Focal’s latest speaker design isn’t just pretty — it’s the culmination of years of R&D...
Headquartered in Saint-Étienne, France, Focal are one of the few loudspeaker companies to possess the R&D expertise to develop and design their own proprietary drivers and cabinets, together with the in-house manufacturing capability to produce them. As a company, Focal operate in the upper echelons of the hi-fi, in-car and professional audio markets, and their commitment to innovation, technological development and absolute sound quality has resulted in their not-inconsiderable success in all three of those areas.
Focal’s latest launch, a trio of two-way nearfield active monitors in the form of the Shape 40, Shape 50 and Shape 65, is billed as a rethink of the company’s approach to nearfield studio monitors, with these new models being optimised for small-acoustic spaces such as those typically found in home, project and post-production studios.
One of Focal’s signature technologies is the proprietary, low-directivity, inverted-dome tweeter that features on all their studio monitors. For the Shape series, Focal have developed a new M-profile, one-inch, aluminium/magnesium alloy inverted dome that is mounted in a Poron high-density, micro-cellular urethane suspension. According to Focal, the M-shaped tweeter delivers more mechanical rigidity and less distortion than the original inverted-dome design (as fitted to the earlier CMS series), whilst the Poron suspension with its inherent shape-memory helps provide a more linear frequency response curve below 6kHz, thus improving integration with the woofer. Further enhancements in this latest iteration include the use of Kapton (an extremely heat-resistant polyamide) in its voice coil to significantly reduce the distortion induced by the effect of eddy currents, and a redesign of the tweeter housing to provide equal horizontal and vertical dispersions.
Other Focal structural signatures are the bass drivers, with their proprietary composite sandwich cones. The glass/cellulose/glass ‘Polyglass’ cone can be found in its earlier Alpha and CMS ranges, whilst the W cone, with its glass-fibre/structural foam/glass-fibre construction, high-rigidity and light weight, is used in both the high-end SM6 range and the flagship SM9. For the Shape’s woofers, Focal have chosen to use their glass-fibre/flax/glass-fibre F cone, first introduced in 2013.
Even though you might not necessarily be familiar with flax as a plant, you’ll probably know of the linen that can be woven from it and the linseed oil that can be extracted from its seeds. France is Europe’s main supplier of high-quality flax fibre (the kind needed to make linen) so, for Focal, it is a happy coincidence that this material turns out to have the low mass, the high rigidity and the damping characteristics required in the core of a bass-driver cone.
In Focal’s F-cone, a woven flax core is sandwiched between two layers of glass fibre. The characteristics of such a cone can be adjusted by altering the relative densities of its layers, and this enables Focal’s designers to match the F cone precisely to its intended driver application. Flax fibres, being hollow, are half the weight of glass fibres, have excellent damping characteristics (as they are 80 percent cellulose) and are also very inelastic, making them ideal for use in loudspeaker cones. Unlike the high-end W cones, which have to be hand assembled, F cones can be machine manufactured, bringing the performance gains from this technology to more affordable price points.
The Shape’s F woofers also incorporate Focal’s Tuned Mass Damper (TMD) suspension — two concentric rubber rings in the loudspeaker surround that are designed to physically stabilise its dynamic behaviour in order to prevent cone deformation without affecting performance. On the electro-magnetic side, you’ll find Focal’s Neutral Inductance Circuit (NIC) in place. This technology aims to deliver high-definition and dynamic contrast by utilising a Faraday ring optimised to ensure that the woofer’s magnetic field is not affected either by the position of the voice coil or by the current and frequency passing through it.
The final new feature that characterises the Shape series is the presence on all three models of twin passive radiators. These are of the same diameter as the respective model’s woofers and are positioned with one on each side of the speaker cabinet. A passive radiator (PR) is, simplistically, the equivalent of a bass reflex port minus the potential for pipe resonance and port turbulence. A PR comes into its own when the port size required in order to obtain the required low-frequency output can’t be fitted physically inside the desired cabinet dimensions.
One of the drawbacks of a PR in a small enclosure is its inertia, which can cause the cabinet to shake. To compensate for this, Focal’s engineers have not only mounted a PR on each side of the Shape enclosure, but also have suspended the passive flat disc in its basket on a pair of opposing U-shaped surrounds that ensure perfect symmetry during excursion and incursion. Finally, the PRs themselves are tuned very low, making the Shape monitors more than usually tolerant of being placed close to walls.
The Shape enclosure is a stylish 15mm MDF construction finished in an attractive walnut veneer. Unusually, the cabinet is equipped with four relatively long, height-adjustable rubber feet (“decoupling spikes” in Focal-speak) designed not only to minimise the mechanical coupling between cabinet and its supporting surface, but also to enable you to adjust the vertical orientation of the drivers to face upwards or downwards as necessary.
The front of the enclosure carries the two drivers and the bi-colour green/red LED that indicates whether the Shape is either active or in its energy-saving standby mode, which is entered automatically either at switch-on or after 30 minutes without receiving an audio signal. The two side panels with their respective passive radiators sit slightly inside and underneath the front panel, allowing you to place the monitor on its side should you need to do so.
