For about 25 years, I’ve made it a point to visit every hi-fi company that will open its doors to me. Some of those companies—Paradigm Electronics, Axiom Audio, Simaudio, Totem Acoustic, Verity Audio, Benchmark Media Systems, Blue Circle Audio, Classé Audio (when its products were still made in Montreal), and the now defunct Audio Products International, to name a few I’ve been to—are or were about two to five hours from my home by car, so, by my standards, pretty much right next door. But others have required a plane trip—sometimes within North America, but oftentimes overseas—which I’m almost always happy to take.
I believe that visiting audio manufacturers makes me a better hi-fi reviewer and writer, because I can see firsthand how each company’s products are made, and I get the opportunity to learn what makes a company unique. But even though I’ve visited many companies over those years—sometimes more than once—one of hi-fi’s biggies has always eluded me: Focal. Last month, I was able to set that straight.
A brief history
Focal’s history dates back to 1979, when, according to the company’s website, “Focal’s talent took root in the workshop of a family-run business specialising in precision mechanics. Back then, just two men worked on the manufacture of speaker drivers, one of whom was founder Jacques Mahul.”
Back then, the name was Focal-JMlab, which represented two divisions—Focal produced drivers that were sold to other companies, while JMlab produced finished loudspeakers that, of course, used Focal drivers. In the decades that followed, Focal-JMlab evolved into a global powerhouse that continued to make its own drivers and home hi-fi speakers, but also expanded into speakers for car audio, pro audio, and custom-install applications, as well as headphones.
In 2002, the year the company entered the pro-audio market, it became known simply as Focal. In 2011, Focal acquired UK electronics maker Naim Audio, which was founded in 1973 by Julian Vereker. In 2014, the same year Jacques Mahul left the company, both Focal and Naim Audio came under the corporate umbrella of Vervent Audio Group, where the two brands remain and currently operate under the leadership of CEO Cedrick Boutonet. I was told that Focal employs about 350 people today, while Naim Audio has around 150 employees.
A lot has happened during Focal’s 40-plus years; so when Romain Vet, VP of marketing and communications at Focal Naim America (the Focal-owned, Montreal-based distributor of both brands in North America), invited me in mid-October to visit Focal’s facilities in France two weeks later, I said yes. I wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass me by—I’d missed too much of Focal’s history already.
On October 31, I flew to Lyon, France, via Montreal and Brussels, and arrived late in the morning on November 1. From there, I hitched a one-hour car ride to Saint-Étienne, the city where Focal was originally founded. The company’s main headquarters are now just five miles (eight kilometers) away in nearby La Talaudière. I checked into my hotel in Saint-Étienne, grabbed a burger and beer at the local pub, and rested up for what would be a fast-paced, eye-opening three-day tour, beginning the next day. Vet, a few other Focal Naim America representatives, and some retailers, none of whom had been to the headquarters since the global COVID-19 lockdowns began, were also there for the tour.
The moment we pulled up to Focal’s La Talaudière “compound”—the company occupies several buildings on at least an acre of land, all fenced in—and I saw the gigantic warehouse at the front of it all, I knew that I’d be in for an experience unlike others I’d had before. Even from the main gate, I could tell that the company, by hi-fi standards, is huge.
We pulled in and took a hard left, which had us driving alongside a large building Focal calls L’Atelier Acoustique (the Acoustic Workshop), which is where everything is made—from driver components and raw drivers to complete loudspeakers. We parked at another large building that houses the administrative offices and more warehouse space. Next to L’Atelier Acoustique is another building, occupied by the entire R&D department. On the second floor is an eye-catching listening room, and a large meeting room and product showroom. In the listening room that day were a pair of Focal Grande Utopia EM Evo flagship loudspeakers, which sell for $250,000 per pair (all prices USD), powered by a Naim Audio Statement amplifier, which retails for $200,000.
The main listening room
When I go on factory tours, I like to spend as much time in the R&D department as possible, to see what’s being worked on and to get to know how a company’s engineers approach product design. But that wasn’t happening this time—I was told from the get-go that I couldn’t wander through the R&D facility willy-nilly as I sometimes do, because there were too many top-secret projects happening that aren’t for public consumption right now. Yet I was still able to see part of the R&D area, including the enormous semi-anechoic chamber used for measurements. The Focal R&D team is almost 50 strong, which tells me that there’s a lot of talent working there.
