Engineer and high-fidelity enthusiast Jacques Mahul founded Focal-JMlab in 1979. He began making speaker drivers at a family-owned engineering company in Saint-Etienne, France. Not long after, Mahul built his first speaker, the DB13, a standmounted design released in 1982 under the JMlab brand name. The DB13 was one of the first speakers to utilize a double voice-coil speaker driver, which enabled it to play as loudly as many floorstanding models of the time.
Focal-JMlab, known to most simply as Focal, is still located in Saint-Etienne and has grown into one of the largest manufacturers of loudspeakers in the world, offering an impressive range of high-fidelity, home-theater, custom-installation, automobile, and professional speakers, as well as subwoofers, headphones, a headphone amplifier, and a limited assortment of electronics. SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider visited Focal last November and wrote about his experience on SoundStage! Hi-Fi.
In 1995, Focal announced its release of the Utopia loudspeaker, which at the time represented the pinnacle of what the company had to offer in terms of technology, materials, design, and performance. The first major revision was the Utopia Be, released in 2002, followed by the Utopia III in 2008. In 2017, Focal introduced the Utopia III Evo, a speaker replete with innovations, including the company’s Neutral Inductance Circuit (NIC) and revised Tuned Mass Damper (TMD) technologies, terminal plates enabling mild upper- and lower-frequency attenuation, and five new cabinet finishes.
The monstrous 584-pound, 6′ 6″-tall Grande Utopia EM Evo ($279,998/pair, all prices USD) remains the flagship of the Evo lineup, followed by the Stella Utopia EM Evo ($149,998/pair), Maestro Utopia Evo ($75,998/pair), and the topic of this review, the Scala Utopia Evo ($53,598/pair). There is also a standmount speaker, the Diablo Utopia Colour Evo ($20,998/pair), which fellow SoundStage! reviewer Hans Wetzel reviewed on this site in September 2020. To round out a home theater, Focal offers a center speaker, the Viva Center Utopia Colour Evo LCR ($17,999 each), and a passive subwoofer, the Sub Utopia EM Colour Evo ($16,995 each).
Evo = evolution
While the price tag for a pair of Scala Utopia Evos is by no means out of the ordinary in the world of high-end audio speakers, $53,598 is still a lot of money to pay for a pair of loudspeakers. In the past year or so, I’ve become increasingly skeptical about why high-end audio products, particularly speakers, can cost so much. In hopes of appeasing my skepticism, I reached out to Wendy Knowles, head of public relations for Focal Naim America, and asked her a number of questions about how the Scala Utopia Evo is built and why it costs as much as it does. I learned a lot about what goes into building a Focal speaker during our exchange.
Each Scala Utopia Evo is handmade entirely in France. Each speaker tips the scale at 187.4 pounds, measuring 49 1/8″H × 15 1/2″W × 26 3/8″D. The robust plinth on which it rests is thoughtfully shipped with wheels in place, making unpacking and positioning a snap. Once positioned, the wheels beneath each speaker are intended to be suspended with a quartet of intricately milled, solid-aluminum adjustable floor spikes.
The design of the three-way Scala places each of its three drivers in an independent cabinet. The drivers, made in-house by Focal, consist of a 1.1″ pure beryllium inverted-dome tweeter, a 6 1/2″ W-cone Power Flower midrange driver, and a 10 5/8″ W-cone woofer. Each cabinet is aligned so that the driver contained within it fires vertically on axis with the listener. The benefit of this approach, which Focal calls Focus Time, is that the phase of each driver is mechanically optimized in the direction of the listener. In the Scala, Maestro, and the Stella EM, the enclosure positions are fixed, while the range-topping Grand Utopia EM Evo model offers manual adjustment of enclosure angles using a detachable arm included with the speakers.
