How a number of the world’s fanciest audio system are made
Excessive-end audio is about precision. Recreating reside music in your house is among the wonders of expertise, requiring audio system correct sufficient to create a convincing fascimile of the recorded soundfield. Have a look by way of any of my latest speaker critiques up to now yr, and also you’ll discover them filled with measurements attempting to puzzle out the intricacies of a speaker‘s sound.
So when French audio large Focal invited to see how its audio system had been made final yr, I knew to count on the flowery equipment, anechoic chambers, and meeting traces. What I didn’t count on was how a lot of a human contact is a part of the method. At almost each step there was some extent of workmanship concerned, from cupboards hand-made in France‘s southern countryside, to high-end woofers which might be pressed into form with sinew quite than metal. The corporate takes its ‘Made in France‘ tagline significantly.
Disclaimer: Focal flew me out to France to take a look at its amenities for its 40th anniversary final yr. Regardless of this, Focal had no say within the textual content of this text and it’s my intention to maintain it as goal as potential. This text is supposed as extra of a glance into Focal‘s design course of than a judgement of its audio system. Observe that most of the photographs on this article had been supplied by Focal, as we weren’t allowed to take photographs throughout many elements of the tour on account of unreleased merchandise and proprietary manufacturing processes.
Focal has been within the audio enterprise since 1979, producing studio displays, automotive audio system, headphones, encompass methods, and naturally, hi-fi audio system. Regardless of the sprawling portfolio, the corporate’s factories had extra of an intimate vibe than you’d count on from such an enormous operation. Over time, Focal‘s manufacturing has settled on two major amenities: its important headquarters in St-Etienne, an hour outdoors of Lyon, and its cupboard manufacturing unit in Bourbon-Lancy, a small rural commune over two hours away.
It’s the cupboard manufacturing unit that stood out essentially the most. It’s the place Focal‘s hi-fi speakers start their life as wooden skeletons before being shipped off to St-Etienne for assembly. This includes all of Focal‘s enthusiast speakers – everything from the company’s new and comparatively inexpensive Chora line to the train in overkill that’s the $230,000 Grand Utopia.
Although it struck me as quite inefficient to ship hundreds of heavy speaker cupboards two hours away twice every week, it’s a course of Focal has been aware of for years.
The woodworking facility, initially often called Man HF, has been making Focal‘s cupboards because the 80s. Again then, it was concerned in different woodworking commissions, however in 2007 Focal purchased the ability outright and renamed it to Focal Ébénisterie Bourgogne. Although the corporate had the chance to maneuver operations to St-Etienne, Focal determined to maintain the experience of the women and men on the Bourbon-Lacy facility and ship cupboards each few days quite than displacing the employees or forgoing their skillsets.
For although the ability comprises state-of-the-art milling and ending gear, the majority of the work is completed by hand. Whereas the period of time it takes to create a cupboard varies by mannequin, no speaker is made in a number of hours or days. The time elapsed from receiving uncooked medium and excessive density fiber to creating completed cupboard – earlier than the precise meeting of any electro-mechanical parts – could be anyplace from one to 2 months.
MDF and HDF is lower by 5-axis and 3-axis milling machines, however then craftspeople sand, glue, and brace cupboards. Simply sanding the entrance portion of a Sopra cupboard can take 45 minutes. Focal doesn’t use screws to carry collectively cupboard panels, so cupboards are meticulously checked for indicators of air leakage earlier than leaving the glue to treatment. Some cupboards use veneers laid out right into a vacuum press, different cupboards – significantly higher-end fashions just like the Sopra and Utopia – are spray painted by hand.
This final level seems to be a specific matter of satisfaction for Focal – it’s one of many few audio firms to supply audio system in such a wild number of colorways; even taking customized paint job requests for its most premium fashions. If the paint isn’t good, the corporate begins the ending course of another time – regardless that I couldn’t see any blemishes on a number of the cupboards marked as flawed. There’s a high quality verify at nearly each step of the method, and Focal repeatedly emphasised the significance of its staff’ expertise to establish flaws – and keep away from them altogether.
Cupboards full, they’re shipped over to the St.-Etienne facility. Except for being Focal HQ, this location additionally the place the corporate researches, creates, assembles, and exams its drivers. The quantity of guide labor going into creating the drivers is maybe much more stunning than the cupboards.
