Focal • Scala Utopia V2 Loudspeakers

by Roy Gregory | February 21, 2014

© www.theaudiobeat.com

When Focal launched the heavily reconsidered and restyled Utopia III loudspeaker family, the standout model should have been the relatively compact three-way Scala. It might have lacked the EM low-frequency drive unit of the Grande (and subsequent Stella), but in every other respect it packed all the new driver and cabinet technology into a package that was big enough to deliver, small enough to accommodate, easy enough to drive and priced at a point that made it genuinely affordable -- well, as affordable as any genuinely high-end, nominally full-range loudspeaker will ever be. Butting heads with the likes of Wilson’s Sophia and B&W’s 800, it was positioned right at the point that real-world customers aspire to, the point at which speakers still sell in real numbers -- the most important point there is (not to put too fine a point on it) for any serious loudspeaker manufacturer with genuinely global aspirations.

Now, I’ve lived with several of the Utopias (the Grande, Stella and Diablo) and spent serious time with most of the others, and to date the only one to disappoint has been the Scala. No matter how often I heard it, or where, it never seemed to really gel, at least as far as I was concerned. For all its considerable attractions, the musical elements never seemed quite in sync, which made the arrival of the revised Scala Utopia V2 at last year’s Munich show an especially intriguing prospect. Outwardly virtually indistinguishable from the original, the new version seemed to tick all the right boxes, applying subtle and thoughtful modifications to the original design, rather than introducing wholesale changes.

Optimism can be a dangerous thing when it comes to audio equipment, but in this case my faith was well placed, as demonstrated by the results I experienced at RMAF 2013 (where an Aesthetix/Scala V2 system was part of a three-way tie for my personal Best of Show vote -- embarrassing along the way a significantly more expensive Soulution/Stella setup) and also once the speakers arrived at home. It looks (and sounds) like the slightly awkward teenager in the Utopia family has finally blossomed into an especially impressive young adult.

Finishing school

As I’ve already described, the Scala V2 is virtually indistinguishable from the previous iteration, with most details and the overall topology remaining identical. A compact floorstander offering enough bandwidth to just about qualify for full-range status, this is Focal’s version of the successful recipe first established by Wilson’s WATT/Puppy combination. A straight three-way design, it employs a single 270mm (11") bass unit in place of the more common twin 200mm (8") configuration. Despite appearances, the single driver delivers virtually identical cone area to a pair of smaller units, the difference easily being absorbed by the vagaries of surround profile and marketing speak. Focal’s driver is built entirely in-house and employs the company’s proprietary W sandwich cone technology, laser trimmed these days for greater manufacturing accuracy and consistency. It is recessed in a carefully profiled elliptical well, machined into the curved baffle profile and reflex loaded by a large downward-firing port that exits between the base of the cabinet and the plinth. The uprights that form the mouth of the port egress are flared and carefully profiled to avoid turbulence as well as to make them visually more pleasing.

Behind its opaque face it’s this driver that incorporates changes to the cone suspension and venting of the voice-coil former, largely responsible for the elevation to V2 status and based on experience gained with the Stella. Together, the changes result in increased excursion and control, a small increase in upper-bass energy and a smoother out-of-band break up, making for a more natural transition to and integration with the midband. They also demand an adjustment in the system damping. These might seem like pretty small developments, but the results, measured and audible, are anything but subtle.

That in turn has necessitated changes to the careful profiling of the cabinet’s interior walls, itself further refining the existing recipe. Rather than relying on simple brute force and excessive mass, Focal use advanced FEA (Finite Element Analysis) and laser interferometry to model the mechanical behavior of their cabinets, using a combination of curvature and varying material depth to optimize performance, providing greater thickness where it’s needed for added stiffness. Of course, that also allows them to machine away unnecessary material from where it’s not, resulting in a cabinet that is both stiffer and lighter than a conventional MDF box, reducing cabinet resonance and stored energy. It also results in cabinet panels that are anything up to 50mm (2") thick, but CNC machined to vary across their width, a bit like a 3D topographical map. While it’s far from rare to find speakers that employ different-thickness panels, varying the profile within the dimensions of the panels themselves is highly unusual -- and costly, which explains why, within Focal’s extensive range, it is confined to the flagship Utopia speakers.

