Focal-JMlab Grand Utopia loudspeaker Battle of the Titans

Sidebar 1: Battle of the Titans

Suddenly and unbelievably, the hottest market niche for loudspeakers is the hefty $65,000 to $75,000 range. At this essentially price-no-object level, the diversity of design approaches incorporate virtually every speaker material and technology currently available: vertical arrays, powered subwoofers, active external crossovers, and single-/bi-/tri-/quad-amplification, to name a few. As a consequence, one longstanding audio myth can be safely laid to rest.

It has been generally believed that price is the limiting factor in equipment design. The cheaper the product, the greater the number of compromises, and the more extensive the departures from perfect neutrality. Remove price constraints, it has long been assumed, and the greater the convergence toward the realistic sound of live, unamplified music itself. Having heard, on multiple occasions, every one of the contending loudspeakers currently fighting it out in this hotly contested niche, let me sum up my evaluation of this long-held assumption in a single word: hogwash.

At lower price points, most designers are forced to make similar compromises. With the elimination of price as a primary factor, the array of options available to designers becomes nearly limitless. What becomes much more prominent are such things as the availability of materials, the time and resources dedicated to the effort, and the ingenuity of the designers. Choice, not compromise, becomes the principal concern. Given this remarkable freedom of choice, we've learned at least two other irrefutable facts: first, the current crop of loudspeaker designers are brilliantly creative and open-minded; and second, the sound of reproduced music still has a long way to go before it truly re-creates the real thing.

While it would be the dream of many an audiophile to be able to conduct side-by-side comparisons of all of the contenders in this remarkable product niche, it is unlikely to ever happen. But given the contenders, I was most interested in hearing the Wilson X-1/Grand SLAMMs and the JMlab Grand Utopias in a controlled comparison. Thanks to the graciousness of Andy Singer, I was able to accomplish just that early one Sunday morning in New York at Sound by Singer, where not only were both of these stunning speakers made available, but all of the requisite level of ancillary equipment was on hand as well.

Both of these monster speakers feature single-box–like designs, high sensitivity, relatively benign loads, seemingly conventional drivers such as (different) 15" Focal (sub)woofers, and truly full-range frequency performance. The Wilson eschews woods in its cabinets; the JMlab embraces them. The Wilson requires meticulous installation and setup; the JMlab requires no complex setup and is remarkably tolerant regarding room placement and listening seat(s). Both make attention-grabbing visual statements (as do all other competitors at this price point), though I found the Utopia's' alternating wood tones and black finishes far more appealing.

While I was forced to listen to the two monster sets of speakers in different listening rooms, both systems included the Krell KPS-20i CD player, CAT SL-1 Signature preamp, and the same pair of VAC Renaissance 140 monoblocks (they were moved from room to room). Cables differed, but included some of the cream of the current crops from NBS, Transparent Audio, and Yamamura/ART. Because the Wilsons were located in their accustomed places in the large rear listening room, it could be argued that they had a competitive advantage. To offset this seeming imbalance, the JMlabs had been set up the evening before by Andy Singer and Jacques Mahul, to both of their satisfactions. The choice of source material was mine, as were the conditions and timing of the actual listening.

The most startling and immediately obvious difference between these two truly full-range loudspeakers was their respective voicings. The SLAMM offered up a lighter, brighter sound, with greater emphasis in the mid-treble. Associated with this overall voicing were wonderful sparkle and air, a sense of speed and control, astounding resolution of inner detail, and an open, airy character remarkably free of such huge cabinets. Dynamic ability, macro as well as micro, was better than that of any other speaker I had ever heard. This stunning set of characteristics made the Wilson sound very lively and immediate.

In contrast, the Utopia offered a weighter, warmer sound with a greater midbass emphasis. As a result, harmonic structures were richer, orchestral weight greater, with more resolute foundations and low-end spaciousness. The Utopia was at least the equal of the SLAMMs in detail resolution, and was actually superior through the midrange. Given the different listening rooms and cables and the relatively short listening sessions, I'm hesitant to give the nod to the Grand Utopia. In any event, both sets of speakers allowed me to hear things from some of my familiar CDs that I'd never heard before.

The mid-treble vs midbass voicings were at the heart of much of what I heard. It was actually the treble from the Wilson that added to its airy, lighter sound, as well as providing a greater sense of freedom from the enclosure. The SLAMM's bottom was tighter, quicker, dryer. The faster bottom and more prominent lower treble provided a greater sense of control, resolution, and accuracy.

But all was not perfect. When pushed to lifelike volume levels (keeping that stunning dynamic capability firmly in mind), there was an occasional hardening. Depending on the source material, there was also a continuum of performance ranging from microscopic resolution through analytical presentation to aggressive and mildly irritating attack. Was this the source material, the ancillary equipment, or the room? Was the Utopia incapable of the resolution needed to show up these underlying shortcomings of other components in the system? Maybe, maybe not. Martin Colloms's review included terms such as "brash," "crispness," "leanness," and "hardness" when describing the Wilson's performance in different situations. This may well be the only meaningful area in which the SLAMM can be further improved.

The JMlab, with a nearly identical reported sensitivity, apparently went louder. I used the term "apparently" advisedly—the room sizes were not identical. In addition to the greater midbass prominence, deep bass was slightly but noticeably more extended with the Utopia.

Two differences in the construction of these phenomenal speaker systems struck me some time after this listening session. The Wilson does have the two additional ambience tweeters, which might have contributed to its greater upper-end openness and mid-treble emphasis.

When the dust settled, I was left in awe of both of these truly astounding loudspeaker systems. Yes, they were different from one another, but each was much more different than almost anything else on the market. The Grand SLAMM just might be the finest example of an accurate transducer that has yet to be created. But the Grand Utopia could just as readily carry the mantle of Most Wonderfully Musical Loudspeaker I Have Ever Heard. While I truly admired the Wilson, I don't hesitate in stating my preference for the spectacular JMlab Grand Utopia. For me, this is truly the ultimate desert island loudspeaker.—Jack English

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