Focal-JMlab Diva Utopia Be Surround Speaker System

Focal-JMlab has been manufacturing speaker drivers and systems from its home base in Saint-Etienne, France, since 1980. They first became known to audiophiles in the US for their range of Focal drive units, particularly their inverted-dome tweeters. The latter were used by a number of makers of speaker systems. One of them, Wilson Audio Specialties, has likely been Focal's most loyal customer over the years, having used various Focal drivers in most of its models since the original Wilson Audio Tiny Tot, aka the WATT, was produced in the mid-1980s.

In 1995, Focal-JMlab launched its own no-compromise speaker system, the Grande Utopia. While designed as a reference standard for the company's other, more affordable designs, it found its own niche in the market among rabid and well-heeled fans. I know of one enthusiast who uses no fewer than five Grande Utopias in his home-theater system (along with several large subwoofers and five of the biggest Mark Levinson amplifiers—but that's another story). He's probably not the only one, though at roughly $35,000 for each Grande Utopia in mid-1990s prices, there isn't likely to be another system like it in your town. Or in your state.

The Grande Utopia was followed by models of similar though less, um, grande-iose design. Then, in 2002, Focal-JMlab completely revised the Utopia line around updates of the core technologies that had distinguished the original. But there were significant new developments as well. The most impressive of these, a tweeter with a diaphragm of pure beryllium, gave the speakers a new name.

The Utopia Be series—Be for beryllium—was born.

A Tweeter for All Seasons
Focal has long argued the superiority of the inverted-dome tweeter over more conventional convex designs. Over the course of 20 years they've introduced progressive refinements to the basic design, the most visible of which has been a progression in dome materials from the original, distinctive yellow fiber to titanium. The latter is still used in many of the company's more popularly priced products.

But with the advent of the high-resolution audio formats of SACD and DVD-Audio, which are capable of response to beyond 40kHz, the market, particularly in the Far East, demanded such an extended response in state-of-the-art speakers. While we might dispute the need for smooth response to beyond the well-established 20kHz (at best) upper limit of human hearing, one might argue—as Focal-JMlab does—that extending the response further into the ultrasonic region improves the transient response of the tweeter in ways that are audible.

To reach beyond 20kHz, a material even lighter and more rigid than titanium was needed. Pure (not alloyed) beryllium, with a density 2.5 times lower than titanium and a rigidity three times higher, seemed ideal. Manufacturing such a dome, however, would not prove easy or cheap. But in a two-year R&D effort, Focal-JMlab devised a fabrication process by which they could form a rigid dome from a thin sheet of beryllium and use it in a functioning tweeter.

When I visited the Focal-JMlab plant in mid-2002, Focal's head designer, Dominic Baker, was still performing the beryllium-dome manufacturing process himself. But the company's flagship project, the Grande Utopia Be, had just been completed. Since then, the tweeter has found its way into six Utopia models, plus some professional designs. Presumably, others have now been trained to make the domes!

A tweeter consists of more than just a dome, of course. To drive the dome, Focal-JMlab developed the Focus Ring magnet, consisting of a samarium-cobalt core surrounded by a neodymium ring. Together, these two materials concentrate the magnetic field for maximum efficiency. They also minimize the buildup of heat, which would otherwise result in magnetic losses and possible power compression.

Other Tech
In all three of the full-range models under consideration here, a new 6.5-inch driver is used as either a mid-woofer or woofer. Development of this driver began with a further refinement of the W-cone technology Focal-JMlab has used since 1995. The cone now consists of glass tissue bonded to both sides of a thin, rigid foam core. This strong, light, structure is driven by the company's Power Flower magnet. Named for its obvious shape, the Flower consists of seven powerful, small-diameter magnets laid out around the voice coil. These multiple magnets are said to produce a more consistent, low-loss magnetic field than a single, larger magnet, for a more tightly controlled tonal balance.

Focal-JMlab's Optimum Phase Crossover (OPC), with its fourth-order electrical (sixth-order acoustical) slopes at 2.5kHz, is designed to provide the smoothest possible transition between the midrange and tweeter—the most audibly significant leg of any speaker system's crossover network. The characteristics of both the drivers and the crossover network are critical in obtaining a smooth, even frequency response both on- and off-axis.

Putting It Together
Our review system was anchored by the most recent model in the Utopia range: the Diva Utopia Be. With its narrow front baffle, the Diva looks much smaller than is suggested by its height of nearly 4 feet. Just as important, a pair of them slip in nicely to the left and right of a projection screen without looking like obelisks from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And if you're using a perforated screen, the midrange and tweeter are at a reasonable height for such a setup. A single W-cone midrange and beryllium tweeter cover the range above 100Hz. Two 8-inch W-cone woofers, mounted near the floor on either side of the cabinet, complete the package.

The two-way Micro Utopia Be looks much like the top third of the Diva, but in the Micro the drivers are inverted (tweeter on top) and the port is located in a slot between the tweeter and midrange, rather than the Diva's conventional duct. The Center Utopia Be adds a second midrange driver and a top-mounted 10-inch woofer. The latter is an unusual feature in a center-channel speaker, as is the Center's weight of 86 pounds. Also unusual, to my mind, is the fact that the Diva crosses over to its two woofers at 100Hz, while the Center crosses over to its single woofer at 250Hz. I suspect this has something to do with maximizing the Center's power handling. The Center may also be rotated 90-degrees, stand mounted, and used as a left-right and/or surround speaker (or as a center positioned behind an acoustically transparent screen). It is shown in both configurations on page 2.

The Sub Utopia Be is a massive, 121-pound affair incorporating a 1000W Bridge Amplifier/Switch Hybrid (BASH) amp and a 16-inch driver, the latter also using Focal-JMlab's W-cone technology.

The subwoofer's amplifier control/input/output panel takes up most of its rear baffle; the rest is occupied by the Sub Utopia Be's Turbulence Free Port (TFP). Both single-ended and balanced inputs are provided, for both Stereo (L/R) and LFE . I used the latter, in single-ended form, for all of my listening. This input bypasses the sub's onboard lowpass filter, which is continuously variable from 40 to 160Hz at the Stereo inputs. Many subwoofer manufacturers use the term LFE for such an input, a designation that's not entirely correct and can be confusing. This"LFE" input can be used for whatever bass comes out of an AV receiver or preamplifier-processor's subwoofer output, whether that output is set up to carry just the LFE channel (the ".1" in a 5.1 system) or, more commonly, includes bass from some or all of the other channels as well. The only requirement is that this signal has already been lowpass-filtered by the pre-pro or receiver; the "LFE" input provides no such filtering.

In addition, both Stereo and "LFE" balanced outputs are provided for daisy-chaining additional subwoofers. There are also a continuously variable phase control (0–180_), separate level controls for the Stereo and LFE inputs, and an On/Off/Auto (automatic switch-on from standby when a signal is sensed) power switch. I used On for all of my tests.

All of the Utopia Be models , including those reviewed here, feature massive, heavily braced cabinets behind their elegant exteriors. Even the small Micro Utopia Be weighs more than 38 pounds without its stand. Three finishes are available, all in various shades of ash. All of the full-range models feature a single pair of high-quality WBT input terminals that will accept spade connectors, bare wire, or single banana plugs. (Focal-JMlab does not recommend biwiring, so does not provide for it.)