Instead, the main focus that day was L’Atelier Acoustique, which is as impressive a manufacturing facility as I’ve seen anywhere. It’s also a place that, once you’ve been through it, proves that the “Made in France” label that Focal puts on most of its products is true.
Kanta, Sopra, and Utopia assembly
When you first walk into L’Atelier Acoustique, you’re confronted with the assembly area for Focal’s Kanta, Sopra, and Utopia series of speakers—the company’s three most expensive lines. There were probably a dozen people working there at the time. What took me aback was how slowly and carefully everyone was working, making the area seem more like a precision workshop than an assembly line.
I was also impressed by two things in the quality control section of that area. As I witnessed, once a speaker has been built, it’s put into an area where it’s surrounded by lights so every square inch can be inspected by eye for visual imperfections. Then, each visually inspected speaker is routed into a semi-anechoic room where it can be subjected to acoustic tests, to confirm that it meets spec. One would hope that this kind of quality control would be done at every hi-fi company, but that’s not always the case. I’ve been to companies where visual and/or acoustic tests aren’t done, which always makes me wonder if the customer is going to get a product that looks and performs as it should. The folks at Focal appeared to be doing their due diligence.
Inspecing a Scala Utopia Evo
Adjacent to the Kanta, Sopra, and Utopia area are glass-enclosed rooms used for the manufacture of headphones. Focal has enjoyed remarkable success in this category by focusing on headphones with premium designs, and premium price tags to match. For example, although Focal does offer the Listen Professional headphones, priced at $299, it’s the company’s premium headphones that have gained the most fame—from the Celestee ($990) to the Utopia ($4400), along with the various models in between—all of which are made at L’Atelier Acoustique. In all, I saw about 20 employees tucked away in these rooms building these headphones, using advanced machinery, but also doing a lot of work by hand.
Seeing those assembly areas was worth the visit in itself, but they comprise just a small portion of L’Atelier Acoustique. Once you move past the Kanta, Sopra, Utopia, and headphone areas, there are extensive sections of the facility where the remaining lines of home hi-fi speakers are produced, as well as loudspeakers for car audio, pro audio, and custom install. There are other areas where many of the parts that go into these speakers get made, and the scope of this area of the operation flat-out floored me. For example, Focal is known for the advanced materials used for its driver diaphragms—for the home hi-fi speakers, there’s recycled nonwoven carbon fiber for the Chora-series cones, fibrous flax for the Aria 900 and Kanta models, Kevlar for the Aria K2 cones, beryllium for the Utopia and Sopra tweeters, and so on. These special diaphragms are produced there, at L’Atelier Acoustique, with staggering quantities rolling off the assembly lines.
Chief product manager Rejean Bedel with a newly made Kevlar cone
Complete drivers are also produced at L’Atelier Acoustique, though this shouldn’t be that much of a surprise—the company began by building drivers, after all. But it was still refreshing to see drivers being made right in front of me, if only to demonstrate just how much of Focal’s production is actually done in France.
Seeing all this in-house production prompted me to have discussions with Cedrick Boutonet and Romain Vet about Focal’s manufacturing strategy. In a nutshell, Boutonet and Vet—and pretty much everyone else at Focal—know that when someone is paying a premium price for, say, a home hi-fi speaker, from the entry-level Chora 806 right up to the Grande Utopia EM Evo, they want to feel like they bought something special. Customers want to know that the company didn’t just design it and farm out manufacturing to keep costs down, but actually built it. So Focal keeps the bulk of its manufacturing in France, mostly at its own facilities—and, according to Boutonet, always will, because it’s what helps to make a Focal product a Focal. The same goes for Naim Audio’s products, which are all made in the UK.
Controlling so much of the manufacturing has another benefit that’s become increasingly important during the recent global supply-chain crisis—which will likely continue for the foreseeable future. Basically, the more stuff you can make yourself, the less affected you are by shortages. Not completely—certain raw materials might still be in short supply—but having so much control over manufacturing helps insulate a company from supply-chain shocks.
CEO Cedrick Boutonet and pro-audio product manager Olivier Hébert receiving a 2020 Product of the Year award for the Shape 65 monitor
That said, Focal’s products aren’t 100% made in France, but they’re commendably up front about that. For instance, if you go to Focal’s website and scroll through the product lists, you’ll see a little blue, white, and red flag emblem beside most of the product images—those are the ones made in France. You’ll only find a small number of products that don’t have that tricolor emblem—those tend to be the lowest-priced products in certain categories. But home hi-fi enthusiasts can rest assured that every single home loudspeaker is made in L’Atelier Acoustique—as I’ve witnessed.