Construction of a Scala Utopia Evo begins with the formation of the cabinet. Focal refers to the architectural design of its cabinets as their Gamma Structure technology and describes their method of cabinet construction as producing “a heavy anti-vibration structure optimized using vibration cartography.” Each piece of MDF that goes into an Evo cabinet is precision cut in Focal’s woodworking facility. First, the exoskeleton of each enclosure is constructed, then internal braces of up to an inch thick are added using a specific bonding agent. Once the pieces are assembled and bonded together, they are left to cure for a minimum of 24 hours. Focal enlisted the help of a French specialist who used vibration cartographies of each cabinet to identify vibration hot spots. Despite the already substantial weight and thickness of the panels used in all Utopia cabinets, the analysis showed that reinforcements were required in specific areas to achieve the desired rigidity, and Focal spared no expense in creating each tomb-like enclosure to extract the best from its resident driver.
The subtly curved top cabinet is home to the latest version of Focal’s 6 1/2″ W-cone Power Flower midrange-driver, a component shared across all Utopia Evo tower speakers. The term Power Flower is not an ode to the hippy culture of the 1960s and ’70s; rather, it refers to the arrangement of magnets forming the heart of every Utopia midrange motor structure. In Focal’s terms, this consists of “an array of several double-stacked ferrite rings, on a circular open pattern regularly distributed around the voice coil.” This patented arrangement of magnets lowers thermal compression and distortion while helping to cool the voice coil, thereby improving the speaker’s power handling and dynamic ability.
The W in W-cone refers to a glass-on-glass assembly in which “two sheets of woven glass tissue are ‘sandwiched’ onto the structural foam core” to create the midrange cone—the time, patience, and technology that apparently goes into engineering this component is staggering. For starters, cone mass is minimized by using unusually long glass fibers, allowing for a very fine weave pattern. Next, a unique resin is used to bond the fibers together at the molecular level, yielding a cone that is, according to Focal, 20 times more rigid than Kevlar and also produces less colored and more transparent sound. Following the initial development of the basic W-cone structure, Focal then spent considerable time optimizing the thicknesses of both the glass-fiber layers and structural foam in specific areas to best tailor the cone to its intended frequency range. The Evo series adds a new feature to the mix, Neutral Inductance Circuit (NIC) technology, designed to help stabilize the impedance and inductance of the voice coil as it moves in and out of the magnetic gap while also improving the driving amplifier’s control over the driver.
Shifting their focus from motor to suspension control, Focal uses its Tuned Mass Damper (TMD) technology across all Scala, Maestro, Stella, and Grande Utopia EM Evo speakers. TMD is designed to reduce deformation of the cone, which helps to enhance the dynamic capabilities of the driver. Applied within the surround of the midrange driver, TMD consists of two tubular rings—geometrically optimized using finite element analysis (FEA) software–that are molded directly onto the surround; this solution was conceived by Focal as a way of reducing distortion of the surround in the 800Hz to 3500Hz frequency range.
The dense yet slender tweeter enclosure that bisects the midrange and bass driver enclosures is finished in matte black to match the aluminum faceplate. Mounted center mass of the faceplate is the pure beryllium inverted-dome tweeter, another component shared by all Utopia Evo loudspeakers. Focal was rather tight lipped on the specifics of this tweeter, but I can report that IAL2, or Infinite Acoustic Loading 2, essentially means that the back of the beryllium-inverted dome and its Poron polyurethane surround are left completely open to be loaded by the quasi-infinite air volume of its specific enclosure. According to Focal, air travels around and between the jet-engine-shaped magnet system, which is composed of five clusters of neodymium magnets oriented lengthwise. This specific arrangement naturally cancels motor warm-up and the risk of neodymium demagnetization while reaching a sensitivity of 95dB. The IAL2 tweeter is made entirely in-house using raw materials purchased from an external supplier, but despite its remarkably wide bandwidth in the Scala Evo—528Hz to 40kHz—it’s crossed over to the midrange at 2400Hz.
