Focal-JMlab Grande Utopia Be loudspeaker

I reviewed JMlab's Mezzo Utopia loudspeaker in the July 1999 Stereophile (Vol.22 No.7). By chance, the Mezzos had followed a pair of B&W Nautilus 801s into my listening room, and the substitution had proved rather interesting. For all their many fine qualities, the 801, with its 15" bass driver, was distinctly bass-heavy in my room, whereas the 11" drivers of the Mezzos seemed just right in this regard.

I began pondering that there might be a Goldilocks relationship between speakers and rooms—that there's a "just right" size of bass driver for any given room size. This makes some intuitive sense (give or take variations in sensitivity and port-loading), even if the industry has shown little enthusiasm for taking it on board. However, it was one of the reasons I initially demurred when it was first suggested that I might like to review a pair of Focal-JMlab's Grande Utopia Be. The other reason was that they weigh a fifth of a ton each: 450 lbs. JMlab believes there's no substitute for mass in keeping the stators stationary and allowing the diaphragms to function accurately.

But, as usual, curiosity got the better of me. I was intrigued to try Focal-JMlab's new "superspeaker" after spending a very entertaining afternoon enjoying a pair in the company's very large (29.5' by 18' by 9') listening room toward the end of last year (see "Industry Update," February 2003), courtesy of Jacques Mahul. I knew they represented something special, and a big improvement over their predecessors. The weight would be a nuisance, preventing them from being removed from the room during the course of the review, but I could handle that for a few weeks. How well a speaker using 11" and 15" bass drivers, both port-loaded, would work in my own much more modest room—18' by 14' by 8.5', brick-built, suspended floor and ceiling—would become apparent only when we'd moved the monsters in.

I was also reminded of recent comments by TAG McLaren engineer John Mulcahy, made at a get-together to discuss TAG's new room-equalization system. Mulcahy made the valid point that it's impossible to review a loudspeaker properly, because you can't avoid the effects of the complex and vital interactions between speaker and room. You can usually make some adjustment by moving the speakers around a bit, though the sheer bulk of the Grande Utopia severely restricts even that option—its considerable 30" depth took up most of the 3' I normally leave between wall and speakers.

The Grande Utopia Be looks very like JMlab's Grande Utopia, which Stereophile rated so highly in May 1996. But the resemblance is largely restricted to overall appearance and configuration—practically every ingredient and component has been changed.

The Grande Utopia Be stands almost 5' 9" tall—one of very few speakers I've encountered whose top surface remained invisible to me, even without Tiptoes. Its concave baffle shape, which time-aligns the drive-units, means that the topmost sections of the baffle overhang slightly, looming over seated listeners. But the effect is lightened by five distinct baffle sections separated by little gaps and attractively sculpted into curved shapes. The front and rear are finished in metallic slate-gray lacquer, while the nicely rounded edges of the massive side panels are finished in a luxury "burr ash" veneer in a choice of three colors: natural, gold, or burgundy.

Most of the Be's height is taken up by no fewer than five drive-units, although the speaker actually operates as a "three-and-a-half-way"—a three-way using twin midrange units, plus an extra "subwoofer" driver operating in parallel through the low bass. The largest and lowest subenclosure acts as the subwoofer, operating just below 50Hz. It has a 15" bass driver with a 12"-diameter W-sandwich cone, loaded by a 5.9-cubic-foot enclosure and a large slotted port.

Above the subwoofer section is a cluster of three small sealed subenclosures, mounting the two 6.5" d'Appolito-style midrange drivers, each in 0.9-cubic-foot sealed enclosure, above and below the central 25mm inverted-dome tweeter, which is made of beryllium—hence the "Be" of the speaker's name. The tweeter is set just a little above seated ear height; the back of the speaker can be raised an inch or so off the floor to bring the listener's ears on the HF axis.

Above these drive-units, its center an unusually high 5' off the floor, is mounted the bass unit proper: an 11" driver with 7.5" W-sandwich cone, in a 2.3-cubic-foot enclosure loaded by twin damped rear ports. For environmental reasons, JMlab no longer uses lead linings in its new Utopias, but the new Grande Be is nevertheless some 24 lbs heavier than its predecessor, thanks in part to a carcass partially made of 2"-thick MDF, but also to the massive magnets used for the cone drivers.

As one would expect from such a costly flagship model, the Grande Utopia Be is stuffed with advanced engineering of various kinds. The most exotic is that tweeter diaphragm of beryllium—a rare, costly metal that is difficult to work but that offers a substantially better stiffness-to-weight ratio than titanium or aluminum, along with good self-damping properties. This isn't the first use of beryllium in a speaker—Yamaha used it back in the 1970s, and JBL currently uses the element in the compression drivers of certain Pro models and the K2. But JMlab claims its original contribution has been in creating a beryllium foil just 25µm thick—half the thickness used elsewhere. One clear benefit is that the tweeter's bandwidth now comfortably reaches 40kHz, rendering further supertweetery unnecessary.

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