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An Interview With Simon Cote, Audio Plus Services

The Focal Professional Monitors

August, 2011

pan60                        You represent a number of products and have a very nice reputation in the industry. So, what got you into the world of audio? Simon Cote  At Audio Plus Services, we represent and distribute over 15 different brands of HiFi and Professional A/V products for the North American market. We also distribute Lauten Audio microphones. I only take care of Focal Professional monitors and Vovox cables (from Switzerland). The way I got into audio is a bit funny. After high-school, I was debating on going to either graphic design school or audio recording. I literally flipped a coin when the deadline arrived. I went to study graphic design for 3 years! Still, during all these years, I was still visiting high-end audio stores, reading audio magazines, etc. After school, I worked in graphic design for a few years and then went to work for a really high-end audio store in Montreal. That lead me, a few years later, to this job. Since I have a graphic design background, I also take care of most the marketing and advertising for Audio Plus Services. pan60  Very cool. Audio has a way of getting in our blood.  Are you a musician? Simon Cote  I did play alto saxophone back in high-school and took private lessons a few years after that. So, I understand and read music pretty well, but I stopped playing almost 10 years ago. pan60                        You need to pick that bad boy back up! I have heard that you can be quite the entertainer… Simon Cote  You must be referring to the famous AES party we do every couple years in New York City! Last year was absolutely crazy. We invited over 200 guests at Flux Studios in Manhattan and we had 200 bottles of (French, of course!) Champagne. We also had body- painted Angel girls. (Yes, pictures are available on our Facebook page)! You definitely don’t want to miss our 2011 party which will be based on the Moulin Rouge theme. You can imagine the rest! pan60                        LOL I will be looking at those Facebook pictures, for sure : )~  Give us some background on Focal. How long have they been around? Simon Cote  Focal was founded in 1979 by Jacques Mahul, an engineer that was working for Audax (a well-known French speaker manufacturer). At the time, Focal was making DIY speaker kits for audio enthusiasts. Over the years, the company evolved to what it is today. We now have 3 divisions within Focal, the biggest one still being HiFi, with its flagship being the $180k Grande Utopia EM. We also manufacture after-market high-end car audio systems, and, of course, professional studio monitors. pan60                        Focal does not just assemble parts, correct? Simon Cote  Focal does every single step required to manufacture a loudspeaker, including making every single driver in-house. That even includes the fabrication of the cone membrane itself on most models, which is a very laborious process. All this in-house expertise allows us to design custom drivers for every speaker model. For an example, the CMS50 5” midbass driver can only be found in the CMS50. No other car audio or hi-fi model features it. It was designed specifically for one purpose. pan60                        It seems they are using some cutting edge technology in their designs. Do you care to chat a bit about some of the materials they are using -- from the woofer to the tweeters? Simon Cote  The Focal R&D department employs over 20 people that come from all over the world (ie; we recently recruited a Japanese engineer that moved to France with his entire family to work for Focal). This crew is always working to find and develop new technologies. These new technologies are usually first introduced into our very high-end Hi-Fi speakers and eventually they trickle down to other markets (Car and Pro). A great example is the pure Beryllium tweeter used in the SM6 and SM11 Professional monitors. This tweeter was developed over a 4-year period in the early 2000s. In 2006, the Be tweeter made its appearance in the SM6 series. Beryllium is an amazing metal with the perfect characteristics needed for an audio transducer. It is extremely light and rigid (lighter than aluminum and a lot more rigid than titanium) and, at the same time, it has great damping characteristics (a bell made of Beryllium would not ring, it would “thunk”). Because of those characteristics, we are able to make a tweeter with near-perfect transient response. It does not have the typical metal-tweeter “ring” which creates ear-fatigue over time. The only problem with Beryllium is that it’s extremely hard to work with and is expensive. Another technology that was initially developed for the Utopia range of loudspeaker, that eventually made its way into the Professional series, is