The largest enclosure houses Focal’s 10 5/8″ W-cone woofer, which is constructed in much the same way as the W-cone Power Flower midrange, but with bigger, more robust parts. Despite being over 300% larger than the midrange cabinet, the bass enclosure sounded remarkably inert when I performed a knuckle wrap test in multiple areas. In fact, this is easily one of the most inert cabinets I’ve “heard” yet, and it sounded more like a fully filled fish tank than a wooden cabinet. Unlike the sealed midrange and tweeter enclosures, the bass enclosure vents through a large downward-firing port designed to eradicate both airflow noise and dynamic bass compression.
The plinth into which the Scala Evo’s port fires has been finished to match the tweeter enclosure and now includes a new high-quality terminal board capable of accepting banana connectors and cable thicknesses of up to 4mm for the tweeter/midrange and 8mm for the bass. A quartet of well-spaced, high-quality WBT terminals allows for biamping or biwiring. These terminals are flanked by a pair of beefy insulated terminal jumpers, which enable a feature Focal calls OPC+ filtering, through which bass and midrange/tweeter output can be adjusted by +/-1dB each. When cycling through the various jumper positions, I found this feature quite effective. In the end I left both jumpers in their neutral positions except when listening to vinyl. But more on that later.
Focal didn’t provide much information about the Scala Evo’s crossover, but I can tell you that it has been reworked to include OPC+ filtering and upgraded with superior parts and that Focal adjusted the slopes to better suit the Scala Evo’s new drivers based on “exhaustive hours of listening.” The Scala Evo specs claim a sensitivity of 92dB/2.83V/m, a rated frequency response of 27Hz to 40kHz (+/-3dB), and an 8-ohm nominal impedance with a minimum impedance of 3.2 ohms.
When I received my review samples, each speaker was securely packaged in an intimidatingly large box. But I appreciated that Focal ships each Scala Utopia Evo with wheels installed, and I loved that each box contained a ramp enabling me to slide each speaker out of its packaging and into its initial resting place with minimal effort.
Dialing the Scalas in to achieve the best balance of imaging, bass performance, and soundstaging was remarkably easy, too—it took all of 20 minutes per speaker. Best results were achieved by aligning the tweeters so that they crossed over about 1.5′ behind my head, with each speaker placed 2′ from the side walls and just under 5′ from the front wall, leaving about 7′ 6″ between them. Once positioned, I installed the floor spikes, and I was ready to rock!
To drive the Scalas, I used my reference Classé Audio Delta Mono amplifiers and my Audio Research Reference 6SE preamplifier. Sources were an EMM Labs MA3 streaming DAC fed by an Intel NUC running Roon and a Pro-Ject RPM10 Carbon turntable equipped with a Sumiko Starling cartridge feeding a Musical Fidelity M6x phono stage. Power was supplied by a dedicated 20A circuit feeding a Torus AVR 20 power conditioner connected to all components with Clarus Crimson power cables. All analog interconnects were Kimber Kable Select, the speaker cables were Kimber Kable Select 6063s, and the digital interconnect was from Analysis Plus.
Ears open, eyes closed
Kicking things off nice and easy, I queued up Roger Waters’s “Perfect Sense Pt.1” (24-bit/192kHz MQA, Tidal/Columbia) from Amused to Death, his beautifully recorded third studio album, which features Jeff Beck on eight of its 14 tracks. The album is mixed in QSound—a three-dimensional (3D) sound processing algorithm used to position objects well beyond the confines of the speakers. I’ve found the effect of QSound can be heard regardless of the quality of the components or speakers used, although there is a correlation between component quality and how profoundly these effects are rendered, particularly with speakers. On this album, the Scala Utopia Evos communicated QSound’s intended effects better than any speaker I’ve reviewed.
