Focal-JMlab Nova Utopia Be loudspeaker

Symphony orchestras once had definable national characters. When high-end audio came along, those characters became the national sounds of the gear. While most audio manufacturers, like most symphony orchestras, have tended in recent decades to homogenize into an "international" sound, most French audio gear has remained distinct.

Audio Aero, Jadis, and Metronome have all contributed to the reputation of French components on the world high-end scene, but no company has done more to vigorously fly the audio tricolor as has Focal-JMlab. Since 1993, Focal's Utopia series of speakers has embodied everything that founder-CEO Jacques Mahul knows about speaker design, and 2003 saw the introduction of the second generation of the line: the Utopia Be speakers. Each new Utopia model features a tweeter with a pure beryllium dome and an extensive redesign of the earlier models' basic structures, all under the guiding hands of Mahul and chief designer Dominic Baker (formerly of B&W and before that an audio journalist in the UK). (The massive, $80,000/pair Grande Utopia Be was reviewed in the September 2003 Stereophile by Paul Messenger.)

After my visit to Focal's factory and cabinet-building facilities in early 2003 (see Sidebar, "The French Touch"), Daniel Jacques, president of Focal-JMlab's North American distributors, had a pair of Nova Utopia Bes delivered to me last summer. After I'd finished auditioning the Legacy Audio Focus 20/20s for my January 2004 review, piano movers hauled the two 400-lb crates containing the Novas down into my basement listening room and unpacked the beasts.

One thing about the Utopia line has not changed: the exquisite level of finish. The Nova Be is jewel-like in the precision of its assembly and finish (mine had the Signature finish: burred ash with a rich, claret-like burgundy tint). Not one person who said "Wow! What the hell do those cost, anyway?" was surprised when I told them: $37,500/pair. Everything—from the woofer's grille cover to the superb terminals and massive spikes—bespeaks the most attentive craftsmanship and the highest quality of parts.

Haute Technologie
Focal has for years been an innovator in driver and cabinet design, and the new Utopia series further advances the company's reputations in these fields. The most ballyhooed, and immediately noticeable, upgrade in the Be series is the new beryllium tweeter, which gives the line (including the Nova Be) its names. Focal worked for years to develop a tweeter using this ultra-light, ultra-stiff material. When I asked Focal's managing director, Gérard Chrétien (also, at one time an audio journalist), how much had been spent on R&D for this driver, he shook his head ruefully, saying, "We do not know, and we do not want to know. It took us over three years to do it, but Jacques wanted it done."

Beryllium is 2.5 times less dense than titanium and 1.5 times less dense than aluminum, but is three and five times stiffer, respectively. For domes of identical mass, beryllium is seven times more rigid than one made of titanium or aluminum, and the velocity of soundwaves traveling through it is three and 2.5 times faster than through, respectively, titanium or aluminum. While there's a huge upside to a beryllium dome, many complications are involved in the manufacturing. The metal is scarce and horribly expensive in its pure form, which is produced in only three countries: the US, Russia, and France. It can also release highly toxic and dangerous fumes when worked or machined.

Like Focal's Tioxid tweeter, the Be tweeter is an inverted dome. Focal's white paper asserts that this "reverse" shape, like that of a conventional dynamic driver, provides a much more stable interface between the voice-coil and the driven dome structure. This, in turn, means that more of the energy put into the tweeter by the magnetic structure is radiated as sound. When asked about the upper limit of the Be tweeter's linear response, Jacques Mahul gave an ineffably Gallic shrug. "We do not know. Our microphones can only register up to 40kHz, and there is no breakup before that point."

It's not only the Be tweeter's dome that's exotic. The magnet structure features a samarium-cobalt magnet surrounded by a neodymium ring magnet, which concentrates the magnetic flux. This permits the samarium-cobalt magnet, which is less powerful but capable of accommodating far higher temperatures than neodymium, to do the heavy lifting while maintaining the benefits of the powerful but less robust neodymium ring.

The Utopia line has always exclusively used Focal's patented W-cone drivers (see Sidebar). These are likely the lightest and stiffest cones made anywhere; Chrétien explained that the W cone can be optimized for different applications by varying the number of glass-fiber layers used to reinforce the cone. This gives great flexibility in optimizing damping characteristics for each frequency range while maintaining minimal weight and maximally pistonic behavior.

Driving these advanced cones is Focal's new magnetic structure, called the Power Flower. This technology has long been used on Utopia woofers; the Be series marks its first application to the midrange driver. Instead of one large magnet, the Power Flower is six identical magnets surrounding the voice coil. The plates that secure the magnets are machined into the form that most effectively prevents escape of the magnetic field, the structure's shape giving rise to its name. Using multiple smaller magnets also facilitates greater power-handling capability and allows for tighter manufacturing tolerances and better heat dissipation than does the use of a single large magnet.

The crossover and cabinet designs are of luxury class. Each Utopia Nova Be cabinet is designed so that all signals are said to arrive at the listener's position simultaneously. The massive, 2"-thick front baffles—each of the four drivers lives in its own physically separate cabinet—is concave when viewed from the side. The Nova is so heavy because it's so painstakingly and extensively braced. Care is taken with the bass cabinet to ensure that the bracing required does not compromise the free flow of air mandated by the massive, ported, 13" woofer.

The crossover circuit board is a work of art in itself, and is secured to the cabinet with a massive brushed-aluminum plate that contains the speaker's serial number, the name of the assembler, and a single pair of heavy WBT binding posts. (Jacques Mahul is immovably opposed to biwiring (footnote1).) The Optimum Phase Crossover is engineered by Focal to preserve the signal's phase integrity.

La belle Française
I was thankful that the Novas worked well close to where I first set them up. As my pair had come with only with a single instruction sheet, I e-mailed Dominic Baker, who offered some simple setup tips. Fortunately, these involved little moving of the 260-lb speakers. The Novas were positioned 35" away from the sidewalls and 43" from the rear wall (distances measured from the tweeter centers), and toed-in so that only a slim slice of side panel was visible from my listening position.

Break-in will be an issue with the Nova Utopias. Out of the crates, there was definitely some untoward emphasis in the lower treble. Sibilants were decidedly more aggressive than they should have been on Diana Krall's "Let's Face the Music and Dance," from When I look In Your Eyes (CD, Verve IMPD-304). Cymbals had extra tizziness, and massed strings had a slightly hard sheen. This subtly irritating quality slowly diminished over the next 100 hours of listening, and disappeared entirely after another 50 hours. Baker had told me to expect exactly this behavior. That big woofer also needed a bit of time to fully loosen up. Moral: A pair of Novas will not show their true worth fresh out of their crates.

Footnote 1: Biwiring of a sort is possible with the Grande Utopia Be—its subwoofer can be separately wired—but Mahul is dead against anything that comes anywhere near the vital midrange.—Paul Bolin
US distributor: AudioPlus Services
P.O. Box 3047
Plattsburgh, NY 12901
(800) 663-9352