Issue 82


Old School:

Conrad-Johnson MV 60SE Power Amplifier
By Jeff Dorgay


Gold Note’s Vasari Gold Phono Cartridge
By Jeff Dorgay

Journeyman Audiophile:

G-Lab Block Amplifier
By Jeff Dorgay

TONE Style

WINO: Malbec

Panono 360 degree camera

Epson Home Projector

ChargeTech Classic Laptop Charger

Dyson V6 Vacuum

Art Of Jay Ward

Anker Lighting Cable

New Wave Ornaments

John Varvatos Morrison Sharpe Boots


Spin the Black Circle: Reviews of New Pop/Rock and Country Albums
By Bob Gendron, Todd Martens, and Chrissie Dickinson

Jazz & Blues: John Abercrombie, Tania Chen and More!
By Kevin Whitehead and Jim Macnie

Audiophile Pressings: Kruder & Dorfmeister, Run DMC and more!

Gear Previews

Sonus faber Venere S Speakers

Esoteric F-07 Integrated Amplifier

Conrad – Johnson TEA1S2 Phonostage


Viola Labs Sonata Preamp
By Greg Petan

Focal Sopra no.3 Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

McIntosh MB50 Streamer
By Greg Petan

Technics SL-1200G Turntable
By Jeff Dorgay

Audio Physic Tempo plus Speakers
By Rob Johnson

MartinLogan Expression ESL13A Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Focal Maestro Utopia Loudspeakers

The second I queue up the Afghan Whigs’ album Gentlemen, I know these speakers are special. The reproduced soundstage on this record is massive, with the wind in the background of the opening track, “If I Were Going,” sounding much more expansive than I’ve ever heard it, save perhaps what I experienced at the Boulder factory last year via the Grande Utopia EM speakers and the prodigious Boulder 3050 monoblocks—the most compelling audio system I’ve yet experienced.

Yet slumming it back at my place, with the Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks and the Maestro Utopias, a bargain at $60,000 per pair, I’m getting in the ballpark. As soon as the drumbeats hit hard on the title track, we are indeed getting serious slam. These speakers move major air without fatigue, distortion or coloration. They are marvelous. Sure, the Grandes are even more amazing, but you need the room to let them breathe and the rest of the system has to be equally astounding to really allow the speakers to reach their full potential.

I won’t apologize for telling you to get a pair of $60k speakers, and I don’t want to hear all the tired arguments about how you can build a pair of these yourself for a lot less money. You can’t. Sure you could buy a nicely appointed 5-series BMW for the price of the Maestro Utopias, but the hi-fi system inside is rubbish. The arguments about diminishing returns are also moot—you won’t get this level of musical involvement for $10k, $20k or even $30k. You’ll have to pay if you want to play, but the good news is that the Maestros will reward you in a way that few speakers can.

What makes the Maestros so compelling is that you can build an amazing system around them for little more than the cost of a pair of Grande Utopias. And while a $150k-to-$250k stereo system is somewhat obsessive, the $500k-plus that it’s going to take to make the Grande’s sing is a completely different realm, hence these speakers will appeal to a completely different buyer. So, if you’ve drooled over the sound of the Focal Grande Utopias, and either don’t quite have the budget or the room to take advantage of them (or maybe you’re just a bit more frugal), the Maestros do not disappoint.

Spinning AC/DC’s “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” I’m again reminded of how well the Maestros can create the sheer sound pressure of a live rock concert without compression or fatigue. Even at brain-damage levels, the meters on the Xs 300s are barely moving from the center position, indicating that they are working in full class-A mode throughout my listening session.

And installing the Maestros is a breeze. Though just more than 250 pounds each, the Maestros are easy to remove from their shipping cartons. Thanks to the wheels on the cartons, you can move them to your listening area by yourself, though you will probably need a friend to help you to remove the speakers, which also have wheels, and get them into a rough position.

Focal’s manual is thorough in describing setup and, depending on your room, you should be able to get the Maestros fairly close to fine-tuned while still on their wheels. Once satisfied that you’ve optimized the bass response for smoothness and weight, remove the wheels and experiment with the spikes to adjust the speaker rake angle to perfection.

The jumpers at the speaker’s base provide ultra-fine-tuning, allowing a modest adjustment of bass, midrange and treble energy. Fortunately in my listening room, I do not have to deviate from the factory settings, and trying them does show their effectiveness. The additional bass boost works well with the Pass First Watt amplifier and an 845-based SET amplifier, both of which are a little shy in the low-frequency department.