“Perfect Sense” opens with a rant filling center stage that is quickly overlaid by the desperate plea from the HAL 9000 computer, à la 2001: A Space Odyssey. Initially locked center stage, HAL transitions to the right speaker, and directly thereafter, the sound of crackling thunder originates from the far right, well beyond the speaker, and then cascades across the room, eventually completely enveloping me in sound and causing me to lose track of where the speakers were. The sound of thunder was followed by a lush piano, precisely imaged yet massive in scale, situated slightly behind my right ear. The delineation between the layers of effects transpiring on stage was ultraclean yet cohesive, all the while supported by a delicately tapped bongo emanating from deep center stage, off just a few degrees to the left.
I then regrounded myself with the lively yet melodic sound of Sarah McLachlan in “Angel” (16/44.1 FLAC, Nettwerk), from her 2008 album Closer: The Best of Sarah McLachlan. Throughout this track, McLachlan’s voice soared high center stage supported by the warmth of her emotionally played piano just left of center. I could easily appreciate the deep plumy notes of Jim Creeggan’s double bass emanating from behind. Through my reference Paradigm Persona 7Fs, I’m used to the depth and fortitude of Creeggan’s bass notes, but the Scala Utopia Evos brought a greater sense of scale and volume to both. There’s an inherently satisfying quality to the way bass notes are communicated through speakers that rely on a large singular bass driver that I just can’t escape, and if I’m honest, I don’t really want to. I could feel the fortitude of each note in my chest, and while these notes didn’t extend quite as deep as they do through the Paradigms, the presence and scale implied by the Scala Evos quickly enabled me to forget about what little was missing and enjoy the tapestry being painted directly in front of me.
I witnessed this again during “Free Fallin’,” from Tom Petty’s first solo album, Full Moon Fever (24/96 FLAC, MCA). The bassline was not only well defined, it was downright punchy, and it came through with a tactility I’m not used to hearing with this track. Skipping ahead a few tracks to “A Face In the Crowd,” I experienced more of the same—I could hear and feel the kick of the kick drum, but what really caught my ear was how the Scala Evos communicated the various picks, slides, and strums of Petty’s 12-string and Jeff Lynne’s rhythm guitar. The presentation was the antithesis of homogenized sound—each guitar was placed just beyond the outer edge of each speaker, with Mike Campbell’s bass laying down solid lines directly behind Petty’s vocals, which were placed in the center of the stage. The air between the strings of the 6- and 12-string guitars formed a compellingly realistic recreation of the studio session it was recorded in. Micro-level details such as the beads within percussion instruments and the decay of guitar plucks and strums were unparalleled in my room, and the soundstage within which they played was expansive yet well defined, spanning a stage that was about 4′ wider than the confines of my 12′-wide room would normally allow.
But being able to hear into and around a recording, feeling the kick drums in my chest, savoring bass notes enough to describe them as chewy, and seeing an artist in my room with my eyes closed weren’t what surprised me most about the Scala Utopia Evo. The thing that most caught my attention was the speaker’s ability to sound like a point source—as if all the sounds were coming from one driver, as opposed to a speaker with three separately positioned drivers.
No individual driver ever called attention to itself during my listening sessions. Moreover, the cohesiveness of sound from each speaker never faltered, even when different bass and treble settings were chosen using various terminal jumper positions. I grew to love this feature, not only because it enabled me to tailor the speakers’ sound to my room, but because I was able to correct for a slight tilt in tonal balance when switching from digital to vinyl media. In effect, this reminded me a lot of the Tilt feature I experimented with while reviewing Classé’s Delta Pre earlier this year, just to a lesser degree.
Some may look at the cost of Paradigm’s Persona 7F ($24,999/pair) and prematurely conclude that it should never be compared to a speaker that retails for more than twice the price. And they would be dead wrong because the two models are comparable in many ways. Both the 7F and the Scala Evo are high-quality three-way bass-reflex designs that vent through a down-firing port, and both have robust cabinets made of variable-thickness MDF that are reinforced with strategically placed internal braces. Both models use beryllium tweeters, and they’re identically rated at 92dB sensitivity. To determine the value and performance of a product, this is exactly the type of comparison that should be drawn.
