Designed for studio use, these stereo speakers fit the domestic bill too
Price £4580 ★★★★★
Highlight the Focals’ ability to play loudly while still sounding clear, refined and composed is a rare quality indeed, especially at this price.
Consider if you want an insightful, dynamic and powerful active speaker and don’t mind the SM9’s functional appearance
Max power handling 600W
Dimensions 32 x 49 x 39cm
Sound and Vision we don’t make a habit of covering studio-orientated equipment, but in the case of Focal’s SM9s we’ve made an exception.
It’s clear from their appearance that these are no ordinary hi-fi speakers. Indeed, they are sold via Focal’s pro-division distributors (SCV Electronics in the UK) rather than the regular hi-fi dealer network.
The SM9s’ natural home is on a mixing desk where their squat proportions and unusual drive-unit layout make sense. In a domestic listening room there’s no doubt they look a little odd, and aggressive.
As far as positioning goes we had to sit around 80-100cm closer to the Focals than we would to conventional alternatives — their presentation is just better focused and more precise that way.
Take a stand
It’s important here to get stands that raise the tweeter to ear height, and have a top plate big enough to ensure the speakers are stable.
The distributor supplied IsoAcoustics Argosy ISA-360i Spire (£375) stands along with the speakers. These worked well enough but their industrial look means we can’t see too many people finding them domestically acceptable.
Custom Designs’ 104 Signatures (£190) are closer to the mark, though the standard top plate is too small for absolute security.
Take a look at the speaker and you’ll see four drive units. The top-end of the frequency range is taken care of by a 25mm inverted Beryllium dome tweeter, while the remaining trio of drive units use composite sandwich cones of 16.5cm, 20cm and 27cm diameters respectively.
The largest of these units is upward- facing, and turns out to be a passive radiator. It helps the dedicated bass driver to deliver weightier lows than otherwise would be the case.
The SM9s are active speakers. They have three power amplifiers per cabinet: the treble and midrange drivers are driven by a 100W module each and a mighty 400W amplifier powers the bass driver — that’s some pretty hefty fire power. The amplifiers are conventional Class A/B designs rather than the increasingly common Class D option, because Focal thinks the traditional technology gives better sound.
Take a look around the back and you’ll see the heatsink required to keep the internal electronics cool, and a series of controls that allow the user to fine-tune the tonal balance for a particular location.
This makes the speakers impressively flexible in terms of placement within a room. In our facilities we found that a free space position worked best, meaning we could bypass all those numerous controls on the back and gain a little extra sonic clarity, refinement and precision in the process.
One of the SM9’s biggest selling points (for studio work) is that it’s two speakers in one. As standard it’s a true three-way design with a claimed frequency response of 30Hz to 40kHz (+/- 3dB). But press a little button on the side and the bass driver is disconnected, and the internal crossover changes so that the remaining two drivers work as a conventional two-way design. In this configuration the frequency response is restricted to 90Hz-20kHz (+/- 3dB).
If you take a look inside the box you see that the tweeter and what is now a mid/bass unit are even partitioned off in their own enclosure. Why do this? Studios usually have two monitoring systems: a large one to check out full range dynamics and the frequency extremes, and small set of (bandwidth limited) monitors to hear what the recording sounds like through a portable radio or in a car. It’s important that the song is engineered to sound good through both set-ups. The SM9’s two-in-one approach saves space and money in a studio environment.
Options for domestic use
Does this feature have any use in the home? Yes, it works well for late-night listening where you can’t use high volume levels and don’t really want loads of bass or massively wide dynamics in case the children or neighbours are disturbed.
Most of our listening was done with the SM9s connected to our reference Bryston BP26 preamp via appropriately long lengths of balanced leads. Cyrus’s brand-new DAC XP Signature DAC/ preamp provided able back-up. The speaker’s analytical nature dictates that sources have to be top-class. Our usual Naim NDS/555ps did much of the work but was aided by Burmester’s mighty 069 CD player. Both — but particularly the 069 — worked brilliantly.
The whole point of a studio monitor is analysis, and the SM9s certainly don’t disappoint. There’s a massive amount of insight here. Want to dissect the production of Kanye West’s Yeezus? These Focals will be happy to oblige, laying each instrumental strand bare. More than that, they deliver the leading and trail edges of notes with breathtaking precision, and have the kind of dynamic punch that is genuinely shocking provided the volume is turned up.
