40 years ago in the small town of Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania I started building what I hoped to be the finest audio store in the world, World Wide Stereo. At the same time, in a small town in France, Jacques Mahul began building what he hoped to be the finest loudspeakers in the world. That company was called JM Labs and was soon to be renamed Focal Audio.
On July 7th, I along with 10 members of the World Wide Stereo team flew to France to get a full understanding of just how good their product is and why it is so often considered the benchmark. It was a factory tour like no other.
In my 40 years I’ve never experienced any manufacturer with a more intense level of passion and focus on each individual product from its inception to final construction. If you asked any person working anywhere on the line what they did, they all said the same thing: "Je construis les meilleurs haut-parleurs du monde" - "I build the finest speakers in the world” …and then they will tell you how what they do makes that happen.
Focal makes everything from the ground up. Every component is designed and built to work with the other components with the end game being the best possible musical fidelity. Because the drivers are built for the cabinets and vice a versa, they require less electronic intervention in the way of crossovers and such. It’s crazy smart.
What follows is the story of that trip. It was good karma all around. France won the World Cup while we were there - not unlike being in Philly after the Superbowl. We will get more into the product in articles to come but, for now, here's a photo journal and snippets from my guys' recaps to give you an insider's peek in a factory that very few get to experience. Be sure to read to the bottom to get our playlist of music we used in our epic demo of the $260k Grande Utopia Evo speakers. We're talking serious goosebumps.
The Focal and WWS gang from left to right: Romain, Karen, Emily, Austin, Ryan, Bob, Ken, Shawn, Adam, Chris, Mario, Patrick, Sébastien
It all started at Focal's cabinet making facility - Focal Ébénisterie Bourgogne - in Bourbon Lancy, the Burgundy region of France. This facility is responsible for crafting loudspeaker enclosures for their Electra, Sopra, and Utopia home speakers. We even watched our very own Electra speaker order being put together. Everything is hand made.
On Focal's main campus in Saint-Étienne, just outside of Lyon, we received an extremely in-depth and, at times, no-photos-please tour of the 188,000 sqft facility that showcased the engineering and science behind how their cones are made. Focal prides itself on having full control over their entire production and assembly process, which also means that they design and build all of their machines and tools used during the manufacturing process right there in the same building where the speakers themselves are built (and also why some of the area of the factory was not open to photos, sorry).
Focal's engineering focuses on minimizing mass, while maximizing rigidity and damping. They employ their very own "W Sandwich" technology, which quite literally sandwiches either a foam core or locally sourced flax between two sheets of glass fibers yielding an extremely rigid, yet exceptionally light structural cone form. The Beryllium tweeters were formed within a sealed room with workers dressed in biohazard suits. Beryllium is seven times more rigid than titanium, six times more rigid than aluminum (a more common driver material), ten times more expensive than gold, and light as a feather. Its remarkable strength to weight properties allow these drivers to be incredibly efficient.
A hands-on experience.
To be able to touch and hold each part of the speaker — the light-as-a-feather Beryllium tweeters that also go into a cabinet that houses 200 pound drivers for the Grande Utopias — brought a literal tangibility to the science behind acoustical engineering and efficiency. An incredible education.
The demo (the seven foot disappearing act).
A lot happened that day, much of it new to even Bob who’s been doing this for 40 years (and is being inducted into the Consumer Techonology Hall of Fame in November). He’s no lightweight. But in the end, it was all about the demo. Six hardened Hi-Fi souls who’ve “heard it all” sat down to music they have heard in countless demos over the years, played by all manner of equipment. In the middle of the room was a pair of blue Grande Utopias. They were beautiful. The Grande Utopia goes through 600 different steps in the production process. One piece of wood takes 5 hours to cut down and process and 8 hours to polish. The actual speaker takes 3 months to build from start to finish. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that they are a value at $260k – but how do they sound? These beauties were powered by a top of the line Naim stack and sourced by a simple CD quality streamer.