Sensitivity Makes All the Difference

Thanks to a 93-dB sensitivity rating, the Maestros work well with a 60-watt-per-channel tube amplifier, and we achieve amazing synergy with the 60-watt PrimaLuna DiaLogue monoblocks in for review (you can read the review here), but this gives the Maestros a different character. They lack some of the pulverizing dynamics that they do with a big solid-state amplifier, yet even hardcore hip-hop tracks, like Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Your Neck,” still hit with plenty of clarity at all but club levels.

The Maestros, like the Stella and Diablo Utopias that we’ve spent plenty of time with, are equally tube friendly, so don’t shy away from these speakers if you’re a tube user. The Audio Research REF 250 monoblocks, Octave’s Jubilee monoblocks and even the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium monoblocks all work brilliantly with these speakers, thanks to their exceedingly tube-friendly crossover network.

As phenomenal as the Maestros are with big solid-state amps, I must confess my own personal bias and admit how smitten I am with these speakers when pairing them with vacuum-tube amplification. For those just tuning in to TONEAudio, I prefer my personal system to be a few molecules on the warm, romantic side of neutral, yet not lacking in cloudiness, detail or resolution—a tall order indeed.

Tubey Goodness

Yet this is exactly what the Maestros provide when paired with a great tube amplifier. The beryllium tweeter is as fast and transparent as any electrostatic speaker I’ve owned (and I’ve owned almost all of ’em), and a little bit of tube warmth makes them feel like a pair of giant Sound Labs ESLs but with major dynamics and punch. Put a fork in me, I’m done!

Sonny Rollins’ classic album Tenor Madness just leaps out of the speakers, with the Maestros painting a vivid picture of this quartet in my listening room. Bass is solidly anchored, with everything lovers of pace and timing will ever need to be ecstatic. No matter how complicated the program material, the Maestros never fail to keep up with the music, regardless of listening level.

The piano is reproduced with all the necessary timbre and attack to sound great, but what pushes it over the top is the scale. In a good-sized room with plenty of amplifier power (solid state or tubes), the Maestros reproduce scale in a way few other speakers can. This is what separates great speakers from truly exceptional ones for this reviewer, and you can put the Maestros solidly in that rare latter category.

These speakers have an uncanny ability to expand and contract with the music, no matter what the material. Where the large Magnepans reproduce everything with an expansive sound field, which is somewhat unnatural but pleasing nonetheless, a solitary guitarist playing in a church is rendered thusly through the Maestros. A group of jazz musicians playing acoustic instruments in close quarters feels as if they are right in my listening room. And Nine Inch Nails sounds like a giant wall of sound slapping me down with maximum force, as it should, but it does so without fatigue—another highly important aspect of mega-loudspeaker design.

Should you have major amplification, you will need to be watchful with the Maestros, as they can achieve such high sound-pressure levels without distortion that you could easily exceed safe levels. They pressurize the room so well and play without a hint of fatigue, that it’s always tempting to turn them up beyond a level that is prudent. Honestly, this is a ton of fun, especially with my favorite rock recordings.

Playing in the Sand

Going through the gamut of high-powered solid-state amplifiers is equally rewarding and revealing. Switching back to solid state provides a fascinating but different experience. The Maestros are such efficient conduits of relaying music, never sounding harsh, forward or over detailed. All of the amplifiers in my collection turn in stunning performances with the Maestros. The speakers’ high degree of resolution easily identifies the differences in tonal qualities between my references, the Burmester 911 MK3 and the Pass Xs 300s, when compared to the D’Agostino Momentum stereo amplifier and the Simaudio Moon 880Ms, which have recently passed through for review.

However, one of the more interesting performances turned in by the Maestros is not with a high-powered amplifier, but with the 10-watt-per-channel First Watt SIT-2 amplifier—a single-ended, class-A design featuring a single gain stage. This amplifier has always combined the virtues of a great 300B SET vacuum-tube amplifier with the low noise and control of the best solid-state amplifiers. But it still only produces 10 watts per channel. Lacking a bit of the ultimate bass slam that the big amplifiers possess, this amp lays bare the inner detail from only a single transistor in the gain path, which proves to be a revelation at modest volume levels.

