FOCAL SOPRA NO1
Hard to Say Goodbye
There’s something to be said for a high-end loudspeaker manufacturer actually making its own drivers. The number of companies that do this is relatively small, though many try to obfuscate the matter by declaring that their woofers and tweeters are made to their exacting “specifications” by outside sources. In fact, many fine loudspeakers are produced by this latter paradigm. But having complete control over driver manufacture inhouse can facilitate efforts to optimally integrate the performance of transducers, crossover, and enclosure. Since very close to its beginnings in 1979, Focal (at the time known as JMLab—Jacques Mahul started the company and remains at the helm) has produced both raw drivers and complete speaker systems. For 25 years, Mahul sold his drivers to other marques. But especially with the development of an automotive speaker line, the demand became too great and now the French company keeps all of its drivers for its own products.
The Sopra speakers—there are two currently, the $14,250 Sopra No1 and the $20,500 Sopra No2—occupy a position in the Focal product range between the Electra line and the take-no-prisoners Utopia series. The Sopra No1 is the top half of a Sopra No2 turned upside down and mounted on a dedicated stand. A mini-monitor? It sure doesn’t perform like any other mini-monitor I’ve heard, and if you’re thinking of employing a subwoofer along with these loudspeakers, maybe yes—but maybe no.
The two transducers in the Sopra No1 exemplify Focal’s long history of driver design. The W-sandwich cone was developed for the earliest Utopias in 1995, a Rohacell foam core covered on both sides with a thin layer of resin-impregnated glass tissue. These drivers, efficiently fabricated at Focal’s St. Etienne factory, manifest the Holy Trinity of high rigidity, low mass, and excellent self-damping characteristics that translate into transparency, excellent phase response parameters, and low distortion, compared to drivers made from other commonly employed materials such as Kevlar or aramid fiber. Focal tweeters, of course, have been the standard for high-frequency reproduction for decades. Before starting JMLab/Focal, Jacques Mahul worked at Audax where he developed the first dome tweeter. At his own company, he pioneered the beryllium tweeter and, in 1981, introduced the inverted dome topology, which leverages the advantages of having the tweeter similar in shape to the cone to better integrate the two drivers.
The key features of the beryllium tweeter and sandwich cone have been in place for years and, to cite a Focal technical paper, “the only way forward was to work more closely on the driver suspension.” Using computer-modeling methods to investigate the effect of adding mass to a driver’s suspension (a technique that’s been used to assess automobile suspensions and anti-seismic systems for tall buildings), Focal developed its TMD (Tuned Harmonic Damper) suspension, configured as a pair of circular rings that oscillate to neutralize the resonance frequency of the driver’s surround. The result, says Focal, is a greater than 50 percent reduction in distortion around the critical area of 2000Hz, which results in improved imaging, delineation, and timbral accuracy. Sopra speakers also take advantage of some “trickle-down” technology from the massive EM drivers found in Utopia models, and other refinements of the EM circuit that Focal sees as a work-in-progress, calling it the Neutral Inductance Concept, or NIC.