Celebrating 40 years of Focal
It really is a long way to the top for any new speaker brand wanting to rock and roll in a market stacked with rivals. So in 1979 most of the world could be forgiven for allowing the launch of a new French loudspeaker company called Focal, to pass unnoticed.
That year the U.S. had to deal with the nuclear apocalypse called Three Mile Island, while the U.K. elected Margaret Thatcher to the Prime Ministership, and the U.S.S.R. invaded Afghanistan.
The world Focal chose to engage in that year was colourful, entertaining, and for a fledgling speaker brand, challenging.
Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?
On any given day throughout 1979, you could hear radio stations engaging the masses with songs that made the all-important Billboard top 100 charts. The sounds of The Knack's My Sharona, Billboard's number 1 track in that year, along with Donna Summer's Bad Girls in number two position, played on car radios, transistor radios and hi-fi tuners without respite.
In case you're fascinated, in descending order the rest of Billboard's Top Ten in 1979 were Chic's Le Freak, Rod Stewart's Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?, Peaches and Herb's Reunited, Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive, Donna Summer's Hot Stuff, Village People's Y.M.C.A., Anita Ward's Ring My Bell and in tenth place came Robert John's Sad Eyes.
More serious music lovers with turntables turned to Pink Floyd's The Wall double album released ominously in 1979, presaging the Neo-liberal economic doctrine championed by Thatcher in the UK, Ronald Regan in America and the global elites that funded the political ruling class.
If any keen-eyed staff at Focal with a nose for the bigger commercial picture drew parallels with The Wall and most of Billboard's top ten contenders of that year, they'd surmise that AC/DC was spot on. It is a very long way to the top of the rock music and audio business pile.
Sony Walkman, John Travolta Disco Suits and Aviator Sunglasses Arrive
Out on the street on any given day in '79, men's and women's fashion oblivious to most speaker brands spoke to the cult of the individual that was sweeping the planet. Comfort and style coalesced as men and women wore sports apparel as daily streetwear.
Tracksuits and jumpsuits were everywhere along with velour and terry towelling striped shirts and low cut blouses for women. These joined puffer vest, flared jeans and sweatshirts in most wardrobes.
But the main fashion image of 1979 belonged to the men who dressed up in snappy disco style suits complete with vests, of the kind made famous by John Travolta in the smash-hit movie, Saturday Night Fever.
Individualism in a fashion sense was expressed by both men and women who slipped on low cut sneakers and slipped on tennis headbands and Aviator sunglasses. Men showed individual flare via untucked shirts with very long, very large, and very pointed collars.
If audio entered the popular consciousness and it did hugely, it had more to do with fashion, perfect timing and above all mobility.
In 1979, Sony unleashed the Walkman. Priced at US$200 at a time when the average monthly rent in America was $280, the Walkman at launch, was taken up by those that could.
Like expensive Ray-Ban Aviators, the first generation of pricey Walkmans became a cult fashion item for a middle class willing to use its dollars to define its newfound need for individual expression.
The Walkman quickly became the iPod of its day and via headphones provided an individual and private space on trams, buses, trains and planes. Portability and privacy were kings in 1979.
Though it went largely unnoticed by most at the time, this individualist cult had far less to do with personal freedom in an idealistic sense than it had to do with the power of money.
For better or worse, the year saw the apogee of the market-driven ideology of the individual as an economic consumer. An ideology that ensured the market that Focal was just now entering had a positive effect on eventual sales.
The problem was, Focal wasn't in the business yet, of portable audio. Headphones would come much later. Compared to a small and physically discrete Walkman, hi-fi speakers are large and obtrusive.
The problem of marketing bulky speakers wasn't a problem for Focal because the new business focused on drivers, and this left any aesthetic and marketing problem to speaker brands employing the new Focal drivers.
The DB13 compact, Focal-JMlab's first complete speaker, debuted in the early 1980s bringing with it innovative Polyglass V cones and Polykevlar cones and later, a tweeter that used Kevlar rather than glass fibres.
Focal was on its way to the top as a driver brand with a subsidiary called Focal-JMlab building complete speakers.
THE EARLY DAYS
Focal factory in 1979
To arrive at the city of Saint-Etienne (Saint Stephen), travellers to eastern central France need to head south-west of Lyon, and motor 55 kms on the trunk road that links Toulouse with Lyon.
The city is home to about 173,000 and has over 508,000 living in the metropolitan area. Saint-Etienne's size has much to do with its manufacturing past. It was an atypical 19th-century industrial city that began life in the Middle Ages as the picturesque borough called Saint-Etienne de Furan because of its proximity to the river Furan, a tributary of the Loire.
These days Saint-Etienne sees itself as a modern European centre of design, a feature that explains some of the impulses that led to the formation of Focal and later, Focal-JMlab.
