Focal SM9 Studio MonitorsMID-SIZE SPEAKER WITH SWITCHABLE EQ, PLENTY OF SPL AND A SECRET 10/01/2012 5:00 AM Eastern
Focal Professional has been making studio monitors for only a short time, but Focal/JMLab has been around for more than 30 years. Besides making pro audio monitors, the company manufactures home and car audio products, headphones and public address systems. They’ve also been the OEM for other companies such as L-Acoustics and KRK, and recently penned a deal to collaborate with Fender Guitar on some soon-to-be-released products.
No matter what they make, Focal is about quality, manufacturing every part on-site down to the screws. I first heard the SM9s at AES in San Francisco in 2010, but only recently has the company released the product in mass quantity.
The SM9 uniquely offers both a two-way and three-way experience—it is literally two systems in one box, with the Focus button on the side of each monitor providing instant switchover. In full-range mode, the 11-inch passive radiator at the top, 8-inch woofer, 6.5-inch mid and 1-inch inverted dome beryllium tweeter work as a single unit. Push the Focus button and the radiator and woofer go dormant, while the mid and tweeter become the new full-range option using a reconfigured crossover. The experience during switching is smooth and sounds right. If I had a genie, I’d wish for a Focus and Direct Input (EQ in/out) remote for speakers mounted far from the listener. I’m close enough to reach the buttons in my setup, but I could see this being a great option for SM9s mounted on a meter bridge.
No review of a high-end product would be complete without numbers, and there are plenty here. The SM9 gives the user numerous switchable EQ options, plus plenty of SPL (106 dB two-way; 116 dB three-way) using lots of clean power to get there. The bass is powered by a 400-watt amp while the mid and tweeter each get 100 W, all Class-A/B. The five boost/cut EQ options (all +/- 3dB in 0.5dB steps) include a low shelf from 30 to 250 Hz; high shelf from 4.5 to 40 kHz; LF at 50 Hz (Q2), LMF at 160 Hz (Q1), and MF at 160 Hz (Q 0.6). These five are in/out switchable as a group using the Direct Input button on the side of each speaker. Remaining tweaks include a highpass crossover for use with a sub (full range/45/60/90 Hz at -6dB, not switchable) and a -10 dBv/+4 dbu input switch. Other extras include a Power On, clipping and default front panel LED, and a standby switch.
In My Ears
I installed the SM9s in my personal mix room, which is 9x12 with an 8-foot ceiling. I’m using Vovox speaker cables from a Dangerous Monitor ST for audio, and feeding balanced power to the SM9s using ESP MusicCord power cables from Monster AVS 2000 Pro and Pro 7000 power units. The speakers are mounted on adjustable Sound Anchor stands and I would recommend nothing less—each box weighs 77 pounds. When power is first applied, the SM9s go through a boot sequence that includes a relay clearing routine. The relays in each box quickly click on/off for a few seconds to make sure they’re running as they should. After that, the LED on the front of each cabinet goes green and you’re good to go.
I’ve been monitoring on Focal Twin6 Be monitors and love them. Right off the bat, my experience with the SM9s revealed the bottom octave that I was missing with my Twins. Not to say that the Twins were lacking, just that they don’t have the dexterity at low frequencies that the SM9s have, and should have at nearly twice the price.
The SM9s can get loud. For career longevity, you have to be careful not to go there too often. Because of the exceptionally quiet amplifiers and how even they sound across the frequency range, they beg to be turned up. The speakers are marked specifically as L and R on the back, as Focal recommends the tweeters ride on the inside. However, it depends on how far back you are from the monitors; my sweet spot is close so I have them in the recommended orientation.
I was in the middle of a mix project when I put up the SM9s and it changed how I mixed the rest of the songs—so much so that when I went back and remixed a song based on my experience with the SM9s, I found that I had missed making some key moves when listening with my old setup. The new speakers changed how I work and listen.
Focal is the only company that holds the patent for the manufacture of 100-percent pure Beryllium tweeters, and they sound fantastic. Some reviewers have dissed Beryllium as being too hyped at the top but I don’t find this to be the case. I find Beryllium-based to be very smooth—I love the sound of cymbals, transients, the air I get on vocals, accuracy of room reflections and the incredible stereo field. The aural picture is so solid that you forget the boxes are there and concentrate more on the phantom image that takes on a life of its own. You’d swear center-panned elements are coming right out of the wall.
Dialing Them In
Because of the sheer power and size, I first thought the SM9s would be too much speaker for my small room, but I was so wrong. It’s the perfect speaker for any space that can’t support a midrange and near-field monitor. The EQ options give you many ways to tune the monitors to your space. I could tell that much thought went into the frequency choices and Q widths—they are very musical. At first I ran the SM9s flat and there was some tubbiness due to wall proximity and the size of my room. My sweet spot is very small, but the EQs on the SM9s made it simple to fine-tune that golden area.
After talking with Simon Cote from Audio Plus Services, I employed the 160Hz cut option. He recommended that I kick it down a dB and I instantly A/B’d the choices using Direct Input. This was a definite improvement. It took me a few mixes to feel confident with my EQ choices, but now I’m mostly using the Focus button, especially near the end of a mix when I’m trying to gauge how much bottom is too much and whether I’ve gotten off track.
The Price of Trust
As a reviewer, one of my tenets is to ignore the $$ until the end of the process. It’s too easy to discount something as too cheap or too expensive and confuse the difference between money and value. During this review I’ve had more than one friend say, “Yeah, but they’re so much!” Yes, the price is dear, but you’re not buying just a monitor. It’s two systems. Focal is the first company to put a two- and three-way in one box, so there’s a bit of early adopter pricing at play here. There are obvious R&D costs, but more important, you’re buying trust, the confidence that your listening decisions are beyond question. Frankly, that’s worth whatever you can afford. Once you hear them, you can’t ignore the SM9s’ sonic superiority, clean quiet power, and unique features like Focus and Direct Input mode. The sum of all these qualities makes the Focal SM9 the smart choice for anyone looking to improve their monitoring experience, thereby improving their mixes.
Kevin Becka is Mix’s technical editor.
Playing with the orientation of your speakers will give you more ways to make sure your listening experience is at its best. Speakers on their sides or upright? Tweeters in? Tweeters out? EQ options? It’s all okay and different for every listener and room. Get a couple of friends involved, make the switches quickly, and then get everyone’s impressions across a wide range of listening sources. You may be surprised that something you thought was against the rules turns out to be your best bet.
COMPANY: Focal Professional
PRODUCT: SM9 Monitors
PRICE: $3,595 each
PROS: Sonically excellent; Focus Mode, switchable EQ.
CONS: May be too pricey for some.