Focal-JMlab Grande Utopia Be loudspeaker Page 3

How a speaker distributes its sound throughout a room plays an important part in the final listening experience. This is one area in which there is no definite right or wrong; personal taste plays a crucial role. The GUBe steers an attractive middle road somewhere between such wide-dispersion designs as B&W's Nautilus series, with their separate mid and treble enclosures, and the Shahinian "omnis" on the one hand, and relatively narrow-dispersion models like the Quad ESL-988 and other dipoles, or speakers like the Tannoy Dimensions or JBL K2, which control directivity by horn-loading the upper-frequency drivers.

A wide-dispersion design will interact more strongly with the room, simply because it will generate more reflections from walls and ceiling, etc., than a narrow-dispersion model. The latter will tend to give more precise stereo imaging and a more accurate stereo window onto the recording session, whereas the wide design will tend to create a stronger impression of bringing the musicians into the listening room.

The Grande Utopia Be, with its conventional monopole drivers mounted on a tall, wide, convex baffle, falls somewhere between these two approaches. The sheer height of the speaker, with most of the bass coming from a little above one's head, did deliver an attractive spaciousness, but it also sometimes seemed a little odd to find bass coming from such a height—low bass might not have directional information, but the 11" woofer goes right up to middle C.

So what about that beryllium diaphragm tweeter? Well, if you've got it, flaunt it—the tweeter was definitely on the hot side, as the farfield room measurements confirm, and consequently the top end drew attention to itself. This was also true of the previous-generation Utopias, but when you make tweeters as good as these two generations of Focal's finest, and feed them via a no-expense-spared crossover network, you can get away with running them a bit hot. My only serious reservation was the GUBe's mild tendency to emphasize the hiss from stereo FM, which became a little too audible with classical music of wide dynamic range.

But beryllium really seemed to do the job. The Grande Utopia's treble might have been quite strong, but it was also exceptionally sweet and clean. I just sat back and enjoyed. The most telling realization came later in the same day that the speakers were taken away, when I went back to a pair of very good but conventional speakers with good soft-dome tweeters. The treble now sounded relatively dirty and untidy by comparison, forcefully bringing home to me just how big a contribution its beryllium tweeter was making to the total class of the massive Grande Utopia Be.

Although the room-interaction problems at the bass end of things tended to take the edge off the performance with hard-driving rock music in my room, classical material came over very well indeed. The broad midband had a fine, slightly laid-back neutrality, and this helped deliver a beautiful layering effect, with convincing depth and very realistic textures on orchestral material, and particularly fine rendition of violins, even if cellos sounded a bit cool.

The massed voices on choral works also showed unusually good discrimination between different parts and individuals, while that slight restraint of "presence" helped avoid aggressiveness from strong soloists. The GUBe's excellent headroom was particularly worthwhile with large-scale orchestral and operatic works, but this speaker worked very well even at whisper-quiet 3am levels.

The Grande Utopia Be also proved very adept at distinguishing any changes made within the system feeding it—I got very good results when using coaxial Audience AU-24 speaker cable with the Halcro amps, for example. (Regrettably, this cable is totally incompatible with my regular Naim NAP 500 power amp.)

Is the JMlab Grande Utopia Be the finest loudspeaker on the planet? Possibly—provided it's used in a room that interacts sympathetically with its multiple bass sources. What had seemed fine in the much larger room at the St. Etienne factory proved decidedly problematic in my medium-size listening space. Listening through my room's bass anomalies made the Grande Utopia's top-class overall performance very obvious indeed, especially in the remarkably low cabinet signature and the inescapable sonic superiority of that superb beryllium tweeter. Together, they brought magnificently fine detailing and beautifully layered perspectives to the mid and top end.

But this review is also a cautionary tale about choosing a speaker of the right size for a given room. The Grande seems most likely to be a Utopia for the very largest rooms: those with more modest accommodations who acquire the beryllium habit might well find JMlab's Utopia Nova or Alto models a better overall compromise.

US distributor: Audio Plus Services
P.O. Box 3047
Plattsburgh, NY 12901
(800) 663-9352