Focal Maestro Utopia III loudspeaker Page 3

A CD that has been in heavy rotation since I returned from the 2010 Salon Son et Image at the end of March is an EP from the Montreal show's featured artist, the band Give. Recorded at Studio Reference in St. Caliste, Quebec, the four songs on this CD, titled SSi, epitomize what can be produced with a modern rock recording without having to resort to massive amounts of make-it-loud compression or in your-face equalization. The bass player uses a five-string instrument on the final song, "Mouths," and while every note was reproduced with impressive clarity and good weight, this recording did reveal that there was a slight touch of extra warmth in the Maestro's upper bass. This made the bass guitar sound just a bit larger than life. Not that—speaking as a bass guitarist—there's anything wrong with that.

This character did seem somewhat amplifier-dependent. It was more noticeable with the Simaudio Moon Evolution W-7 that I've long used as a reference power amplifier than it was with the Classé CTM-600 monoblocks that arrived halfway through my time with the Focals (review to appear in the fall). More important, with the otherwise excellent Simaudio amp, the speakers didn't offer the unrestricted dynamics I'd expected. The highly sensitive Maestro Utopia III wouldn't, at least in theory, need a high-powered amplifier to play loud. Yet the 150Wpc Simaudio was clearly being asked for more than it could deliver.

I was reminded by the passage in Tony Bramwell's autobiography, Magical Mystery Tours: My Life with the Beatles (Robson Books, 2005), about his experience as a record promoter working on Jennifer Warnes' tribute to Leonard Cohen, Famous Blue Raincoat, that it had been too long since I had listened to that superbly crafted album (CD, Private Music PVT2092). With the W-7 driving the Focals, I turned up the wick on the opener, "First We Take Manhattan." Hmm. Yes, Warnes' singing sounded as coherent, as focused, and as artful as I knew it should; Roscoe Beck's bass guitar was beautifully articulate and solidly reproduced; and the stereo stage was wide, deep, and stable—but the sound didn't want to give as much as I was expecting. It was just too damnably restrained. Similarly with classical music, where orchestral climaxes just didn't climax as much I wished or had expected them to. I want—no, I need the glorious encore of the theme of Thor's swinging hammer at the closing of Sibelius's Symphony 5, in the performance by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra (CD, Decca 410-016-2), to raise me to my feet in joy; but that just wasn't happening with the Moon amplifier driving the Focals the way it had done with the same amp driving the Revel Salon2s.

The last thing you'd expect would be English reserve from a French loudspeaker, but that was what I was getting with the Simaudio. Changing from AudioQuest's Kilimanjaro speaker cables, which I've used for many years, to AudioQuest's new Wild didn't resolve the issue (though it did add to the Maestro's already-excellent presentation of midrange detail). It wasn't until the 600W Classé amplifiers took up residence in the system that I felt the Maestro Utopias were really giving me the dynamics they had promised all along.

Which allowed me to concentrate on and appreciate what the Focals excelled at: the midrange. With rock recordings that are typically hot in the midband—Joni's Mitchell's otherwise excellent Shadows and Light (HDCD, Asylum 704-2), for example—I set the Maestro's midrange jumpers to "1" to take away some of the bite. But voices on well-recorded albums soared and sang. A secret pleasure of mine is the American Songbook stylings of Jane Monheit. The Maestros reproduced without flaw her reading of Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You," from Come Dream With Me (CD, Warlock 4219), the small inflections of pitch in her voice unobscured by loudspeaker anomalies or overlaid with colorations. The same was true for Give's Caroline St. Louis: her small vocal decorations and grace notes, her tasteful use of vibrato to point a phrase, were superbly well differentiated.

Male voices were treated with the same equanimity. I finished my formal auditioning of the Maestro Utopia IIIs with May's "Recording of the Month," Johnny Cash's American VI: Ain't No Grave (CD, Lost Highways/American Recordings B0013954-02). The life lived and the damage done are evident in every note this great American singer sings on this album, and the pitch differentiation offered by the Maestro Utopia, all too often smeared and homogenized by lesser speakers, was presented in full measure. This is high fidelity.

There are loudspeakers that thrust their virtues forward at you. By contrast, the Focal Maestro Utopia III invites the listener into what it has to offer. Its balance is a little warm in the upper bass in absolute terms, and a touch mellow in the top octave, but the Maestro Utopia is otherwise an intensely musical-sounding loudspeaker, with smooth, uncolored mids, tight, controlled lows, stable, well-defined soundstaging, and superb dynamic-range capability. However, it demands to be used with amplifiers unfazed by its wicked load impedance in the upper bass. The Classé monoblocks proved a superb match, and I imagine the Musical Fidelity Titan that resides in Michael Fremer's man cave would also work a treat with these speakers.

With that caveat, and with an acknowledgment to the fact that this is a very expensive loudspeaker, I give the beautifully finished and engineered Focal Maestro Utopia III my highest recommendation.

US distributor: Audio Plus Services
156 Lawrence Paquette Industrial Drive
Champlain, NY 12919
(800) 663-9352