When the music started, something magical happened. Two 600 lb, 2 meter high speakers disappeared. They were gone! All there was, was music. It was all encompassing. We heard things we’ve never heard before in music we’ve all heard over and over. The detail was extraordinary. The emotion was everything live music can be… the London Symphony was playing Rachmaninoff right there. Freddie Mercury was alive again, but then, then they asked to play Hallelujah – a live recording by Espen Lind. They were pushing their luck playing the most over-demoed piece to six people who were already so much in love and didn’t want to break the spell. What can I say other than, well, our Bob cried. It was a very good day.
- Maestro Utopia III Evo
- Focal Grande Utopia EM 4-Way Absolute Reference Loudspeaker
- Naim Statement
"Journey To The Island" by John Williams on the Focal Grand Utopia EM Evo
Check out our Spotify playlist here.
Download Spotify to hear the full tracks. Most tracks played during the actual demos were WAV files, mp4 files, CD quality, or from Tidal at CD quality (FLAC 44.1kHz, 16 bit).
Personal recaps of the trip.
I have been a Focal fan for quite some time, even before my recent Focal car audio upgrade. But to be present and witness firsthand the craftsmanship and science behind the musicality of their products was eye-opening. A once in a lifetime experience I will never forget. We watched both car and home speakers being made and I was super excited to put a new and as-of-yet unrevealed car speaker in my hands.
Focal uses local resources - like the flax for the woofer - and local people. Many of the people we met through the course of the tours and the trainings were glad to see us and excited to show us how they contribute to the Focal name. Each station in the factory takes about 6 months to learn and master through a rigorous training process and every driver made is tested to ensure that it’s in proper working order before it moves to the next step. The factory members exhibited so much pride and love in what they do.
Many of the machines that Focal uses are machines of their own design. They have engineers on-hand to create the machines that create their speakers. The engineers play an active role in the day-to-day operations of each station, assessing and monitoring precision and efficiency without compromising quality. While we were there, we watched them consult with a woman who was responsible for affixing the motor/woofer cone assembly to the basket. They took pictures and measurements to review the process later for further optimization."
Chris Mulhearn, Car Sales & System Designer since 2008
I don’t think I ever learned more in a 3 hour period then I did while doing the driver tour on our 2nd day. Being able to see exactly how the speakers are made from one step to another - how they build and paint the cabinets, to creating the drivers from scratch and then finally testing every speaker rigorously was nothing short of jaw dropping. I am a very strong believer that if you respect and believe in a product you are trying to sell, that attitude is apparent, appreciated, and and contagious. Plus, the experience of seeing France, a country I have never been to, far exceeded any expectations I had when prepping for the trip. The way the entire Focal family treated us was very warm and endearing."
Shawn Thome, WWS Sales & System Designer since 2008
My mission coming to this trip was to soak up all of the knowledge and culture that I could. I admit the sweet breads was probably a bad idea, but I tried it! The Focal culture of making speakers is spectacular. The philosophy of focusing so much on the driver before it even hits a cabinet just makes so much sense to me. Their choice of materials is brilliant, as it allows them to tweak each speaker for each cabinet and performance level. The care that goes into making the cabinets and all the steps required was really eye opening. Seeing all of that made it clear to me why some speakers are worth more than others.
I have a serious passion for sound and listening to music - but just as much so for the science behind how the quality of that sound is impacted by how things are made. And listening to each speaker series after watching craftsmen assemble each of the speakers' parts the day before helps me better understand and then educate our clients as to the "why" behind the differences in sound reproduction. And the value behind the quality of the models as you go up in price - the differences in materials and how it matches the differences in clarity and musicality. It's so clear that you just get more and more through the line until you finally get it all in the Grande Utopia. They were the closest thing to having the band in your room that I have ever heard. Focal's passion for the reproduction of sound is infectious, and I got bit hard. This trip has taught me what truly high end performance sounds and feels like."
Adam Domurad, WWS Sales & System Designer since 2009
I’ve observed, over the years, that there are two ways to build a loudspeaker. One way is to buy drivers from a speaker parts supplier, cabinets from another source, and then “play” with the available components to create a new product that has its own appeal… a difficult task with so many speaker brands available, and so many of them being built in third-party facilities. Focal is, from what I observed, the antithesis of this philosophy.
