Grande Utopia Be
Review By Alvin Gold
here to e-mail reviewer.
I first stumbled across JMlab loudspeakers oh about four, maybe five years ago at a hi-fi show in London where the flagship Grande Utopia, the immediate predecessor of the model reviewed here, was being demonstrated. It certainly stirred some people up, and it shook others. And not just because of it's enormous bulk and incredible price tag, which placed it firmly in Wilson territory, dwarfing even the big flagship B&Ws and KEFs that were the staples for studios at the time. I remember being pretty impressed by the Grande Utopia, but I was even more so by the Mezzo (which I have reviewed on this website), which is much more a real world product with a price that is not unreasonable, and the kind of footprint that some people of the female persuasion might at a pinch be prepared to accommodate. Well I did say might.
Some time later, I made by first visit to the south-east France based headquarters of Focal.JMlab as they now call themselves, and found that it is a substantial company, number one on its home market above Cabasse and Triangle. I was a little surprised to discover that they make all their own drive units, and even have a small OEM business supplying others with them, most famously Wilson Audio, but also smaller specialist high-end brands like Avalon. They didn't and still don't push this side of the business very hard, citing an inability to turn out drive units in the quantities demanded, and when you see the hand
labor involved in producing the sandwich cones for some of their woofers, which are the models in demand, you would understand way. Much the same applies to the tweeters, which are sold under the Focal brand, mostly for use in cars, some at unbelievably high prices. Again they are strictly a limited production line. But they do produce enough for their own use, and they make their enclosures and crossovers on site too. Very few loudspeaker manufacturers choose to get so deeply into the manufacturing processes involved. It is much more usual to find that
customized drive units, crossovers or enclosures are sourced from outside, and then assembled in house.
In the end it does not really matter much where the components are made. If
they're good they're good, and if not, well I am sure you get the point. But there is one thing to be said for rolling your own, which is that you can end up with products which are genuinely distinctive, which reflect the company culture and ethos in a way that
you will rarely if ever find otherwise. The OEM route inevitably means using key components from outside suppliers are shared across a number of end users, and applying what may be simply a veneer of
And sure enough, Focal.JMlab loudspeakers really are different. As a brand, they build enclosures the old fashioned way. Although they use bass reflex loading tune the bass, just like almost everyone else, they tend not to stint on using large boxes if that's what's called for. They are invariably solid and well built too, with plenty of bracing, good joinery and thick panels. The Grande Utopia Be makes a
specialty of just these qualities, as we shall see. But even their budget models tend to be quite meaty, solid designs. They generally
do not take shortcuts, and they certainly haven't done so here.
Superficially at least, little appears to have changed from the earlier Grande Utopia flagship. This is still a massive, imposing loudspeaker, and an extremely heavy one. Like its predecessor, it consists of a number of drive units, each mounted in its own separate enclosure to avoid mechanical intermodulation, and strapped together at the sides. The tweeter and two midrange units are arranged in a vertically symmetrical D'Appolito configuration to control vertical dispersion without affecting lateral dispersion. The units are staggered in the depth plane and angled to focus the sound at the design listening point, which is claimed to be about three meters away, though I settled on a slightly greater distance. The bass and sub-bass units are similarly disposed, but with the much longer wavelengths involved, it is done for aesthetic reasons rather than to achieve time alignment. This element of the design is called Focus Time, and the idea has been carried over from the original Grande Utopia -- because it works.
What really mark the Grande Utopia Be apart however are the drive units, which are genuinely special, indeed unique. The W-cones used in the Grande Utopia Be have changed from earlier incarnations that used hollow glass balls between layers of lightweight glass fibre sheeting. The current design is based on a similar structural sandwich, but uses aerospace foam at the core. The overall structure is feather light, extremely stiff, but it is also incredibly well damped, with little of out of band resonant
behavior that usually come with free and gratis with single layer cones. An additional property of the come material is that it is said to be more than usually opaque at acoustic frequencies. The result is that less of the reverberant energy loose inside the enclosure makes its way to the outside world.