Loud but composed
Composure at higher levels is deeply impressive, as is the listenability as volume goes up. These monitors are rated at 116dB (measured at 1m distance) — that’s very loud indeed.
The Focals are relatively compact, but they sound impressively authoritative, and low notes dig deep and true. They certainly deal with bass torture tracks such as Nitin Sawhney’s Anthem Without Nation or Time from the Inception soundtrack brilliantly.
There’s more here than just muscle and authority though. The SM9s are able to convey the emotion in Nina Simone’s voice on Here Comes The Sun superbly, and they deliver Arvo Part’s wonderful Tabula Rasa with all the delicacy and lightness of touch it deserves.
Criticisms? The SM9s like to play loud. That’s when they come to life. At lower levels they lose a bit too much bite and excitement for our tastes, and the bass performance loses its critical impact. Other than that, the nature of these speakers’ intended use means that the finish isn’t as luxurious as a comparable domestic alternative, even though build is as reassuring as you like.
While the SM9s may look out of place in domestic surroundings, consider that their price includes 1.2kW of power amplification and the kind of sound quality most conventional alternatives at double the price would struggle to better. We have to conclude that these Focals are a superb buy. We’ll certainly be sorry to see them go back.
Round the back
Focal has chosen to use Class A/B amplification for sound-quality reasons. With 600W-worth of amplification in each cabinet, it’s no wonder the SM9 needs a heatsink this big. The machined fins mean no sharp edges.
2 Total control
The SM9 betrays its studio heritage by offering great flexibility in its sound presentation. You can define how low the sound reaches in the bass as well as govern the relative levels of the low and high frequencies. There’s also a trio of controls that centre on 50Hz, 160Hz and 1kHz to highlight issues that might arise during recording.
3 Balanced XLR input
Bearing in mind its heritage, it comes as no surprise to find that the SM9 is equipped with just a balanced XLR input. This is the standard connection used in the pro world and it has advantages in terms of security of connection and noise rejection, thereby allowing the long runs of cable often needed in the studio.
In detail: Choose your mode
Ease of use is as important on the SM9s as it is on any other piece of equipment. Features such as being able to switch from three-way mode to compact two-way are only practical if the change is simple to do.
On the side of the monitor are three buttons. The top is for power, the second is to switch between two- and three-way and the final is a bypass switch. Provided the speaker doesn’t sound too unbalanced where it is sited we would use bypass mode. It stops the signal travelling through the range of equalisations and gives notably clearer results.
Nicolas Debard, Focal Professional Product Manager
The SM9’s design sums up Focal Professional’s philosophy: ‘Listen to your music, not to your speakers’. Throughout the design, we followed the same principle: total transparency. This is the reason we use the pure Beryllium inverted dome tweeter, as well as the ‘W’ composite sandwich cone. The Beryllium material produces a tweeter capable both of reproducing high frequencies without colouration — a result of its damping capabilities — and achieving minimal distortion thanks to the high rigidity of the material. Moreover, the reproduction of the slightest details is made easy thanks to the very low mass. The ‘W’ cone also allowed us to fine tune the drivers’ frequency response curve by adjusting the number of glass fibre layers and optimising the thickness of the Rohacell® foam used inside the cone.
Class A/B design
Another key point of the SM9 design is its electronic make-up. We went for a Class A/B design using a very high idle current to avoid any compression of the audio signal or dynamic losses. The speakers also feature real-time thermal bias compensation, with thermal sensing diodes inside the transistors package to drastically reduce thermal distortion. The direct-coupled pre- and power amplifier stages are designed without electrolytic capacitors in the signal flow and the preamps are designed using multiple parallel stages. This allows a -129dB @ 1kHz S/N ratio as well as 0.0001% THD.
Finally, the SM9 incorporates a power supply based around a high-current toroidal transformer, combined with a significant transistor bank (40 x 1000uF). As the charge and discharge time of multiple small capacitors is much faster than big ones, this ensures a total respect of the audio signal.
FOR: Impressive punch for such a small box; excellent resolution; authoritative bass; strong dynamic contrasts; power; solid build; flexibility
AGAINST: Studio roots are obvious; sound best only at louder volumes
VERDICT: Accept that the SM9s were never intended as a domestic speaker and simply enjoy the brilliant performance