The Focal – JM Lab Utopia III ‘Grande Utopia EM’ Loudspeaker

Focal asks on its website whether the Grande Utopias are the best speakers in the world. It’s an almost impossible question to answer given audiophiles’ tastes, style, etc, but in other ways, it’s almost a simple question. I figured out my answer quite quickly, so resplendent are these extremely expensive monoliths from France.

I’ve heard most speakers that are (or have been) considered benchmarks, including those by Genesis, Wilson, previous JM Labs’ models, Hansen, Verity, and other favorites of mine. The Grande Utopia EMs are the third and last of my reviews for this family of speakers. The Scala certainly punched above its 30K weight, the larger Maestro gave even more of itself — both are magnificent speakers and will fit into any audiophile’s setup given they have the dosh. I did not review the fourth in line Stella, but have heard it at length. Yes, also magnificent and more of the same family likeness. With the EM Grandes, we jump the rails upping the price eighty thousand dollars. That’s a big matzah ball hanging there. Is the taste worth the price difference?

Of course the speakers are brilliant. They echo the family sound — open, clear sound, incredibly precise imaging and huge soundstage. The Scala and Maestro are both superb imitating live events and the Stella gets you even closer. But these Grande EMs will get you as close as present technology allows. Yes, a benchmark speaker.

In good spaces, with good ancillaries, very large, well-designed speakers can move lots of air and can fool the ear into suggesting to us we are elsewhere. Interestingly, no matter what volume was selected, the Grande Utopias delivered music in the most realistically grand fashion. Orchestras were laid out in front of me as if I were on the podium. Picking out an instrumentalist’s placement was a breeze, such was the specificity of the imaging. The delicious and tactile layering of the soundstage was an elixir caressing the ears on all types of music.

Technically, these are masterpieces (detailed information and Specifications below). Much of the speaker is made of parts developed by Focal including the fabulous Beryllium tweeter, and ‘Focus Time’ and ‘Gamma Structure’, as used in the complete Utopia line. Focal explains the time delay and structure as ‘The very structured shape of the Grande Utopia EM immediately evokes a kind of spine. Stylistic effect? No because the design axis chosen for Utopia 3 brushes aside anything superfluous. Function justifies shape and if the Grande Utopia EM evokes a spine, it’s because it’s articulated. True Utopia DNA since the beginning, the Focus Time consists in placing the drivers in an arc shape to orientate them towards the listening point. This time, the Grande Utopia EM offers a mechanical adjustment to optimize the “Sweet Spot”, perfect listening point.

Articulating a 573lb (260kg) loudspeaker could have been considered as an unacceptable argument at least and without doubt as inconceivable. Thanks to a mechanical system operated by a handle placed in the back body of the tweeter compartment, the 4 upper enclosures of the Grande Utopia EM can spread out.

The Gamma structure role is simple. All the strength of the magnetic motor must be transmitted to the cone of the driver. If the loudspeaker moves, even in an imperceptible way (vibrations), it’s because there is energy loss.

The loudspeaker must oppose such an inertia and such a rigidity that it must stand up to this force: that’s the Gamma structure principle. To cope with vibrations, we called a French specialist, European leader in that field that put all its know-how to provide vibration cartographies of our cabinets. We can see that mass doesn’t solve everything, neither the thickness of the sides that sometimes reach 23/8” (6cm) thick MDF, but the addition of reinforcement perfectly placed thanks to the data analysis becomes dreadfully efficient.’

An accurate, if colourful, assessment of these two proprietary technologies.

Musically, audiophiles could not ask for anything more than the Grandes. They play any genre of music effortlessly, but, be aware — the speakers reveal ruthlessly. Any weakness in the chain will stare at you like a deer in your headlights. Same for the software. CDs remastered with care such as the Mobile Fidelity Gold of Sinatra’s Only the Lonely sounded magnificent. Ol’ Blue Eye’s vocal chords and soul are laid bare by the speakers. I’ve never experienced his word painting and emotion as impactful as through these speakers. The last time I heard the CD was on Hansen Audio’s The Grand Master, an even more expensive speaker. Yet, the Focals had me at Nelson Riddle’s rhapsodic orchestral intro.

One of my recent test CDs is Chesky’s excellent Barbirolli/RPO Sibelius 2, one of the greatest orchestral performances of any repertoire on record. I’ve heard the LP (awesome) and CD many times. I have never heard the inner workings of the orchestra as clearly. I’m not talking X Ray — the sound quality produced by many expensive behemoths. Here, each musician’s unique timbre was intact, fleshed out and rich. Yet, the transients and decay were completely natural as if I was sitting as a guest in the original Walthamstow Town Hall acoustic. The imaging was by far the best I’ve experienced, each layer sitting flat on the floor, riser-free. And with a Charles Gerhardt/Kenneth Wilkinson sourced recording, a most beautiful blend of instrumental families. Listening to this CD was a revelation — I’ve conducted it a couple of times and played it many times. The orchestra’s width of sound was incredible — everything laid out before you in a very realistic way. The soundstage also went way back, a trickier plane in which to specify instruments. Oboe keys clicking and players tonguing, and a few slight horn ensemble discrepancies that I have not heard on any other speaker. On and on.

During one of my lengthy listening sessions, I threw on the Czech Philharmonic’s Bruckner 5 — Bruckner’s most underrated symphony from Bruckner’s must cultish conductor, Lovro von Matacic (I saw him do the 7th with the Philharmonia in the last year of his life). I turned the lights out and laid on the floor and closed my eyes — imaging be damned. I can tell you that I have never heard sounds or experienced a near out of body experience than from this recording, this setting, and these magnificent speakers than the 70 minutes of that symphony. At that time, complaining about the 180K price tag seemed churlish.

As such, only a lucky few will ever own this speaker. Sometimes I dream about how I’d spend my lottery winnings! A call to Focal would be number three on the speed dial after a call to my wife and children. Even before calls to BMW, a realtor in NYC, even before a call to my best friend. They are that special. I would love to own them that much.

Focal must be congratulated for not resting on its laurels. The designers have refined and developed their house sound from their already famous speakers into the new Utopia III line. Reviewing the series has been an absolute pleasure. The prices range from 30K to 180K. For investing audiophiles, the price range gives you an entrance into audio Nirvana. And for those passionate audiophiles who can afford the Grandes, listen at your peril. You won’t be leaving without them.

The Focal – JM Lab Utopia III ‘Grande EM’ Loudspeaker

Manufactured by Focal/JMLab

website

Price: US$180,000

Source of review sample: Canadian distributor