Quentin Morieux, Asia/Africa Home Export Sales Manager at Focal-JMlabs and Nicolas Debard, Pro Audio Product Manager at Focal-JMlabs were in Singapore, the home base of Porta-Fi earlier this year.
Our Editor, Beng Yeow was able to catch up with them to find out more about Focal and their insights into the company’s products development approaches and philosophies.
[BY] Hi Quentin and Nicolas, first and foremost, welcome to Singapore. Knowing that it is not the first visit to the island state, how do you like our island state and the impression of the audiophile enthusiast community in Singapore?
[ND] I have been to Singapore three-four times. I would say in every country you have many different audiophile communities. Singapore’s Hi-End community is not that much different from the French Hi-End community, what we see, however, there is a trend in Singapore, we get a lot of focus on the very Hi-End speakers.
[QM] You have very skilled people. I often travelled to Japan, which is something very serious too, we have very skilled audiophiles. Singapore is a very important part of the world for feedback as you said for Focal and as what Nicolas say especially for the very high-end.
[ND] Like Japan, sophisticated. When we visit either Japan or Singapore, most of the time, this is where we have the most in-depth and technical questions.
[BY] Focal made its name with the high-end loudspeakers, I personally have the Focal Utopia BE Kit N°7 on my car as well as the Focal Sopra N°1 in my listening room.
What is Focal’s approach when it comes to Headphones and Earphones?
[ND] Headphones and Earphones was a new product division at Focal. We started as you remember with Spirit range, to test the market, maybe we should do this or that. You know, when you start something, you are not so sure about where to go and so on.
Obviously, you see the major changes later with Elear and Utopia. It is a totally different approach, the approach is now based on our expertise which is basically speakers and loudspeakers manufacturing.
Clear is another good example, for us, as you know, we have different type of customers, we have audiophiles but we also have sound engineers and for sound engineers we have studio monitors, the fact is sound engineers when they buy gear, they buy from their regular dealers, they will not visit the audiophile dealers. Their requirement for the products is really different if you are working in the studio, you cannot really use a straight cable because if you have a nice analogue console, the cable gets stuck into the knobs and kill the knobs which can cost a lot of money, that is why on the Clear Pro, it comes with the coiled cable which will avoid damaging the knobs on the console.
[QM] Like what Nicolas says, Focal is answering the questions.
[BY] The Clear is positioned in between Utopia and Elear, what gap is Clear targeted to fill?
[ND] Right from the beginning, we always wanted to offer a product range. The offering of Elear and Utopia are very different, and we wanted to offer something in between, that is why we developed Clear. At the same time, we have some Pro users, the Pro division of Focal is quite big and we have many many sound engineers asking for open-back headphones. Since we developed Clear, that is why we also offer the Clear Pro.
[BY] Can you tell us more about the Pro series? How is Clear Pro different from Clear and similarly the difference between Listen Pro and Listen?
[ND] The tuning is exactly the same, the difference remains in the accessories. In the example of the Clear, the Clear comes with 3 cables while Clear Pro comes with 2 cables. In some smaller studios, they do share headphones and with feedback from the users, we put in an extra set of earpads into the Clear Pro so that the two engineers sharing the headphones can each have either own cushions for hygiene purposes.
[BY] Listen Wireless and Spark Wireless are the brand’s first wireless offerings, what’s is Focal’s approach to the wireless segment and what can we expect in the near future?
[ND] In the beginning, wireless technology was a bit limited. When the new aptX system came out, then we saw huge improvements in sound quality but before that when you have to go for wireless at some point, it is like going back to the MP3 period. This is what we didn’t want to go to, that’s why we waited a bit more in order to match with our sound quality expectations. Something we will never do, we never compromise the quality. That is part of the Focal DNA, we are known for the sound quality and product performance.
[QM] What Nicolas says is that we do not want to go to the market just to be on the market. We want to provide something may be different, maybe something new, but at least something. There is no point to go there and just offer a product.
[BY] What is Focal’s definition of neutral while calibrating headphones? How different is it from calibrating loudspeakers?
[ND] For me it is very easy, the definition of neutral is, pick up maybe twenty different instruments, know how these instruments sound and then you listen to these instruments through headphones or through a pair of speakers. Does it sound similar, yes no maybe? does it need adjustments? You need certain references at some point. A frequency response curve is not a reference, it doesn’t make any sense because you lose the 3rd dimension, space. So that is why the sound of the instrument is the key point.
[BY] So when tuning the headphones, Focal actually compare it with reference instrumental sounds?
[ND] Yes, with tracks I know very very well and I know on that track, that run should different point of observations, for example, if you want to check 5 to 7-8k, you pick a song where you have a lot of Ss, then you can easily see and detect if there is something wrong.
[QM] Obviously, we use measurements like frequency response curves and so on to know where we are and where are going to. It is like you are travelling across Singapore, you are taking pictures to know where you went. It is the same for the sound tuning process, the sound tuning usually takes a lot of time.
[ND] I would say, between 1 month to 3 months, depending on the product. You have to do a lot back and forth, do this and that.
[BY] Is there a defined Focal Sound Signature?
[QM] What we want to achieve first of all is the respect of the frequencies. We talked about frequency response curve which is one thing, the 3rd dimension which is for dynamic basically is a key point for us, the vivid sound of dynamic is a key point, there is no compression and the imposed response is like super super fast. When you listen, especially nowadays, in modern productions you have more and more effects on the low frequencies thanks to new plug-ins and so on. The problem is you lose most of it when you listen to the song through a pair of bad speakers or headphones because the dynamic range is not respected. It is going from WAV to MP3, because it compresses everything.
[BY] Is there anything in development for In-Ears? Spark and Sphear have failed to impress, unfortunately.
[QM] There are tons of wishes, expectations and questions, and I think for Focal, it is about which one we are going to tweet first, so it all about the different steps we take, we are always listening and paying attention to the market.
[ND] As Quentin said, we are extremely active in terms of new product innovation, just this year, we launched Clear and Clear Pro. We always invest a lot in R&D and new products but we also want to keep a clear focus.
[BY] Beryllium is a special material for Focal, having its presence in many of its flagship products, what would be Focal’s choice of material if Beryllium ceases to exist one day?
[ND] If you want to sum this up, let’s put it this way. If you look at to material table and you pick up the raw material that achieves the best damping, low possible mass and highest rigidity. That’s why we pick Beryllium at that time because Beryllium is super rigid, very painful to manufacture but that’s another story. Super rigid, very well damped.
[QM] That’s why, the input response is clean and not coloured. It is very transparent and its really light, its dynamic range is huge because it can accelerate and decelerate extremely fast.
[ND] But we will see, with Nanotechnologies and so on, we always have new components and raw materials coming out, so maybe in ten years, there could be new materials which can offer better than what Beryllium can offer us today.
[BY] Nicolas and Quentin, on behalf of our readers at Porta-Fi, I would like to thank you for taking time to share such insightful details with us.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Absolute Sound Distribution for arranging the interview.