Special Indeed

The guitar and banjo work on Neil Young’s Harvest demonstrates the potency of these speakers. The sheer speed of the Maestros expresses acoustic instruments in a very lifelike manner, without coloration. At the same time, the decay present in a great analog recording seems to carry on forever, with a fine gradation that doesn’t exist with a lesser speaker.

After countless hours with the Maestros, swapping amplifiers and other speakers for comparison, we come back to the initial question: $60k for a pair of speakers? And the answer is still a resplendent yes, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the level of music that the Maestros reveal is considerably beyond that of the lesser speakers we’ve reviewed.

In terms of construction, Focal put innumerable hours of research, design, testing and prototyping into the Maestros, which goes hand in hand with the bespoke nature of all the company’s speakers. This level of passion is comparable to what goes into a Formula 1 car—every aspect, regardless of how minute, is scrutinized mercilessly by the Focal team. There is truly an integration of art and science taking place here. This is not another audio company installing drivers in a box. Nothing in the Focal Maestro is off the shelf, and none of the drivers, except the beryllium tweeter, is shared with the rest of the range.

The 3.5-way system uses two 11-inch woofers, one as a woofer and one as a subwoofer. The lower woofer vents through a downward-firing laminar port that eliminates any port noise or dynamic compression effects, and features a 2-inch voice coil, where the upper woofer has a 1.5-inch coil. The 6-inch midrange driver, though looking similar to the other 6-inch drivers in the rest of the Utopia lineup, is designed and optimized specifically for the Maestro. Both the midrange and woofers utilize the third-generation of Focal’s “W” composite-sandwich-cone technology, providing exceptional strength while minimizing weight. It’s safe to say that this is a major factor in achieving the low coloration that the Utopia range exhibits.

Lastly, the fit and finish: The mechanical construction of these speakers is sheer perfection. The gently curved cabinets have a timeless design aesthetic, and while available in a number of standard colors (black, white and red), custom colors can be ordered at a slightly additional cost. The finish applied is on the same level as the world’s finest luxury cars, and the enclosures are flawless. While these are speakers worthy of the price asked based on performance, they also exude build quality that will satisfy the most sophisticated owner, and will meld into any environment with ease.

And this is what you write the big check for—which is precisely why the Focal Maestro Utopia is our choice for Product of the Year in the speaker category.

Maestro Utopia

MSRP: $60,000 per pair (factory) (North American distributor)


Analog source AVID Acutus SP Reference turntable    TriPlanar tonearm    Lyra Atlas cartridge
Phonostage Indigo Qualia
Digital source dCS Vivaldi stack     Aurender S10 server    Meridian C15
Preamplifier Robert Koda K-10
Power amplifier Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks
Cables Nordost Norse 2

Focal Chorus 826W Loudspeaker

If you’ve ever auditioned the Focal Grande Utopia EM loudspeakers, you know what a breathtaking musical experience they provide, from the deepest bass note to the highest high, with a clarity that few other models can muster. Focal is one of the world’s only speaker companies with a full research facility and manufacturing complex under one roof. All of the company’s drivers are made in-house, accompanying all of the necessary research, design, and fabrication that go into every aspect of speaker design.

Audiophiles that inquired about the cost of the Grande Utopias were probably a little bit freaked out at the $180,000 price tag. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend that much money to get a great pair of speakers from Focal. The Chorus 826W retail for $3,695 per pair and epitomize how cutting-edge engineering and design get distilled into real-world products.

Visually and Audibly Exquisite

Unboxing the 826Ws is a sensual experience. The black-lacquered finish is as smooth as glass, and the cabinet quality fantastic. Everything harmonizes with each other, and the “W” logo is engraved into the tweeter baffle. Fit and finish is better than expected at this price category, no doubt the result of utilizing a production facility trained in making the Utopia series. Because Focal also has pro and car audio divisions, it boasts incredible economies of scale that are the equivalent of a small speaker company that purchases off-the-shelf drivers from one place and cabinets from another in order to sell decent $10-$20k speakers. Few compete with Focal in this area.

The second I set the stylus down on Lynryd Skynyrd’s Nuthin’ Fancy, the track’s omnipresent opening amplifier hum instantly lets me know these speakers can rock. Courtesy of a 91.5db sensitivity rating, a 50- to 70-watt amplifier gets the job done with power to spare. For most of my listening sessions, the PrimaLuna Dialog Six monoblocks with EL-34 power were awesome. Unless I was blasting King Diamond, I took advantage of the Dialogs even sweeter-sounding triode mode because of the 826W’s sensitivity.

