The story behind the Alpine A110's lightweight speakers
It’s always fun to unpick little stories with cars. This one’s nothing particularly new, but I don’t think it’s been told before. It concerns the £552 Focal hifi. I wrote about it briefly when I was discussing options. It’s not great, but if you enjoy listening to music it’s easily £552 better than the standard system.
Focal merged with Naim Audio over ten years ago. Focal specialise in speakers, Naim do the amps and electronics. The Naim system fitted to the Bentley Conti GT I ran a few years ago remains the finest in car sound system I’ve ever come across. Anyway, this is about Focal, Alpine and, unsurprisingly, weight-saving.
Speaker cones (the part that vibrates to make the noise) are normally made of plastic, paper, aluminium or man-made Aramid fibres (often used in body armour). A few years ago Focal started using flax. Flax is made from the stalks of linseed (treated another way it’s what we know as linen).
There are several advantages with this, some technical, some environmental. Let’s deal with the latter first. Synthetic fibres produce better sound characteristics than paper or plastic, but they also come from the petrochemical industry, which isn’t a great look these days. Flax is not only a natural material, but also, for Focal, a local one. Northern France is not only Europe’s biggest cultivator of flax, but also reputed to grow the best stuff. Although they would say that.
Right, the technical benefits: rigidity and damping. Both are crucial to accurate sound reproduction as you need to minimise unwanted vibrations. Flax excels in this. Yes, Focal sandwich it with skinny layers of fibreglass, but the result is as well damped as Kevlar or aluminium and half the weight of full fibreglass. And less weight means less energy to make them move, and less inertia to make them stop moving. In other words they accelerate and brake well and they’re efficient – a nice parallel with the car itself.
Now, I’m not saying the gram-level weight savings were essential to the A110, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the Alpine development team knew about them and appreciated them. It’s also interesting that natural fibres are making such a comeback. Morgan’s use of wood is no longer seen as hopelessly backward, natural and recycled materials are increasingly being used in cabins. In the A110 you can see the flax behind the, er, plastic speaker grille.
It's no Bentley system, but it’s less than a tenth the price and it’s got a story to tell. Might start planning the Naim upgrade now though.