IN­TER­VIEW – FO­CAL’S CHRISTOPHE SICAUD

InCar Entertainment  - - CONTENTS -

On a re­cent visit to our shores Fo­cal’s CEO stopped by the In­Car of­fices to talk France, Fo­cal and flax.

BE IT FOR car or home audio, few would ar­gue that Fo­cal is at the lead­ing edge of speaker driver de­sign. e company’s in­no­va­tions in­clude the poly­glass com­pos­ite sand­wich and the dif­fi­cult to man­u­fac­ture beryl­lium di­aphragms, mul­ti­ple mag­net sys­tems in the ‘Power Flower’ ar­ray and even the adop­tion for mid and bass driv­ers of nat­u­ral ax bre which grows in abun­dance in Nor­mandy in the north of France. Vis­it­ing Aus­tralia for the rst time, Fo­cal’s CEO Christophe Sicaud chats with In­Car Ed­i­tor Ed Kramer and AV Di­vi­sion Group Ed­i­tor Jez Ford.

Edgar Kramer: In the car space Fo­cal makes a num­ber of high-end am­pli­fi­ca­tion prod­ucts. Is this likely to go across to the home audio space?

CS: It’s a tough area of the mar­ket for Fo­cal to make high-end am­pli­fiers. Look, I wouldn’t say no but it’s not some­thing for the short term. But we’re look­ing at de­vel­op­ing some prod­ucts to t with our top-end car speak­ers. EK: With the ul­tra high-end Fo­cal Ul­tima? CS: Well, the Ul­tima is a fan­tas­tic story be­cause we picked up el­e­ments from our top-end Utopia home speak­ers. It’s a prod­uct for peo­ple who have enough room in their car be­cause the Ul­tima is a phys­i­cally large sys­tem which would not t in a small car. We are proud to have done this prod­uct even if the sales team wasn’t con­vinced it would work. But we have dou­bled the or­ders we ac­tu­ally fore­cast. It shows how peo­ple are very in­ter­ested in mak­ing good sound in their cars. Ul­tima has the tweeter of the Grande Utopia, the woofer of Utopia 2 and the sub comes from the SM9 stu­dio mon­i­tor.

EK: But is the prod­uct changed at all for the dif­fer­ent mar­ket?

CS: We change it a lit­tle bit. ere’s a slight change.

Jez Ford: I re­mem­ber a UK re­viewer Jimmy Hughes who is a hi- guy but was en­am­oured with in-car lis­ten­ing be­cause it is a xed en­vi­ron­ment and he could pre­dict what the acous­tics were, so does that make it eas­ier to de­sign speak­ers for a car?

CS: It’s al­ways dif­fi­cult for a car. You know, if you want to make it top high-end you should do it ac­tive so you should have a good DSP. And the en­vi­ron­ment of a car is al­ways dif­fer­ent from one car to the other. We at the mo­ment don’t have a DSP so we are play­ing with our com­peti­tor’s DSP. And in car audio maybe, I think, peo­ple are a lit­tle bit tired of the US sound which for OEM are Bose and Harman Group. ey’ve done a great job, they’ve pushed the bass story maybe a lit­tle bit too much, but I think that for voic­ing peo­ple are look­ing for bet­ter qual­ity. is has put pres­sure for me for all my sup­ply chains. And there’s the is­sue that in France we only have maybe 20 good in­stal­la­tion shops.

JF: Do the chains sell the boxes or do they do in­stal­la­tions too?

CS: ey sell the boxes and also make poor in­stal­la­tions. ey even go as far as in­stalling a DSP but they don’t set it up right. So in the end you’ll prob­a­bly have a bet­ter in­stall go­ing pas­sive be­cause at least the crossover is set-up the right

way. So re­ally it’s all about the qual­ity of the in­staller. In the US it’s ne be­cause there are plenty of good guys do­ing fan­tas­tic work.

