Focal-JMlab Nova Utopia Be loudspeaker Page 2
When I reviewed the Halcro dm58 monoblock power amplifiers for the October 2002 Stereophile, I was not surprised to learn that John Atkinson's technical analysis discovered that the amps had, functionally, no intermodulation distortion. The Nova Be's tweeter provided exactly the same kind of listening experience. Its absence of breakup modes let it respond to virtually any amount of high-frequency energy in a linear and predictable fashion. The Be tweeter revealed the sort of detail I had previously heard only from the best ribbons, and then only under optimal circumstances. Not only was the Nova's treble almost absurdly extended and transparent, it never, ever, sounded etched, harsh, or exhibited any sort of grain structure, no matter how I stressed it.
The blazing brilliance of George Malcolm's interpretation of Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in d (LP, London CS 6197) is a tweeter-buster: torrential cascades of notes that seem to prefigure Liszt played with complete virtuosity on a very closely miked harpsichord. This wonderful exercise in the mathematics of music was captured extravagantly and easily; the Be tweeter handled it all with supreme ease, delivering state-of-the-art performance.
The Nova's midrange performance was exactingly neutral and convincing. "The Boxer" and the title track from Emmylou Harris' Roses in the Snow (LP, Warner Bros. BSK 3422) were spine-tingling. My feeling of "I want to believe this is real" morphed effortlessly into "I can believe this is real." Jerry Garcia's ghostly, wailing steel guitar in the quietly menacing "Candyman," from the Grateful Dead's American Beauty (LP, Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-014), was eerie and chilling.
The sensuality that the Utopia's midrange could render was on display to delectable effect with Carly Simon's "(Last Night) When We Were Young," from Film Noir (CD, Arista 48984-2). This was a woman singing, one who has seen more than a little of the world, and the mixture of sexiness and gentle regret that Simon brought to her performance was pure romantic overload. Contrariwise, Jessica Banks' breathy vocal on "Cherry Blossom Girl," from Air's killer new Talkie Walkie (Dutch CD, Source/Virgin 5966000 4), had a genuinely charming intimacy and girlishness. Lisa Gerrard's ascetic but rich contralto raised goosebumps on "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," from Dead Can Dance's Into the Labyrinth (UK LP, 4AD DAD 3013).
All-acoustic recordings showed the depth and entirety of the Nova's neutrality. Walter Leigh's Concertino for Harpsichord and String Orchestra, performed by Trevor Pinnock, Braithwaite, and the London Philharmonic (UK LP, Lyrita SRCS.126), showed exquisite string tones with nary a harmonic missing in action. Dead Can Dance's "Yulunga" had exceedingly impressive transparency, the acoustic of the Quivvy Church recording site suffusing my room with its ambience.
The Nova's bass took a little time to settle in, but once it had stabilized it was a precise reflection of the amplifier it was coupled with. Overall, that big woofer best loved the grip and control of powerful solid-state amps. The colossal, subterranean synth bass on "Domination" and "Marrakesh," from Peter Kruder's Peace Orchestra (German CD, G-Stone G-CD 004), and "Let's Feel the Music," from Sugar's Shine (Korean CD, Starworld/BMG PD-6621) (footnote 2), were overwhelming when using the wonderful Edge NL-12 amplifier. More "natural" bass—such as Bill MacCormack's burred, growling Fender Precision on Phil Manzanera's "N-Shift" and "Walking Through Heaven's Door," from K-Scope (LP, Polydor PD1-6178), or the players' digging into their acoustic basses at the end of "I'm a Fool to Want You," from Simon's Film Noir—was acutely lifelike and persuasive. The kick drum and bass guitar on Steely Dan's "Cousin Dupree," from Two Against Nature (CD, Giant 24719-2), had exceptional definition and taut punchiness.
The Edge NL-12, McIntosh MC501, and Halcro dm58 power amps all provided exemplary control of the Utopia's ported woofer, though top-quality tube amps such as the Lamm ML1.1 and VTL MB-450 Signature also gave excellent results. With tubes there was a sacrifice of just a bit of bass control, but the Nova definitively conveyed the traditional tube virtues.
The Nova's ability to respond evenly and continuously to transients in every part of the audible spectrum could be compared only to the very finest electrostatic speakers that I have heard. Those next-to-nothing cones and massive magnet structures combined to deliver instantaneous reactions and swift settling times. Overhang was not within the Nova's vocabulary, but a degree of sheer speed heretofore unimaginable from dynamic drivers certainly was. Retrieval of detail was as good as it gets. The bass drum on "Vaquero," from Tiny Island's eponymous debut (SACD, Opus3 CD 19824), perfectly defined the contours and shape of the 13th-century Swedish stone church in which it was recorded.
