Focal.JMLab L&R Utopia Be and Sub Utopia

31st Mar 2005 | 23:00

Big can be beautiful

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

This level of achievement doesn't come cheap, but state-of-the-art high-end performance never does

Like:

<p>Superb mid-range and imaging</p><p>Spectacular build</p>

Dislike:

<p>The sub is difficult to integrate</p><p>Making a 5.1 system frustrating to implement</p>

Focal.JMlab is the largest French specialist loudspeaker manufacturer, and puts its name to several complete ranges of loudspeakers. Top of the tree is the Utopia Be range.

Like a number of other manufacturers, Focal.JMlab develops technologies for its prestige line, and follows them up with simplified versions for more affordable ranges. The Utopia Be rage is compromised only by the size constraints for each model.

At the pinnacle of the range is the Grande Utopia Be, which took six people two hours to get into my listening room. But here we have something more practical. A Utopia Be range model, with all the technological sophistication and killer build quality of the flagship, but in a more compact package.

The Utopia Be L&R is a stand-mount loudspeaker, though as stand mounts go, it is a much larger (and heavier) proposition than most. Used with the dedicated Focal.JMlab pedestal stands it reaches 120cm, which will just fit under a ceiling-mount drop-down projection screen in most rooms.

There is considerable flexibility in the design which can be turned from portrait to landscape orientation, making it more practical.

There is even a special version of the speaker with cosmetic changes to the centrally mounted plate so that the badging looks right when used this way.

Five-a-side

For this test, I used five of the L&R satellite speakers, and a Focal.JMlab's Sub Utopia - an awesomely specified subwoofer. That a sub is essential in any movie sound system goes without saying, so the fact that I experienced problems with this model is worth noting. More on this later...

The L&R Utopia Be is about as big as a stand-mount speaker can be without looking completely out of place. Its internal volume is comparable to many floorstanders, and its nominal operating range stretches down to around 45Hz (-3dB) anechoically, but allowing for the usual room reinforcement (reflections from nearby walls selectively adds to output in the lower frequency range) the effective bandwidth extends to 35Hz (-6dB) (according to the maker's figures). For once, I suspect it's being conservative.

The L&R Utopia Be is not quite what it seems at first, that is a three driver two-way loudspeaker with a tweeter amidships. Nor is it a D'Appolito speaker, a specific type of speaker which looks similar to the L&R from the front.

The forward facing complement consists of two midrange units on sub-baffles which are angled slightly and form an arc with the tweeter so that all drivers 'focus' on the plane of the listener's head, an arrangement described as 'Focus Time'.

The tweeter is a sophisticated rare earth magnet system and an inverted dome unit made from an extremely exotic material - beryllium - which is formed from a proprietary process much thinner, (25 microns), than the normal 40 microns.

This helps gives the system an unusually extended frequency response (no super tweeters needed here) and better damping, which means superior control over resonances in the dome. The larger units use exotic ultra-lightweight sandwich cones.

Hidden extra feature

The reason why the L&R Utopia Be is not all it seems is that there's a fourth, sideways firing drive unit, hidden from view, which points towards the right-hand side of an upright speaker (or upwards when horizontal) to provide bass.

By doing this, the possibilities of similar room resonances from the last and right speakers when they are positioned equal distances from side walls is minimised. The logic is impeccable, but there are possible room configurations where the speakers are used close to the side walls - where this arrangement could prove difficult.

One solution would be to rotate individual speakers through 180°, which would then suggest turning the tweeter in the cabinet for cosmetic reasons. This is not something that should be done at home.

The subwoofer is a powerful direct radiating design equipped with a 16in (406mm) sandwich cone driver in a huge slot-vented enclosure and powered by a 1kW BASH amplifier.

Performance artist

During testing, the system was used with stereo and multichannel sources (CD, Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio). The benefit of using five identical satellites driven full range was to provide an unusually firm, enveloping image, and one in which the sound remained consistent irrespective of its source.

Integrating the Sub Utopia Be is a bit more difficult as positioning is critical. In a crowded configuration in a small room, for example, it tends to slow down the sound rather than add impact.

It was possible to mitigate these effects by either moving the crossover frequency down towards 40Hz, by reducing the sub's volume, or by altering its position - or a combination of all three.

But in my listening room, it was not possible to arrive at a compromise that performed as a whole without reducing the gain of the system so far that the sub was making no useful contribution. This is a serious issue for those users looking to implement a 5.1 movie system.

Smooth and detailed

The system is smooth and fabulously detailed, with an elegant and broadly neutral tonality leavened with a hint of warmth. The L&R sounds full blooded and responsive, though there is a trace of overhang following heavy transients.

As usual, the real glory of the Utopia Be is the fabulous midrange, which has depth, warmth and pungency combined with class leading detail. What's more, it's capable of a genuinely multifaceted performance, so that the individual parts of a complex recording are kept simultaneously in focus without clogging sound up or erasing fine detail.

The L&R Utopia Be is, in short, a credible and realistic transducer, which is gentle and softly spoken, but can bark like a true heavyweight when required.

The basic system is among the most refined, capable and musical you can buy, as well as being able to fend for itself through the vagaries of complex film soundtracks of any speaker system at or near the price. This level of achievement doesn't come cheap, but state-of-the-art high-end performance never does.

Speakers Hi-Fi/audio
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