Technology – Audio
The Luxury of Design
French manufacturer Focal is internationally known for the performance and style of their speakers
BY GEORGE MCCLURE
WHEN IT COMES TO LIVING THE GOOD LIFE, the French have always had a distinctive flair. At legendary speaker manufacturer Focal, the company’s designers, engineers and cabinetmakers work together to create exquisite products internationally lauded both in terms of sound reproduction and style. Focal understands that in order to make their way into contemporary luxury homes, their high-end loudspeakers must be lifestyle objects d’art. But their design philosophy isn’t just about the beauty of the form — it also serves to elevate performance.
Founded in 1979, Focal is currently celebrating 40 years of fusing passion, tradition and advanced technological prowess to provide the ultimate in listening pleasure. Their designers and engineers work together on leading- edge innovations to ensure each product performs perfectly in its intended environment.
made in France
Without exception, everyone in the company is invested in the label Made in France, as all Focal’s high-performance speakers are conceived, developed and produced at their Saint-Étienne headquarters. This practice results in lasting value for Focal loudspeakers, because many of these
technologies can’t be found anywhere else. Focal employs approximately 230 people at their state-of-the-art campus, which includes multiple buildings totaling over 188,000 square feet. It’s a large, extremely efficient operation which deploys numerous patented technologies throughout.
Spend any time at a Focal facility and you’ll be impressed with the level of pride exemplified by everyone who works here. It’s not uncommon to hear employees comment about having joy in “making the best speakers in the world.” All Focal employees involved in production are highly skilled craftspeople with a keen eye for detail. It takes around six months of training to learn the duties required for each slot on the manufacturing line, and every assembly is tested and re-tested before it moves to the next station. This is one manufacturing plant where quality is exponentially more important than speed.
dedicated cabinet-making facility
Located a little over 100 miles to the north of St. Etienne in Bourbon-Lancy, Focal Ébénisterie Bourgogne (FEB) is the company’s dedicated cabinet-making facility. Here’s where all the enclosures are made for the company’s high-end speaker lines, including Electra, Sopra and Utopia. About forty craftspeople perform all the painstaking processes here, including woodworking, painting and finishing.
The Grande Utopia, for example, takes three months to manufacture, as there are approximately 600 steps required in production. The cabinet is made out of one piece of wood which takes over five hours to carve down and eight hours to polish.
All wood is sourced from sustainable forests. The rigidity of each cabinet is the most important aspect, similar to a grand piano, and Focal has developed some specific metal inserts to improve this all-important quality. As proud as the company is of all their French designs, for the finish process they use a world-renowned Italian method which requires multiple applications of elegant coating and lacquer with specific varnish in order to achieve the highest gloss possible.
Focal Ébénisterie Bourgogne is a major advantage for Focal’s prestige and for its products. The quality of the materials and finishes, the excellence of French workmanship, and the highly specialized expertise of Focal’s technical teams, all result in exquisite sculptured speakers with cutting-edge performance.
a conversation with Simon Matthews, Focal’s group director of design
GEORGE MCCLURE What does luxury mean to you as a designer?
SIMON MATTHEWS That’s a good question. For me luxury is about experiences, and it’s about a state of mind. I think as we move to more and more digital interactions and very slick functional experiences, we need to find ways to celebrate the things that are magical and meaningful in life. For me, great luxury isn’t about flamboyance for the sake of it — luxury is really just a very deep immersion in a particular experience or emotion or sensation that really allows time to stand still a little bit and lets us just savor something in its purest form.
In this day and age, luxury can be as simple as ten free minutes without the phone ringing. I think the definition is quite broad, but it goes beyond just an application of expensive materials or flamboyant design. Luxury for me is going that last mile to just savor the essence of something fantastic.
GM Has our digital world changed the idea of luxury?
SIMON Yes, I think so. The paradox is that as we’ve become more connected digitally through social media and the like, in many ways we actually feel more disconnected. We’re just primates with laptops, after all. Though the digital technology is fantastic and benefits us in huge ways, there are human needs which aren’t fully served by those experiences and worlds. People do crave these more tangible experiences. We can see that with the resurgence in vinyl purchasing and people using 35mm cameras even in today’s digital world. People want to find ways to express their individuality through the objects that they interact with and through. Music is, of course, a very personal experience that people have a relationship with throughout their lives. Finding ways to honor these experiences is quite key. That’s what we strive for at Focal.
GM How does Focal differentiate itself from other luxury speaker manufacturers?
SIMON Well, our methodology is built upon fantastic scientific rigor. But there’s also an art and a craft element through the design and the manufacturing process. There’s an obsessive approach, and I think we have an expressive imagination in terms of how we look at an acoustic problem and the way that we try to solve it. Focal is quite unique in the way that we marry those disciplines together so that the level of craft and application and quality of build almost becomes an art form. Without that approach, I don’t think a Focal product would be a Focal product.
For me, Focal really fuses together the head and the heart. We use scientific approaches to try to solve problems, but ultimately the best set of acoustic measurement tools we have are attached to each side of our head. At Focal we’re always trying to look for the soul in the music and try and find ways to deliver that. That goes beyond what a spectrum analyzer or a measurement tool can deliver and goes into a different realm. A lot of companies may stop at where things measure well, but with Focal that’s just the starting point. We push beyond that point to really try and do justice to the musicians and what they did in those recording studios
GM How important are aesthetics to a Focal’s overall design philosophy?
SIMON Well, let’s put it this way: There shouldn’t be any sense that anyone was let down by the experience of a Focal speaker in any way. So, first and foremost, the speakers have to integrate well into your home, but be able to deliver as close a reproduction of a musical event as possible. That’s our primary goal. But, you know, it would be a disservice to the acoustic engineers and our rigorous manufacturing process to deliver to customers something that didn’t delight their eyes and their hands and their tactility as well just delight their ears. For us, it’s really, really important, and we want to communicate the kind of obsessive lengths we go to to deliver fantastic sound reproduction in the physicality of the speakers. A potential customer should be able to recognize that they’re not dealing with a mainstream loudspeaker from the moment they lay their eyes on a Focal model. Hopefully, they integrate well into a beautifully furnished modern home, and they’re a delight to look at as well as listen to. For us there is no trade-off between visual appeal and sonic credentials.