Focal SM9 Studio Monitors

Oct 1, 2012 9:00 AM, Mix, By Kevin Becka



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Focal SM9 monitor front

The SM9s offer five bands of EQ plus a three-stage highpass filter for use with a sub.

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.

Cutting-Edge Tech

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.

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