I wouldn’t count on cumbersome human palms to be so concerned within the creation of such exact units as speaker drivers, and but they’re intricately concerned with the creation of nearly every of the corporate’s drivers.
For instance, the corporate makes a ‘W’ sandwhich cone. No, this isn’t a hipster culinary confection, however quite a speaker driver fashioned by enclosing a layer of froth between two skinny layers of glass tissue. This driver, utilized in Focal‘s two most high-end speaker households, is actually “sandwiched” by hand by staff making use of the layers right into a mildew. Our information informed us this isn’t only a advertising and marketing level; a talented employee is solely higher at this course of than a machine, and supplies an instantaneous high quality verify to verify there aren’t any air bubbles.
Different drivers are extra automated, akin to the brand new Slatefiber cones within the Chora line; it’s about utilizing the suitable instrument for the job. It simply so occurs typically that instrument is a little bit of muscle.
In an identical juxtaposition of high-end parts and human labor, Focal‘s beryllium tweeters are made in a temperature enclosed room, the place a single employee is tasked with shaping the drivers utilizing precision gear. Beryllium mud could be toxic, so the lady operating the equipment wore a hazmat go well with. There’s additionally no air con on this chamber, as a way to reduce the beryllium particles shifting round within the air.
The corporate is especially happy with its drivers, claiming to have the ability to customise every unit greater than rivals – and based mostly on what I noticed, I imagine it. In contrast to many speaker firms that create audio system with off-the-shelf drivers or by way of manufacturing partnerships, Focal makes all of its drivers in-house from starting to finish. That enables for speedy iteration and means Focal has extra flexibility for tweaking drivers that go into a specific cupboard.
In different phrases, every of the corporate’s drivers is tuned individually for the precise mannequin, not only a collection. It is going to modify every part together with coil windings, magnetic cost, mass, rigidity and extra individually for the cupboard for every driver sits in.
As Nicolas Debard, Product Supervisor, informed me, Focal‘s energy is in its flexibility. The corporate “is not organized to manufacturer tens of thousands of drivers a day. We are definitely focused on manufacturing many different types of drivers on the same day.”
The claimed profit to that is minimizing the pressure on the driving force – not straining it past what it’s comfy with. Focal appears to want making adjustments within the driver area to implementing tweaks within the crossover; this helps maximize the sensitivity of its audio system too.
The power to quickly iterate has additionally allowed the corporate to develop distinctive driver supplies and shapes. There’s the aforementioned W sandwich and Slatefiber cones. The corporate even makes a driver out of flax.
On the tweeter facet of issues, the overwhelming majority of producers use a dome-shaped tweeter. Focal as a substitute makes use of an inverted dome. Whereas not unique to Focal, it’s nonetheless fairly uncommon to see. Debard tells me this form is current all through nearly all of its audio system as a result of it results in huge directivity – a property usually related to a extra expansive soundstage and secure candy spot. Debard additionally tells me the inverted dome permits Focal to make use of a smaller voice coil than a conventional dome, serving to scale back mass.
This was definitely true of the Chora 806 – among the many widest directivity audio system I’ve measured. The management the corporate has over the form of the inverted dome, together with the businesses swooping cupboards, additionally helps it keep away from diffraction results which smear the sound, although the corporate makes use of small, shallow waveguides on its extra inexpensive audio system to assist reduce diffraction on these fashions with easier cupboards.
Focal’s premium audio system are then assembled in a quite futuristic-looking room enclosed in glass and that includes particular lighting that highlights any defects. Every speaker is then put collectively by a single employee, guaranteeing no steps are forgotten alongside the best way. Earlier than audio system are boxed they’re checked but once more, with every particular person unit run by way of a measurement station to verify it conforms to the corporate’s frequency response requirements.
My tour by way of Focal‘s facilities was revealing, and months later, I’m nonetheless impressed by simply how a lot of the method is completed by hand. It’s clear Focal might avoid wasting cash and be extra environment friendly by automating extra of the method, however typically a human contact simply proves higher. No surprise Focal so proudly flaunts its ‘Made in France‘ labels.
Revealed February 17, 2020 — 18:15 UTC