If you like hi-fi kit with a twist ” at what­ever price level you choose ” Fo­cal is more than happy to oblige

What Hi-Fi (UK) - - Feature -

It’s your clas­sic fairy­tale suc­cess story. .an sets up small work­shop in the back of his fam­ily busi­ness, makes some ama[ing stuff, turns small work­shop into award-win­ning empire of in­ter­na­tional ac­claim, car­ries on mak­ing ama[ing stuff.

When Jac­ques. ahul set up shop in his fam­ily-run pre­ci­sio­nengi­neer­ing con­cern in Saint -ˆ ti en ne ,' rance,hebui lt drive units. And since he started in 1979, his com­pany has grown from two to 200 em­ploy­ees, its fa­cil­i­ties now in­clude an ane­choic cham­ber and au­di­to­ri­ums for tuning, and there are over 40 hi-fi speak­ers cur­rently in its cat­a­logue – with one model cost­ing a hair-rais­ing c130,000.

But de­spite its suc­cess, 'ocal hasn’t flown the nest. It’s still based in its home city, and it doesn’t rely on out­sourc­ing. 'rench her­itage is its heart and soul. As well as be­ing one of the few speaker brands to man­u­fac­ture its own drive units, around three quar­ters of ev­ery­thing it makes is de­signed and de­vel­oped in-house – so when you see ‘.ade in 'rance’ stamped on a 'ocal prod­uct, you know it’s le­git.

'lick through the What Hi-fi? archive and there’s no sign of a 'ocal speaker un­til 200 – not be­cause the com­pany (or the maga[ine) was slow off the start­ing block ('ocal es­tab­lished it­self in­ter­na­tion­ally in the 1990s), but be­cause they didn’t fall un­der the 'ocal um­brella.


While the loud­speaker and drive unit form 'ocal’s his­toric back­bone, the two were dif­fer­ent en­ti­ties at birth. In­deed, .ahul set up the sep­a­rate J.lab speaker brand in or­der to house his 'ocal driv­ers. J.lab’s de­but was the small book­shelf DB 13, which fea­tured a dual voice coil de­signed to reach the same vol­ume lev­els as big­ger boxes.

The dual voice coil trig­gered a se­ries of in­no­va­tions. In 1981, 'ocal cre­ated its sig­na­ture in­verted dome tweeter – a driver de­signed for pre­ci­sion and wide dis­per­sion, which still ap­pears in its speaker line-up.

In 198 , its ,2 cone – used in the J.lab Vega and An­tea mod­els – spawned a se­ries of sand­wich-struc­ture cones, this one com­pris­ing lay­ers of aramid fi­bres (the bread) ei­ther side of a hol­low mi­cro-ball struc­ture (the fill­ing), which aimed to im­prove the com­plex har­mony be­tween weight, rigid­ity and damp­ing.


It was 1998 by the time a J.lab speaker first ap­peared in What Hi-fi?. The model in ques­tion was the five-star .icron Carat (c39 ), Ôthe small­est and most af­ford­able of its huge rangeõ.

But the am­bi­tion had al­ready shifted from mod­estly si[ed and priced mod­els to pre­mium high-end to­wards lux­ury à la Française. This, in turn, paved the way for some se­ri­ous tech­nol­ogy.

The ,2 cone’s pi­o­neer­ing sand­wich struc­ture led, in 199 , to the W cone sys­tem: a sheet of wo­ven glass tis­sue ap­plied to each side of an acrylic/plex­i­glass foam core, which was more rigid and lighter than syn­thetic fi­bres such as Aramid. The ‘W’ is de­rived from the cone’s glass/glass (‘verre/verre’ in 'rench) anatomy. It’s the Kewel in the crown of the Utopia range,

headed by the (rande Utopia floor­stander (pic­tured, right). The (rande, now in its third gen­er­a­tion, weighs 2 0kg, stands over ft tall, and will set you back about c130,000 (dou­ble in a gold fin­ish).

Sit­ting amidst a Utopia’s W cone driv­ers is the Beryl­lium in­verted dome tweeter. Beryl­lium is seven times more rigid than ti­ta­nium or alu­minium, but with the same mass – and the tweeter can re­pro­duce fre­quen­cies span­ning an in­cred­i­ble 1000)[ to 40k)[.


'ocal de­signed the ' cone in 2013 to fea­ture in the more af­ford­able Aria 900 range, from which What Hi-fi? praised the four-star 90 (c 00) and five-star 90 (c7 0) stand­moun­ters. Their cho­sen ma­te­rial, flax, ticks boxes for a sand­wich struc­ture thanks to its low den­sity, high elas­tic­ity and ex­cel­lent in­ter­nal damp­ing – and its dis­tinc­tive look lends aes­thet­ics a hand, too.

Strik­ing aes­thet­ics and so­phis­ti­ca­tion are syn­ony­mous with 'ocal, as il­lus­trated by So­pra. 'rom the four-star stand­mount No1 (c 00) to breath­tak­ing flag­ship floor­stander No3 (c1 ,7 0), you see close col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween de­sign­ers and en­gi­neers. So­pra’s in­no­va­tions in­clude an I)- (In­fi­nite )orn -oad­ing) sys­tem that del­i­cately ab­sorbs the rear wave of the Beryl­lium tweeter to re­duce dis­tor­tion and push tre­ble def­i­ni­tion to the max.


Elsewhere, 'ocal hasn’t been afraid to spread its wings. Its first car au­dio prod­ucts ar­rived in 1989, and since 2002, 'ocal Pro­fes­sional has of­fered a line of record­ing studio mon­i­tors.

To­day, the com­pany has moved into head­phones. The Spirit range of on-ears, the five-star Sp­hear ear­buds (c100), and now the Utopia – an au­da­cious open-backed de­sign with re­designed ver­sions of the Beryl­lium tweet­ers found in the Utopia speaker range and a price tag of c32 0.

Ad­di­tion­ally, 'ocal makes one of What Hi-fi?’s favourite sound­bars, the Di­men­sion (c890).

It’s an im­pres­sive di­ver­sity of prod­ucts, ev­ery one stay­ing true to 'ocal’s guid­ing prin­ci­ples: in­no­va­tion, ex­cel­lence, per­for­mance, plea­sure and tra­di­tion. †a spnne Cien.

Fo­cal is still based in Saint-Eti­enne, and it doesnt't rely on out­sourc­ing

"A sense of scale that we rarely, if ever, hear at this price" - What Hi-Fi? on the five-star Aria 906

Fo­cal's Berylium in­verted dme tweeter" two and a half times lighter than ti­ta­nium... and seven times as grid È

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