The latest generation of speaker designs, notably the Avalons and Spendors among others, exhibit a level of sonic invisibility, an ability to stand aside from the music without leaving their mark on it that is quite unprecedented. This is not a coincidence. Advances in driver design have in turn placed considerably greater demands on crossover configuration and component quality, revealing previously unsuspected levels of damage to the overall performance (and the root of the somewhat simplistic notion that the simpler a crossover the better—well yes, but not quite for the reasons we thought).
It’s a development that Focal has matched with the Diablo, and even more impressively, with the Grande EM. To make a speaker that is this large, this complex, and this adjustable—but is also the nearest thing to sonically invisible—is impressive indeed. That the Grande can do the small things so brilliantly and intimately, do poise and delicacy with a natural independence to the sound that mini-monitors can only dream about is even more so. And while it’s difficult to ignore anything this large and visually striking, shut your eyes or better still, turn out the lights, and the music will hang in its own acoustic, free of the speakers and their location, the scale matched to the venue and musical forces involved—small when it should be, effortlessly huge when it’s called for.
Even early stereo mixes with their hard left/right placement don’t betray the position of the Grandes, the instruments placed separate from and just behind the speakers themselves. Soundstages grow and shrink or simply evaporate according to the recordings themselves, but the signal and the picture the Grandes paint is always separate from the speakers holding the brush.
This ability to allow the music to exist independently of the system producing it speaks volumes about the quality of the speakers involved. It’s a feat impossible to achieve without exceptional linearity from lowest bass to highest treble, without dynamic coherence that projects energy equally across that entire spectrum. Finally, you need tonal consistency too, a quality made easier to achieve with consistent driver materials across the range. Ironic then, that so much of the performance achievable from this boldly charismatic design is delivered by its least visible element, the crossover that hones and actually delivers the potential benefits of all those technological advances in driver and cabinet design.
It’s hard to overstate just how crucial the configurable nature of both the cabinet and crossover are to the final results achieved. Sit and listen as a knowledgeable practitioner goes about the fine-tuning and you’ll be astounded at the degree of difference even tiny changes make to the presentation and arrival of the music. This isn’t a case of bending it into the shape you want—more a case of arriving at the shape it needs, because what happens is that the music becomes more and more integrated, moves further and further from the plane and influence of the speakers, deeper and deeper into the realm of the natural and believable. It’s almost trite to suggest that you’ll know when it’s right, but use acoustic music, especially with players or voices that you know and it really is that simple.
Time then, for an example of the Grande speaking in anger. Having composers conduct their own works is seldom a recipe for success, but Polski Radio’s live concert SACD of Gorecki leading the National Polish Rado S.O. in his own Third Symphony is a stunning exception to that rule. It’s a vast and stentorian work of three slow movements that might easily become sprawling and ponderous. Indeed, on many a system and despite the perfectly poised performance with its incredible control of tension through tempo, the sheer weight of low-frequency information simply overloads the speakers’ ability to resolve and differentiate pitch, pace, and texture.
Never on the Grandes! Even the slow and low bowed entry is picked out perfectly, the individual bars and phrases distinct, the measured increase in intensity and tension, the resulting anticipation of the cello entry, the inevitable arrival of the rest of the orchestra, building and building to the shattering climax built around the solo soprano part—it lives, it pulses, it breathes, drawing you into, immersing you in the sheer majesty of the music and the playing. But a 33-minute slow movement, even if you can’t tear yourself away, is a long way round when it comes to making the point. That’s made before a single note is played. Just listen to the opening, the eruption of applause, first from the choir stalls and then spreading around and across the auditorium as the conductor comes into view. Feel its warmth, its length, the explosive enthusiasm of a home crowd greeting a home-town hero, the way it reaches out and includes you. And as it settles, hear the sounds of the orchestra taking their seats, the shuffling of feet and setting of instruments and music stands. No random events these; instead you can hear the height and breadth of the stage, the gently terraced risers on which the orchestra is arranged, each incidental noise a part of a single organic whole. And as the hush descends with those deep, opening notes, the sense of presence, of human activity and attention is heightened by a sudden, stifled cough, just in front and to the left of you. Never have I had such a sense of palpable presence, of attendance at a musical event. The Isis set new standards in this regard, but the Grande EM matches it and adds effortless scale and genuinely unfettered dynamics to the proceedings.