
Focal do make some really nice car speakers. Unfortunately they get slated for the tweeters being to bright. However 8 out of 10 times this is down to poor installation. As in most of the Focal car component set-ups the tweeters work better Off-Axis & the vast majority of people don't know this ;)
 
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