EK: ere are quite a few here in Aus­tralia that are do­ing great work too…

CS: In France, if you want some ad­vice on your car sys­tem you’re bet­ter o go­ing on the in­ter­net to ded­i­cated fo­rums than go­ing to a dealer. It’s crazy! And there’s a big move in Europe where peo­ple are com­ing back to af­ter­mar­ket speak­ers and we didn’t fore­cast that. Es­pe­cially with the Flax speak­ers which have been a fan­tas­tic suc­cess be­cause of the qual­ity against the price we’re ask­ing. Ev­ery­where peo­ple are com­ing back to this type of in­stal­la­tion against tak­ing the hi- op­tion of the car mak­ers.

EK: Car audio in Aus­tralia has seen some­what of a resur­gence and I was won­der­ing how that com­pared glob­ally…

CS: In the US we are up be­tween 30 and 40 per­cent this year which is crazy. It’s amaz­ing to see this move. Rus­sia, all the East­ern coun­tries, all do­ing quite well. is seems to be the trend. Also in the de­vel­op­ing coun­tries where some cars are of­fered with­out a sound sys­tem inside, like we were maybe 20 years ago in Europe, of course it helps us. And it has been a good op­por­tu­nity to make part­ner­ships with Volk­swa­gen, Toy­ota and it’s the way we are work­ing in plenty of coun­tries with this type of part­ner­ship where we do a kit which is ded­i­cated to their cars. It also pro­vides mar­ket­ing and sales peo­ple a way to re­new the way they of­fer hi- in cars. For sure, CD play­ers are dis­ap­pear­ing very quickly and they are o er­ing MP3, USB key, stu like that which is very poor. Part of the dis­cus­sion with car man­u­fac­tur­ers is how do we come back to qual­ity sound in the car. Peo­ple are spend­ing a lot of time in their cars and it’s prob­a­bly the main place where they lis­ten to mu­sic so it’s a big op­por­tu­nity for us. Fo­cal’s DNA is largely from the car audio side and, as far as cus­tomer base, the car side is larger than the hi- side.

EK: But over­all, what’s the ra­tio split be­tween home and car audio in terms of share? CS: In terms of turnover it’s 60 per­cent home audio, 30 car audio and 10 pro audio. But watch­ing those shares right now it looks like car audio will in­crease to 35 per­cent. In mul­ti­me­dia speak­ers, peo­ple are now us­ing less desk­tops and more lap­tops so this part of the mar­ket is down and there’s so much com­pe­ti­tion there and it’s also down in terms of price point. We’ve been in this part of the mar­ket with top high-end prod­ucts so we ad­dress a small part of the mar­ket.

JF: In terms of driv­ers, how did you end up with ax?

CS: OK, I launched a Re­search and De­vel­op­ment pro­gram three years ago. I rmly be­lieved that there was a way to im­prove our driv­ers. My idea was to make a big im­prove­ment, not just in the cab­i­net, but all round and with new driv­ers. So we launched this pro­gram to seek a new mem­brane rst, some­thing which is stiffer, a bit more damped. is was the brief given to a team of two en­gi­neers. One en­gi­neer is purely R&D, a Ja­panese en­gi­neer who’s been with us for ve years and who’s very well known in the in­dus­try and ex-Pi­o­neer. He has set-up the Diva and Stella and has done a great job for the company. e ques­tion for him was “great, I have a com­pos­ite ma­te­rial sam­ple, how will it sound?”

We had the idea to in­vent a ma­chine where we can check what will be the sound of a par­tic­u­lar com­pos­ite so we made lots of dif­fer­ent sam­ples. In my pre­vi­ous job I was in­volved in the com­pos­ites in­dus­try so I have some knowl­edge on what ma­te­ri­als can be mixed. I knew the ax story for years be­cause the mix with bre­glass has al­ways been good with light laments so in terms of damp­ing it ts per­fectly. We made some dif­fer­ent sam­ples and very quickly we re­alised we could make a dif­fer­ent type of mem­brane with ax and we ar­rived here after about eight months of the pro­gram.

EK: ere doesn’t seem to be any large area ax driv­ers avail­able yet, is there a tech­ni­cal or prac­ti­cal rea­son why?

