The third family of products to carry Focal’s flagship Utopia designation, this latest iteration represents not just an evolution of the technology and thinking behind these speakers, but a ground-up reassessment of its implementation. So while there are clear common factors that bind these new Utopia models to their predecessors (driver technology, build-quality, and materials), there isn’t a single element that hasn’t been modified or changed, wholly or in part.In fact, the developments are so comprehensive and their implications so far reaching that they are beyond the scope of a single review. Which is why we started by looking at the simplest speaker in the line, the two-way stand-mounted Diablo (reviewed in Issue 63 of Hi-Fi Plus, available on-line at avguide.com), a model that incorporates the advances made to the established beryllium tweeter and W Cone driver technologies, as well as touching on the sophisticated cabinet-mapping technique that has been applied to the design and construction of the enclosure.
The Grande Utopia EM embodies all those advances and adds a few twists to the mix that only become possible when development budgets and product pricing become truly elastic.
As such, this review constitutes Part II, a second installment of the story that started with the Diablo review, in which we noted significant advances made by Focal in the areas of driver performance and cabinet design. Refinements in the beryllium tweeter and the development of a new motor assembly, shaped to maximize venting and minimize reflections, have resulted in a lower resonant frequency, a 1.5dB increase in sensitivity, a 40 per cent reduction in distortion, increased thermal efficiency, greater dynamics, and reduced compression. Laser-cutting of the W sandwich cones used in the mid and bass drivers has improved sonic consistency and pair-matching, while the sophisticated new cabinet-mapping technology has allowed the creation of more efficient and rigid cabinet structures, shorn of the excess weight that stores mechanical energy, smearing musical information and anchoring the sound to the speakers, identifying them as its source.
The Grande Utopia EM matches those advances in midrange and high-frequency driver performance and enclosure design, with equivalent advances at low frequencies, in extending the Focus Time concept that governs the larger Utopia’s curved baffle arrangement and in crossover developments to actually deliver the increased musical potential. Confronted with a structure as strikingly different as the latest Grande, it’s easy to assume that it’s an exercise in ostentatious aesthetics (at the possible expense of performance)—especially when it’s this big and this red! (Well, the speaker comes in black and a subtle pale grey too—while anything, as they say, is possible.) What’s more, by presenting such a striking and well rounded form, the speakers make a statement, rather than trying to hide or slip into the background—never a possibility with something this large!
Besides the superb standard of finish, the key factor in this success is the Bauhaus discipline to the design, its form absolutely dictated by function. But its revolutionary appearance pales into insignificance against the mechanical and technological developments that lurk beneath its skin, so let’s examine each developmental aspect in turn.
Separate, stacked enclosure modules are nothing new in loudspeaker design, with many companies relying on the approach to fine-tune arrival times and driver placement relative to the listening position—often in conjunction with a complex set of tables or formulae to calculate proper placement. Indeed, the first and second series Utopias used both separate cabinets and a curved displacement of the drivers to arrange them relative to the listening position.
However, despite a fair degree of cleverness in the actual placement and alignment of the drivers there was no escaping the inherent compromise of a one-size-fits-all approach. With the latest Grande, the speaker with the longest baffle and most drivers, Focal was determined to overcome that limitation. The problem, clearly, was how to make the individual modules movable relative to the listening position; the solution is both mechanically impressive and wonderfully elegant.