I don’t like the idea of meeting my heroes. The athlete likely takes performance-enhancing drugs and womanizes. The inspired yet tortured artist’s genius no doubt springs from a lifetime of trauma, haphazardly managed through substance abuse. And the stunning object -- a car, watch, loudspeaker -- is ultimately only that: an object, a thing, designed and made by beings as imperfect as you and I. The more I obsess about these people and things, the greater the expectation, and ultimately the greater the disappointment.
At this stage of life I don’t need more disappointment -- each morning in my bathroom mirror, I stare at 145 pounds of it. But when the opportunity arrives to review a legend, I can’t say no.
And so it was that the smallest offering from Focal’s venerable Utopia line of loudspeakers wound up in my living room, some 25 years after I’d first glimpsed its ancestors splashed across magazine covers with effusive accompanying praise.
A few things have always made the Utopias special. They’re state-of-the-art loudspeakers with price tags to match. And for decades, Focal has been one of a very few ultra-high-end companies that design and manufacture their own drivers -- the vast majority buy their domes ’n’ cones from third parties.
The Utopia models’ signature are their tiered and canted cabinets, with silhouettes as iconic as B&W’s 800 models and their “flying” tweeter nacelles. For those who want The Best, Focal’s Utopia line has long been a benchmark against which all other speakers are judged.
“Utopia: An Imagined Place or State of Things in Which Everything is Perfect”
Focal’s current line of Utopias, the Utopia III Evo models, evolved from the Utopia III line, which debuted in 2008. Confusingly, the model names are inconsistent, as are the updates: some models have received technical upgrades, others only a facelift. At the top of the pile is the Grande Utopia EM Evo, a four-way, five-driver, 584-pound behemoth with a mammoth 16” woofer. It stands almost 7’ tall and costs $239,990/pair (all prices USD). For those with slightly more modest needs, there are three more floorstanders: the Stella Utopia EM Evo ($125,990/pair), the Maestro Utopia Evo ($73,990/pair), and the Scala Utopia Evo ($51,990/pair). There’s also the subject of this review, the two-way, stand-mounted Diablo Utopia Colour Evo ($16,990/pair). Rounding out the line are the Sub Utopia EM Colour Evo subwoofer ($16,995 each) and the Viva Utopia Colour Evo ($16,995 each), the latter usable as an LCR speaker.
The “EM” in some of those model names stands for Electro-Magnetic, by which Focal refers to the woofer(s) used in those speakers. These newer Utopia models feature drivers with revised suspension systems, as well as aluminum rings to reinforce the drivers’ mounting on the cabinet. The rest of the Utopia III Evo line has received only subtle cosmetic changes and new color options. The Utopia III Evo models were designed and continue to be manufactured in Focal-JMlab’s home town of Saint-Etienne, France; their cabinets are made in the company’s wood factory in Bourbon-Lancy.
The Diablo Utopia Colour Evo -- what a mouthful -- can be had in one of five glossy and two wood finishes: British Racing Green, Metallic Blue, Carrara White, Black Lacquer, Ash Grey, Noyer Foncé, and Noyer Naturel (noyer is French for walnut; foncé means dark). As I unpacked my Carrara White review samples, I noted several things. While the packaging was more than sufficient to protect the speakers, which came individually boxed and entirely wrapped in cellophane to protect the finish, there’s nothing really special about it. Ordinarily, I couldn’t care less about such things, but I assumed that paying $16,990 for a pair of two-way minimonitors might buy you a Gallic flourish or two. There is a matte-black folder that includes the User Manual, an unbranded lime-colored cloth, and a booklet that explains, in 12 languages, the carcinogenic nature of beryllium, the element of which the tweeter’s inverted dome is made, and how dangerous it can be if inhaled. This manual includes a couple pages’ worth of useful setup and optimization tips, including this tasty morsel: “Contrary to what one might think, it is not a too powerful amplifier that might damage a loudspeaker, but rather a lack of power. Actually if the output level of the amplifier is too high it will saturate and distort which will irremediably damage the tweeter.” While you digest that delicious aperitif, I’ll talk about the Diablo Utopia Colour Evo’s fit and finish.
The Diablo Utopia Colour Evo measures 17”H x 10.2”W x 16.8”D and weighs 44 pounds. Its bass-reflex cabinet is -- in the case of my Carrara White review speakers -- covered in polyurethane-based paint topped with a layer of acrylic varnish, to produce a rich, mildly reflective finish. And what a finish it is -- smooth and sleek, something different from the high glosses adorning so many competing designs. The cabinet is made of MDF in thicknesses that vary from 1.96” to 2.6”. The speaker’s profile is classic Focal Utopia: the tweeter’s 1.1” inverted beryllium dome occupies its own subenclosure, which is tilted slightly downward. Below this subenclosure and meeting it at an angle is the main enclosure, tilted slightly upward. This houses a 6.5” midrange-woofer with a cone made from Focal’s proprietary “W” material, which comprises two layers of woven-glass tissue sandwiching a core of Rohacell foam. Below this driver is a front-venting slot port. When properly set up, the wavelaunches of the two drivers should arrive precisely together at the ears of a listener seated at the intersection of the drivers’ axes, to produce an optimal soundstage.