our proprietary “W” sandwich cone technology. This “W” cone is a labor-intensive process which involves manually stretching multiple layers of glass tissue over a composite foam core. The result is then cured in an oven. Its final dimensions are then cut by a precision laser. We can vary the “W” recipe (foam thickness, number of glass tissue layers, etc.) depending on the type of cone being made. So, not only is the midbass driver of a Solo6Be monitor unique, even its cone recipe and fabrication are not found anywhere else! For the CMS series, we also use a proprietary technology called Polyglass. Using a cellulose cone, we apply a thin layer of miniature hollow glass spheres on the surface (if you touch the cone of a CMS, you’ll feel that it’s a bit like sandpaper, you’re felling the glass spheres on the surface). This process improves the rigidity of paper while keeping its great damping properties. The CMS tweeter also has a very interesting story. It is made of a special aluminum/magnesium alloy that we had at Focal for years. But, we were never able to form this correctly into a tweeter. After the pure Be tweeter was invented and a special machine was built in-house to manufacture it, we thought, “Well, maybe we can use the Be tweeter machine to form Al/Mg domes.” After a few trials, it worked! Although Al/Mg is not as perfect as Beryllium, it is much more affordable. So, we were able to bring this technology to lower-priced products. As you can see, Focal is very engineering-driven! pan60                        That is amazing to hear how Focal was able to develop all of this! As I recall, Focal is making their own amps as well, is this correct? Simon Cote Most of the amplifiers in current Focal product-line are 100% Focal. Others also use some parts of licensed technology (BASH® on SM6 and IcePower® on SM11 for example). pan60                        Now, the CMS 50 monitors I have here are bi-amped. Is this something one would see in all the Focal pro audio monitors? Simon Cote  All the current Focal professional monitors are bi-amped. Bi-amping gives us great flexibility to use all the drivers to their full potential. pan60                        I love bi-amping technology. Tell us what you can about the amp designs, as well as touch on the crossovers. Simon Cote  The CMS series are 100% Focal-designed amplifiers. They are all Class-AB designs using high-quality parts. The crossovers and amplifiers are usually fairly simple in Focal products because they are working with drivers that were designed with a specific application. For example, if we are making a 5” driver that is going to be crossed-over at 2.5k, we can already engineer a slope in the driver itself (12dB/octave). Then we can add a simple 12dB electrical crossover for a total result of 24dB/octave. The work is already done at the driver level. We just need to finalize it with the amps and crossover. pan60                        These are also designed to function with a sub, if desired. Can you touch on this a bit and let the readers know why they would or would not want to have the sub as an addition the main monitors? Simon Cote  Subwoofers generate quite a bit of debate amongst recording engineers. Some people hate them, some people love them. The reason why we think that most people don’t like subwoofers is simply because the majority of them are just not that good! They usually have poor transient response that result in the subwoofer being very apparent because it sounds so disconnected from the main speakers. The Focal subwoofers are designed to be “frequency-extenders,” not “boom” generating machines! We even had customers that called us after using their Focal subwoofers for awhile and said “this thing is not a subwoofer; you should call it a 3-way monitor extender or something like that.” The single most asked question I get about subwoofers is “Can I mix with those monitors without a subwoofer?” and my answer is the same with every single model: “Absolutely!” And then most people ask “Should I use a subwoofer with those monitors?” and my answer is the same with every single model: “Absolutely!” When a subwoofer is designed to perfectly extend the response of your main speakers, there is no reason you should not have one. pan60                        The CMS 50 housing really caught my attention right out of the box. These are very nice. Simon Cote  The CMS series uses aluminum injected cabinets for a few reasons. The main one being that for the same rigidity of MDF, aluminum is much thinner. So, we are able to have more compact speakers. Also, since they are designed to be very flexible (used in Broadcast, post-production, location recording, etc.) they are much more durable than MDF. pan60                        As I mentioned in a former chat, I have never really been a super fan of powered monitors. I always feared a monitor with either a woofer or amp not functioning.  