Review: Focal Professional SM9 3-/2-Way Active Studio Monitor

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The SM9 is a revolutionary concept, offering essentially two monitoring speakers (a 2-way and a 3-way) in one unique cabinet. 

In a relatively short amount of time, Focal-JMlab, headquartered in Saint-Etienne, France, has grown to become one of the major players in the studio monitor industry and the company is internationally recognized as a world leader in the design and manufacture of drivers and loudspeakers. I admittedly have been a satisfied Focal user since purchasing a pair of Twin6 Be monitors half a decade ago. Focal’s latest offering, the SM9, offers the tremendous sound quality that Focal is known for as well as the revolutionary concept of offering essentially two monitoring speakers (a 2-way and a 3-way) in one unique cabinet. 

Features

The SM9 measures 12.8” x 19.6” x 15.6” and weighs 77 lbs. Black natural veneer top and bottom panels highlight its beautiful black cabinet; it looks absolutely gorgeous, and by gorgeous, I mean that this may be the most beautiful studio speaker I’ve ever seen. 

The SM9 is essentially two sets of monitors built into a single cabinet. During normal operation, it’s a three-way monitor equipped with a one-inch, pure Beryllium inverted dome tweeter, a 6.5-inch Focal “W” composite sandwich cone driver, an 8-inch Focal “W” composite sandwich cone low-frequency driver, and an 11-inch Focal “W” composite sandwich cone piston, extra wide inverted surround passive radiator. When set to Focus mode, it becomes a two-way monitor, utilizing only the tweeter and the 6.5-inch mid/bass driver, making it easy to preview how well a mix will transfer to a low-frequency challenged system. The SM9’s Treble and Midrange components are each powered by a 100W, Class A/B amplifier and the low frequency driver is powered by a 400W, Class A/B amp.

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The inverted dome tweeter is a Focal hallmark whose design optimizes the mechanical coupling between the voice coil and the dome. “The voice coil is fixed at mid-height on the dome and uniformly moves the cone’s entire surface,” explains Focal promotional literature. “The positive dome is only joined at its edge, causing it to be inactive beyond 16kHz for a flexible surface. The inverted dome directly radiates into the air…,” Focal says this makes for an unusually linear HF response curve, with low directivity.

Focal believes that an ideal dome combines lightness, rigidity and damping. Beryllium’s density is 2.5 times less than titanium and 1.5 times less than aluminum, while its rigidity is three times greater than titanium and five times greater than aluminum, making it “perfect” dome material according to Focal. Beryllium manufacturing is difficult and its production is currently limited to just three countries: France, Russia, and the United States. Beryllium’s unique characteristics make it extraordinarily expensive, much more than gold and nearly 100 times that of titanium. Even with the high price tag, Focal considers the expense worthwhile since the result is a staggeringly detailed loudspeaker with a frequency response that extends to nearly 40 kHz with what the company claims to be a highly accurate impulse response.

The “W” composite sandwich cone has two woven sheets of glass tissue sandwiched onto the structural foam core. This configuration is said to avoid the midrange coloration present when utilizing aramid (synthetic) fibers or other Kevlar fabrics, and the molecular bond between the resin and the glass is also superior to that obtained with aramid fibers. Varying the thickness of the structural foam provides precise control of the “W” cone’s damping. The variation of the number of glass fiber sheets and the thickness of the central foam is said to allow the optimization of the cone’s behavior in regards to the desired frequency range. The “W” cone is translucent with what Focal cites as an excellent phase response and a very low distortion rate due to a rigidity 20 times higher than Kevlar or aramid fibers. 

In three-way mode, the speaker has a rated frequency response of 30 Hz – 40 kHz (+/- 3 dB) with a maximum SPL of 116 dB (peak @ 1 meter) and in two-way (Focus) mode, it is rated at a 90 Hz – 20 kHz (+/- 3 dB) frequency response with a 106dB maximum SPL (peak @ 1 meter). The input is a 10 kOhm, electronically balanced, fed from an XLR jack switchable between +4 dBu/-10 dBV. The extensive tone-shaping controls include hi-pass, (45, 60, 90 Hz) Low and High frequency shelving (+/- 3 dB in 0.5 dB steps) and EQ settings for Low, Low-Mid and Mid frequencies, 50, 160 and 1 kHz respectively (+/- 3 dB in 0.5 dB increments). The rear panel also includes a voltage selector, IEC connector and power switch. 

A small panel found on the side of the SM9 includes a Stand By/On switch (that places the monitor in a state of sleep where electric consumption drops below 2 W), a Focus switch (switches between 3-way and 2-way operation), and a Direct switch (deactivates the rear panel’s tonal settings except for the high-pass filter).

Based on color and flashing speed, a single LED on the front panel provides status information for the speaker including power status, clipping, limiter activation, faulty power supply-filtering stage, faulty power supply-amplifier, etc. 

In Use

I fell in love with the SM9 in New York City at last year’s AES show (as much as is possible when listening in a booth on a trade room floor) and was able to spend some time with them again at PotluckCon in Tucson. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to get a pair set up in my space with the opportunity to spend extended time working with them. 

When the shipping company called and said they had a 190 lb. delivery, I nearly passed out. At 77 pounds per cabinet, these babies are heavy! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that three powerful class A/B amps in a single enclosure make for a pretty hefty piece of gear. 

After spending the last three weeks working non-stop on the SM9s, I’m sold. The imaging is spectacular and they provide a flat, smooth and natural sound regardless of volume level. When the band comes in the control room for a listen, I can crank up the monitors and kick butt, but they also sound great at extremely low levels. I like that there are significantly more tonal shaping tools on the SM9 than on any other monitor I’ve encountered. This allows the SM9’s response to be sonically adjusted to work in spaces with a strong sonic thumbprint. Low apparent levels of distortion provide non-fatiguing monitoring, which is another strong suit of the monitors. 

The dual monitor feature is a brilliant idea. Rather than having a pair of NS-10s around for occasional referencing, I simply press the focus button on the side of the SM9 and the woofer and passive radiator are deactivated turning the speaker into a two-way system more typical of most people’s home stereos. I wish there was a footswitch input so the speaker mode could be changed by stepping on a single footswitch instead of having to press a button on the side of each of the monitors. 

The implementation of a passive radiator over a ported design works wonderfully. The low-frequency reproduction in the monitors is punchy, tight and full. It’s nice to use a monitor that provides full-range reproduction without the need for a sub. 

Summary

Yes, they are expensive. However, I have no doubt that they are worth every penny (and a whole lot more). Anyone with deep pockets looking to upgrade their current monitoring environment should give these boxes a close listen. 

BIO: Russ Long is a Nashville-based producer, engineer and mixer as well as a senior contributor to PAR. russlong.ws

Price: $3,995.00 each, list

Contact: Focal | http://www.focalprofessional.com