An inverted dome tweeter is a Focal hallmark. However, the 800 series uses a 1-inch aluminum/magnesium membrane whereas the Utopia system uses a beryllium dome that’s far more costly to produce. The tweeter in the 826W easily resolves ultra-fine musical detail, with low distortion and high speed. And that speed feels a lot like a high-quality electrostatic speaker system with a massive soundstage. W versions of Chorus speakers also boast the same W composite material used in woofers of Utopia models.  Where many speakers at this price rely on off-the-shelf drivers, Focal applies technology from its flagship models. The pair of 6.5-inch woofers is remarkably free of upper bass coloration and lower-bass distortion.

Fans of well-defined imaging will be smitten with the 826W. The piano in the Allman Brothers’ “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” comes in way off to the right side of the sound field, as Duane Allman’s famous slide guitar snakes in from the right and both instruments blend in with the band. Everything on Eat a Peach sounds incredible. Small details abound: A drumstick clicked on the side of the kit here, tiny percussion bits there, and the sound of a guitar slide gently moved across a guitar neck while bongos float in the distance. Such resolution is often unavailable in under-$10k speakers.

At Ease Everywhere

The 826W is equally articulate at low volume; it is not a speaker that you need to blast in order to achieve musical engagement. Even at conversation levels, the speaker’s virtues shine. A few of my audiophile buddies unfamiliar with Focal initially believed these speakers fetched much more than their list price.

Closely concentrating on Neil Young’s Harvest reveals the intricacies the 826W produce, the experience easily rendering the superiority of the 24/192 version of the album. At the beginning of the title track, the piano swells up out of the background to meet the banjo, splendidly yielding an abundance of texture and tone.

A series of test tones reveals solid bass down to 40hz, with worthwhile output at 35hz. A quick romp through a series of discs with deep, low-frequency energy is highly enjoyable. More importantly, whether playing Pink Floyd, Snoop Dogg, or Mahler, the 826 exhibits control and plenty of low-frequency detail as well. The hard-hitting beats of Mr. Scruff’s “Sweetsmoke” provide sufficient, non-fatiguing gut punch when the volume gets cranked up to party levels. Equally sublime dynamics come via the beginning of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter,” where neither the distorted bass line nor the pounding bass drum overpowers the other.

I even notice a few sonic bits on my favorite Doug and the Slugs album, Cognac and Bologna, I wasn’t expecting. The texture in the tom fills and keyboard riffs are rousing.  Rush’s “The Trees” offers similar surprises, as the Canadian trio is presented with the grand scale it deserves even as the chirping birds at the beginning of the track are rendered in full color.  Moving down in latitude from Canada to California calls for Van Halen. After about an hour of high-decibel use, and switching to the mighty Burmester 911mk.3, the Focals are no worse for the wear.

Environmentally Friendly

Occupying just an 11 1/8 x 14 ¾-inch footprint (282 x 375mm), the 826W physically parallels a pair of compact speakers on a pair of stands but adds the deeper bass response of a floorstander. The 826W’s ported enclosure system is called “Powerflow,” and includes one port on the front face of the speaker and another port that fires downward.

Don’t forget to mount these speakers on their stands, or you will be sorely disappointed with bass performance. Oh, yeah: The stands also receive the Utopia treatment, as they’re produced from stylish cast aluminum and include threaded leveling spikes.

Once securely mounted, the 826W is a breeze to set up. The dual-port design seems to be less sensitive to room placement than many single-port speakers we’ve tried, and because these speakers are not terribly heavy at 56.8 pounds (25.8kg) each, shuffling them to their optimum position requires minimal effort.

Award-Winning Performance

Of course, the 826Ws don’t go as deep or play as loudly as the Grandes, but all of the attributes associated with the landmark latter speaker attributes are represented:  tonal purity, wideband frequency response, and high dynamic range coupled with excellent low-level detail retrieval.

The 826W’s only potential drawback? The high resolution reveals shortcomings in the signal path more than most speakers at this price point. Its inverted dome tweeter is not harsh, but ultra-resolving. After spending a little time with the 826Ws, listeners with budget amplification will be shopping for a new amp.

Given that it incorporates so many features from Focal’s top speaker systems, the 826W could be the best bang for the buck the company has yet produced. The model is more than worthy of our Exceptional Value Award for 2012.

Focal Chorus 826W Loudspeaker

MSRP: $3,695/pair  (Factory)  (US and Canadian importer)