Apart from the 1-inch dome inverted tweeter with its 0.75-inch voice coil (see later), the drive unit complement includes two 6.5-inch midrange units that operate below 2.5kHz. The bass is generated by a combination of a rear vented 11 inch unit at the top of the loudspeaker, and below 50Hz by a massively constructed 15 inch unit, a true passive subwoofer which is front vented by a slot shaped port near ground level. The crossover is massively constructed on two PC boards, with air core inductors and polypropylene caps, and it provides
4th order (24dB/octave) slopes once the mechanical rolloff of the drive units has been factored in. The slopes are designed to avoid excessive acoustic overlap between units. The exception is the 11-inch mid/bass driver, whose rolloff is an entirely mechanical
2nd order slope (12dB/octave).
The construction of the enclosure is nothing less than stunning. The prodigious 210kg (462 pounds) weight -- a six man lift
-- tells much of the story. The panels are either 25mm or 50mm MDF in the central section, and doubled up for the baffles, to which external 20mm side panels is added which strap the separate enclosures together. The structure is extensively braced, especially the base section which includes a 100mm solid block and a welded steel frame which also acts as an anchor for the superbly engineered spikes. There are three finishes, each more stunning than the last, with hardwood edges and multiple layers of metallic high gloss lacquer finishes, each sanded down before the next is applied. This is a loudspeaker that likes to make its presence felt, and that is constructed to the very highest available standards. Remarkably it is a loudspeaker that the more it is examined, the more it looks like good material value for money.
The jewel in the crown of the Grande Utopia Be, the real headline grabber, is the tweeter. Its basic geometry is similar to the titanium dioxide coated dome used in the previous Utopia range, which is an inverted dome. A major benefit of inverting it is that the designer is no longer constrained to place the voice coil at the periphery, which at high frequencies means that the centre of the dome is doing it's own thing and in its own time. The voice coil is attached roughly two thirds of the way out to the periphery, which helps ensure that the assembly is extremely rigid, and that most of the dome is under its control most of the time.
One of the real innovations here is the use of beryllium as a dome material. Beryllium has the lowest density of any metal, and using this material has been an obsession of the chief engineer, UK born Dominic Baker, since he was at university. Beryllium has been used before, but it is extremely difficult to work as well as being very costly. Famously it is also toxic, but this is not an issue as long as the dome is not physically breached. Arguably there
is not necessarily a good case for using beryllium when you consider that although it has very good mechanical properties, domes formed from the material are not much lighter than domes made from more practical materials like titanium.
But there are advantages to be gained if you can find a way to reduce the thickness. Beryllium is supplied in sheets 40 microns thick, by the world's main producer, which is based in Ohio. As far as I now, all other applications of the material stick to using the 40-micron sheet as supplied. Focal.JMlab and the producer have developed a process involving heat and pressure (no other details are made public) that produced 25-micron sheets, which are then formed into dome shapes. In fact the domes are not uniform thickness, they're thicker towards the periphery, and thinnest at the centre (the opposite of what normally happens with other fabrication processes), which gives an obvious mechanical advantage at high accelerations.
Even at 25 microns, beryllium has enough stiffness to do its job properly, and has a sound propagation velocity about three times more than titanium. Arguably most important of all is that it has superb self-damping. The final domes have an extremely low moving mass, are capable of working pistonically to much higher frequencies than are normally attainable, and have a much better controlled resonant
behavior which discourages colorations and distortions. Focal.JMlab doesn't specifically describe the tweeter as a supertweeter, but the frequency responses are in the same ballpark and perhaps even better than some so called supertweeters. When I was last at their lab they had not yet acquired the measuring capability to show accurately how it behaved at its upper frequency limit, or even exactly where the limit is, so the specifications are probably conservative.
The new diaphragm has forced renewed design effort on the magnetic structure of the tweeter. Rate earth magnets were required to achieve the necessary flux density in the gap, but instead of neodymium, the main magnet is made from samarium cobalt. This material has a much higher Curie temperature than neodymium, defined as the temperature at which the material becomes 100% demagnetized. The
magnetization doesn't return once cool; the loss is irreversible. But magnets don't demagnetize in a linear or abrupt 'on' and 'off' fashion. They start to demagnetize at approximately one third of the Curie temperature. For neodymium this corresponds to about 110°C or so before the magnetic system starts to follow its Curie curve For samarium cobalt, the material chosen for the Focal tweeter, the corresponding temperature is around 275°C. Focal points out that 100° to 150°C is easily achieved in the small neodymium magnet systems. Neodymium hasn't been completely banished from the Focal tweeter, but it's use is restricted to less temperature stressed parts of the design.
This is a big loudspeaker in every sense, and the numbers are suitably impressive. It measures 1740 x 500 x 780 (HxWxD in mm), and sensitivity is 92dB/watt/meter, which is unexceptional for a loudspeaker this big, but which is still about 3dB higher than most loudspeakers. If you think this means it doesn't need a powerful amplifier, think again. Although impedance never drops to MartinLogan or Apogee levels - nominal impedance is a benign 8 Ohms, and the maker claims a 5 Ohm minimum - it does things in the bass that smaller amplifier are not built to survive. It's also wide open down there, with a low frequency bandwidth that extends to 16Hz at -6dB, with will be magnified by any nearby room boundaries -- and nearby at 16Hz is measured in yards. At the other end of the frequency band, the extended treble
behavior is more an opportunity than a problem, and the lack of a peaky out of band response will help rather than impede compatibility with source components and amplifiers. The loudspeaker can accept a nominal 500-Watt input and is
Given the opportunity to best such an exotic and capable design, I assembled some impressive partnering components. Focal.JMlab helped out with their own Halcro pre and power amp, the dm10 preamplifier and dm68
month within the Enjoy the Music.com™ Review
Magazine), a CD/SACD upsampling front end from dCS (Verdi, Purcell, Elgar Plus) and Reference cables from Synergistic. From their respective UK importers and manufacturer I also borrowed a Krell FB400 power
amplifier, and a Musical Fidelity kW (1,000 Watt) power amplifier. Source components were from Krell (the KPS25sc), Mark Levinson (the 390S used via its variable gain output as a CD
player-cum-pre-amplifier) supplemented the dCS. Other equipment was from Classé, and from Nordost, whose Valhalla cables quickly replaced the Synergistic Research in both line and loudspeaker level roles. To these ears, the latter sounded messy and poorly
focused, in spite of (or perhaps because) or their exotic construction, which includes mains
polarization. Nordost Valhalla was much calmer and together, and helped the loudspeakers show what they are made of. And just for once, Nordost cables will not be the dominating factor in the cost of a complete system.
Whilst on the subject of system compatibility, I found there were some startling differences between the power amplifiers. There were substantial differences between the various source components too, but there was no sense in which they interacted actively with the loudspeakers in the same way as the power
amplifiers. The most interesting comparison was between the two amplifiers that were head and shoulders above any alternative, the Halcro dm68 and the Krell FB400. It was soon clear that the Halcro was the superior amplifier in this combination (driven at this stage by the same Krell KPS25sc used with the FB400 as the Halcro preamp had not yet arrived). This unit's superiority was evident in certain specific areas. It was cleaner, clearer and palpably more detailed, detail resolution being something that Grande Utopia Be is especially good at.
It is worth noting that it takes a fairly extraordinary loudspeaker to show what's wrong with an FM series Krell, which is without doubt at the top of its class in a way that only the original Krell KSA50 and 100 were able to achieve at the time, which was more than two decades ago. But the Krell has one ace up its sleeve. It can cope with difficult, convoluted bass lines in away that the Halcro
can not quite manage. The best example of this that I encountered on test was with Tim Waites material such as
"Big in Japan" from the remarkable Mule Variations album, which generated an almost physical bass line that wrapped itself around the loudspeakers and simply wouldn't let go. It had greater agility, more dynamics, and it was more rock & roll, and this wasn't an isolated experience.
But this is not the first thing you notice when the Grande Utopia Be is first fired up in anger. That distinction belongs to the upper midband and treble. The resolving ability of the system is simply extraordinary, and completely unmatched by other moving coil loudspeakers, and this plays an important part in the way that the system responds with very complex, difficult material. With a well recorded Mahler 6 (Benjamin Zander/Philharmonia) on SACD the ability to resolve the complexities of the instrumentation, and to paint a believable acoustic around the band was clearly in a different league to CD, and this is something that many system do not have the resolving ability to show. Confronted by similar material, they will often simply reproduce the orchestra as a wedge of sound in space, and if you didn't know there was more than that on disc, you might never appreciate what you're missing. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the magical properties of the Grande Utopia Be were enough by themselves to bring a mechanical performance to life, even with the best partnering equipment, but when everything had been finally set up properly and the equipment was fully run in, the system went a long way in this direction.
And it did so with a broad range of material. I have mentioned rock and full on orchestral as examples, but the loudspeaker excels with all kinds. The subtleties and grace of Takemitsu sounded extraordinary refined and again detailed (try
Quotation of Dreams from the London Sinfonietta with Oliver Knussen conducting), even in the very quietest, most diaphanous passages, But it worked just as well with much simpler material such as Tracy Chapman's eponymous first album, where the voice really did come startlingly to life, with a complexity unhinted at through other loudspeakers. The system was also on devastatingly physical form with Hugh Masakela's
Night Train, which had me fearing that the
neighbors would be on my doorstep quicker than I could reach for the volume control.
You get the picture. This is a very big and very capable loudspeaker, but in contrast to many big loudspeakers, it has the resolving power and the agility to respond rapidly as the music changes that you normally only find in much smaller loudspeakers. The big bass enclosures help the bass to breathe in a very natural way, and to get good bass then only requires an amplifier with enough puff. For my money it would be difficult to beat the Krell lower down, or the Halcro in the midrange and treble. Don't even think about
valves. Whatever you do, do not try and cut corners when you are planning a system that includes these loudspeakers.
Difficulties And Solutions
Before wrapping up, I should relate some of the difficulties I encountered during the course of the test. As I believe I may have mentioned in passing, this is a big loudspeaker with an extended bottom end, the kind whose bass could can practically counted out one cycle at the time. But this means it needs space to breathe. I had already auditioned an early sample pair at Focal.JMlab's headquarters some months earlier, and had been struck along with others on the same visit by the poise and neutrality of the loudspeaker, as well as its resolving power, at the time using exclusive Mark Levinson electronics, and in a large purpose built room, which
I would guess was about 45 x 25 feet.
My own listening room is fairly long as around 30 feet, but it is not particularly wide at an average of about 14 feet wide, so I had anticipated that the bass might be a problem. Indeed there was a hint of unfamiliar warmth in the bass, but nothing to get excited about. This kind of boundary reinforcement is a static effect that you soon learn to hear through if it is not too severe, and in this case it wasn't too severe. One factor in its
favor may have been that the room is quite 'lumpy' varying in width and height, and with furniture breaking up resonant modes, though they still exist - there is a dominant one around 50Hz for example which was measured in a recent test of room
equalization. Another story...
But I did nearly come unstuck in a completely unexpected area, namely in the treble. There was what I can best describe as a sheen in the mid treble that I knew from previous experience was not a part of the loudspeaker. And sure enough, it could be eliminated, but at a price. The problem appears to have been caused by early reflections from the sidewalls which when dressed temporarily with blankets and quilts simply disappeared. The message is that these loudspeakers need to be considerable distance from sidewalls or as an alternative you'll need acoustic treatment, perhaps
localized to the area where a mirror placed on the wall shows the tweeter from the listening seat. The reason why I had not encountered anything similar before (or had managed to miss it) is that the Focal tweeter is so sweet and pure sounding, so refined and so detailed that any tiny shortcoming in the area shows up like a dirty thumb. The very wide baffle appears to fill the mid treble outwards more than you might expect too, so that imaging is sometimes less than properly
And that's basically the story of Focal.JMlab's latest and greatest. Allow
me to make it clear that few concessions have been made to practicality, and deliberately so. This is simply the best loudspeaker that the company knows how to make, and I can only add that their best is dammed good. The technology that has been developed for the Grande Utopia Be is already beginning to trickle further down the extensive Utopia range, and in simplified form will eventually find its way into the lest costly Focal.JMlab ranges. With the introduction of the new Utopia Be range, Focal.JMlab has become one of the very select number of loudspeaker producers that has a genuinely world class stature. The Grande Utopia Be itself is nothing less than a truly great loudspeaker that in my opinion worth every cent of the asking price.