Which leads us to the Scala’s most striking feature, its segmented construction. If each enclosure wall is mechanically matched to the characteristics and resonant behavior of its driver, then it’s only logical for each driver to be built into its own dedicated, independent and mechanically optimized cabinet, further extending the benefits by virtually eliminating intermodulation distortion. It’s an approach that has been employed across the Utopia line from its earliest incarnation, but the refinements in the cabinet construction of the Series III speakers take it a whole lot further. The individual elements are stacked and precisely angled by precision-machined wedges that fit between them and lock the whole structure together. This angling and stepping of the enclosure elements also allows Focal to time- and phase-align the drivers in what they refer to as a Focus Time array. The Scala V2 sees the addition of a narrow foam strip on the front edge of the wedge that separates the tweeter and midrange enclosures, further aiding the speaker’s integration.

Such an intricate production process, combined with the bewildering range of exotic special-finish options now on offer, is only possible because of the dedicated cabinet works, also owned by Focal, allowing them to control and direct every step in the manufacturing assembly and finishing of the product. It is a process akin to the entirely in-house construction employed by the likes of Wilson Audio, despite the scale of the operation. Except that Focal actually go one step further than most high-end manufacturers by actually producing their own drivers too.

The 165mm (6 1/2") midrange driver is another W-cone unit, familiar from previous Utopia designs, but it is still worth looking at in some detail. In this case the glass-fiber skins and foam sandwich are optimized for the midrange function, stressing self-damping and mechanical behavior over the absolute stiffness demanded by the bass driver. The motor assembly employs Focal’s Power Flower multiple neodymium magnetic structure, along with a large -- 40mm in diameter -- vented voice coil, which helps push system sensitivity up to 92dB. The internal acoustic damping has also been adjusted in the V2 to accommodate the changes in the bass driver’s output and roll-off characteristics. The use of a 6 1/2" driver for the midrange might be frowned upon, given the narrowing dispersion that attends rising frequency, but Focal overcome this by crossing over to the tweeter at an unusually low 2.2kHz. (Most two-way speakers with a 25mm (1") dome tweeter would cross over in the region of 3kHz, while many more traditional three-way designs have tended to use 100mm (4") midrange drivers, crossing over at between 4.5 and 5kHz.) They can do this because the inverted-dome beryllium tweeter, with its undersized (rather than peripheral) voice-coil arrangement mimics the construction of a traditional cone driver, delivering greater stiffness as well as a lower fundamental resonance -- around 580Hz in this case. In turn that delivers a useable range starting at an extremely low 1kHz.

Focal’s approach is distinctive in a number of ways, from their unique (and almost uniquely configurable) cone materials to the reintroduction of wide-bandwidth beryllium tweeters, the sectional construction of their cabinets to the use of EM drivers in the largest designs. Together with the logic behind their selection of lower-than-usual crossover points for the drivers, it underlines the fact that these are true system solutions, in which all aspects of the design dovetail together to create the whole, eliminating imported compromises or design decisions and allowing the system architect far wider scope. Of course, such freedom of expression also creates the opportunity for a more definite and distinctive character -- which could be a double-edged sword.

The end result of all this integrated thinking is a speaker with an elegant frontal aspect that is taller and slimmer than you expect, but considerably deeper. Nearly 50" tall, it is only 15 1/2" wide but 26 1/2"deep and succeeds in looking smaller and less intrusive than its size would suggest -- no doubt helped by the soft contours, curved panels and narrowing rear. The high-gloss paint finishes are clean, crisp and sufficiently timeless to fit equally well into modern surroundings or to contrast with more traditional décor. Given the substantial 85kg (187 pounds) weight of each speaker, it is a relief to discover that like the larger Utopias, they come fitted with casters, tucked away in the solid plinth that is also threaded to accept the M8 posts of the tall and seriously sharp cones provided -- of which more later.

The single-wired WBT input terminals are mounted vertically on top of the rear plinth extension. These will accept 4mm banana plugs but are ideally positioned for use with spades. However, if you exercise that option, getting the terminals really tight will require the use of pliers (there are no flats for a spanner) along with a soft interface to prevent marking up the smart gray finish. I keep a supply of dead bicycle inner tubes for just this purpose; you simply snip off an inch or so, slip it over the terminal and it protects the finish from the jaws of the pliers. Narrow-diameter road tubes are best, but other materials will also serve. Either side of the terminals are a pair of jumpers that can be used to adjust bass and treble levels up or down from flat by 1dB, allowing a measure of room compensation, although I never felt the need and was able to run the speakers flat throughout the review period, despite the various amps employed.