My review samples’ motif of contrasting black and white was attractive, though the Diablo Utopia Colour Evo’s boxier shape begins to look its age when compared to the newer, more rounded, and more cohesive look of Focal’s Sopra models. Each driver is covered by a removable grille -- the midrange-woofer’s grille has a little fabric tab by which it’s easily pulled off. But hide that tab, as I did, and you’ll quickly realize that getting the grille off is suddenly very difficult -- another way this speaker shows its age, in an era when magnetically attached grilles are commonplace. Out back are a pair of big, brushed-metal, five-way WBT binding posts, as well as a brushed-metal plate on which are inscribed the unit’s serial number and the name of the Focal technician who made sure it met specifications before it left the factory -- thank you, A. Coniglio! Focal offers matching stands for this model ($2980/pair); I used my own 24”-high KEF stands.
Despite the age of its underlying platform, the Diablo Utopia Colour Evo is a technological tour de force. Focal was one of the first to make tweeter domes of beryllium, and the second generation of its inverted beryllium dome, the IAL2, which has a powerful neodymium magnet, is still one of the best around. IAL stands for Infinite Acoustic Loading, and refers to the tuned, horn-shaped space behind the tweeter’s motor. This cavity -- a Helmholtz resonator -- begins at the back of the inverted dome, and widens toward the side baffles of the tweeter’s subenclosure; additional rearward energy is also allowed to dissipate from the driver’s Poron, polyurethane surround. This strategy is not totally dissimilar from the ones used by B&W and Vivid Audio in their flagship designs; it reduces distortion, and extends the tweeter’s usable bandwidth well below 1kHz -- far lower than the Diablo Utopia Colour Evo’s crossover frequency of 2.2kHz. That crossover’s slope is of the fourth-order (24dB/octave) Linkwitz-Riley variety.
The midrange-woofer has an innovative magnet system. Focal has eschewed a single big magnet in the motor, instead using six small, circular magnets arranged like the petals of a flower, hence the system’s name: Power Flower. This, they claim, better cools the voice coil, limits the power less, and results in greater efficiency. Focal also says that the number of circular magnets means that there’s more magnetic energy available, and no mechanical compression of the voice coil, which reduces distortion. Like every speaker Focal makes, the Diablo Utopia Colour Evo was designed using modern techniques and software, and fine-tuned through tests in Focal’s own anechoic chamber.
Specifications -- Focal claims that the Diablo Utopia Colour Evo has a frequency response of 44Hz-40kHz, ±3dB, demonstrating just how much extension that inverted beryllium dome supplies. The low-frequency reach is a respectable 40Hz, -6dB. The Diablo Utopia Colour Evo has a nominal impedance of 8 ohms and a minimum impedance of 4 ohms, which, combined with its sensitivity of 89dB/2.83V/m, suggests that it should be fairly easy to drive, even when partnered with an amp of modest power and current. Focal recommends amps that can generate 25-200W.
Maneuvering the Diablo Utopia Colour Evos onto my 24”-high KEF stands wasn’t too difficult, but seeing as the speaker is fairly heavy and its cabinet is almost 17” deep, spending another $2980 on their matching aluminum stands is probably a good idea. Those stands each weigh 41.8 pounds as delivered, pre-filled with sand, and include a small screw point through which to affix the Diablo Utopia Colour Evo (which has a corresponding screw hole on the bottom of its cabinet) for maximum stability.
I connected the Focals to my reference system, which comprises a Hegel Music Systems H590 integrated amplifier-DAC and an Intel NUC music server running Roon and Tidal. The NUC was connected to the Hegel with a DH Labs USB link, and the Focals to the big Hegel with AudioQuest Rocket 33 speaker cables. While I did all of my critical listening with the Hegel, the Diablo Utopia Colour Evos also saw time with Simaudio’s Moon Evolution 700i v2 integrated, used with Benchmark Media Systems’ DAC3 HGC digital-to-analog converter. I placed the Focals about 6.5’ from one another, 1’ from the front wall of my listening room, and 7’ from my listening position. I toed the speakers in toward each other until I could just see the inner side panel of each. Once I’d set them up, I didn’t mess with them -- the tonal balance was just right.