Focal Ébénisterie Bourgogne
Absent from my description of Focal’s manufacturing process so far are details of the construction of its speaker cabinets. For the company’s entry-level lines, which are typically straightforward rectilinear box designs, several different suppliers make the cabinets and ship them to L’Atelier Acoustique. The Kanta, Sopra, and Utopia lines have shapelier, more complex cabinets. They’re made in a company-owned facility called Focal Ébénisterie Bourgogne (Focal Cabinetmaking Burgundy), located in Bourbon-Lancy, which is 105 miles (169 kilometers) from the La Talaudière location.
Focal Ébénisterie Bourgogne
The drive to Focal Ébénisterie Bourgogne the next day should’ve taken two hours, but because of winding roads, bathroom and coffee breaks, and a little bit of getting lost, it took three. So we rushed through the facility in about an hour because we had another long drive ahead of us to the next stop on our itinerary. But having been through many speaker cabinetry facilities over the years, I knew what to look for and was able to suss out what was going on.
In short, I saw plenty of modern equipment for cutting, assembling, sanding, painting, and finishing all the complex cabinet shapes that the Kanta, Sopra, and Utopia lines require, which didn’t surprise me. These are the tools of the trade of the speaker cabinetmaker. But as I was walking through, there was one thing that really stood out—as large, well-staffed, and productive as the place seemed to be, it looked like it was working at capacity. In fact, I saw so many cabinets being made—and material there waiting to be made into cabinets—I couldn’t help but wonder if Focal is close to outgrowing this facility. This is also something I talked about with Vet, who confirmed that with the current demand that Focal is experiencing, as well as the future demand the company is anticipating, one of the things being discussed within the company is how to increase the production of speaker cabinets.
Cabinets under construction
Frankly, high demand isn’t the worst problem a company can experience. It also points positively to something else about the hi-fi industry that isn’t being talked about enough these days—the growth that some companies are enjoying. This flies in the face of what many naysayers are proclaiming—that hi-fi is dying, giving way to products such as computers, phones, and other things people spend their money on these days.
Completed Sopra cabinets
Certainly, hi-fi isn’t what it was in, say, the 1970s, when a great stereo was considered to be a status symbol. But I was in Italy to visit speaker-maker Sonus Faber at the end of September, near beautiful Vicenza, and at the beginning of November I was on this trip to Focal. I’d also visited other companies in Canada over the last year and a half during the COVID-19 lockdown as well. Every company I’ve visited has been having record-breaking sales. Hi-fi is definitely not dying.
From company to consumer—Focal Powered by Naim
There’s no question in my mind that there is consumer demand for hi-fi. But I’ve also been on a personal crusade to tell hi-fi companies that the biggest impediment to increasing sales further is the lack of public awareness of hi-fi brands and their products. What I mean is that there are many people who could and would buy a good hi-fi system—if they knew such a thing existed. Unfortunately, most don’t, and that’s a big problem—brand recognition, and therefore product knowledge, in the hi-fi sector is basically zero outside the audiophile community.
As a result, if you ask people who aren’t into audio to name a stereo company, they’ll probably say Bose or Sony, then maybe add in Sonos and perhaps Apple; the latter because of the HomePod products. They’re likely never going to mention the brand names that audiophiles know by heart. And when you add lack of brand awareness with the increased levels of online buying, you have a recipe for disaster for bricks-and-mortar retailers—they’re trying to sell products few people have even heard of. Is it any wonder that hi-fi stores have been closing down and the ones left are looking for creative ways to stay alive?
So it’s no surprise that people at Vervent Audio Group have this on their minds. In addition to building brand awareness, they are working to improve distribution and retail presence so the group’s products will not only appeal to audiophiles, but also to a broader range of consumers. That’s why, for example, Focal Naim America is a Vervent-owned company. That’s also why Vervent has recently been opening Focal Powered by Naim stores worldwide.
