SoundMag - - Contents - Writ­ten by An­drew Quint – The Ab­so­lute Sound

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.

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