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:
When they are properly hard, they’re finely sanded again,
then lacquered. No photos here. That was off limits in that area of the factory
for reasons I don’t understand. I looked around but couldn’t see anything that
looked too secret.
When the lacquered cabinets are properly dry and hardened,
then they go off to be buffed. By hand, of course.
That done, another team assembles the remaining parts of the
cabinet, screwing and gluing on the matching side panels, where necessary
putting the parts together, and applying the Focal badge.
And then they’re wrapped up for protection, loaded onto
palettes for transportation to St.Etienne, about which more soon.
Something like thirty loudspeaker enclosures are created in this factory each day. Largely by hand. It’s an impressive feat involving, by my estimate, about thirty staff.