|Reaching Out: The Focal ICE Solution for the Peugeot 3008
ny visit to the Focal factory is a treat. Focal is an interesting company with a lot of unique thinking and many equally unique products, so whats not to like, especially when you get to learn about and play with the latest Utopia products, both speakers and headphones -- expensive audiophile toys of the kind that inevitably brighten a jaded journos day?
Given the presence of said phones, the Scala Utopia Evo speakers, a stack (perhaps that should be a row) of Naim Statement electronics and Focals purpose-built listening room, it came as something of a surprise to realize that in many respects, the most significant experience of the day involved none of those exotic elements. In fact, it didnt even occur in the factory but in the car of our host, Brand and Communication Director Sébastien Dumas, on the way to the local art museum for lunch. (This is Focal; it is France.)
The car in question was Peugeots new 3008, a compact SUV that also happens to be the European Car of the Year for 2017. It also just happened to feature a Focal music system. No great surprise there; as anybody with even a passing interest in car audio systems will be aware, Focal has a stellar reputation for the quality and performance of the specialist in-car speaker systems. In fact, after 35 years in the market, its fair to say that the company is at (or very near) the top of that particular tree. So what could be more natural than a company director with an all-singing, all-dancing Focal system in his car? Except that this system didnt come from Focal. Instead it came from Peugeot and represents their premium audio option on the 3008 model.
Once again, theres nothing particularly surprising about finding an audiophile brand working with a car manufacturer to provide an optional, higher-quality audio solution. Linn and Aston Martin, Naim and Bentley, both B&W and B&O with Jaguar, and Bose with just about everyone -- all spring to mind. Indeed, its easier to name the brands that havent dabbled in the auto market than those that have, while the results have been variable to say the least.
So, while finding a Focal system in a car is hardly a surprise, theres plenty that was surprising about this particular system in this particular car. For a start, the 3008 is a volume product, with prices starting from 25,900. I know that car prices dont translate across markets, but to give you a sense of context, that puts it in the same ballpark as the Ford Escape/Kuga. This is much closer to a "sporty" mommy wagon than a luxury sedan. Secondly, not only has the car itself been spectacularly successful, but three times as many of the buyers as predicted have opted for the upgraded audio system. Thirdly -- and perhaps most significantly of all -- the cost of the upgrade is 850. Not only is that a fraction of the price charged for most high-profile audiophile sound options, but for that you get a bangin system.
Lets be clear: what makes this story so interesting has little to do with sound. Its called ICE (in-car entertainment) for a reason: the noise floor in any car precludes serious audiophile sound, irrespective of whose name has been stuck on the head unit. The Focal system fitted to the Peugeot 3008 sounds remarkably good -- and definitely entertaining with a capital "E." Id go so far as to say that its not just considerably cheaper than most of the premium audio options you find in cars; its also considerably better -- and thats a direct result of how the end result has been achieved.
When Peugeot and Focal first started discussing the 3008 project, Focal proposed a radical solution. Rather than simply supplying a bunch of drivers and OEM electronics, they suggested working in a consultative role, bringing over three decades of in-car audio experience to the task of engineering an in-car solution from the ground up. That meant working with both the Peugeot designers and their ICE suppliers to incorporate not just the structural demands of a superior audio system into the cars interior, panels and bodywork, but to create purpose-built electronics and loudspeaker elements that would conform perfectly to the physical and acoustic conditions created: literally, a drop-in option -- and one that doesnt compromise on sound or practicality.
It was a considerable leap of faith for both parties. Just consider the gestation period for a car and the investment required before any hope of a return. But the end result is a triumph. With the ability to select everything from floormats to door structures in order to optimize sound propagation and the acoustic environment, while employing exclusive Focal driver technologies in development of the speakers and collaborating on the creation of the other system elements with the audio supplier, the final design has achieved a previously unprecedented level of structural and sonic integration. Not only does the ten-speaker system integrate seamlessly with the cars interior, the forward planning has allowed creative solutions to practical problems. There are no bulky driver trims blocking access to door pockets, or exposed tweeter cans waiting to be picked off by inquisitive fingers. The subwoofer is under the passenger seat, meaning that the trunk is unobstructed -- and so are the low frequencies. Despite the familiar Focal technological markers on display (from inverted-dome tweeters to "power flower" motors), the sheer numbers involved have mandated outsourcing of the speaker manufacturing, the company working in close cooperation with a carefully monitored OEM supplier to actually produce the speakers themselves.
But rest assured that theres no mistaking Focals signature sound: their sonic fingerprints all over the musical end result and, as I said, this is one highly entertaining system -- which is exactly what makes it so interesting. Here is a system that works, works well and works in a car: an everyday, family car; a car in which not just the parents but the kids are going to be exposed to sound that is way more engaging, substantial and satisfying than theyre hearing from their earbuds and portables, docking stations or Sonos system. This may not be audiophile, but it is absolutely, definitely music.
For an industry that is wondering where its next generation of customers is coming from (and if it isnt, it should be), the Peugeot 3008 is potentially a very bright light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Forget about high-end headphone amps or portable DACs that have more boxes and cables than a Newtons cradle supposedly seducing the iPhone generation. The audio industry got us young -- and it did it with music centers or our parents hi-fi systems, not "high-end" systems. It needs to do the same thing again -- and if that means subliminally influencing the kids on the school run, Im all for it. Best of all, the commercial success of the Focal option in what is already a massively successful vehicle means that the 3008 solution is unlikely to remain unique for long -- and that has to be good news for all of us.
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