INTERVIEW – FOCAL’S CHRISTOPHE SICAUD
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.