The Focal way is to build their own drivers in their own factory, each specially designed for the system they will go into, and then use a minimalist crossover to do the final blending of the sound. I was amazed to see wood planks on shelves, and then watch them get bonded together, then machined into cabinet sides, sanded, and finished to perfection all in one Focal facility.
At their main factory, tweeters were being built, not assembled from pre-formed parts, but tweeter domes were formed at the factory, and the magnets magnetized by Focal… 100% control over the quality of ingredients. It was obvious that speed of production takes a back seat to quality of production at Focal."
Ken Zelin, WWS Sales & System Designer since 2016
After having an opportunity to see a block of wood transform into a fine handcrafted speaker, it's easy to understand and explain to a client that they are buying much more than a speaker. The joy that Focal speakers will give them is priceless. One of the most impactful moments for me was on Friday before our train left to go to Paris, when we spent three hours just sitting together and listening to the Grande Utopias. Within those three hours I was brought back to the moment that I wanted to a part of this industry. I love music. It is my passion and it is my hobby. During our hectic work week, we are so focused on generating business and taking care of clients that we sometimes lose sight of why we do what we do. The Grande Utopias reminded that the music and the feelings it conveys is what it is all about. I am excited to get back to the showroom and demo speakers not just for clients that come in for speakers, but the clients that come in for televisions, furniture, receivers, whatever it is that brought them to us. I want them to experience what I experienced in that room."
Austin Marvel, WWS Sales & System Designer since 2013
I really admire and appreciate the emphasis that Focal places on engineering. Nicolas talked about how they will start from scratch to design a completely new set of drivers for a new speaker, rather than pull existing drivers off the shelf that might not match their acoustical needs. It makes the design take longer, but in the end makes the solution simpler and more resilient. Analogous to the adage, "measure twice, cut once."
The other result of this focus on engineering excellence is a relentless effort to improve processes. From the very focused and continuous R&D effort, to the extensive training provided to new employees, to the carefully developed manufacturing plans and checklists, nothing is left to chance. When one of us asked a question about why something was done in a particular way in the driver factory, Nicolas had not one, but two or three concrete reasons why they chose the way they did. Everything was done with a purpose, for a reason.
It did not surprise me in the least when Christophe, Focal's CEO, mentioned at dinner that his background was as a manufacturing engineer, since they are clearly a company with a deep appreciation for the importance of creating a good design and good processes from the start. You can design the best products and best processes in the world, but if they are not executed with craftsmanship it will not mean much. We saw this up and down the line in both factories – employees going about their jobs with care and professionalism. It was great to see the very obvious pride they all took in the work they were doing and the products they were producing. I do not know for sure how to get that result all the time, but I am pretty sure it includes a combination of hiring good people, providing them with good training and good managers, facilitating a good environment, and developing and communicating good plans and good processes.
And, finally, the product. This is the union of the engineering side and the craftsmanship side – resulting in some of the most beautiful products we sell, both visually and aurally. And I really came to understand how each side contributes equally in the production of high quality products. When I first saw and heard Focal products in our store, I was very much drawn to them, though I could not have articulated why in any meaningful sense. There was a moment in the Utopia assembly area of the driver factory when we were all debating what color we would get our Utopias in – this for me really defines the idea of an aspirational brand. They are the swan in the water – the finished products are all regal elegance as far as you can see above the water, and the hard work of engineering and process and craftsmanship are the furious flapping of feet below the waterline that make that elegance possible."
Patrick Moran, WWS Director of Operations since 2005
It was so wonderful to experience the behind-the-scenes of a company that still truly believe in craftsmanship and that it can manufacture a product in house, with a local work force, at all price ranges. I have to say the people at Focal were just as impressive as the factory. Sébastien and Romain were awesome to learn from and hang out with. Arnow and Christophe were both very generous and funny. Matt and Karin (our photographers) were also a joy. Even Stephen, who could not speak English, cracked me up! I feel privileged to represent a company and a product like Focal in our showrooms — a company that so strongly believes in what World Wide Stereo believes in and has the product and can deliver the experience to prove it."
Mario Patelmo, Sales & System Designer... and Store Boss since 1994