Given the reputation of Focal’s Utopia line, I expected, when music began to spill forth into my listening room, to experience a moment of clarity, or perhaps to see God. Neither happened. Right out of their boxes, and at low volume, the Utopia Diablo Colour Evos sounded . . . good. For background listening, which is how I like to break speakers in, it was all very unremarkable: an even-handed off-axis performance that suggested strong imaging capabilities and a broad sweet spot, along with bass extension down to about 40Hz. The Focals weren’t punchy in the bass or sparkly in the highs. The first word that came to mind was flat. But as the hours rolled on and the volume crept up, I began to hear why Focal’s Utopia models have earned their reputation.
The first time I sat down in front of the Diablo Utopia Colour Evos for some serious listening, I played “Little Lion Man,” from Mumford & Sons’ Sigh No More (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Island/Tidal). It was late on a lazy Sunday afternoon and, not wanting to disturb the pup asleep next to me on the couch, I didn’t twist the volume knob of my Hegel integrated particularly high. Winston Marshall’s banjo was well articulated and the stereo image was quite good, but it all felt a little uninspired.
I returned to this track several hours later, cranked up the volume, and suddenly the Focals sprang to life. Those opening banjo chords locked into place, exhibiting a precision and an effortlessness that I wasn’t prepared for. Through the Focals, this track had a sweetness and purity that seemed to slow the music down. Nor was this at the expense of inner detail or articulation -- those beryllium domes sounded as extended as any tweeters I’ve heard. The soundstage depth was cavernous. Marcus Mumford’s voice was full-blooded, and positioned between the two speakers with an accuracy and precision that was among the best I’ve heard. Ted Dwane’s bass guitar didn’t have the kind of power I’d have liked, but what bass the Focals did produce was tight and well defined.
Speaking of power, I cued up the cover of New Order’s “Blue Monday” on Orgy’s Candyass (16/44.1 ALAC, Elementree), for its powerful opening kick drum and quasi-metal, quasi-electronic roar. The good thing about the Diablo Utopia Colour Evo was that it sounded linear straight down to 40-45Hz -- the kick drum remained taut, yet never threatened to kick in my chest. The Focals also scaled quite well, playing this track -- which includes lots of electric-guitar distortion -- quite loudly while introducing no distortion of its own. Lead singer Jay Gordon sounded fantastic, rendered with gobs of dimensionality and red-blooded presence. Still, I wasn’t totally convinced of the Focal’s ability to rock out.
Queen’s single “We Will Rock You (Raw Sessions Version)” (16/44.1 FLAC, EMI/Tidal) is a different animal from the more ordinary and mainstream Orgy cut. The mastering is first-rate, and the lateral soundstaging is to die for. This studio session proceeded with a half-hearted kick drum whose sound seemed to originate directly behind the left-channel Diablo Utopia Colour Evo as if it wasn’t there at all, cuing lead singer Freddie Mercury to practice the well-known chorus with no accompaniment whatsoever. His brief solo sounded as pure and well defined as I could ever hope to hear. After this “take one” -- as one band member playfully calls out at the beginning -- finally gets going at 0:25, the character of the Focals’ sound seemed to change when I hit a certain decibel level. At low to medium volume levels, the fringes of the track remained squarely between the speakers, Mercury’s signature vocal drive and energy sounding a touch subdued. But when I crossed a certain threshold and started to really push the Focals, they opened up, sounding suddenly far bigger and more eager -- Mercury’s edge and bite seemed to crystallize, and the kick drum began to pressurize my room. Perhaps it was my electronics, or how the Diablo Utopia Colour Evos’ front-venting ports loaded my room. Whatever it was, I found it consistent across all musical genres. But credit where credit is due: Adequately provoked, and within its limits, the baby of the Utopia III line was as enjoyable to listen to as any two-way speaker I’ve reviewed.
I found myself exploring a lot of well-recorded classical and instrumental music -- from more intimate works to full-blown orchestral suites, I was drawn to a slew of modern composers during my time with these speakers. Their top-to-bottom coherence, reproduction of nuances, and harmonic density did wonders with, say, expressively played violin and piano. Consider “Peace of Mind,” from Dirk Maassen’s Ocean (16/44.1 FLAC, Sony Classical/Tidal). The German composer-pianist begins slowly and plaintively, and I marveled at how lavish and ample his first notes sounded -- threadbare piano sound this was not. Reproducing this kind of richness of midrange body without also coloring the sound in some way is a neat trick that I don’t recall having heard before. The Focals managed to preserve the delicacy of Maassen’s playing without obscuring its emotive power. In this way the Focal’s sound differed from that of, say, Magico’s S1 Mk.II two-way, which I reviewed in June 2016 on SoundStage! Hi-Fi, and which retails in the low five figures. With a track such as “Peace of Mind,” the Magicos conveyed all the same low-level detail and musical insight, but sound fleeter of foot and lighter in tonal color. With the S1 Mk.IIs, Magico’s calling card of forensic, micrometric clarity is immediately audible. The Focal’s voicing was more robust.