Strike a pose

In reality, the best theory is only as good as the results it delivers -- just witness the previous experience with the original Scala. But the ability to alter and develop every single element or subassembly in the product clearly offers a developmental scope, a range of refinements that should offer more options when it comes to evolving an existing design. So, the question becomes, How successfully has that procedure been implemented? As we have already learnt, the actual changes between the original Scala and the V2 version are extremely subtle -- at least in physical terms -- and one thing at least remains the same: this is no plug-and-play speaker.

The review pair arrived straight from production, and like all Utopias they required considerable run-in. Fortunately I’m in a position to leave a system installed and working round the clock, but even so it was a good month before the Scalas started to really settle in and show their true colors. That’s around 750 hours of use; potential owners, you have been warned. I didn’t install the spikes for the best part of three weeks, as the fluctuations in balance were sufficient to render any serious attempt to optimize positioning completely null and void. (They were also sufficient to set me wondering how much of my experience with the previous model might have been down to insufficient time on demonstration units, but that’s another question.)

To start with, the Scalas’ bass weight, balance and timing were changing on an almost daily basis, but once things had calmed down sufficiently, it was time to work on positioning and the finer points of setup. Like any speaker that approaches full-range bandwidth (the Scalas reach down to an impressive -3dB point of 27Hz), distance to the wall behind them was crucial, and in my symmetrical room, absolute symmetry of placement was also a necessity to achieve consistent timing and low-frequency integration across different recordings. You are not going to get away with setting these up with just one disc. Different bass weighting and lateral placement, especially on classical music, will quickly expose any corners that you’ve cut. Toe-in and rake angle are also a bit more of a challenge than normal -- simply because there’s barely a level surface on the speaker and the sidewalls are curved. I ended up using two strips of masking tape across the top plate to create a central reference against which to align the laser pointer for toe-in and rake angle, having first leveled the speaker’s plinth. Like other Utopias, I found they worked best with the tweeter axis crossing about a yard behind the listening position and in my room they needed a hint of forward tilt (although that will depend on listening distance).

Which brings me back to the supplied cones. On the plus side these have threads of a decent length, and their narrow profile means that they’ll penetrate carpets without doing them grievous bodily harm. They even have spanner flats -- but no supplied spanner. More critically, they are devoid of locking nuts and any form of floor protectors. The threads are M8, which is at least better than M6 or 1/4-20, but without locking nuts the additional diameter is largely irrelevant as once adjusted the cones just wobble in the threaded ferrules. With a speaker this potent, that generates this much low-frequency energy, locking the spikes is essential if you want to avoid the speaker’s overall stability and attitude self-adjusting over time. The looseness of the supplied cones makes this almost inevitable, and checking after a week of heavy use, I found that I was able to rock the speakers on their spikes, meaning that both attitude and stability are compromised. Sure enough, a few minutes with the spirit level and things tightened up noticeably, with better bass definition, midrange focus and transparency.

Conclusion: at the very minimum you should get yourself some M8 nuts to lock off the spikes once you’ve set them. However, installing a set of Nordost Sort Füt units, specialist speaker supports that provide both increased cabinet interface area and easy adjustment that can be locked in, delivered welcome security as well as a significant boost in overall clarity and focus (but remember that you’ll need to reposition the V2s after installing the new supports to really hear what they’re contributing). The improvement in low-frequency clarity, layering and texture was remarkable, while the increase in depth and transparency was equally impressive. Voices were focused far more tightly and the rhythmic integrity and expressive range were also improved, moving the speaker up another notch in class. The Sort Füt upgrade isn’t cheap, but more than justifies its cost in terms of the additional performance it releases from the speaker. It is sufficiently impressive that I’d definitely consider including these or an equivalent, either when installing the Scalas or as an early upgrade. Unless otherwise stated, the sonic conclusions drawn here assume that the Sort Füt upgrade is in place.

If you are using the supplied cones and installing the speakers on a wooden or other hard floor, you’ll need to organize some good quality footers. I used the larger two-part stainless-steel Track Audio devices, which are the best I’ve come across. Likewise, once the speakers are run in, torqueing down the driver fixing bolts really tightened up the sound and extended the dynamics. I also ran the speakers throughout the review period without their grilles, including the mesh disc that protects the tweeter, resulting in a further significant improvement in focus and transparency.