I first caught wind of this store concept in May 2021, when Edgar Kramer, editor-in-chief of SoundStage! Australia, wrote about a Focal Powered by Naim store opening in Sydney. There are now four Focal Powered by Naim boutiques in Australia. I also read about one opening in Berlin in the summer, and about the opening of the first store in the United States, in Houston, Texas, in the fall.
Romain Vet (left) and Quentin Morieux at La Boutique du Son
Romain Vet wanted the tour group to experience this retail concept firsthand, so after wrapping up our tour of Focal Ébénisterie Bourgogne, we grabbed lunch and went on a two-hour road trip to Lyon. There we saw a store called La Boutique du Son, run by Quentin Morieux, that has been transformed into a Focal Powered by Naim store. It’s in an upscale shopping district in downtown Lyon, and has 700 square feet (65 square meters) of space spread over two floors. Of course, it’s filled exclusively with Naim Audio and Focal products. With a selection of the store’s high-end products displayed prominently in its windows, the place makes for a smashing Focal and Naim Audio display.
The next day we drove five hours to a city I’d heard plenty about but never actually thought I’d want to visit—until I got there: Cannes. But moments after we’d arrived and I was strolling on the boardwalk on the waterfront, I posted a picture to Facebook with a caption that read, “This place is way more spectacular than the movie stars make it look.” And it is—I was floored by the beauty and elegance of the place.
But we weren’t there for the sun, sand, and sea—we were there to see another Focal Powered by Naim store, located only a few blocks from the beachfront. Occupying some 2150 square feet (200 square meters) over two floors, this location is what Focal calls its flagship store. Managed by Léo Elbazis, the store also features a twist that I think only a handful of hi-fi stores in the world can pull off—part of the business is dedicated to selling to yacht owners. This aspect is run by Éric de Saintdo, who used to organize the Cannes Yachting Festival.
Éric de Saintdo (left) and Léo Elbazis
This tie-in to the yachting industry seems surprising at first, but I only had to look around Cannes for a few minutes to understand why it works—luxury yachts abound in Cannes and throughout the French Riviera. According to de Saintdo, some of the store’s shoppers are the yacht owners themselves. But he also explained to me that when a yacht is built, the yachting equivalent of an interior designer usually gets involved, so that’s who he works with most often. In this way, a Focal-based sound system is installed in the yacht, and sometimes one or two are purchased for the home, as well. After all, why not have the same audio brands at home as you do on the boat?
Of course, the yacht division is only part of this store’s business. Decked out with rooms decorated like you’d see in an upscale home, and with spaces for showing Focal car and pro-audio products, the Cannes location is appealing to a wide range of potential hi-fi buyers. The store even has some super-attractive custom furniture—I was absolutely smitten by the deep-blue console on the main floor, holding a bevy of Naim Audio components and flanked by a pair of Scala Utopia Evo loudspeakers. It’s the kind of thing I’d love in my home.
Foca Scala Evo loudspeakers and Naim Audio components inside the Cannes store
While there, I learned that Vervent Audio Group doesn’t own the Focal Powered by Naim stores. That’s because getting into the retail arena directly would be extraordinarily difficult for the company—managing manufacturing companies is an aspect of the business that Vervent does well, but retail selling is a different animal. Instead, the stores are owned by retailers who want to dedicate all or part of an existing store to the Focal Powered by Naim brands, or to open a new outlet.
The appeal of the business model can be seen on both sides. For the retailer, they’re associating themselves with decades-old brands with great reputations and a wide range of products that are sold globally. For Focal and Naim, their products wind up front and center in beautiful stores in upscale locations around the world. The brands are also benefiting by having a more direct-to-consumer approach. I was told that the goal is to have 35 Focal Powered by Naim stores opened worldwide by the end of 2022.
Where to next?
These last two trips I’ve taken—to Sonus Faber in late September, then to Focal in early November—have taken me to fabulous locations. They’ve also allowed me to learn more about these two companies, including the knowledge that both are not just surviving, but thriving. While I didn’t see any new product offerings on either trip, what I saw going on leads me to suspect that both companies have big things in the pipeline.
In some ways, these two trips might seem like hard acts to follow. But I’ll travel to pretty much any company of any size, even if it’s in the middle of nowhere, if it means that I can learn something new about the hi-fi industry. And almost all the time there is something new to learn. Finding out what makes hi-fi companies tick is, for me, what these trips are all about—and I’ve found them all to be so different. So is it any surprise that I’m already thinking about my next destination?
. . . Doug Schneider