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

by admin on May 27, 2011 · 12 comments

in Loudspeakers, Stars

by Anthony Kershaw

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.

[We are proud to award the The Focal - JM Lab Utopia III ‘Grande EM’ Loudspeaker an Audiophilia Star Component Award. Congratulations! - Ed]

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

Manufactured by Focal/JMLab
website
Price: US$180,000
Source of review sample: Canadian distributor

Specifications/Technology

Type: 4-way, floorstanding bass-reflex loudspeaker
Drivers: Electro-Magnetic 16″ (40cm) “W” woofer
Multiferrite 11″ (27cm) “W” midbass
2 Power Flower 61/2″ (16.5cm) “W” midrange drivers
IAL2 pure Beryllium inverted dome 1″ (27mm) tweeter

Frequency response: (+/- 3dB) 18Hz - 40kHz
Response: at - 6dB 14Hz
Sensitivity: (2.83V / 1m) 94dB
Nominal impedance: 8 Ω
Minimal impedance: 3 Ω
Filtering frequencies: 80Hz / 220Hz / 2200Hz
Recommended amp power: 50 - 1500W
Dimensions: (H x L x D) (2012 x 654 x 880mm)
Weight: 573.2 lb (260kg)

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

{ 1 trackback }

Focal XS Book Wireless — Audiophilia
09.03.13 at 10:51 am

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Andy Fawcett 05.28.11 at 2:56 am

This review had become the audio equivalent of the search for Atlantis … I was beginning to wonder if we’d ever see it! ;-p Was going to ask whether, having that prodigious bass extension, they’d been difficult to set up in-room … but at 260Kg I guess they stayed where they were put? How much difference did small adjustments to the ’spine’ make?

One thing I really do want to know - how on earth are you going to live without them?!

admin 05.28.11 at 5:22 am

Hey Andy:

It was like this — I had a one date with Heidi Klum. She told me up front it was going to be one date and one date only. After that, she would not call. She told me we were were travelling on a G IV to Paris, dinner at Guy Savoy, then a night in the Presidential Suite at the Plaza Athenee, with Krug Champagne, best Beluga and all that a night with the glorious Heidi at her best entails!

Then she was gone! But, I knew that. So I was ready.

I can tell you she was impossible to move, she always spoke right at me, and because my time with her was brief, did not ask too much of her. I will tell you though, that she was the best I’ve had. By far. Clear, open, cool, with a seamless line and shape and a distinct personality. But, like all supermodels, she could be a little fussy, but nothing a firm stance could not tame.

As you can imagine, I’ll never forget the experiences she gave me.

:)

Heidi sounding her very, very best.

Dave Brown 05.28.11 at 5:25 am

Wow. Extravagant, to be sure… but from an engineering standpoint, transducers are the most demanding components of any system. Spending more on speakers probably delivers a much better return on investment than any other part of a high-end component chain. And the articulated spine, though quirky and potentially problematic if it ever loosens up and allows for vibration, nevertheless has a plausible role to play in tweaking the acoustic envelope. If they are 0817155597as impressive in life as they seem in your review, I think I share your lust. I might even upgrade from zip wire to hook them up :-)

admin 05.28.11 at 5:29 am

lol

David, the manufacturing was so magnificent, I think the spine will outlast the purchaser.

I listened to them with a full blown NBS, Esoteric and Transparent system. The kit was about 500K in all. Crazy, but guuuuuuuuuud!

‘zip cord’, you silly bugger. :)

admin 05.28.11 at 5:34 am

Here are some (poor) close up shots from the red beasts. The construction is exquisite.

Michael 03.07.13 at 9:32 pm

I have a pair in my office and they sound terrific.

Elias 11.20.13 at 9:01 am

Dear Friends,
I am a happy owner of a pair of Grande Utopia em fed with Mcintosh MC 2301 300w tube power amps (the rest of the gear are Mcintosh C1000C+C1000T, MCD 1100, Men 2200, Clearadio Maximum solution+SMEV+Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, ExactPower filters, Atlas Asimi wires).
I would like to know if someone has compared the Focal Grande Utopia EM with Magico Q7 or/and Wilson Alexandria XLF.
I am hearing that Magico are pure transparency, lifelike sound, accurate tonal color, etc, but it is what I feel with my Focal Grandes. From my point of view they do not make any adittional color to the music.
Do you have any experience on that?.
THX.
Best,
Elías.

admin 11.20.13 at 9:26 am

Good morning, Elias:

Congratulations on your purchase of what I consider the world’s finest loudspeaker.

