Focal SM9 ReviewThe Mighty Giants
Watch out! Last year the renowned French manufacturer famous for its mid-field monitors introduced a new monitoring system aimed at the most demanding users. Available for several months now, it was impossible for us to ignore what the Focal SM9 have to say.
Focal JM-Lab has been active in the world of loudspeakers for nearly 30 years. Its high-fidelity products are recognized worldwide, both in the professional (studio monitoring, home studio and car systems) and consumer markets. But it wasn't until a couple of years ago that the brand started to make itself visible in the world of professional recording studios, where it has become one of the household names. So when they announce a new pair of speakers aimed at professionals, it's impossible for them to go unnoticed... Being familiar with two of the brand's models, the Solo6 Be and Twin6 Be, which can be found in many studios, we were eager for a three-way alternative to come along. And it's finally here in the form of a product that is somewhere in between a mid-field and a main monitoring system.
The dimensions of the speakers are quite impressive: 12.8" x 19.6" x 15.6" (320 mm x 490 mm x 390 mm). But it's their weight that really sets them apart: each speaker weights 77 lbs (35 kg). So before taking them out of their box be sure to warm up your muscles... or get the help of a friend.
In this regard, your choice of stands for the speakers is important (which is also emphasized in the user's manual), so it's a good idea to get some good quality stands in advance. I used my Zaor stands, which are perfectly fitted for this task. For those of you who are thinking of placing them on your mixer's speaker shelves, I would strongly advise against it, considering the dimensions and weight of the speakers. Especially if you are fond of your mixer... Once in place, we discover a very nice and elegant product that makes you want to listen to them right away.
The speakers' sober black finish is not very common in the manufacturer's product range, but the beautiful and nicely ribbed wooden top panel gives them a very nice touch. The speakers look and feel very pleasant. The finish is impeccable from any point of view. In terms of manufacturing quality, we can only say that it's riveting.
After removing the protections, we find Focal's precious technology: a 1" beryllium inverted dome tweeter and two composite sandwich "W" woofer cones (6.5" and 8.5"). But what really makes this model different is the presence of a passive radiator, whose 11" cone (a composite sandwich "W" as well) is located on the speakers' top panel. (see insert)
Theoretically, the passive radiator extends the response of the speaker down to 30 Hz (in three-way mode) in the low end and up to 40 kHz in the high end. The latter is possible thanks to a beryllium tweeter that allegedly provides much accurate harmonics and transient response. The SM9 can deliver a maximum of 116 db SPL (in three-way mode). The speakers feature three AB amplifiers: 400W for the subwoofer and 100W for the tweeter and the midrange driver.
Focal did a good job in terms of setting adjustments. Apart from a low-cut filter (40, 60 and 90 Hz with a -12 dB/octave slope), we also find two shelving filters on the back side: one for the lows (from 30 to 250 Hz) and one for the highs (from 4.5 kHz to 40 kHz). All filters offer the possibility of attenuating or boosting the gain up to +/-3 dB (in 0.5 dB steps).
But we also have the possibility of adjusting the gain in the same way for three different frequency bands: 50 Hz, 140 Hz and 1000Hz. More would be unbearable!
Even if this system is implicitly aimed at professionals, Focal has also considered other users by offering the possibility to choose between +4dBu and -10 dBu input levels via a two-way switch...
Besides the power switch there's also a power supply socket that can be set to 110V or 220V.
One of the first things to catch our attention was the small metallic plate on the side of the speakers with three switches, each one with its own LED. The first one activates the Standby/On mode after turning on the speakers. The third switch ─ Direct ─ allows us to deactivate the EQ that filters the speakers response. But it's the Focus switch that makes us wonder. This switch allows you to put the speakers in two-way mode by disengaging the subwoofer and, thus, the passive radiator! In this mode, the SM9 deliver a narrower frequency response ─ from 90 to 20 kHz ─ and maximum power of 106 dB SPL.
Before starting the listening test, we decided (together with Red Led from the AF Editing Intervention Committee) to place a measurement microphone (a Beyerdynamic MM1) right at the center of the listening room (whose acoustics were designed by Michel Deluc) to get an idea ─ a relative one, obviously ─ of the frequency response curve of the speakers in my room at a distance of 1m and at the height of the listener.