When it comes to choosing a driving amplifier, don’t get carried away with that 92dB sensitivity. I wouldn’t describe the Scala as an awkward load, but despite a relatively benign impedance characteristic it does reach down to a minimum of 3.1 ohms. Combine that with the 11" bass driver and it’s a speaker that enjoys a bit of control from the driving amp. I got the best results using the Aesthetix Atlas Signature and VTL MB-185 Signature Series III monoblocks, or the surprising and engaging Rowland Continuum 2 integrated. One tube, one hybrid and one solid-state class-D design, the thing all these amps have in common is plenty of power -- they deliver between 200 and 400 watts per channel and with the Scalas they all deliver that elusive combination of realistic scale and real musical authority.

All of which tells us that this speaker demands and benefits from considerable care and attention when it comes to installation and alignment. It’s not that the Scala V2 is an unforgiving loudspeaker, but it is revealing -- of system and setup -- so paying attention to all the niceties pays real audible dividends, and if you want to hear this speaker at its considerable best then you’ll need to invest the requisite time and knowledge. That really should come as no surprise. At this price you should expect a precision instrument, and precision instruments require precise application. But use the Scala V2 properly and its performance won’t disappoint.

All for one. . .

The best speakers are also the most musically satisfying and, in my experience they all share an immediate sense of rightness; you just know when a speaker really works. How? It is a combination of presence and the ability to let music breathe, factors that in combination allow speakers to sound both intimate and yet also bigger than they really are. It is a quality that stems from superior integration. If that sounds like an over simplification, just consider the evidence. The Eclipse speakers employ a tiny 100mm (4") "full-range" driver housed in a compact, egg-shaped cabinet. They have limited extension at both ends of the audible range, yet sound remarkably engaging and convincing for all that, due to their sheer musical integrity. The original MartinLogan CLS, for all its faults, still managed to project a sense of scale and presence that could surprise listeners and embarrass far more expensive speakers.

What both of these very different designs have in common is their lack of a crossover -- as well as the vagaries in their frequency response. Which is why the vast majority of speakers employ a passive filter network to divide the frequency range across two or more drivers, extending the useable bandwidth. The problem is that in doing so they are ripping asunder what nature has previously joined together. As soon as you divide the musical signal between a range of different drivers, your ability to reconstitute the precise pattern and energy of the notes, and as a result the sense of the music, depends absolutely on how seamlessly those drivers manage to recombine their output.

As impressive in sonic terms as the original Scala Utopia was, this is exactly where it failed. It is also precisely where the V2 triumphs. That such apparently minimal modifications to the original design should result in such a transformation in performance suggests just how delicate a balancing act loudspeaker design really is, how tiny the step from adequate to exceptional can be. Dialing in the Scala V2, the sense of scale and presence just grows. Throw in the speakers’ overall sense of generosity, a function of its bandwidth, sensitivity and expressive dynamics and you have a speaker that doesn’t just sound bigger than it is, it sounds big enough and engaging enough to deliver real long-term satisfaction.

Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty (LP [Asylum 6E-113]) is a great album to show just what the Scala V2 can do. With its mix of live and impromptu recordings, its switches in scale and venue, it demonstrates just how faithfully these speakers track the signal and adjust to its demands. The title track opens with crowd noise from the massive indoor Merriweather Post Pavilion, an almost eerie sense of space and anticipation until the band explodes into action. The sheer energy and big, bold dynamics, the solidity and power of the drumming and the unmistakable difference between a vocalist performing live to an audience and alone in the intimacy of the studio, creates a real sense of presence and live atmosphere. This is a great performance -- from the band and the speaker.

The following track, "The Road," was recorded in a hotel room, and the difference in scale and intimacy is immediately apparent. The delicacy and restraint in the playing, the untreated acoustic imposing its own discipline, creates a fragility and emotional power that should hold the listener, making the transition to the live performance halfway through all the more other-worldly and disconnecting. This album is all about life in the bubble, the unreality of living on the road, of the contrast between the super intimacy of the tour group and the passing parade of people and places. As you listen across both sides of the record, that progression becomes starkly and affectingly apparent -- because the essential honesty of the music is preserved and projected so convincingly by the speakers, be it the heady power and exhilaration of performing for a huge crowd, or the weird, rootless alienation, the almost too-closeness of being on the road.