I have heard the XLFs recently but with Thor subs (X2), bringing the price well above the Focals.

I am a huge fan of the Magico Q1s. Heard their floor stander S1 at the Denver show and was unimpressed in comparison with the incredible Q1s. If they improve the Q1 sound exponentially with the Q7, it’ll be definitely worth a listen.

Look, I would consider the Wilsons (and probably the Magicos if they maintain their sound design in large form) as the only comparisons to the Focals. I heard speakers from $160K to $240K in Denver and was singularly unimpressed. That said, in one’s home with your favourite kit attached, they may be superb.

I do have a lot of experience with the Focal line. I was not a fan for many years. But, with this new line, they hit a grand slam. Much like the ‘new’ Wilson sound, they celebrate music rather than ’sound’. No what I call ‘ziss, boom, bah’. Just music a plenty and in the most glorious sound.

If I owned the Grandes, I’d be a happy audiophile for life. The XLFs are not an upgrade, just different. But, that one time I listened the Grandes to a live Bruckner 5 in the dark lying on the floor (no soundstage or imaging to worrry about), was the only time I actually felt levitated. It took me to another place. No other speaker has ever done that.

All the best, a

Elias 11.22.13 at 11:49 am

Dear Anthony,
Thank you very much for your answer, it is very enligthening for me.
In my system, and after owning a pair of Wilson Audio WP and Maxx 1 & 2 I feel the Grandes have more dinamic, open, airy, bigger soundstage and natural presentation (more credible).
But since you have more experience than me, I would like to know from you if the tonal instruments, voices, etc coming from the Grandes are very accurate from your point of view. What I mean is if they colour the sound in anyway or if they are faithful to the sources not adding anything in order to make the presentation more “nice” or “friendly”.
I have never heard the Magico because in Spain there is not direct distribution, but I have read a lot in magazines, reviews, etc that they do not add anything to the sound and are the most faithfulness source speaker ever.
Regarding Wilsons I agree with you that they has changed their “house” sound and the last products ( basically, Alexia &Alexandria XLF) have more “musicality” and naturalness (but I do not carried out any face to face listening).
Thank you very much for your dedication and passion for the music and the “machines” dedicated to reproduce it at homes.
Best Regards,
Elías.

admin 11.22.13 at 12:04 pm

Thank you for your kind words.

I listened to a lot of my recordings on the Grandes. All I can say, is that my flute playing sounds frighteningly real. Sometimes, too frightening! ;)

Instrumental timbres are very accurate. I could tell my flute teacher’s unique vibrato clearly on The Royal Ballet Gala on RCA. Very accurate.

I did not get a chance to listen to the XLFs anywhere nearly as long as I would have liked, so am unable to give an opinion. But, in general, what little I heard sounded magnificent.

Cheers, a

Elias 12.03.13 at 5:13 am

Dear Anthony,
I fully agree with you, because I feel those speakers (Focal Grande Utopia EM) have very accurate timbres. For instance, one month ago I attended a Consumer Electronic Show and listen different stuff as Marten Speakers, YG Anat, Vivid Giya G3 Gryphon amps, VTL, etc.
I realized that there are a very different sound presentations even when the company chairmans said their products deliver a “flat response”.
For instance listening to Daniel Baremboim CD “Mi Buenos Aires Querido” when Hector Console played the bass, in some very good speakers (like YG) the music was very forwarded, like if the speakers/gear where pushing the strings agains you. what I mean is, that the sound was so detailed that you do not hear this (at least me) in real life (the strings where close or inside your ears). If you listen the same CD throughout the Focals is seems that the bass is darker, more rolled out, but at the end this is more as real life (from my point of view).
In a nut shell what I want to transmit is that sometimes we feel that if we hear more clear sounds it means that the gear is more transparent, revealing, resolving etc, but this is not real life situation, and there are speakers that at the beginning don´t take your attention (for anything special), even more, they seem bland/boring but if you spend more time with them you realize how faithful to the real life they are (for instance the Focal Grande Utopia EM).
I do not know if you share this thought, simple, but I feel that we do not take it into account when listen to different speakers/music products in general.
Best,
Elías.

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