During my listening tests, I found that several subtle nuances distinguished each speaker’s sound signature, but the two characteristics that most differentiated the Scala Evo and 7F were bass reproduction and cohesiveness of sound. The Scala Evos consistently revealed punchier, weightier, and richer bass notes with greater volume and impact, despite the use of only one 10 5/8″ driver per speaker compared to the 7F’s twin 8 1/2″ drivers. This made the Scala Evos unequivocally more fun to listen to, particularly at low-to-medium volume levels. But—and this is a big but—the bass note delivery through the 7Fs was unfailingly more resolved, tuneful, and deeper when called for, and it ultimately felt as if this part of the frequency range was communicated through a clearer lens with the Paradigms. To give an example, after queuing up Boz Scaggs’s 2001 album, Dig (16/44.1 FLAC, Virgin), and focusing on the deep and rhythmic bassline on “Thanks to You,” I found that the Paradigms cleanly laid bare all of the bass notes contained within this track, whereas the Focals rolled them off more quickly and at times failed to illustrate the deepest notes altogether. In terms of resolution, the bassline through the Scala Evos was less articulately defined.
In contrast, the Scala Evos disappeared in the room far more easily than the 7Fs and consistently produced better-defined images in space, revealing deeper, wider soundstages and producing a more cohesive sound across the audioband than any speaker I have reviewed. Imaging through both sets of speakers was pinpoint accurate. Both were open and airy, but because the Scala Evos’ tweeters were so much better integrated into the sonic picture and a hint more resolving, the overall sound was simply smoother, more liquid and relaxed, and ultimately more enjoyable to listen to. Something else I appreciated, perhaps due to a bit more midbass body, was the Scala Evos’ ability to imbue a sense of palpability to voices and instruments on stage—the 7Fs simply could not compete in this regard.
Reviewing Focal’s Scala Utopia Evo has been an experience I won’t soon forget. This speaker has a presence and sense of quality that simply screams luxury, and that quality is present in the sound it produces as well. The real question is whether the Scala Utopia Evo offers good value.
Even though value is ultimately a subjective assessment, what I can tell you is that the Scala Utopia Evo’s three-piece cabinet and Gamma Structure bracing technology are neither cheap nor easy to engineer and build. The attention to detail in the hand assembly of all Utopia drivers and crossovers, the skill that goes into the installation of those components, and the care taken in the finish of each cabinet is staggering. The result is a very expensive—dare I say exotic—product that is as beautiful to look at as it is to listen to. And I enjoyed both the aesthetic and the sound—for hours on end. Highly recommended!
. . . Aron Garrecht
Speakers: Paradigm Persona 7F.
- Subwoofers: JL Audio Fathom f112 (2).
- Amplifiers: Classé Audio Delta Mono monoblocks (2), Parasound Halo A 51 (multichannel).
- Preamplifiers: Anthem AVM 60, Audio Research Reference 6SE, Musical Fidelity M6x Vinyl phono stage.
- Digital-to-analog converter: Meitner Audio MA3 DAC-preamplifier.
- Sources: Oppo Digital BDP-103 universal BD player; Intel NUC computer running Windows 10, Roon; Pro-Ject RPM 10 Carbon turntable with Sumiko Starling cartridge.
- Interconnects: Analysis Plus (digital), Kimber Kable Select KS-1116 (analog).
- Speaker cables: Kimber Kable KS-6063.
- Power cords: Clarus Crimson.
- Power conditioner: Torus AVR 20.
Focal Scala Utopia Evo Loudspeakers
Price: $53,598 per pair.
Warranty: Five years, parts and labor.
Focal Naim America
313 Rue Marion
Repentigny, Quebec J5Z 4W8
Phone: (800) 663-9352