Likewise, the sheer scale and power of the Benedetti Michelangeli performance of the Beethoven 1st Piano Concerto (LP, Guilini/Vienna Symphony [Speakers Corner DGG 2531 302]) is impressively served by the Scala’s sense of body, presence and unfettered dynamics. The rapid sprays of the piano passages, the contrast between the solo instrument and the orchestra, the size and scale of the piano itself, all are presented without constraint. There’s no sense of the system or the speaker straining to meet the impressive dynamic demands of this live-performance recording. What it does do, though, is demonstrate the way in which your choice of amplifier can lean the system’s performance in one direction or another. On the Jackson Browne album, the energy and momentum of the Aesthetix Atlas Signature are the perfect partner for the Scalas, the speakers thriving on the drive and solid presence of the amp, its shape and color. But on the Beethoven, switching to the VTL MB-185 Series III monoblocks brought delicacy, layering, more subtle tonal shadings and a greater sense of air and overall acoustic, qualities that in turn brought the performance to vividly impressive life. The complex, layered harmonics generated by the pianist’s sustained left hand were rich and vibrant, with no hint of the sluggish slurring that so often mars piano recordings. Instead, this most difficult of instruments was reproduced with scale and weight, in all its physical majesty.

The VTLs also demonstrated another aspect of the Scala’s character. With the Aesthetix, the Rowland Continuum and the Naim NAP 300 I’d struggled to create a palpable sense of acoustic space, especially with the speaker installed on the supplied cones. I could increase the impression by setting the speakers back, augmenting their low-frequency output, but only at the cost of introducing some sluggishness to the tempo, musical and dynamic agility. I preferred the fluidity and expressive dynamic contrasts that came with the forward position, the more natural sense of pace and tempo. Likewise, using the stepped bass adjustments offered the same tradeoff: a greater sense of space at the expense of articulation. It was only on installing the Sort Füt supports that things really improved, but it was once I started using the VTLs that the acoustic really locked into place. This was more than just a case of the additional air and tonal delicacy that traditionally accompany the use of EL34 output tubes. This was about spatial expression and coherence: if it’s there in the recording and the amplification chain, then the Scalas will deliver it -- but they won’t hype or exaggerate it. They simply don’t possess that reach-out-and-touch, super-explicit imaging that some other speakers do. As the choice of amp and placement demonstrates, you can lead them or force them that way, but it’s not their natural tendency, and musically, when it comes to pushing their bass output with room or crossover reinforcement, the tradeoff is too great -- at least as far as I’m concerned. The perspective and overall coherence delivered by the Scalas driven by the VTLs is both consistent and natural -- which is just fine by me, especially when combined with the bold musical contrasts, instrumental intimacy, delicacy and drama the combination brings to the performance. The sound of the Scalas is about the musically (rather than the sonically) spectacular. Better amps take them closer to the heart of the music and its performance, rather than showcasing the recording. Just as importantly and in the wider system sense, it’s a quality that makes them more forgiving and musically inclusive than many of their competitors.

With any loudspeaker, especially one that costs as much as this one and packs in as much proprietary driver technology, there’s a tendency to dismantle its performance into constituent parts, to ascribe its success to this piece of technology or that constructional detail. In part that’s down to the perennial pursuit of silver-bullet solutions to all of audio’s ills, and in part our reliance on what we can see and our reluctance to trust what we cannot. Symptomatic of this is the greater beryllium/diamond debate. Although the factions supporting each camp have finally moderated their ardor -- or at least the volume of their arguments -- the uneasy truce finds those who think that diamond doesn’t do energy or dynamics on one side of the divide, those who think that beryllium in general is bright and thin on the other. Both camps should be made to sit and listen to the Scala V2. The Focal beryllium tweeter, the target of so much sniping in the past, here integrates so seamlessly that any discussion of it as a separate entity is utterly redundant. Not only does it retain the familiar crisp and energetic dynamics, it has body and color, presence and purpose. Upper registers don’t step forward and they aren’t spot-lit. In fact, they’re exemplary. Listening to the Beethoven 1st Piano Concerto, there’s a real sense of Benedetti Michelangeli’s mastery of his instrument, the attack and emphasis of his right hand, lively and stark but never strident. There’s no missing the percussive nature of the instrument, but there’s also no missing his ability to make it sing, the weighting and precision of his playing. With so many modern pianists apparently bent on hammering the music to death (take a bow Mr. Giltburg and Ms. Ott), the poise, grace and delicacy here, the contrast with the attack and dynamism of the more emphatic passages, stands testament to the sheer quality of the playing -- and the sheer quality of the speaker playing the performance. As an illustration of a tweeter performing under the most demanding circumstances at both ends of its dynamic range, this is a tour de force. It is also a perfect example of just how important the transition from midrange to tweeter is, how obvious discontinuities in energy and dispersion are, and how magical it can be when they’re eliminated.

