Focal Diablo Utopia Speakers Reviewed

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Focal Diablo Utopia Speakers Reviewed


Focal_Diablo_Utopia_bookshelf_speaker_review_3_shot.jpgWhen 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.

Additional Resources
� 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.

Focal_Diablo_Utopia_bookshelf_speaker_review_black.jpgWith 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.

Focal_Diablo_Utopia_bookshelf_speaker_review_red.jpgThe Hookup
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

Performance
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.

HTR Product Rating for Focal Diablo Utopia Speakers

Criteria Rating

Performance

4.5

Value

3

Overall

4

Disagree with our product rating? Email us and tell us why you think this product should receive a higher rating.


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Here's a video with the same "Sara Smile" track I listened to.



With my iTunes library ripped in 1,440 AIFF files and one mouse-click away at any point in my workday, I cued up "Games People Play" by the Spinners. A classic soul jaunt that builds a musical landscape almost one instrument at a time in the opening verse leading to a rich, "Philly Sound" production complete with horns and strings. The first lines immediately strike you with the insane space that the Focals present. Each instrument has its own air and musical place. The lows are tight yet the slight snare hits have just the right amount of attack. The silky-smooth female voice (the producer never says who the voice is but some suggest its Barbara Ingram) that comes on at about 1:30 on the track is lush and engaging in ways that you don't hear in most audiophile systems. I started to realize that I might have stumbled onto something special. The vocal duet with the deep-voiced, third singer and The Spinners front man is the perfect test of how rich these speakers can sound. The musical textures simply lure you in.

Here's a video of the track I listened to. It's not the most produced video but it gives you a good idea of the song.



In keeping with a classic soulful vibe but a more produced, modern song I clicked over to "I Missed Again" from Phil Collins' Face Value album. This track can sometimes collapse down with the mix, other than the beaming horns, but that was not the case with the Focals on the Pass Labs XA30.5 power amp. The depth of field was as good as in my main, highly treated, listening room. The center image was tall but realistic with bass notes before the sax solo that are deep, reaching to the point that you might wonder if you had a subwoofer connected.

On The Police's "Sprits In The Material World" from the Ghost In The Machine Compact Disc (16/44 CD), Stuart Copeland's drum set jumped out at me with a level of resolution that was simply jaw dropping. The tiny little cymbal catches and quick-stops that he does rivet those listening to the artistry of this 1980s pop music. Bands like The Police simply don't get the credit they deserve for their overall musicianship. Yes, the songs were (and still are) catchy - but man, could these guys play - and with the Focal Utopia Diablos installed in my system you simply hear more of the good stuff. To me a speaker that gets me closer to the music I love (not the audiophile stuff being played at the snob-o-torium stereo shops) is why expensive speakers end up being worth the big-time asking price.

Thankfully, this track has an actual MTV-quality music video for your enjoyment.



Another great moment with Focal Diablo Utopia speakers was on Van Halen's "Little Guitars (intro)" from Diver Down. God damn, Eddie Van Halen can play some guitar and by the time this record came to market in 1982 you get to hear his musical flexibility as this flamenco guitar intro is just over-the-top. Audiophiles don't tend to seek out vintage Van Halen tracks for demo music but this "cheating" song (as Eddie called it in a 1982 interview) packs all of the drama, space, boldness, musical energy and enthusiasm that you need to WOW your friends. Literally, cue up this 42 second-long cut for your buddies and without you saying one word you can explain why you'd spend the money on speakers like the Focal Utopia Diablos. If they are lucky you will roll the intro - the main "Little Guitars" track, which is vintage Van Halen featuring a whole other production quality including Eddie's "Brown Sound," which also sounds pretty fantastic but the intro track really captures your attention.

Here's a quick video for "Little Guitars (intro)" in case you want to take a listen.



Getting into some more hard-hitting music, I transitioned into "Out On The Tiles" from Live at the Greek with The Black Crowes and Jimmy Page. This live recording made right here at The Greek Theater highlights the music of Led Zeppelin as performed by the band The Black Crowes who were at their musical peak and only made better by the addition of Jimmy Page. This is where the bass performance of the Focal Diablo Utopia speakers started to really shine. The syncopated, driving drum and bass are far-reaching for such a small speaker. While they don't go to the lowest of depths like I get from my more full range speakers at home - you might be shocked at how low these little suckers go. And while they are going low, they never lose their composure higher up the frequency chain.

Here is a live video of The Black Crowes doing this Zeppelin song, which is pretty close to what I listened to for the review. Its performance is a little more produced the cut on the studio album.



I finished up my musical listening session with acoustician, Bob Hodas' favorite bass demo "Hella Good" from No Doubt's Rock Steady. Don't write this track off as some pop junk, as it's a nicely crafted track that isn't afraid to go deep. I learned that the Focals like being cranked up as they open up much more at high levels (100 dB-ish) and produced even better bass. I went back and re-listened to my tracks in this review when I could really crank the Diablos up without pissing anybody off with my musical session. The critical moment comes in "Hella Good" at the first chorus, which is where most speakers vomit on themselves with a collapsed soundstage and loss of depth. Not with the Focal Diablo Utopias, as these speakers grab hold of the image and musical picture and keep it together even when you torture test it. Frankly put, these speakers are up for whatever you want to throw at them, whenever you want to throw it their way.

Here's the "Hella Good" MTV video.



The Downside
I will say that the Focal Utopia Diablo speakers do better at healthy volumes than they do whispering and sadly I have to have them whispering for much of my listening. That's more my fault than the speaker's, as it takes a little energy to get the Diablos to come out of their shell. I just can't always crank them up the way they should be played and they are a little reserved at low levels.

The modern design of the Focal Diablo Utopia speakers are exactly my idea of what a high end audiophile speaker should look like. Their stands are sleek and the speakers have that "spine" design that I just love on the Grand Utopia reference speakers however for some people the look might be a touch too edgy.

Comparison and Competition
The aforementioned Bowers & Wilkins PM1s are solid competition for the Focal Diablo Utopia speakers. At nearly three times the price, you have every right to expect more from the Focals and having listened to both speakers in my new office system - the Diablos deliver but that is without a question at a cost. The PM1s are true gems at their price.

The Wilson Audio Duette speaker is direct competition for the Focal Diablo Utopia. The Duette does well parked against a wall when the Diablo sets up more traditionally. The industrial design of the Focal Diablo Utopia is heads and shoulders better than the Wilson; however I do love the idea of Duettes in Aston Martin Dark Titanium.

You could safely start comparing the Focal Diablo Utopias with floorstanding speakers in the high-end realm. My Paradigm Reference S8s are not as refined as the Focals, but they output much more sound including bass. Revel Ultima Studio2s are in the same price range and that would be a battle royale in a shootout.

Focal_Diablo_Utopia_bookshelf_speaker_review_in_room.jpgConclusion
The blessing of having owned many of the best loudspeakers the world has known has been a lot of fun. The fact that I haven't owned Focals is somewhat of a head-scratcher. They belong in the discussion with the likes of Bowers & Wilkins, Revel, Wilson Audio, Magico and others in the very high-end audio debate. I might suggest that they demand to be at the beginning of the conversation as these speakers present music in a way that lures you in to the emotion of the performance and the details of the recording. They are not so analytical that your favorite music will somehow sound overly detailed - instead they are sonically (and physically) the embodiment of balance.

The Focal Diablo Utopia speakers aren't designed for the value-seeking consumer as much as they are designed for a performance freak who loves music as much if not more than any other art form. For $12,000 plus - expect to be seduced by your music collection all over again. Add in a top-level subwoofer and expect to get 85 to 90 percent of the performance of the $185,000 Focal Grand Utopia BE reference speakers, a speaker that many think are the best speakers money can buy. If you wanted to make an argument that this makes the Diablos a relative value, I wouldn't argue with you. When paired with a sub, Focal Diablos will take on Wilson Sasha WPs, Bowers & Wilkins 800 Diamonds, Revel Salon2s and Magicos and give them a run for their money on all counts. At this point, you really haven't been shopping for high-end speakers if you haven't auditioned Focals along with the other usual suspects.

For me, I have found the right speaker for my office. These speakers have the sound, the engineering, the industrial design and the profile to look and sound absolutely stunning. Do yourself a favor and go out of your way if you have to hear the Focal Diablo Utopia speakers. Even if you are in the market for speakers that cost one tenth the price, you need to know what Focal can do because they are as good as it gets when it comes to loudspeaker designers. You will not be disappointed. I promise.

Additional Resources
� 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.


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