It was here in the postcard-pretty Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region that an audiophile, engineer and technology journalist called, Jacques Mahul began building drivers at a Saint-Etienne precision mechanics factory owned by his father.
At inception, two trends were coming together to give the new Focal brand a way into the hotly competitive quality hi-fi market: a hi-fi boom and the cult of individual expression.
The first trend arrived in the shape and trajectory of the genuine hi-fi boom that began in the mid-'70s and had petered out by the early '80s.
To get a feel of the intensity of this hi-fi boom, we need to move from Saint-Etienne and imagine ambling in as a spectator to any mainstream consumer electronics store in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, New York, Berlin, London, Hong Kong, Paris or Christchurch in 1975.
Praise The Lord. It's A Hi-Fi Boom
The global reach of the 70's hi-fi boom fed by masses of nicely finished Japanese mass-market hi-fi systems and components, had a global reach.
Suddenly, but not inexplicably hi-fi systems became a must-have, status symbol for mass-market consumers to the extent that on any given Friday night or Saturday, in any of these cities, cashed-up, eager, excited buyers queued up to buy a hi-fi system.
Most of the sales were for entry-level systems comprising a flimsy plastic semi-automatic, belt-driven turntable, audio receiver, cassette deck, turntable, a flimsy chipboard hi-fi rack and a pair of very large, very ordinary sounding speakers.
Brands feeding this frenzy included Sony, Yamaha, Marantz, JVC, T.E.A.C., Onkyo, Denon, Sanyo, Sansui, Sanyo, Akai and Technics.
The more discerning mass-market audio buyers wanting Japanese-made hi-fi bought separate components from Luxman and Rotel and paired these with British or U.S. made speakers.
Focal was never fixated on the lower reaches of the hi-fi pile. With its eye on the much smaller audiophile segment of the market, Focal was none the less the beneficiary of the 70's hi-fi boom because it prepared the way for a cashed-up middle class chasing quality and individuality in its audio systems.
The Hi-Fi boom was accompanied by a stable of U.K. hi-fi magazines that included Practical Hi-Fi, Hi-Fi Answers and Hi-Fi News and Record reviews. These magazines were staffed by reviewers with a “subjective” approach to choosing a hi-fi system.
Their constant message insisted hi-fi was down to the individual preference of the listener. This was a potent idea and one framed to put a hi-fi consumer in the audio buying box seat.
Hi-Fi buying, the reviewers intoned, was like a tune that allowed you to make up your own words.
What also didn't pass unnoticed was this group of reviewers' insistence that subjectively speaking, some components sound more like real music than others.
The twin-ideas of individual choice and “musicality” resonated with the quality and style-conscious hi-fi buyer.
By the mid-'80s the mass-market hi-fi boom was over. But audiophile-grade hi-fi was still in demand and so was the need for brands to feed this continuing and lucrative spot in the audio market.
An overview of this audiophile market taking in the late '70s to CD's arrival in the mid-'80s would take in an audio landscape ruled by U.K., European and U.S. brands and it has to be said, upper-level components made by the Japanese audio industry with what seemed like confident ease.
The Middle Years
1981-1995 could be said to be the years Focal established itself as a significant player in the global speaker market. This evolution was aided by a consumer hi-fi base ready, willing and able to audition components and speakers and decide which passed muster for itself.
This period was also a golden age of Focal's technological innovations. The first was the inverted Dome Tweeter introduced in 1981. While the EPI100 loudspeaker used an inverted dome tweeter in the late '60s, the dome was made of paper.
The K2 dome followed in 1986. This used a Polykevlar sandwich structure and is two layers of aramid fibres made to both sides of a hollow micro ball structure. The advantages of the K2 dome were a superior balance between weight, rigidity and damping. This was followed in 1995 by a “W” sandwich cone system comprising two sheets of glass fibres adhering to a structural foam core for superior mass, rigidity and damping.
Focal entered the driver big-league in 2002 courtesy of a Beryllium tweeter. While Yamaha takes the credit for manufacturing the world's first Beryllium tweeter and midrange for its iconic NS1000 speaker in 1974, Focal's heroic achievement considering its modest size compared to the Japanese giant deserves the highest praise. Mainly since Focal's Beryllium tweeter was just the second of its genre in audio history.
A new Aluminium/Magnesium tweeter launched in 2007 and took the performance of Focal's Chorus range to another level of excellence thanks to its superior damping and rigidity in relation to its mass.
Further developments comprised the Flax membrane cone (2013), Tuned Mass Damper (2015), Infinite Horn Loading System (2015), M-Shaped Inverted Dome Tweeter (2016) and the M-Profile Cone in 2018.
