I had to ask one of our guides what “Focal Ebenisterie Bourgogne” meant. The words were on a sign over the door of a factory we were about to enter. Well, Focal was obviously the company name. Focal loudspeakers is based in France, and indeed builds all its stereo loudspeakers and headphones there. The factory was in the town of Bourbon-Lancy in Eastern France. It turns out that Bourgogne is the region, while Ebenisterie is, at least loosely, cabinet.
This was the factory where Focal’s loudspeaker enclosures are built, largely by hand.
Focal does not make cheap loudspeakers. In Australia, the entry level stereo pair, the Chora 806 bookshelf speakers, are priced at $1,299. And its flagship model, the Grand Utopia speakers, will set you back several hundred thousand dollars. I visited this factory, and the one that builds the loudspeaker drivers in St.Etienne, a couple of hundred kilometres to the south, as a guest of Focal and Busisoft AV, the Australian distributor of Focal, Naim and several other quality brands of hifi equipment.
Focal Loudspeakers parts preparation
Let’s see how Focal builds its loudspeakers.
It starts with MDF and HDF. Loudspeakers aren’t built with natural wood for good reason. It is unpredictable in qualities like flex, and so could resonate at unfortunate frequencies. Medium Density Fibreboard and High Density Fibreboard have well defined properties. You know what you’re getting and can design appropriately. Well, you and I can’t, but the people at Focal can. MDF and HDF (I’ll refer only to MDF henceforth) are also highly workable, able to be sculpted into various useful shapes.
We started at the start: a store room with palettes of sheets of MDF. They were all made in France and in all kinds of thickness, up to 50mm. You can’t get that stuff at Bunnings.
Even 50mm isn’t quite thick enough for some applications, so sometimes two different thicknesses are glued together to achieve a required specification. Or there may be a need for panels with a channel for cabling running down their centre. This also is best achieved by gluing panels together. For that, a large press is required to hold the pieces with even pressure across their surfaces while the PVA glue dries.
The sheets are fed by a skilled tradesman into a cutting and planing machine. This cuts them to the right sizes and planes them closer to their final desired profiles. This machine can only create flat surfaces.
These prepared pieces then go into five-axis CNC machine, which shapes them to the desired profile, which is often curved. It also cuts out sections to be removed and routes in grooves required for assembly.
Focal Loudspeakers cabinet assembly
After, that all the parts of the enclosure are ready.
Those which are to receive a wood-grain finish receive their veneer at this point. So how do you apply a wood veneer to a curved surface? A craftsman rolls on PVC glue, wraps the veneer over the top and places the piece on the flat bed of another large machine – a form press – then lowers the top lid. This lid is made of a flexible rubber-like material. When it’s closed, the air is sucked out which causes that surface to wrap around the shaped item, pressing the veneer to its surface. Apparently 45 seconds is long enough to do the job – although the glue is allowed enough time to cure, after being pulled from the machine.
Then a craftsman assembles the parts, using a machine to apply an even stream of PVA glue to the tongues and grooves created by the earlier machines, then slotting them together. He applies tape and clamps to apply the appropriate pressure until the glue sets. The chap demonstrated the whole thing for us with a remarkable sureness of hand and economy of movement. The tour group actually applauded him at the end.
Then the enclosures and parts are sanded using various machines, along with by hand, for a smooth finish.
The cabinets are painted with a primer, sprayed by hand. Most of the upper-end Focal speakers are finished in bold gloss colours. When we were there, there seemed to have been a large set of blue speakers under construction. The primer coat is black or white, and when it has dried, it is machine sanded with the finest of grains. The resulting panels and enclosures no longer feel as though they’re made of MDF, nor of any other natural material. They are smooth to the touch, and harder, like a thick enamel paint.
Then it’s off to another paint room for hand spray painting. And then some resting time for the paint to cure: