Focal Maestro Utopia (£30,000)

A high-end speaker for enthusiasts who can't quite stretch to Focal's £110,000 flagship model, the Maestro Utopia offers extremely precise mid-field monitoring

When Scott Walker famously sang ‘My Ship Is Coming In’ he could have been describing taking delivery of a pair of Focal’s £110,000 Grande Utopia EMs, surely one of the finest dynamic loudspeakers known to humankind. Standing over 2m tall and weighing 260kg (each!), the four-way ‘Grande EM’ with its electromagnetic 16in woofer and user-adjustable ‘Focus Time’ cabinet construction is a statement product that challenges the envelope of speaker performance. Privileged indeed are the audiophiles with adequately large listening rooms in which to accommodate them and deep enough pockets to afford them.
   Focal is France’s largest and most successful speaker manufacturer, producing several series of hi-fi models ranging from affordable to, well, the price of a Bentley in the case of the aforementioned flagship. Its top-of-the-line series, called Utopia III (as it is now in its third generation of evolution), is a series that’s yet to be completed. Currently there’s the Diablo Utopia standmount (£7000), Scala Utopia three-way floorstander (£17000) and Grande Utopia EM that busts the £100k price barrier. Clearly there are holes in the middle of the Utopia series waiting to be filled – which is where this new £30k Maestro model comes in.

And when I say this Maestro is new, it really is brand new. HFN found out about the imminent introduction of the Maestro Utopia when we visited Focal’s factory earlier this summer [see HFN Sept ’09]. When you get to the last page of this review on page 37 take a look at our photograph of the speaker’s rear panel. You’ll see that we did a little arm-twisting and secured the very first Maestros to come off Focal’s production line, our sample pair bearing serial numbers 1 and 2. World exclusives don’t come any more exclusive than this!
   Meanwhile I can add more breaking news. There’s another model on the way as well – even grander, if you’ll excuse the pun – than this Maestro model. Called the Stella Utopia EM, it will sit inbetween the Maestro Utopia and the Grande Utopia EM. And the ‘EM’ in the nomenclature indicates that it is designed to be a baby Grande, featuring the flagship’s innovative electromagnetic woofer system.
   It’s scheduled for release around the end of this year or early next, and I assume we can expect it to be priced between £60-70k. Time to start saving...

To round off the news for today, as I write this Focal doesn’t yet know that its gorgeous Diablo Utopia standmount has been voted European High-End Speaker of the Year in the 2009/2010 EISA Awards [see page 18]. Champagne corks will be popping in Focal’s French HQ by the time this edition of HFN is published.
   Credit where credit’s due, the company hasn’t been short on design innovation in recent years. Its ‘W’ composite cone formed of an aerospace foam called Rohacell sandwiched between layers of glass-fibre material might be an old story now that it’s been around for so many years. But after more than a decade’s experience of building it the company boasts that it can now ‘dial in’ characteristics for a given speaker design by varying the thickness of foam and layers of glass-fibre accordingly.
   Similarly the company’s ‘power flower’ motor assembly employed in Utopia models’ midrange drivers uses multi-ferrites to improve linearity, Focal claiming improved precision by using multiple magnets rather than relying on massive magnets that often vary in uniformity. And all this without even mentioning Focal’s technical tour de force, its inverted dome tweeter formed of pure Beryllium that is manufactured entirely in-house.
   Significantly lighter and stiffer than titanium and with good self-damping and heat dissipation, beryllium is known to be an ideal material out of which to form a tweeter dome. Trouble is, it’s both expensive and difficult to work with, requiring a HazMat (hazardous materials) clean room environment. The number of companies in the world that can fabricate beryllium drivers can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The lacquered MDF panels are 5cm (2in) thick and braced internally, which in part accounts for the Maestros’ immense 116kg weight. Man-handling them down the narrow staircase into my basement listening room was like something out of a Laurel and Hardy movie. Adding to the weight of each speaker are the substantial magnets used in the drivers’ motor assemblies. Focal’s familiar inverted dome beryllium tweeter is joined with a 16.5cm (6.5in) midrange driver and two 27cm (11in) woofers housed in separate chambers.
   As with the midrange driver these two bass drivers employ Focal’s ‘W’ cones boasting light weight and high stiffness. The upper woofer, operating from 90Hz-220Hz, has a single magnet and 40mm voice coil and is housed in a sealed chamber that is decompressed by seven holes through to the vented chamber below. The lower driver with its double magnet and 50mm voice coil is used as a ‘subwoofer’ from 90Hz to 20Hz, its chamber venting via a downward firing port. The aim here is that the two drivers should operate in phase in the sub-bass range with maximum efficiency to deliver oodles of clean, effortless bass.
   The character of the bass delivery in-room can be adjusted thanks to what Focal calls its Magnetic Damping System (MDS). The lower ‘subwoofer’ driver in fact has a second voice coil that’s not connected directly to the amplifier driving the speaker but rather is used as a sensor of the back EMF of the driver. It’s connected to a ladder network of resistors in the crossover, with three settings available. By moving the position of the links on the rear panel you can damp the subwoofer driver to ‘tighten’ the bass, allow the low frequencies to all hang out, or settle for a halfway measure.

There are few speakers in the world this large and imposing that are able to disguise their size by sounding so agile and uncoloured. Thanks to the dense, inert structure of the enclosures the Maestros display no obvious box colouration, no cabinet signature that honks along with the music.
   Bass lines are truly physical, demonstrating immense oomph that ‘thwack’ you in the stomach with appropriate recordings. Sit far enough away from them and the bass goes very, very low as well. My two-minute test of low frequency extension, an organ recording on the Wilson Audiophile label [WCD-806/8419] sent pressure waves rolling across the carpet and flapping my trouser legs most satisfactorily.
   But this is not actually the first thing that grabs the attention when initially hearing the Maestros, rather it’s the midband presence and sparkling treble detail. The resolving ability of the system is extraordinary, in the fashion of a truly great studio monitor. Due to its vivid nature the treble can be described as a little ‘hot’, consequently this speaker will take no prisoners when it comes to the quality of a system’s components upstream. Only the finest sources and amplifiers are appropriate here. Cheap electronics will be ruthlessly exposed and that hot treble could soon become fatiguing if your system’s electronics are not highly civilised.
   While perhaps a little middle-of-the-road for my heavier taste in music, I’ve recently found myself rediscovering the charms of Barb Junger’s Just Like A Woman album, her ‘hymn to Nina’ [Simone] released by Linn Records last year on SACD [AKD 309]. It’s a fabulous recording, as one might expect, with a wide dynamic range and delightfully natural tonal balance.
   And it’s with recordings like this that the Maestros can have the listener tied to a seat and spellbound. From the opening bars of ‘Lilac Wine’ as Danny Thompson’s string bass slurs out the initial notes of the intro, there’s a realism to the musical event that can’t fail to draw you in to the performance.
   The Maestros are like a magnifying glass allowing you to inspect each facet of the recording engineer’s art and every nuance of a musician’s intent. From the sampled clock ticking in the background and the ghostly electronic keyboards hovering high in the soundstage, to the phrasing of the piano to the fore, with the Maestros you feel like a voyeur spying on the recording session.

Later in the album the quirky arrangement of Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’, with its up-tempo samba-esque beat, has a dense mix of instruments that most loudspeakers would reproduce as a wall of sound. With the Maestros you can pick out individual musicians at will, hearing backing vocal lines and keyboard fills that only such a high resolution monitor enables the listener to delineate.
   It’s not just the scale that provides the sense of ‘being there’, it’s also the fast attack of instruments’ leading edges and the sharp, crystalline clarity of high frequency sounds. And talking of scale, when first hearing these monstrous Maestros alongside the gangantuan Grande EMs in Focal’s big listening room I recalled enjoying a selection of guitar greats ‘full sized’. There’s nothing quite like the illusion of Jeff Beck or Stevie Ray Vaughan standing 6ft tall and performing before your very eyes.
   Among a selection of tracks played as discs were plucked feverishly at random from the shelves of Focal’s music collection was Dire Straits’ ‘Private Investigations’ from 1985’s Love Over Gold album. Once regarded a killer demonstration track that could be heard wafting down the corridors of every hi-fi exhibition the world over, I hadn’t heard it for, crikey, it must be a decade or longer. We played it at a ‘realistic’ volume level, shall we say.
   It was an exhilarating trip down memory lane, thrilling inasmuch as those subtle details hidden within the recording – the little nuances that had us concentrating so hard to see if our systems could resolve them – were all laid bare with consummate ease.
   It wasn’t too long after the Maestros were up and running in my basement listening room that I found myself digging out my well worn vinyl copy of Love Over Gold [Vertigo 6359109] that hadn’t seen daylight for goodness knows how many years. And how the memories came flooding back... again. Except that when I used to play it in the late ’80s I didn’t have a pair of £30k loudspeakers at the end of my room driven by a Levinson No.383 amplifier.
   Wow! As if the explosive reverb-laden drum attacks weren’t impressive enough, along with the pumping, subterranean bass notes that subsequently led me to de-clutter some shelves in my room due to rattles and resonances that aren’t usually there, it was the manner in which the piano is so evidently assaulted with utter venom that proved nothing short of startling. And yet while the shattering onslaught ensued, Mike Mainieri’s marimba remained entirely intelligible within the ongoing mayhem.
   OK, so they are big and bold, and fast, and capable of reproducing huge dynamic swings. Rock on! But feed the Maestros something gentle, a delightful recording of delicate chamber music, perhaps, and the scale of reproduction is equally enthralling. Musicians appear life-sized and instruments display the ‘body’ and timbre of the real thing rather than sounding like electronically reproduced facsimiles.

Whether listening to early Genesis albums from their Peter Gabriel era, Jethro Tull, Sir James Galway or a wind ensemble, you must have noticed how hi-fi systems – loudspeakers, especially – struggle to reproduce the sound of a flute. They might get away with it at low volume, but try increasing the amplifier’s gain to recreate something approaching a realist sound pressure level and the sound of a system soon becomes shrill, piercing and uncomfortable. Not so with the Maestro Utopias.
   I’d intended to listen to a track from Prophetic Attitude by the French wind quintet Le Concert Impromptu [L’empreinte Digitale ED13071,  distributed by Harmonia Mundi], delightful arrangements of Frank Zappa compositions conducted by French contemporary composer Jean-Michel Bossini. Instead I ended up listening to the entire set lasting the best part of an hour. I was transfixed by the sound of the bassoon, clarinet, oboe, horn and flute captured in space on the recording and reverberating in my room – without any hint of glare or ‘fizz’ from the resonant flute, while the resounding bassoon honked away with guttural gusto.

After spending several weeks basking in the highly explicit, full range sound of the Maestro Utopias, the time eventually came to wave them a fond farewell. The help of an acquaintance who runs a demolition company in south London was called upon; he duly arrived early one morning with a crew of burly, strapping fellows. You know the type: the sort of guys who like to show off by carrying a piano under each arm.
   Blow me down, they’d humped the Maestros up the stairs to the ground floor and parked them in my hallway before the kettle had boiled. I was of course ‘assisting’ by making mugs of tea. Later, when a couple of Focal representatives arrived with the Maestro’s wooden shipping crates, you’ve never seen two guys look more relieved. One of them still had a dodgy back from having struggled to get them down my stairs in the first place.
   You needn’t feel too sorry for me now that I’ve been robbed of them. It’s not that I don’t still have a hi-fi system to die for. Moreover with my line source Townshend Galahad speakers I can enjoy a ‘full range’ listening experience at lower volume, enjoying music late into the night without disturbing other members of the household.
   But already I’m missing that wonderful detail retrieval, explicit midrange presence and absence of upper bass bloom that makes the Maestro a great reference monitor. Spending a few weeks living with Focal’s Maestro Utopias is an experience I won’t forget.

Don’t expect the Maestro to sound like a bigger Scala with increased bass extension. While the Scala is designed to deliver refined music in a typical living room, Focal has voiced the Maestro to be an uncompromising ‘monitor’. Consequently it sounds immediate, fast, and unforgiving. It’s a transparent window through which to observe the recording engineer’s art.

Originally published in the October 2009 issue