The red curve corresponds to the speakers in normal mode. The orange curve is in Focus mode. In theory the technical documentation doesn't lie: the beryllium tweeter offers an almost linear and transparent frequency response. The cut at 100 Hz is normal in my room (I have seen it with several other speakers).
But there's nothing better than a good listening session to make oneself an opinion on the matter. So I chose very different titles to that end.
Frequency response with filter (blue) and without (red).
Frequency response of the Focal SM9 (red) and the EVE SC307 (violet)
Beck - Paper Tiger
The presence of the voice is reproduced very faithfully. The noise inherent to the recording medium is fairly clear, as well as the details of the reverb (specially on the strings). We could easily perceive the dimensions of the room and the "rubbing" of the strings. The lows are deep but have relatively little punch on the bass (but not the sub). Every element is well placed in the stereo field. The song gains presence.
Miles Davis - Seven Steps to Heaven
Exactly like the previous song. Miles Davis' trumpet sounds very nice and accurate. On the left, the ride seem to be more emphasized than the drums themselves. The piano sounds a bit mids-heavy. The sound in general is fairly clear and, once again, accurate.
Green Day - American Idiot
The drive of the song is very well translated but the transients can be a bit aggressive, specially on the attacks of the snare and the toms. The guitars are sharp and we can't really find the "softness" of the bass or the "rebound" at the bottom of the bass drum. The song is very accurate but the rhythmic is stiffened.
Gorillaz - Feel Good Inc.
Very accurate reproduction of the snare/bass drum. The samples come through with a lot of character. The voices remain detailed despite the very vigorous bass. The song really "bangs".
I also listened to many other songs and projects on which I was working on and I used these speakers during several sessions. Every time I started with the SM9 in Direct mode to listen to the speakers and then I started to play with the EQ and the modes (two and three-way)
Regardless of the music genre, we always had an accurate frequency response, specially on the mid-highs, a "sound signature" that I have also found on the Solo6 and Twin6... on a different scale obviously. The presence of a passive radiator provides a higher accuracy in the lowest register — although a bit too much in my (small?) room. To make it a bit more pleasant we have the low-cut filter: set at 40 Hz I could already feel the difference and with a small boost at 140 Hz I gained a bit of comfort in the low end. The Sub seemed to be too present — to the detriment of the lows — but with the adjustments above we were able to fix that. Nevertheless, this only my personal opinion... and the properties of my room!
The stereo image is very good, the different sound sources are well placed in the stereo field. Transients are also reproduced very accurately... The beryllium inverted dome twitter is certainly not there for nothing.
In general, the SM9 show a very high quality in their manufacturing and conception. As I mentioned before, the finish — as simple as it may be — is very well accomplished, without ornaments, but still elegant. The quality of the speaker components is also very high. Nothing was left to chance.
From a usage point of view, Focal has conceived a speaker that is easy to tame, despite the many settings available. To me, the Focus mode is especially useful to control the rendering of mixes on lesser systems and would almost - in a relative way - allow me to find the sound of the Solo6, for example (dimensions apart). A feature that ought to be rapidly copied by other manufacturers...
From a sound point of view, I would have liked a more "comfortable" response in the lows by default (in Direct mode), which I have found in other monitors and I was able to find with some quick EQ adjustments on the Focal. There is little to complain about on these SM9! I have listened to these speakers in other studios and my feelings were not as radical as in my room. It might take some time to accommodate these speakers within a given space (if you want to get the best out of them it must be a wide room!). Thanks to their technological characteristics, the SM9 are insanely accurate, which may seem a bit too aggressive or "dry" in some respects, depending on the music (and how it is mixed). But that's a matter of taste. We are not going to blame a speaker for doing its job well, are we?
Focal makes a mighty comeback with a pair of speakers aimed at demanding users who are looking for a system that provides fidelity, accuracy and a nice design. The SM9 are up to the challenge and will seduce fans of the brand and strangers alike, who will be able to find their own favorites thanks to the adjustment possibilities they offer. Even if the price tag is a bit high for a pair of speakers (around €5400) — quality has its price.
A big thank you to Red Led for his Alsatian precision.
Photos by Fabien Napoli - the Rock 'n' Roll Eye.