The Nova Utopias' soundstaging abilities depended on the recording and the equipment upstream of them. Vast spaces, whether virtual—as on Porcupine Tree's live Coma Divine (UK CD, Delirium DELED CD067), or "Animal Waves," from Can's Saw Delight (CD, Mute/Spoon 9 61075-2)—or the splendidly natural expansiveness of the Leigh Concertino, were all-encompassing and superbly defined. The Novas were able to focus deeply into soundstages with a nearly electrostatic-like ability. The phase-altered electronic drums on Yellow Magic Orchestra's "Rydeen," from X Infinity Multiplies (LP, A&M SP 4813) zipped from the back of the room toward the speakers, an effect I'd not consistently heard before. The lavish spread of orchestral sound on the title track of Carly Simon's Film Noir was enormous and enveloping. Thanks to their time and phase coherence, the Novas did a startling job of vanishing as an apparent source of sound.
Power, efficiency, and lightning-stroke transient response added up to superb dynamic performance. Wispy delights such as Air's "Cherry Blossom Girl," and Holger Czukay's "Persian Love," from Movies (LP, EMI EMC 3319), floated lightly on veritable clouds of eiderdown. The intensity of the Tallis Scholars' 40-voice choir on Spem In Alium (CD, Gimell 454-906-2) fazed the Novas not a whit; as the voices soared, so did they.
Listening to large-scaled music on speakers that have the muscle to handle it is one of audio's greatest pleasures. The Nova came through in championship form. Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol remains one of the great orchestral showstoppers, and Kiril Kondrashin's interpretation (LP, RCA/Classic LSC-2323) blasted the walls out of the room and put me in the vast space of the Manhattan Center. New Order's "Crystal," from Get Ready (CD, Reprise 889621-2), is a tumultuous, whirling vortex of sound—through the Novas, it was like walking into the teeth of a storm.
Do not conclude from this that the Nova Be is a mere pumped-up Ah-nold-style muscle-flexer. This speaker had a striking ability to get the scale of all types of music exactly on the mark. The remastered version of Nick Drake's Bryter Layter (CD, Island IMCD 71/846-005 2) is a study in musical intimacy; on it, the Novas dazzled. Drake's voice and guitar were perfectly sized, the strings of "At the Chime of the City Clock" in exact proportion. The Utopia plugged the complex and sometimes contradictory emotions of Drake's timeless songs directly into the limbic system.
The Calix Phoenix Grand Signature was perhaps the most fascinating and musically enchanting speaker I'd heard prior to the Nova Utopia Be, and the two could not be more different in character. Each is uniquely a reflection of the culture it emerged from. The Taiwanese Calix is utterly self-effacing, save for its distinctive appearance. It always seemed to ask, "Do you really think I'm that good?" The Nova was the audio equivalent of a self-possessed, haute couture Parisienne—it knew that it was beautiful, threw the fact in my face, and demanded nothing less than its birthright of adoration—but beneath the hauteur was a playful, engaging spirit. The Calix charmed with its humility, the Nova with its chutzpah.
Before the Utopia Nova Be, I had never observed so high a degree of congruence between a speaker manufacturer's white-paper claims for the superiority of its technology and my experience of the same speaker in my listening room. Everything that the Nova did there followed logically from Jacques Mahul and Dominic Baker's design concept. The Utopia's incredibly light, exceedingly stiff cones, enormous magnetic structures, and massively braced and reinforced cabinetry, together with the extraordinary amount of attention paid to phase and time alignment, should add up to a speaker that sounded exactly as the Nova sounded. It did.
La Vie en Rose
The Focal-JMlab Nova Utopia Be is a flat-out wonderful loudspeaker. Innovative design, superlative execution, and breathtaking construction and appearance add up to a speaker that can compete in every way with all but the largest, most impractical behemoths. It performed splendidly and consistently with both tube and solid-state amplifiers, though its substantial woofer did prefer the control offered by big solid-state.
The Nova's exceptional transparency and remarkable extension mean that it must be paired with a suitably neutral power amplifier in order to realize its full potential. When the right match is made, it's hard to conceive of a speaker more completely and uniformly musically rewarding, and impossible to imagine a large system as beautiful or as elegant. I give it my highest possible recommendation, and oh, how I wish I could afford to keep the pair of them.
Footnote 2: This is one of the most charming pop CDs I have heard in dog's years. Imagine, if you will, Japanese synthesizer pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra playing a slightly bent ABBA songbook and fronted by four adorable young Korean women. Shine is as irresistible and insubstantial as a fistful of cotton candy and just as sweet; I can't understand a word of it and I couldn't care less. In contrast to certain American girl singers I could name, Sugar's Lee Ah Yoo-Mi and Hwang Jung Eum can really belt it out without overt studio trickery.—Paul Bolin