When the best speaker engineers and acoustical engineers are raving about a speaker that isn't their own - you know you might be on the right path to finding yourself a good transducer, which is just how I stumbled upon Focal's Diablo Utopia audiophile bookshelf speakers. My good friends Kevin Voecks (Revel Loudspeakers) and acoustician/room tuner, Bob Hodas both suggested that I take a look at Focal's top-of-the-line bookshelf speaker for the crazy system that I was building in Luxury Publishing Group's new West Los Angeles offices. While the system is in an office environment, the goal is to merge all of the topics that we discuss into one AV experience.
• Read more bookshelf speaker reviews by the HomeTheaterReview.com staff.
• Look for an amplifier to drive the Diablo Utopias in our Amplifier Review section.
• Explore source options in our Source Component Review section.
The system starts with sources like a Mac Pro tower computer loaded with uncompressed AIFF files in iTunes, an Oppo Digital BDP-93 Blu-ray player and a cable box. The preamp is a Benchmark DAC1 PRE going balanced to a Pass Labs XA 30.5 class-A operation amplifier. The equipment is all rack mounted in a Middle Atlantic rack in a light, birch wood cabinet on casters. The cables are all Transparent but here comes the trick part. I used my Apple iPad along with the Crestron app (and a Crestron brain) to run the entire system's controls including lights, shades (coming soon from Lutron) and all of the toys via custom Crestron programming.
The challenge was to find speakers that would not only have the look of this modern-designed "beachy" office with views from the ocean in Malibu to The Getty Museum in the east - but would sound as good as what I have at home with a fully dialed-in, purpose-built media room. The first speaker I considered was the $6,750 MartinLogan Ethos speakers with a custom shop finish of bird's eye maple and brushed aluminum. However I didn't get too far with the MartinLogans, as the positioning and imaging issues were going to be too difficult since my listening position is significantly off-axis for much of my day. The next contender was Bowers and Wilkins' sex-on-a-stick bookshelf speakers called the PM1s. Basically, you get much of the B&W 800 Diamond sound that Andrew Robinson raves about for about $20,000 less. Sadly, they didn't get up and jump on 30 Watts per channel from my Pass Labs amp as they did at Andrew's place and in nearly every demo that I have heard the PM1s in.
With a few strikes in the count, I started calling in favors to figure out what speakers would rise to the challenge, which is how I got to the Focal Diablo Utopias. The Utopias are speakers that are like a bookshelf version of the middle of a Focal Grand Utopia BE floorstanding reference speaker. They have the same "spine-like" design; however unlike the Grand Utopia BEs, the tweeter and woofer on the Diablos are not adjustable. The midrange driver used in the Diablos is a six and a half inch, patented driver called "power flower" (their name, not mine). I can tell you Focal makes some of the finest drivers in the world. Ask Wilson Audio, as they use an older version of a Focal tweeter in their uber-high-end speakers. Speaking of tweeters, the Focal beryllium tweeter is pretty much as good as money can buy. I have become used to the sound of a beryllium tweeter with my Paradigm Reference Signature S8 speakers and the resolution, detail yet lack of fatigue is something to behold.
The Focal Diablo Utopia speakers come in finishes including Carrera Red, Imperial White and your standard black lacquer. I almost ordered red but I choked and went with black, as they look fantastic parked near a Christian Liaigre modern French sofa. Their industrial design is second to none in the world of audiophila, even if they only come in three standard colors. For no additional cost but some delay in shipping, you can order your Diablos in a color that would match your Diablo if you like. Custom colors at the factory are available at no additional cost. The stands are also engineered to the hilt and look like they belong in a high-end home. The feet are machined to the Nth degree and the "slung back" look of the speakers on the stands only adds to their visual appeal. Simply put, if you came home with a pair of Focal Diablo Utopias, your wife might really like them as they are designed to impress. I'd also tell her they are designed by the same guy who does most of Christian Louboutin's shoes, just to take it over the top. You'd be lying, but she likely wouldn't check, as these speakers are damn sexy in person. In fact, bring home a pair of Louboutins and you might get any audio upgrade you want in the future. Just a little hint from your pal, Jerry.
Setting up the Focal Diablo Utopia speakers was pretty easy. I had a lot of help from Pierce here in my office as he cracked open the boxes and stands. The whole process of getting them on the stands and spiked took about 30 minutes and that was being very, very careful.
Imaging the speakers was also easy as compared to my Paradigms, Revel Salon2s and especially the Wilson Audio WATT Puppys which are notoriously finicky for speaker placement. The biggest issue for me wasn't getting them to image properly, for a little toe-in was all that was needed in that department. The issue I had was loading the corners with too much bass. These little suckers put out some bass energy and you need to work around that to give them a little room to breathe. The idea that they would ever go on a bookshelf is a joke. These speakers are like art and deserve to be placed out in your room. They don't have to dominate but they will reward you with one hell of a performance if you get them out into your room a little.
Focal was kind enough to spend two weeks while I was traveling to break-in these speakers for me, which cut down on the time I had to spend breaking them in. I'd say a good 100 hours will get them to their optimal performance but even right out of the box, they're impressive
Having just gotten back from two trips to my hometown of Philadelphia, I started off with an excellent soul track from Hall and Oates in "Sara Smile." Influenced deeply by the artists surrounding Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the producers behind the lauded "Philly Sound" soul music of the 1970's, including The O'Jays, The Jacksons, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and many others - Hall and Oates bring their own more suburban bent to the music with fantastic results. While you won't likely hear hit songs like "Sara Smile" blasting from rooms at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest or a CES room at The Venetian, it's one hell of a demo track when you are testing a killer set of speakers that can resolve very deep detail and texture. The air around John Oates' slick Strat sounds open with stunning air around it and quickly transitions into Darryl Hall's soulful vocals. The closer is at the chorus when Oates harmonizes in with Hall and the whole musical picture comes together. I was left thinking, this is the type of luxury that people who love music would pay for as opposed to simply appealing to well-versed audiophiles. These speakers helped me get more into the music in a way that I haven't heard from my Wilson's, Revels and Bowers & Wilkins in a long time.