Focal opens Flagship Phoenix Store

I’ve just recently moved to the West Coast, so when Focal reached out and informed Rafe and myself of a new store opening in Phoenix Arizona, it was a serendipitous coincidence of interest too good to pass up. I had a friend once who when asked if she believed in coincidences replied ‘well of course, somebody has to plan them!’

In this case, the planning credit goes to Dan Turk, who helped arrange many of the logistics for the event. I should also mention Romain Vet, who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with on a few occasions. Vet is the Vice-President of Focal Naim North America, and one who I count highly on my list of industry folks who really ‘get’ audiophilia and the hobby. It’s not always easy balancing corporate interests with community feedback while still managing to make great products and be a champion of excellent sound, yet Vet manages it. I’ve only ever seen his gracious and knowledgeable side, and it’s just plain fun talking hi-fi with someone who clearly enjoys it so much.

My travels to Phoenix began somewhat chaotically as the Getty Fires in California delayed my trip to the airport by several hours. Luckily, a backup flight was available later that day, which despite being delayed, did eventually get me to Phoenix. After grabbing some late lunch with a friend in downtown Phoenix, I made my way to the event. Interestingly enough, the store location chosen is next to a popular high-end mall, nestled between several furniture stores, a rug market and not one, but two build-out and home installation showrooms. Clearly a significant amount of thought was put into the audio experience as being integral to homeownership and associated home goods. I would never have really guessed to put an audio store where people are likely doing appliance shopping, but there is a certain logic there that I can’t argue with.

Speaking of the store itself, it’s actually a pre-existing audio store, named LMC. The fine folks at LMC have been around for quite a while, and I believe are one of the only dealers in the world to have a Wilson WAMM system setup. I poked my head into the other side of the shop briefly and these guys certainly know how to do high-end really well.

I was curious as to how this partnership came about, so I took the chance to chat with Vet and John Akers of LMC. Apparently Focal Naim has several such partner stores in France already, and interest and demand for the Focal brand has grown in North America to an appreciable point that Focal Naim felt opening a similar retail location in Arizona was the next logical step. LMC, already a Naim and Focal in-wall and headphone dealer, was the final choice narrowed down from a large initial selection pool. Though both Vet and Akers were mum on details, it was hinted that the selection process took at least two years, and I got the impression it was a decision that had a lot of careful thought put into it. They also indicated that while this was the First Focal Naim North America retail location, it would not necessarily be the last.

Before I go any further, I should note that the Focal and Naim brands have been showing together at shows for some time, as well as collaborating on projects, but only merged into the same company in North America a year ago. There was considerable effort spent homologating the execution of the integration between the two companies, but speaking with Vet, he emphasized that this was not simply a brand acquisition, but a true partnership underneath the larger Vervant Audio parent company.

Enough business though, what about the store itself, and perhaps more interestingly, the attendees? The design of the space on entering was quite tasteful – as one would expect from a company like Focal Naim. There was a headphone listening area well supplied by several Focal Arche DAC/Amps and the entire lineup of Focal headphones available for listening. At this point almost anyone who’s attended a show has at least passing familiarity with one of the Focal headphones, be it Elegia, Utopia, Clear, Stellia, Elear, etc. Focal’s Arche, however, is not a unit I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with. I sat down and listened during some of the quieter points in the evening, mostly with either Stellias or Clears, the two Focal headphones I’m most familiar with.

Having heard the Stellias recently for review and knowing broadly how they react with a wide variety of amplifiers, I was treated to an experience with these headphones that was altogether unfamiliar. There was an ease and openness with the Arche that was very appealing, especially with the Stellias, which I find generally quite impedance sensitive when it comes to amp matching. There wasn’t a hint of harshness here, the sound wasn’t as clean and clear as something like a GS-X mini, it felt a little richer than that, a perfect balance for both critical and more casual listening. The Arche comes in at a not-insubstantial $2,500 USD, but considering that you get a DAC and an amplifier, I can certainly see Focal headphone listeners being well-served by a device that, to my ears, has been very carefully tuned to work with all of their headphones.

The setups were beautifully laid out – iPads with lightning fast and flawless streaming were available at each listening station, and the experience was free of any digital hiccups. Attendees could listen to what they wanted, when they wanted to. While at the headphone bar I bumped into two younger fellows who are graduate music students at the University of Arizona in Oboe and Cello. Not only was it nice to chat with fellow classical musicians who were also audiophiles, I picked up some new music suggestions. Though both were about the same age as myself, they were both quite a bit more experienced with vinyl playback, and we talked at length about their extensive vinyl collection, as well as the pros and cons of recent and vintage classical recordings.

I also bumped into another young attendee, also a musician, though of a more modern, electronic disposition. She goes by the name Nitrah online if you’re interested in finding her music. We discussed photography, the LA music scene and working in hi-fi. She currently works with LMC doing photography, PR and outreach. I had a ton of fun discussing distinctly less traditionally audiophile music and again, walked away with a bunch of great recommendations. Seeing young folks both working and attending this event was a very pleasant surprise, and something I’ve been noticing more and more at audio shows and events recently. Most notably, these young people, myself included, are not just interested in headphones, in fact, most of the younger crowd I bumped into at the event started in speakers and later added headphones, which is perhaps the opposite of what one might assume. As I’ve noted in my recent show coverage, this is also something I’m looking out for – what’s drawing young people into the hobby. Although we were in the minority at this event, the crowd was much more mixed than an audiophile reputation might make you expect.

This leads into my next observation, which was the remarkable friendliness of everyone in attendance. There was no snootiness, no reluctance to take music requests, and no overplayed audiophile tunes. At one point Guns N’ Roses and Van Halen were blasting through from the Focal Grande Utopia and Statement Naim room, and everyone seemed to be having a great time, despite the relative lack of ‘audiophile’ qualities to this music. This, to my mind, is very much as it should be, and I really appreciated the relaxed and inviting atmosphere Focal and LMC very clearly worked to create for this space.

Speaking of which, I was delighted to see very tastefully treated rooms at the store – the rooms were not overdamped nor ringy – quiet and with loads of acoustic clarity without imposing excess reflections on the sound. The result was both a great event space and a great listening space. The headphone area was quiet enough that even with open-back headphones and plenty of people chatting, it was still quiet enough to get pretty good listening impressions. The speaker rooms fared even better, and I heard some of the tightest bass integration and most focused imaging I’ve yet experienced in those rooms. Miraculously this didn’t come at the cost of overloading or overpressurizing the rooms, there was just a gentle sense of control and accuracy across the entire presentation and in every speaker demo given.

Overall, this was a first-class experience by Focal Naim North America and the folks at LMC. I wish them luck with the new space, and I’m curious to see how Focal Naim plans on expanding the concept. It’s clear they’re dedicated to doing great work in hi-fi and especially personal audio, so I have a suspicion we haven’t heard the last from them when it comes to headphones and more.

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Everclear's picture

Any flagship stores in NYC, LA, SF, Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Denver etc. etc. ? :-) ........

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