Focal-JMlab Grand Utopia loudspeaker

When you wish upon a star,
Makes no difference who you are;
Anything your heart desires,
Will come to you
.—Jiminy Cricket

12-21-92-17-52-46. Big deal, another $100,000 lottery winner. Where's Jean-Phillipe? Probably off getting us something to drink. Who can blame him? I can't believe people sit around dreaming and waiting to hear all these winning numbers. J-P, you out there?

Young, good-looking, bright—J-P had a lot going for him. He certainly didn't need to sit here listening to winning lottery numbers. Ah, there you are. What are you mumbling about?

"12-21-92-17-52-46. I've won! I've won! I've won!" He shouted over and over, almost crushing me in a bear hug.

My oh my, J-P had really won a big one. And what was it he'd been dreaming about while buying all those tickets every payday for the last three years? Speakers! He'd wanted to own the best loudspeakers in the world, and now he could.

We talked into the wee hours that night. Should it be Dave Wilson's X-1/Grand SLAMMs, which earned Martin Colloms's raves in Vol.17 No.12, and ended up Stereophile's 1995 Product of the Year? Or might it be Arnie Nudell's Genesis Model One, the big brother of the Model II.5 praised by Robert Harley in Vol.18 No.1? How about Jason Bloom's attention-grabbing Apogee Grand, a hit at so many audio shows and the huge sibling of the Studio Grand I reviewed in Vol.18 No.5? Or maybe the futuristic B&W Nautilus, at whose splendor John Atkinson hinted in his Silver Signature review in Vol.17 No.6? Dipoles, bi-/tri-/quad-amping, ribbons, room size, musical tastes, other equipment...

We talked about everything audio with unbridled joy in our hearts. Then J-P looked at me. "What about the JMlab Grand Utopia?"

The what?

The what
The Grand Utopia is the $65,000 flagship loudspeaker from French speaker manufacturer JMlab []. No, that probably wasn't one that sprang to your lottery-obsessed mind, was it? Well, it had better in the future—the mighty Grand Utopia is one sensational loudspeaker, and must be counted among the handful of contenders for the very best in the world. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Wilson, Avalon, Thiel, and Hales, along with 60 other loudspeaker manufacturers around the world, use Focal drivers in at least some of their speaker designs. In many of these company's models, the entire driver complement is sourced from the French firm. And Focal is well-known in the US—their hard-to-miss yellow PolyKevlar drivers show up everywhere.

If you guessed that JMlab is yet another company using Focal drivers, you'd be right—but not entirely. JMlab came first, having started in 1979 as a subsidiary of a family-owned precision mechanics business. Founder Jacques Mahul (the JM of JMlab), who had been the principal designer at Audax, had become increasingly dissatisfied with the drivers available to him. Like so many ultimately successful audio designers, he decided to roll his own for JMlab.

In 1980, responding to numerous requests, Focal was formed to make and sell drive-units. In subsequent years, Focal introduced the inverted-dome tweeter, the 15" Audiom bass driver with 12 separate magnets, Polyglas and PolyKevlar cone materials, advanced cast-aluminum baskets, and the Tioxid titanium-dome tweeter. A growing line of automotive products followed, as did the acquisition of the SEBAC woodworking factory for cabinet construction.

Innovation has been the life's blood of Focal; they have continued to develop groundbreaking products. Other speaker manufacturers have paid close attention and continue to take advantage of Focal's technological advances. But all of this technology has actually been developed to advance the performance of JMlab's own loudspeaker lineup. The Grand Utopia is the latest step in this continuously evolving development—in essence, the field-test laboratory for the next generation of Focal drivers.

My first thought was that the $65,000 Grand Utopia was simply related to the Wilson Grand SLAMM. After all, almost all of the X-1's drivers are made by Focal. But when I put the question to Jacques, he seemed taken aback. It turns out that JMlab represents approximately 75% of his business, Focal a mere 10%. Worldwide sales of Focal drivers are handled primarily by distributors. In most cases, he doesn't even know who's buying the drivers. More important, their 15% market share makes JMlab the top speaker manufacturer in France. (Their primary competitor is Cabasse.) After nearly three years of intensive research, JMlab debuted the Grand Utopia both as a matter of national pride and as a showcase for Focal's new Sandwich W technology, which is used in all of the drivers, with the exception of the tweeter: two layers of spun glass surround an ultra-rigid layer of thin syntactic foam originally developed for high-stress aviation applications. The stated benefits of the new technology are rapid propagation, greatly diminished energy storage, and state-of-the-art freedom from detail smearing.

The Grand Utopia and the Grand SLAMM aren't all that similar, therefore. While the Wilson may indeed represent the best implementation of current Focal drivers—as well as remarkable breakthroughs in cabinet construction and driver integration—the Grand Utopia provides a glimpse of Focal's future. Not one of the Utopia's drivers is currently available to anyone other than JMlab (though they're likely to find their way into the Focal catalog at some point in the future).