To set my mind at ease, why should I, or anyone, not be overly concerned about this? Simon Cote  Powered monitors can actually be more reliable than passive ones if designed properly. Let’s take the CMS as an example. Because it is active, we are able to install limiters. So, the user does not overload them. As you know, we manufacture a lot of passive speakers (our entire Hi-Fi line) and the failure rate of the drivers is much higher. Yet, we are using the same technology in both. Also, we designed the CMS series so that the amplifier section would be easily replaced in case of failure. It is essentially modular. pan60            Let's chat a bit about porting versus non-porting or radiators. I am a fan of radiator, but there are pluses and minuses to just about everything. Can you discuss this? Simon Cote  Absolutely. There are essentially three popular ways you can design a cabinet: 1.         Ported (bass-reflex) 2.         Passive radiator 3.         Sealed All of them have their pluses and minuses and are suited for particular applications.  The passive radiator is simply a variation on the ported concept. The advantage of using a radiator, instead of a port, is that we can completely eliminate port noises using the radiator. There aren’t a lot of radiator-based monitors on the market because you need to be able to design our own radiator specifically for the speaker you’re building. It’s as complicated as building a real driver. That’s why, at Focal, we are able to create very good passive radiator systems (our flagship monitor, the SM11 has a passive radiator). However, since it adds to the price and takes up a lot of space, we can’t use passives in smaller, lower-cost products. Sealed speakers also have advantages and disadvantages, like any other design. Essentially, there is no “best” way to design a cabinet. There are poor and great examples for every one of the designs on the market. pan60                        Focal as been known for producing products for other very well- known and respected monitor manufacturers. We don't need to mention any names, but what made Focal decide to stop producing products for others? Simon Cote  You can name names. It was never a secret that Focal made a lot of drivers for KRK for years, as well as L-acoustics, Wilson Audio and others. KRK discontinued the use of Focal drivers for a few reasons. The first being, at the time, KRK was sold to the Stanton group. The direction of the brand changed to offer lower-end products which were then manufactured in Asia. Around the same time, the OEM division of Focal became smaller because higher production was required for the other departments. pan60                        Simon, as we have discussed, you know one of the things I really want to see is a company that stands behind its products and offers top-shelf service. In recent times Focal has performed well as distribution and retailers and have shown through their actions that service is at the top of the list! A big thumbs up for this, guys! The CMS50 monitors are a very nice cast offering a 5 inch woofer and an inverted tweeter made of a special aluminum/magnesium alloy. Internally bi amped and offering a number controls such as: Hi-Pass Filter LF Shelving Desktop Notch HF Shelving Input Level Balanced, as well as unbalanced inputs Standby and volume control on the face Pan60                        My dislikes: When power is switched off and on, the monitor defaults to on. I would prefer to see the default be standby. Also, the tool used for removing the cover makes me nervous. I would rather have seen 1/4 input as opposed to the RCA. Final assessment: Do I like the company, the man and/or the people behind the company? A big yep! It has been a pleasure speaking with Simon, as well as educational! How is the quality, and can we get service if ever it is needed? I am really impressed with the build quality on these. They look stunning and feel like a tank. In recent times, Focal has shown through their actions as a retailer, as well as a distributor, that their service is at the top of the list! A slice of Raisin pie for all!!!!!! How do they sound? Great! The top is great, the mids seems to be set back just a bit more then I tend to like, but I am so accustomed to using other monitors that are more mid present. This is in no way a ding against these. I find I am easily adjusting. The bottom has really surprised me with these. Much more bottom then I expected from them at first glance. I ran a blues mix with a horn section through these, and I was really impressed with the detail I was able to hear. I could very easily listen to any one part effortlessly. So, do I recommend them? Absolutely! Not only will I recommend them, I will be saving my pennies for a pair of Focals!
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