Focal Becomes Fashionable
Billboard's hits continued to play on car radios but in 2018, more likely on a smartphone.
Some of these cars featured Focal speakers playing the year's number 1 hit, Havana by Camilla Cabello featuring Young Thug, and No Limit by G-Eazy at number 2, or if you preferred, Bad At Love by Halsey at number 3.
The Focal empire had gone forth and multiplied. It now had five parts called the Home line, the Car line, the Pro line, the Headphone line and the Integration line.
Stylistically, most Focal models these days are like much of audio, primed to appeal to the cult of consumer individuality first unleashed in the '70s. Applied to speakers, this impulse sees clean, uncluttered, minimalist cabinets that are unobtrusive and come in a wide variety of colours and finishes.
If audio has arrived at a style ethos that believes less is more, its ascendant, cashed-up middle-class consumer base can't be missed wearing 2018 fashion garb that asserts more is more.
Male audio buyers arrived in-store wearing Breton striped clothing with a difference: the stripes had been turned 90 degrees making the vertical stripe the must-have pattern. As for colours, men now had a palette for their outfits wider than the range of paint at a Bunnings store.
Focal no doubt was also applauding the number of women who were now shopping at hi-fi specialist stores. It doesn't take long to realise that a lady wearing a Long Line Leather coat in shades of burgundy and buttery brown, wasn't going to be satisfied with a speaker presented in a regimented, traditional, brown M.D.F. cabinet.
Focal, Sonus faber and Bowers & Wilkins no doubt took careful note of every Long Line Leather coat wearing, speaker buyer and planned for speaker styles to ensure more of the same buying impulse.
Style and Sound had been uppermost at Focal for some time by now though. In 2003 it began working closely on design with the Paris based design agency Pineau & Le Porcher and very quickly Focal's Profile, Electra, Chorus, Utopia and Dome series of models acquired a new, fresh “Lifestyle” presentation.
Style and exquisite finish were more than enough to suggest Focal was now an established, elite-level audio brand. It took Focal the best part of 30 years to achieve this elevated status in Australia, and this credit is due to the efforts of one man and his team. His name is Len Wallis.
The Australian Connection
Focal had a long stable distribution history in Australia until recently when change, rather than continuity became the apparent theme.
Wallis spotted Focal at an international hi-fi show in the early '80s and was impressed.
It was a good product made by good people. We were chuffed to become its Australian distributor. The relationship lasted 30 years.
Wallis describes the nexus between Audio Marketing and Focal as warm, family-like and productive.
Working with Jacques Mahul, Focal's C.E.O. and Focal's people, in general, was enjoyable and like being in a family. Things changed in 2014 when Focal was taken over by Naxicap Partners, Aquasourca and Garibaldi Participations.
While Jacques Mahul remains at Focal, the new corporate structure led to an evolution of company culture with an inevitable focus on increased sales driven by the export market.
As one Australian industry veteran told us, “… the 21st century is an era where venture capital discovered audio.”
Venture Capital is investing heavily in audio brands. Quality brands. One group owns Sonus faber, McIntosh and Audio Research. Another has Denon, Marantz, H.E.O.S. and Classe' in its portfolio.
When the money flows into a brand, the sales division feels the heat to supply a return on the investment. That heat is directed in turn, at the brand's distributors.
In 2016, N.A. Distributors acquired the rights to distribute Focal in Australia and New Zealand. A logistical move that made sense since it also handled Naim in New Zealand already and Focal had merged with Naim Audio in 2011.
N.A. Distributors are widely credited for their excellent work representing the Focal and Naim brands. Never the less, In a move that left local industry members astounded, from May 2019, and without warning, Melbourne-based wholesaler Busisoft AV took the distribution of both brands from N.A. Distributors.
Focal Arrives At The Top
Focal factory in 2019
The arrival of the fabulous sounding and sublimely styled model Grand Utopia in the mid-'90s earned Focal an international reputation as one of the world's finest speaker manufacturers.
The reputation was enhanced by consumers who prized the idea of owning a speaker built by a French brand that has total control over production from the design and manufacture of its drivers to the final assembly of the complete speaker.
Focal currently employs about 230 people and posts a reported yearly turnover of approximately $94 million.
Forty years later and clearly at the top of the billboard, Focal has arrived, and the sound you can hear is the brand from Saint-Etienne rock and rolling with the world's elite speaker brands on the global stage.
It celebrated this occasion with the launch of a range of products specially developed for its 40th birthday which was previewed at Munich's High-End Exhibition.
Congratulations on forty years Focal.
One of the veterans of the Australian HiFi industry, Peter was formerly the Audio-Video Editor of the Herald Sun for over two decades. One of the most-respected audio journalists in Australia, Peter brings his unparalleled experience and a unique story-telling ability to StereoNET.