As well as the new cone material, the 15" Sandwich W woofer uses Focal's proprietary Audiom configuration—a dual layer of 12 3" magnets—and a rubber surround instead of the foam used in Focal's earlier and current implementations of the Audiom approach. This +31-lb driver is mounted in the bottommost of the speaker's six separate subenclosures, many of which are reinforced with lead. This particular subcabinet has a volume just under 9 ft.3, with a slot-shaped port located at the very bottom of the front of the cabinet. Its baffle is angled upward.

At the top of each cabinet is an 11" upper-bass/lower-midrange driver, mounted in a sealed box with a downward-angled front baffle and a volume of just under 2 ft.3. The crossover is located in its own subenclosure behind this upper-bass/lower-midrange box. Its cover plate, on the top rear of the cabinet, can be removed to provide easy access to the crossover's air-core inductors, polypropylene capacitors, close-tolerance resistors, and point-to-point wiring. This plate also provides access to the speaker's lone control—by moving a single jumper, the tweeter output can be increased by 1dB for use in unusually dead listening rooms. (At the manufacturer's suggestion, the crossover plate was removed for this review to eliminate possible resonances.)

The dual 6.5" mids and 1.2" inverted-dome tweeter are arrayed in a D'Appolito configuration between the bottom woofer and upper woofer/mid subenclosures. Like the woofer baffles, the lower mid is angled upward while the mid located above the tweeter faces downward. In the center is the vertical face of the tweeter's subenclosure. The net result of the angled front baffles is to present a curved front surface optimized to focus the sound at a point located at the apex of a 10'/side equilateral triangle. The tweeter, an updated version of Focal's Tioxid design, uses a diaphragm with a layer of titanium-dioxide vapor deposited over a pure titanium substrate. The pole-piece is made of Telar 57 alloy and the magnet is neodynium. Due to the extraordinary difficulties in producing the virtually carbon-free Telar 57, the retail price of these tweeters would be approximately $2000 each. As the mirror-imaged speakers are designed to fire straight ahead, a vertical-phase correction baffle is mounted in front of the tweeter to provide flat response 30° off-axis.

Each Grand Utopia weighs 397 lbs and stands just under 6' tall. Each speaker rests on four casters (only the front two rotate) and contains dual sets of WBT connectors with removable jumpers for bi-wiring/amping.

The design effort has carefully taken into account how the final product looks as well as how it will be used. As a result, all of the technology is built into a single box. The cabinet is visually subdivided into three sections, the dual mids and tweeter making up the central portion. The front baffles on each woofer, the top and bottom portions of the cabinet, are finished in Porsche black lacquer, as are the sides of the center section, which are made of 1.2"-thick African Anigre over dual layers of 1"-thick MDF. The front baffle of the center section and the sides of each woofer's subenclosure are finished in a lovely Brazilian Tauri using solid wood pieces with every edge beveled. There are no conventional grille covers, as JMlab feels none are sufficiently sonically transparent. When not in use, additional solid Tauri panels can be mounted on the separate front baffles to transform the cabinets into stunning monolithic wooden sculptures.

Initial impressions
I first heard the Grand Utopias at their world debut at Stereophile's HI-FI '95 Show in Los Angeles. At first listen I was very impressed, despite my unfamiliarity with the Pass Laboratories pre- and power amps and Mike Moffat's Angstrom DAC. The presentation was big, powerful, and effortless, as well as being tight, quick, and coherent. Not surprisingly, bass foundations and dynamic contrasts sounded compelling. But when I returned for the second of many visits, the setup had been changed. The speakers now fired diagonally into the listening area instead of their earlier, more conventional positions parallel to the side walls. I was not as impressed with this setup.

My wish comes true...
After numerous conversations, my wish to get a real crack at these monstrous speakers finally came true. While moving the shipping crates about and getting the speakers out of them was a laborious task, it was nonetheless straightforward, given adequate amounts of muscle power. In my case, this was handled by a bunch of my always-helpful nephews (footnote 1). Once in the listening room, the casters made it easy to experiment with placement. Experiment I did.

The sheer size of the Grand Utopias made them a bit uncomfortable in my 13'-wide listening room. Ideally they should be used in a larger room, where they can be well away from the rear and side walls while still having a good bit of space between them. I was simply unable to achieve JMlabs' prescribed setup of 10' between the cabinet centers while still leaving enough distance from the side walls. As I tried different placements, I did try to maintain a set of distances proportional to those suggested. As is typical in my room, I did have the speakers a third of the way into the room and far from the rear wall. If I moved the cabinets too close together, soundstaging simply wasn't realistic, with center-stage bunching apparent. With the speakers moved as far apart as possible, lateral staging improved dramatically but sidewall reflections and bass reinforcement became more problematic. While I was able to tame the sidewall reflections with floor-to-ceiling Soundwall absorption panels, the final sidewall placement was the best compromise with respect to bass characteristics.

Footnote 1: Duffy, Ryan, Shawn, Brian, Jonathan, Brendan, Justin, Keenan, Joshua—thanks again.
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