The junction between mid and bass is just as impressive. The repetitive, interlocking and overlaid phrases of the opening movement in Gorecki’s pulsatingly atmospheric 3rd Symphony (Gorecki conducting the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra [Polski Radio PR SACD 2]), with its unusual arrangement, splitting the string sections and orchestrating each separately, calls for flawless low-frequency coherence and continuity. The music spreads slowly upwards, up the range and up the orchestra. Any unevenness in output or musical energy, any spatial discontinuity, are ruthlessly revealed, yet again the Scalas are all of a piece, a holistic presentation that builds to and embraces the shatteringly intense soprano solo that caps and releases the inevitably swelling power of the orchestra. Low-end speed and agility might be a challenge for some speakers, but the more measured pace of slower tempi is the ultimate test. The Gorecki is as considered and stately as it gets, but the Scalas are comfortably unforced, allowing the music to breathe and swell, setting its own pace without ever becoming ponderous or turgid. For such comparatively small cabinets to deliver bass of this depth, weight and musical integrity is no mean feat.

The Scala V2s may lack the absolute low-frequency authority, power and weight of much larger speakers like the Wilson Alexandria XLF or Focal’s own Stella and Grande, but the quality and impact of what they do deliver is hard to fault, both in terms of texture, transparency and detail, or the effective musical foundation it offers the rest of the range. That wide-open, easy-breathing midband has its origins far lower down, as do the focus and substance of the powerful, glare-free top end. If the Focal USP rests on the completeness of their engineering vision, the ability to refine every aspect of the speaker’s design, every component within it, then the sheer coherence and integrity of the Scala’s musical performance suggests it’s no empty claim.

. . .And one for all

Which brings us to the most critical performance category of all -- and in many ways, the cherry on the icing of the Scala V2 cake. There’s nothing as revealing or demanding of a speaker’s expressive qualities as the human voice. We hear it every day and are sensitive to its every shading and nuance, the subtleties we use to add meaning to our words and that betray those meanings we’d rather conceal.

Playing "Sea Song" (from Lisa Hannigan's Sea Sew [Hoop Records lhcd001]) the winsome, close-miked vocals that open the track retain their intimacy, the backing its tactile attack and separation even after the band fills out. But the real triumph is the way the vocal holds and shapes the song, even though it’s overscaled by the band’s energy and drive. The sparse and obtuse lyrics might leave much to the imagination, but the way the phrasing cuts across lines and the way the Scala V2s deliver it leaves you in no doubt just what this song is about. The power of physical intimacy and the pain of its loss are clear to hear in the shape of the words, even if the sense is obscure.

Likewise, just listening to Gillian Welch’s captivating vocals on The Harrow & The Harvest CD [Acony 5052498671724]: it’s immediately apparent just why she’s regarded with such awe within the country/bluegrass community -- even by those who are prettier and have a higher profile. The deeply felt delicacy of her singing, the perfectly poised counterpoint provided by David Rawlings’ peerless guitar -- these are undoubtedly things of great and lasting beauty. But the significance here is the way that the Scala V2s allow the performance to overcome the limitations of what is at best a recording of middling quality. Sonically, it has none of the raw immediacy of Time (The Revelator), but the Focals still preserve and project Welch and Rawlings’ otherworldly chemistry, one that manages to combine fragility with such intensity to such powerful effect.

This bold, almost physical presence and broad expressive range, the ability to encompass not just the big and loud but the small and delicate, to equal or even greater effect, is the Scala V2’s special party trick. It is built on the clarity, separation and focus in the midband, reinforced by the solid underpinning and seamless integration of the low end, bass frequencies that add solidity and body without clouding the issue, to which you can add the quick, crisp and solid top end that measures the tempo with such precision.

