by Anthony Kershaw
French company Focal is the manufacturer of very refined, expensive loudspeakers for the high end market. I’ve heard the complete Utopia line, at least the models manufactured in the mid nineties. They are lovely looking monoliths with Porsche “911 Carrera” lacquer with touches of Anigre and Tauri, exotic African woods. The speakers exhibit a house sound through proprietary drivers, enclosures, and the very cool Beryllium tweeters. Though stunning to look at, the Focal sound was not a favourite of mine. They were meticulously made and designed, but I felt something — life or sparkle — was missing.
Now, Focal have made some design changes and produced a new line of Utopias called the Utopia III. There are five models — the stand mounted Diablo, Scala, the Maestro, (the subject of this review), the Stella Utopia EM and the mighty (expensive!) Grand Utopia EM.
I was lucky enough to review the superb Scala, a diamond of a speaker. Its brilliant sound made me think again about the Focal ‘house’ sound. In fact, it garnered a rave. The refinement and power was still there, but with more sparkle and life. Not pizzazz, simply, a very fine replication of real events.
I feel equally lucky to have spent some time (I wish more) with the next in line model to the Scala, the Maestro. Aptly named, this magnificent speaker holds court majestically in the listening room (medium to large only, please) and directs the beautiful and detailed sounds to the ears with the dexterity of Gustavo Dudamel and the depth and intensity of Wilhelm Furtwangler.
The Maestro has a difference in price of almost $30,000 with the smaller Scala. It adds another woofer and has a much larger cabinet (the cabinet finishing is exquisite and the Maestro’s heft and girth add much to the look and cost). The essence of the Scala sound is there — natural, deep bass with zero bloat, gorgeous mids that blend well with the sometimes criticized Beryllium tweeter. But like many fine speaker lines, up the food chain is more of everything. Even deeper bass, bigger soundstage, the same fantastic imaging, and highs that go to heaven. For the difference in price, many audiophiles will wonder, why bother with the big (not biggest) brother. But, if you have the room and the dosh, it’s an easy choice for the garden variety, Type A audiophile. Cha ching!
The Maestros offer even more options than the Scala to ‘tune’ the sound to suit a particular room or acoustic anomaly. From my Scala review: ‘The speakers have some self tuning components that can compensate for difficult rooms and positioning. In general, I’m a bit of a purist and do not like adjustable speakers, especially bass enhancements. I figure, hey get it right on the drawing board, don’t “fix it in the mix”.’
My Maestros were positioned well away from the back and side walls like the Scalas so I did not test the adjustments. As such, I left the settings exactly as the image shows below. Normal. The sound can also be adjusted by JMLab’s ‘Focus Time’, a mechanical phase optimization for the drivers that can angle them towards the listener. Along with treble, midrange and bass adjustments, the Maestros should fit into any medium or large room.
Rear tuning plate
Listening to well recorded CDs was awe inspiring through the Maestros. It’s hard to believe there is much better in the box speaker market. The distributor suggests I should listen to the largest Grande Utopia when they are delivered.
Many of the JVC XRCDs are magnificent examples of reissues/remastering. RCA’s ‘The Reiner Sound’ on JVC is a perfect case in point. I’ve heard every iteration of this recording. It’s a desert island disc for orchestral fans. The grumpy one gets superlative playing from the late 50s/early 60s Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole is so beautifully conceived as a treatise in orchestration that even lesser speakers sound detailed from this source. The other track, Rachmaninov’s very dense Isle of the Dead, is a different animal. Murky, miserable and with a 25 minute long crescendo. The Maestros replicated Reiner’s amazing conception with awesome power. Driven with extraordinary ease by a borrowed Boulder 2060 amplifier, the sounds coming out of the drivers was overwhelming in both power and beauty. Every nuance was heard, even the quiet bowing in the basses at the 5/8 melismatic opening. Fantastic. The speakers had me drooling and mesmerized. At the same time!
I didn’t listen to rock music, but these powerhouses will eat up and spit out any crappy pop you can throw at it. One of my favourite jazz CDs sounded spectacular, however. Power of Three, a live set from Montreux, with Michel Petrucciani, Wayne Shorter and Jim Hall, is another island disc. The opening track, Limbo, exhibits Shorter’s legendary and fluid tenor sax technique, and his original composition puts it to the test. The tweeter is so damned fast, nothing escaped — slapping, ghost notes, overblowing, harmonics, and the terrific speed of the form and head. I know this track intimately, but I did hear things, especially with some of Shorter’s tricks between the notes, that were hitherto unheard. This was simply spectacular.
I spent many hours trying to nail down the essence, the gestalt of the Maestro’s sound. It’s a world unto its own. In fact, it’s bloody fabulous. Focal has really produced the goods with this new line. I have not heard the entry level Diablo, the penultimate Stella or the Grande (to come), but both the Scala and the Maestro are representative of the finest in the art of box speaker design. The Maestro is diaphanous in sound, comely in looks, advanced in technology and will give the lucky owner almost limitless musical pleasure. Audition at your peril.
[We are proud to award this product an Audiophilia Star Component Award. Congratulations! - Ed]
The Focal - JM Lab Utopia III ‘Maestro Utopia’ Loudspeaker
Manufactured by Focal/JMLab
Source of review sample: Canadian distributor
Type: 3 1/2 way, floorstanding vented loudspeaker
11″(27cm) “W” subwoofer with a Magnetic Damping System (MDS)
11″(27cm) “W” woofer 6 1/2″(16.5cm) “W” Power Flower Midrange
1″ (27mm) IAL2 pure Beryllium inverted dome tweeter
Frequency response: 25Hz - 40kHz
Dimensions: 57 7/8×18x30 5/16″ (1470×455x770mm)
Weight: 256lb (116kg)
The Focal product sheet explains the proprietary technology:
6 1/2″ (16.5cm) power Flower midrange “W” driver › 3rd generation W composite sandwich technology, laser cut-out › Power Flower magnet, maximal power and reduced magnetic leaks
iAL2 pure Beryllium inverted dome tweeter › very large bandwidth from 1 to 40kHz › IAL2 (Infinite Acoustic Loading): low resonance frequency at 580Hz › definition, rapidity and transparency of the midrange/treble
11″ (27cm) “W” woofer › 3rd generation W composite sandwich technology, laser cut-out › powerful permanent magnet, 1.5″ (40mm) voice coil, sealed box
11″ (27cm) “W” woofer MDS, subwoofer channel › 3rd generation W composite sandwich technology, laser cut-out › ultra-powerful double-ferrite permanent magnet, 2″ (50mm) voice coil,
vented box › Magnetic Damping System (MDS)
High section laminar port › no air flow or distortion noises › no dynamic compression of the bass
Focus Time › mechanical phase optimization of the drivers › driver orientation towards the listener
Gamma Structure › MDF panels up to 2″ (5cm) for a stable mechanical reference › anti-vibration heavy structure, optimized by vibratory cartography
OpC+ filtering › Bass adjustment on ±1dB, treble on ±1.5dB › audiophile type components › WBT connectors