CS: No we will. We’ll be launch­ing sub­woofers with ax. ere is no prob­lem. ere are two ways of man­u­fac­tur­ing. e man­ual way like we’re do­ing for the W and K2 but we also de­signed a pro­pri­etary ma­chine to make it quicker and more re­li­able in terms of ther­mal form­ing, etc. Ev­ery­thing is done in­ter­nally in the company. It’s also a way to stop the Chi­nese copying that’s hap­pen­ing ev­ery­where. It’s not that easy to man­u­fac­ture so it’s a good way to pro­tect our­selves. Poly-glass has been copied even by our com­pe­ti­tion. We launched ax more than one year ago and so far no one has been able to copy it. And we have some patents too.

EK: Only a few years ago Fo­cal of­fered raw driv­ers for gen­eral speaker de­sign­ers. What hap­pened to that side of the business?

CS: Well, at the end, you have to choose what

IN FRANCE, IF YOU WANT AD­VICE ON YOUR CAR SYS­TEM YOU’RE BET­TER OFF GO­ING ON THE IN­TER­NET TO DED­I­CATED FO­RUMS THAN GO­ING TO A DEALER. IT’S CRAZY!

you want to be. If we wanted to be­come a real brand we have do that or to make the right part­ner­ship. Why give our tech­nol­ogy to peo­ple to be in com­pe­ti­tion with us? Or to change our driv­ers and pub­licly say they are bet­ter after. For us, a good part­ner­ship is like the one we have with Fen­der. ey make am­pli­ers and speak­ers for the mu­sic in­dus­try. We de­liver our driv­ers to their man­u­fac­tur­ing plant in China and they state “Fo­cal Inside”. So it’s a real part­ner­ship be­cause it’s a co-brand­ing story that pro­tects and benets both com­pa­nies. EK: Is Fo­cal founder Jac­ques Mahul in­volved any­more? CS: No he is not in­volved any more as of April 2014. Now we have a new name which is Ver­vent Audio Group. New story, new share­hold­ers. ere is Aqua­sourça which is a small in­vest­ment company and there’s also a big­ger one called Nax­i­cap. EK: Are they from an audio back­ground? CS: No. ey chal­lenge us from a di er­ent di­rec­tion and pro­vide di er­ent op­por­tu­ni­ties. For me, the new in­vest­ment board is a way to re­new the strate­gies, to shake the minds of peo­ple and to try to im­prove. We hope to go deeper with our dis­tri­bu­tion and to help lo­cal dis­trib­u­tors and to make their job a lit­tle eas­ier. If you look at how wide our range is it can be a lit­tle bit tough for some dis­trib­u­tors. In some mar­kets the hi- side is do­ing bet­ter but mul­ti­me­dia and head­phones are do­ing noth­ing, for ex­am­ple. How do we im­prove the group, this is the dis­cus­sion in some places. EK: So in the short term and then the long term, what’s com­ing from Fo­cal? CS: In car audio we will re­visit a range that has been around for some years and it’s the K2 range. So next year some im­prove­ments and re­newal on the K2 range… some of the prod­ucts are around 15 years old. Peo­ple have been very happy with it but if you know the K2 range we can im­prove the tweeter and other as­pects of the de­signs.

EK: Does it make sense to join the en­gi­neer­ing teams from the two com­pa­nies, Naim and Fo­cal un­der one roof, to share the ex­per­tise?

CS: No be­cause they al­ready share. ey are in touch two or three times a week in video con­fer­ences to speak about the di er­ent prod­ucts. When we make changes to prod­ucts the R&D Direc­tors ap­prove and they check and stress the best place to di­rect the money from one prod­uct to another.

We have plenty of ideas but it’s a mat­ter of test­ing to nd where to in­ject the cash to make the best prod­ucts for our in­dus­try. Nigel Macara (left) from Audio Mar­ket­ing (Fo­cal home prod­ucts distrib­u­tor) with Christophe Sicaud Fo­cal CEO.

Ad­vanced pro­pri­etary driver tech­nol­ogy has al­ways been a Fo­cal trade­mark.

Fo­cal’s CEO talks about flax the magic fi­bre that rev­o­lu­tionised the company’s driver tech­nol­ogy.

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