I finished my listening with a new favorite, a performance of David Bowie’s “Heroes” from Peter Gabriel’s album of cover versions, Scratch My Back (16/44.1 FLAC, Real World/Tidal). The strings of the London Scratch Orchestra quietly introduce the theme, before the veteran singer ruefully intones Bowie’s words. The result was profound. While Gabriel’s voice wasn’t quite as detached from the Focals’ cabinets as I’ve heard through a couple of competing designs -- after all, this is effectively a 12-year-old loudspeaker -- the millimetric texture, the finesse, the power, the sheer majesty of his voice were all superb, and gave me literal goosebumps. It’s all well and good to be able to hear deeply into your favorite recordings with a given speaker, but if it doesn’t move you at an emotional level, how good can it be? The Utopia Diablo Colour Evo is neither perfect nor without stiff competition. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s special.
Sonus Faber’s Electa Amator III ($10,000/pair) is different. In many ways, lining up this two-way minimonitor next to Focal’s flagship stand-mount is a study in contrasts. From its solid-walnut (not MDF!) cabinet to its use of marble and brass, it looks far more artisanal than the average bookshelf model, and its price includes matching stands of very high quality. The EAIII has the same 1.1” fabric-dome tweeter used in Sonus Faber’s flagship model, the Aida ($130,000/pair), and a 7.1” paper-coned midrange-woofer based on drivers higher in the Italian brand’s line. The EAIII is voiced differently from most of today’s speakers, with a “smiling” frequency response: that is, it slightly boosts the bass and treble. I adored it when I reviewed it in 2019, having greatly admired its build quality and visual charm. It also sounded very good, with punchy output in the all-important midbass. This, allied to its detailed yet rich, almost golden midrange, made listening through the EAIIIs great fun with every type of music I played.
But as engaging as the EAIIIs were, they weren’t the last words in transparency or soundstaging. I could hear more detail and insight through the Focals, thanks to their excellent beryllium domes, which also lent the sound a greater spaciousness than the Sonus Fabers, whose top end was admittedly smoother. Offsetting this were these speakers’ different approaches to the bass range. The Focal’s output below 100Hz never called attention to itself, and in fact always felt a smidge subdued. Just to be clear: The Diablo Utopia Colour Evos sounded utterly coherent from top to bottom, and they didn’t exactly sound gutless. Perhaps it was their front ports, or their tuning, but I suspect that another dB of midbass output would have made the Focals sound more dynamic. The Sonus Fabers lean the other way, their output in the 50-80Hz range boosted by a substantial 2-3dB -- they pound out bass like you wouldn’t believe. In fact, their floorstander-like bass makes them really appealing to me, given my extensive library of electronica and film soundtracks. Depending on your musical tastes, the Focals’ more revealing character and clean treble extension might make more sense.
No matter how you cut it, $16,990 is a lot of money for a pair of minimonitors. Throw in the matching, semi-obligatory stands and you’re looking at an investment of $19,970 to coax Focal’s Diablo Utopia Colour Evos into your life. Yet there’s no denying that, 12 years after the launch of the original Utopia platform, it remains a hugely competent and satisfying communicator of music. Its fantastic tweeter boasts all the extension and refinement you could ever want, and Focal has voiced the all-important midrange to perfection: it’s vivacious and lifelike, and the speaker imposes on it no colorations of its own. You also get healthy servings of Focal’s signature industrial design and excellent build quality. And while it doesn’t provide much in the way of weight and slam at the lower limits of the audioband, the Diablo Utopia Colour Evo’s frequency response remains linear and composed even at unreasonably high volumes -- across the board, this speaker is unflappable.
There’s no mistaking Focal’s smallest, most attainable Utopia model for anything other than a top-shelf loudspeaker. If you’re in the market for a state-of-the-art two-way, consider Focal’s Diablo Utopia Colour Evo.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers -- KEF LS50, R3, and Reference 3; Xavian Quarta
- Integrated amplifiers -- Constellation Audio Inspiration Integrated 1.0, Hegel Music Systems H590, Simaudio Moon Evolution 700i v2
- Digital-to-analog converter -- Benchmark Media Systems DAC3 HGC, Mytek Digital Brooklyn DAC+
- Sources -- Intel NUC computer running Roon, Tidal
- Speaker cables -- AudioQuest Rocket 33, DH Labs Q-10 Signature, Dynamique Audio Caparo
- Analog interconnects -- Dynamique Audio Shadow (RCA), Nordost Blue Heaven LS (XLR)Digital link -- DH Labs Silversonic (USB)
- Power conditioner -- Emotiva CMX-2
Focal Diablo Utopia Colour Evo Loudspeakers
Price: $16,990 USD per pair; matching stands, add $2980/pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Focal Naim America
313 Rue Marion
Repentigny, Quebec J5Z 4W8
Phone: (800) 663-9352