The quest for the right studio monitor can be long and frustrating. Or, the first pair you audition can instantly become the pair you know and trust, allowing you to do your best work right from the get-go. Focal Professional's flagship French-made SM9 monitor was the latter for me — and for everybody at Figure 8 Recording in Brooklyn. My initial plan was to audition a few models to find the right set of monitors for our main control room. As it happened, I set up the SM9 pair for the inaugural session at the studio last November — overdubs with guitarist Nels Cline and bassist Trevor Dunn for composer/drummer Scott Amendola's ambitious and amazing orchestral record Fade to Orange. And a few months later, I remembered that I wanted to try out some other speakers. In the meantime, dozens of projects had come through the studio, and every single one of the six engineers working in the space had effused to me how happy they were tracking and mixing on the SM9. This is just clearly a next-level speaker.
Focal markets the SM9 as "two monitors in one," due to the fact that in its default state, it's an active 3-way speaker, with a 400 W amp for the forward-facing 8'' subwoofer, and one 100 W amp each for the 6.5'' woofer and 1'' tweeter. With a push of the (vaguely-named) Focus switch, the amp for the subwoofer is turned off and the crossover is altered, so the frequency response changes from 30 Hz — 40 kHz to 90 Hz — 20 kHz (both ±3 dB). Focal claims in its literature that this is to check how the mix will sound on your TV or "multimedia systems." I got a chuckle thinking that any TV speaker could sound as good as the SM9, even with the Focus button on. This feature does not eliminate the need for Auratones, boomboxes, or other "real-world" reference speakers. But, point taken.
In addition to the subwoofer, the SM9 has an 11'' passive radiator on its upper surface, which gives it a definitive look and also happens to preclude stacking a second speaker on top of it. I find the sub range of the SM9 very even and trustworthy, and I have to credit the design of the passive radiator with some of that evenness. It functions in lieu of a bass port and couples with the subwoofer to help reproduce those low frequencies without the distortion and turbulence that ports can cause. The one frequency range of the SM9 that sounded a little weak in our control room was the lower midrange. Initial mixes were coming out of our room needing a slight tuck in the 120-180 Hz range at mastering. A 1 dB boost on each speaker on the LMF control, which is centered at 160 Hz, has really helped us hear that range better, and mixes have been translating excellently since that small adjustment. Other EQ points on the rear of the SM9 are LF (50 Hz), and MF (1 kHz). There are also shelving filters from 250 Hz downward and 4.5 kHz upward, and an HPF with three settings (45, 60, and 90 Hz), each at 12 dB/octave, allowing you to run the SM9 with an external subwoofer if desired. All EQ settings, aside from the HPF, are conveniently bypassed with the single push of the (also vaguely named) Direct Input button.
Other than that small boost in the low-mids, the rest of the EQ has stayed flat in our setup, because the interaction of the three drivers just works so well and sounds so good — at all listening levels. A hallmark of an excellent speaker for me is being able to trust it for quiet monitoring, and the SM9 comes through in this regard fantastically. The stereo imaging, which I find absolutely exquisite on the SM9 pair, maintains its separation and depth at low listening levels, while the "phantom" center channel still sounds robust and forward. At louder levels, the frequency response also sounds very even; I hear no unwanted resonances or discernible crossover
distortions, and the high end doesn't get shrill. The tweeter is made of beryllium and is an inverted dome construction, which is one of Focal's hallmarks. I have experience using this tweeter on the smaller Solo6 Be speaker [Tape Op #60] over the past decade, finding it trustworthy and easy to listen to for long stretches of time.
Once we did get around to comparing the SM9 to a few other models, we spent a full day leisurely listening to four sets of speakers. We wanted all of them set up on the same stands with the same room placement, so we did no quick A/B'ing, only unscientific full-song listening to a variety of material spanning fifty years of recording, and cycled each set of speakers through twice. There were notes like this regarding the SM9 from the other engineers: "clarity in all frequency ranges," "visible ultra- harmonics," and "low end holds together in ways it doesn't normally — subs are sick!" Out of the five of us doing the listening test, four of us chose the SM9 as our favorite model, and the fifth person had it as second favorite. I kept the prices a secret, since I wanted to eliminate that as a factor as much as possible, although I'm sure size was a clue. Only one other speaker was in the SM9's price range, and the other two were significantly cheaper, but it was clear to everyone in the room which speaker was going to stay in place after the tests.
Even though I enjoy using the SM9 immensely, it is not without one small fault; the buttons for putting it into standby, engaging the EQ controls, and turning off the subwoofer (and passive radiator) are on the inner sides of the enclosure if positioned as recommended (subwoofer on the outside). So if you have a pair of these speakers set up on stands behind a console (as we do behind our Neve 5316, which is relatively deep), the buttons are quite hard to reach, since they are pivoted away from you. Frankly, I would utilize the Focus feature a lot more with easier access to it. I would love to see these controls on a remote, considering the size (and cost) of the speaker. But really, that's the only thing I have come across in over six months of use that I don't absolutely love about the Focal SM9.
Visually, the SM9 is impressive and sleek. It's built incredibly solidly and weighs 75 lbs, so you will want to either buy a very substantial set of monitor stands, or build your own heavy-duty ones, like we did. Following instructions we found online, we constructed extremely stable, tripod monitor stands out of 2'' PVC pipe, playground sand (laboriously dried by hand with a heatgun by our intern Dylan Guidry — thanks Dylan!), and 1'' boards sandwiched together — all spray-painted black to match the SM9. We built them to be the perfect dimensions both for the speakers and for the height of our desk. They are dense enough to keep their resonance to an absolute minimum, especially utilizing Primacoustic Recoil Stabilizers (two 10.5'' × 13'' pads per speaker) [Tape Op #62]. The cost of the homemade stands was negligible, which made us feel better about spending $400 on the Stabilizers. But for a pair of $7,600 speakers, you want to make sure you're doing everything you can to hear the speaker itself without mechanical resonance or movement. Yep, you saw that price tag right, and that will certainly make some of you dear readers grimace and flip quickly to the next review, and understandably so. At this price point, it is not a decision one makes lightly, and our lack of hesitation to shell out that kind of dough on our "windows to our mixes" speaks volumes about the quality of these speakers. I am definitely not of the mindset that you really need $7,600 speakers to make good recordings and solid mixes, but I will hereby report that I am finding that it helps.