The rear panel carries a fairly comprehensive set of EQ controls that enable you to tailor the monitor’s response to your acoustic environment. Normally you’d use all Shape models in full-range (FR) mode in a stereo setup, but should you have either a subwoofer in your system or a particularly bass-resonant listening environment, a switchable high-pass filter (80Hz in the Shape 40 and 45, 60 or 90 Hz in the Shape 50 and 65) enables you to set an appropriate low-frequency cutoff point.
A LF Shelving potentiometer provides up to 6dB of cut or boost below 250Hz, allowing you to correct for either any natural attenuation of this area in your listening environment or to correct for any unwanted bass reinforcement should the Shape enclosure be positioned that bit too close to a wall or a corner. An HF shelving control offering 3dB of cut or boost above 4.5kHz allows you to correct for a dull-sounding or over-bright room, and a bell-curve LMF EQ, centred on 160Hz with a Q of 1 supplies 3dB of cut or boost and is primarily intended to allow you to attenuate reflections from your console front panel, for example.
Amplification is entirely analogue, running in Class A/B, each model having 25W dedicated to its treble driver and 25W (Shape 40), 60W (Shape 50) or 80W (Shape 65) to the bass. There is no external heatsink on the rear panel, which would lead me to assume that there is some very clever heat management going on inside that hermetically sealed cabinet.
Integral back-panel attachment points for K&M hardware allow you to wall- or ceiling-mount all Shape enclosures. Because of its smaller size, the Shape 40 is supplied with an adaptor plate to fit it to the K&M mounts and, in addition, both Shape 40 and Shape 50 also have microphone (or table) standmounts fitted underneath.
Setting up the pair of Shape 65s supplied for review was a very simple process, made easier by the height-adjustable feet that enabled me to angle the speakers slightly downwards to match my seating position. As both the balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA connectors are active simultaneously, I was able to set up a feed from my console and a direct feed from my DAW interface.
Having run the Shape 65 in for more than Focal’s “crucial” 10 hours, and having positioned them at the recommended distance of one metre away from me, I got down to some serious listening. With my favourite deadmau5 track, I was immediately struck by the dynamics of the Shape 65’s taut, well-extended bass. The vocals, electronic keyboards, percussion and low-level reverb detail that makes Spes (by Cantus and Frode Fjellheim) such an exquisite test of a loudspeaker’s overall capability were handled impeccably, and I was very impressed by the Shape 65’s high levels of detail and clarity in the upper mid-range and treble frequencies. Its subjective performance certainly doesn’t contradict the quoted frequency response of 40Hz-35kHz (±3dB) and, although I value my hearing too highly to try to confirm its quoted maximum SPL of 109dB at one metre, I can confirm that it is, indeed, sufficiently loud.
No matter what musical genre or source signal I threw at it (or the level I ran them at), Focal’s Shape 65 always sounded poised and in control — the bass remained tight, dynamic, and extended, the mid-range stayed precise, detailed and transparent, whilst the treble never lost its sense of smooth, open clarity. With well-recorded and well-mastered material, the Shape 65 is more than capable of delivering a wide stereo soundscape with a very solid centre image in which each source can be located with precision, both in the left/right and front-to-back dimensions. Bad recordings and mixes should beware.
Listening back to a selection of my own individual tracks and past mixes I was particularly struck by the sense of balance that I heard in the Shape 65. This is a monitor that, to my ears, possesses a naturally neutral overall presentation, making it both revealing without sounding overly clinical and easy to work on over long periods. I was particularly impressed by the well-balanced low-frequency performance that Focal have extracted from the F cone woofer and the two passive radiators, and also by the horizontal and vertical dispersion characteristics of the combination of the M-profile, inverted-dome tweeter and its housing, which contributed to a good-sized sweet spot.
As you may have guessed, I am very taken by Focal’s new Shape 65 monitor. It looks good, is easy to position and its sonic performance is impeccable across the frequency spectrum — especially in the bass, where it delivered a balance and extension that I didn’t anticipate. It seems to me that Focal’s engineers have learned a fair bit from their development of the SM9’s passive radiator.
One neat little touch that is worth a mention is the listing of an optimum listening distance in all three Shape models’ individual specification sheets — one metre for the Shape 65, 80cm for the Shape 50 and 60cm for the Shape 40. I do like that kind of precision, as to me it speaks volumes about the care taken in the design process and, in practical terms, makes choosing the appropriate model from the range that little bit easier.
If you’re looking for an accurate and revealing nearfield monitor with an open and naturally balanced sound, then the Focal Shape 65 should be high on your audition list. For my money, the impressive overall level of performance makes its pricing rather attractive. Highly recommended.
Around this price you’ll find many similar, though not exactly alike, alternatives, each with their own claims on your cash. Names to look out for include Adam, Dynaudio, Eve, Genelec, HEDD and Neumann.