Focal Maestro Utopia III loudspeaker

Considering that the crates they're shipped in are each as large as a Manhattan studio apartment, once they'd been set up in my listening room, Focal's Maestro Utopia III speakers weren't as visually overpowering as I'd anticipated. The elegant dark-gloss front baffles, the gloss-gray side panels, and the fact that the speaker's three subenclosures are vertically arrayed so that the top, midrange section is angled down, significantly reduced their apparent size.

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But I'm getting ahead of myself. Following a series of minimonitor reviews in 2009, I had decided to live for a while with floorstanders aimed at the state of the art. Not that I'm unappreciative of what small speakers can achieve for a relatively modest price, but my experience with the superb Revel Ultima Salon2 ($22,000/pair) had whetted for my appetite for what could be achieved when the designer wasn't quite so concerned with counting pennies for parts. The first model I auditioned was Aerial Acoustics' 20T V2 ($32,000/pair), which I enthusiastically reviewed in the November 2009 Stereophile. The Aerials were replaced by the subject of this review, the Maestro Utopias ($49,995/pair), from French manufacturer Focal—and which, God willin' and the creek don't rise, will be replaced in turn by a pair of horn-loaded Acapella High Violoncello IIs from Germany ($80,000/pair).

Focal Maestro Utopia III
Although a large speaker, at a hair under 5' tall and weighing 256 lbs, the Maestro is actually the third model from the top of Focal's Utopia III line. Pride of place goes to the awe-inspiring four-way, five-driver, five-enclosure, 80"-tall, 573-lb Grande Utopia III EM ($180,000/pair), which powers its 16" woofer with a field-coil–energized electromagnet. The smaller, three-way, four-enclosure Stella Utopia III EM also uses an electromagnetic woofer; by contrast, the Maestro Utopia has two conventional, permanent-magnet–energized woofers, though each is differently loaded, to result in a "three-and-a-half-way" design.

Like all the models in the Utopia III line, the Maestro's high frequencies are handled by a 1.1" (27mm) inverted-dome tweeter, its diaphragm formed from beryllium foil. This element offers an almost ideal combination of low mass—its density is 40% that of titanium—and very high stiffness, allowing a tweeter made from it to operate in pure pistonic mode to a frequency well above the audioband. However, it is difficult to work, and the dust is poisonous (footnote 1); how Focal forms this material into tweeter diaphragms is proprietary. But the material is only half the story. The Utopia III tweeter features Focal's Infinite Acoustic Loading (IAL) technology, whereby the rear of the diaphragm is left open and loaded by a tuned cavity. This allows the drive-unit's resonant frequency to be reduced to 580Hz, two octaves below its passband.

Both the Maestro's 6.5" midrange unit and its two 11" woofers have cones made from a material Focal calls W. This is a sandwich of aircraft-grade foam and glass fiber, the latter impregnated with a bonding agent. The result, Focal claims, is a cone that is very light and very stiff, but with a high degree of self-damping. Again, this should endow the cones with excellent pistonic behavior within their passbands, and because Focal makes its own drive-units, it can tailor the physical properties of each W cone for its eventual use as a midrange unit, woofer, or a combination of the two, using a laser to cut each cone to the optimal shape. The woofers have hefty half-roll rubber surrounds and large-diameter, inverted, black dustcaps; the midrange unit doesn't have a dustcap, but its magnet pole-piece is capped with an inverted black molding resembling the profile of the tweeter. Externally, the two woofers look identical, but the lower one uses a 50mm voice-coil, the upper one a 40mm-diameter coil. The lower woofer also uses a "double-ferrite" magnet. The midrange drive-unit has a circular array of small magnets rather than a single large one. Focal calls this array the Power Flower, from its resemblance to the petals of a flower, and claims it reduces nonlinearities in the magnetic drive and minimizes flux leakage.

As you can see from the photographs, the Maestro Utopia's enclosure is complex, comprising three subenclosures joined by angled inserts. This gives the system, when viewed from the side, a faint resemblance to an accordion. While the central tweeter cabinet fires straight ahead, the accordion pleats aim the top, midrange enclosure down toward the listener. The baffle of the subenclosure housing the two woofers is tilted back a little to complement the midrange enclosure's downward tilt. The massively constructed woofer enclosure is built up of sheets of MDF up to 2" thick; viewed from above, the side panels of all three subenclosures gracefully curve and taper toward the rear of the speaker.

The differences between the two woofers are made clear by the Maestro's internal construction (see diagram). The upper woofer is loaded by a trapezoidal sealed compartment, though this does have a pressure-relief system in the form of two arrays of small holes drilled through the partition between it and the larger compartment that loads the lower woofer. This vents to the outside world through a large, downfiring port at the front of the enclosure's bottom panel. An integral plinth raises this panel off the ground and extends behind the body of the speaker to carry the single pair of binding posts and the three sets of jumpers that permit adjustment of the Maestro's balance. Casters on the underside of the plinth make it relatively easy to move the big Focal around; inserts elsewhere in the plinth allow four heavy-duty spikes to be fitted once the optimal positions have been found in the room.



Footnote 1: Once the beryllium is formed into a tweeter diaphragm, there is no danger. Focal's manual does include a section on how to seal and return the speaker if the tweeter is damaged in any way.
COMPANY INFO
Focal
US distributor: Audio Plus Services
156 Lawrence Paquette Industrial Drive
Champlain, NY 12919
(800) 663-9352
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