The Focal - JM Lab Utopia III ‘Maestro Utopia’ Loudspeaker

by admin on May 2, 2010 · 25 comments

in Loudspeakers, Stars

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
Website
Price: US$50,000
Source of review sample: Canadian distributor

Specifications/Technology

Type: 3 1/2 way, floorstanding vented loudspeaker

Drivers:
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

Sensitivity: 93dB

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

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Atane 05.03.10 at 9:28 am

Nice review. I have never heard these speakers, but aesthetically speaking - they look fabulous. I really like that high end manufacturers like Focal and Wilson are using car paint finishes on their speakers. It might sound gaudy at first, but it really does look good. I guess audiophiles like a little bit of bling too eh?

frank 05.03.10 at 9:03 pm

I really enjoy your reviews. I’m in the process of buying loudspeakers. I love the Maestro’s sound but fear that my room is too small. It is just over 12 wide, 18.5 deep and the front end of 12.5 feet is dropped 15 inches to double as a theatre room. The ceiling on the lower level is about 9.5 high and about 8.0 on the upper level. I know the Scala’s would work well in that room. But the Maestro’s, while spectacular are large and I’m concerned about the room being too small. How do I interpret “medium to large room size”.. where do I fit in that definition?

admin 05.03.10 at 9:08 pm

First, welcome Frank. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

The 12 feet wide is the thorn. I would suggest the Maestros a little too large. The Scalas, however, would be perfect. That said, the Maestros are incredibly versatile. Check with your dealer. The speakers’ ‘tuning’ may obviate the 12.5 feet width.

Best of luck. Let us know what you buy.

Cheers, a

John 05.04.10 at 10:24 am

Thanks for the review Anthony. I shared your views of the Focal sound before (wasn’t my cup of tea) and fell in love with the latest version. I bought the Diablos and they are wonderful, just short of perfect because they obviously can’t go low enough to reproduce an orchestra in full swing. But no frustration in that respect. The Be tweeter has to be the best in the world at the moment. Just amazing.

admin 05.04.10 at 11:04 am

You’re most welcome, John.

The differences between the Utopias and the new Utopia IIIs are significant. The sound, to my ears, seems more lifelike and has the sparkle that I found missing previously. Great design. They’ll be among a handful of speakers I’ve reviewed lately that I call ‘lifetime speakers’.

Cheers, a

JimA. 05.05.10 at 8:49 am

Thank-you Anthony, for thoughtful and insightful review. Only fault I see, is I wanted, no needed, more text. I am sorry to say , you built up to the climax too soon.:) Now that you have had both, can you please compare/contrast the Scala with the Maestro? I just sold my pair of Alto’s and am looking forward to my nest pair of Focal Utopia’s. Happy listening.

JimA. 05.05.10 at 8:53 am

P.S. We need a “edit” option. That should be next and not nest. Any info on a Utopia3 E.M. subwoofer (drool).

admin 05.05.10 at 12:27 pm

More text. LOL

I learnt from our very own David Aspinall about brevity. Far too many reviewers (paid by column inches) pad the crap out of reviews. :)

Also, with today’s attention spans….

;)

admin 05.05.10 at 6:57 pm

Jim:

Both have the new house sound. More sparkle and life, a more natural presentation than the previous models. The main difference, as I mentioned, is more of those qualities with the Maestros. They’ll play louder, go deeper, throw a bigger picture than the already fantastic Scalas. The law of diminishing returns kicks in. To get the better, bigger sound, you have to pay a lot more. As I said, got the dosh? GFI.

Let us know which model you choose.

Cheers, a

JimA. 05.07.10 at 9:25 am

LOL. I have the “dosh”, but am wondering if I shold get the “bigger” everything Maestro, or get the Scala+ a $15k preamp. I currently am preampless using a McIntosh MCD500. Oh the decsions one has to make!:)

admin 05.07.10 at 10:16 am

Very cool, Jim.

If I was spending that much money, I’d have the two next to each other and take many hours comparing them with different types of equipment.

Enjoy the process. Let us know your decision. And congrats!

Cheers, a

JimA. 05.14.10 at 12:12 am

Well, sorry to report I decided to first get a new Burmester 089 CD/DAC/PREAMP player to replace my McIntosh MCD500. Now with my depleted dosh, I need to compare the Scala’s and B&W 800 Diamond. Any thoughts?

Thanks,
JA

admin 05.14.10 at 4:47 am

You mentioned you have the room. That said, I’d:

1. Return the Burmester (fine, though it is)
2. Buy the Maestros.

:)

JimA. 05.14.10 at 8:43 am

LOL, great, now you tell me.

admin 05.14.10 at 8:46 am

LOL

Every audiophile should have your problems! ;)

JimA. 05.22.10 at 6:21 am

I just hear the Stella’s. Oh my goodness! Quick! Sell the wife and kids and take out a 2nd mortgage on the house. Yes, they are that good. They capture the essence of the $185000.00 Utopia3 Grande EM to a tee. Just a wee bit smaller footprint.

admin 05.22.10 at 6:32 am

:)

I’ll be listening to the Grande EMs at length next week.

Angel 06.06.10 at 12:27 am

Mr. Kershaw,

I parrot what others have said about the great review and I for one thank you for keeping it short and succinct. Your review gives us a clear idea of the speaker’s performance without the dictionary of audiophile words, terms and over used adjectives clobbering our eyeballs. I also agree with your comment about how other reviewers “pad the crap” out of their reviews.

Well done, thanks.

admin 06.06.10 at 6:28 am

Many thanks for your very kind words, Angel.

Cheers, a

JimA 12.20.10 at 1:52 am

Well, after hearing the Maestro and Scala, I bought the CR-8 Signature from Belgium company Venture. I hope they get reviewed here in the near future. This is by far the most significant purchase of audio gear I have ever made (including my Burmester 089). They are more detailed, dynamic, have more air around vocal/instruments and throw a deeper stage than any FocalsI have listened to.

admin 12.20.10 at 8:27 am

Hi Jim:

Not heard them. They sound intriguing, especially if they trumped the very special Focal speakers.

Cheers, a

Jim Anderson 12.21.10 at 5:08 pm

They (Venture) have been reviewed in TAS and by recording engineer Steve Hoffman. They are, simply put, the most emotionally involving speakers I have ever heard. In addition, the fit and finish are super sensual. But I stll love Focals, especially the new Stella.

Kurtlar Vadisi Pusu Son bölüm 01.30.11 at 8:00 pm

Thanks for the review Anthony. I shared your views of the Focal sound before (wasn’t my cup of tea) and fell in love with the latest version. I bought the Diablos and they are wonderful, just short of perfect because they obviously can’t go low enough to reproduce an orchestra in full swing. But no frustration in that respect. The Be tweeter has to be the best in the world at the moment. Just amazing.

Ivo Verhoef 02.16.11 at 9:24 am

Thanks for your review. I have heard both the Diablo and the Scala and like others i didn´t like the first Utopia series, these are just amazing! I really love and i mean really love the Scala´s. They are first on my to buy list. That said i haven´t heard the Meastro´s yet and i am wondering if they are worth the extra euro´s. I will go listen to them soon, just asking you now since you´ve heard both. I don´t have enough dosh to buy the Meastro´s but can save for them or should i go for the Scala´s and keep that cash for other stuff?

Oooh can´t wait to place that order.

admin 02.17.11 at 9:24 am

Wait ’till you hear the big ones!!! Awesome.

Cheers, a

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