That musical and sonic coherence is testimony to the integrity of the speakers' (re)-engineering and the integration that has resulted. You want big, solid and powerful and the Scala V2s deliver; you want intimate, immediate and powerful and they deliver that too. If there’s a cloud on the horizon it’s the fact that the driver and internal cabinet changes mean that original Scalas can’t be upgraded to V2 status. But then, the V2 delivers a whole new level of performance from what is essentially a whole new speaker -- even if it is outwardly identical. Besides which, I suspect that V2 owners are going to be way too busy enjoying their music to worry overmuch about that.

Big enough yet small enough, costly enough yet just about affordable enough, the revised and revoiced Scala V2 is finally the speaker it always should have been. On this performance it stands to become one of the classics. Like any thoroughbred it demands careful treatment, but the regime is easy enough to enact, and you’ll hear the benefit of each and every step. This is a speaker that grows with the driving system just as surely as it grows with a musical performance, but it does so without getting muscle-bound or too big for its boots. When it gives you more, it is more insight into the event, the performance and its intent. It revels in the power of the music, the message and the messenger, rather than the quality of its vessel. Get these Focals singing and good music sounds great, and great music sounds even better.

Price: $33,999 per pair.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Focal-JMlab
BP 374-108 due de L'Avenir
42353 La Talaudičre cedex
France
(33) 0477 43 5700
www.focal.com

Focal-JMlab UK, Ltd.
Southampton Road
Salisbury, Wiltshire SP1 2LN
0845 660 2680
www.focal-uk.com

Audio Plus Services
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www.audioplusservices.com

An object lesson in the realities of run-in

Suggest that a product requires running-in and most readers will probably assume that this is a gradual and essentially linear process, a more or less steady progression from good to even better. But experience with a whole range of different product types suggests that this is anything but the case. I’ve known amplifiers that progress in definite steps and CD players in particular that can wait a week or so before suddenly blossoming within the space of a single track. In fact, once you think about the mechanisms that might be at work (I’ve yet to meet anybody who really claims to understand the phenomenon -- and plenty who simply deny its existence) the assumption that the conditioning process should proceed in the same way and at a steady rate makes no sense at all. An amplifier or CD player contains not just different components but also different types of each component. So the operational conditions that impact on a DAC need bear no relationship to an amplification IC, a resistor or a capacitor -- and one type of capacitor might behave very differently to another that employs a different construction and dielectric. That’s before you start to consider circuit boards and internal wiring.

But nothing presents quite as complex a blend of materials, components and differing mechanical and electrical functionality as a multiway moving-coil loudspeaker. As well as the mechanical characteristics of the drivers themselves, which generally employ differing materials and definitely operate on different physical scales, you’ve got all the crossover components and the internal wiring harness to consider. Now consider that the speaker has probably spent most of its life in an unheated warehouse before being left overnight in the back of a van that has shaken it silly en route to its final destination and you’ve introduced a new set of factors. Just placing your hand on a newly deliver speaker or item of electronics, it is remarkable how frigid they can be. In the case of electronics they’ll warm up remarkably quickly -- making condensation a real concern. That means leaving products to come up to room temperature before switching them on. You don’t need to be quite so careful with a passive loudspeaker, but then it will warm through far more slowly, just because of the materials involved -- and the bigger the speaker the longer it will take.

Experiencing the growing pains associated with the Scala V2's settling-in period served as a timely reminder of just how unpredictable and illogical the whole process can be -- not least because the Scala is such a transparent transducer. It doesn’t just tell you with remarkable clarity about changes you make to the system or speaker setup, it tells you with equally brutal candor about changes to its own physical state and performance. What I’m about to describe actually applies to most loudspeakers -- it’s just more obvious with these Utopias.

Far from being a nice, simple, linear process, the different elements in the speaker evolve at different rates. So the bass driver will change in different ways and at a different rate to the midrange unit. Likewise, the driver will also change at a different rate to its associated crossover components. But what really throws a spanner in the assumptive expectations is that the change is not always for the better. So, most listeners would assume that as a speaker runs-in the bass will get deeper and fuller, with better weight and definition. But in practice, those individual aspects of bass performance might well progress at different rates, so that rather than simply improving, the nature of the bass will change and evolve. Factor in the crossover components as well as the other drivers, each doing its own thing, and it is perfectly possible for the sonic development of the speaker as a whole to become cyclic in nature, first improving and then getting worse, before improving again and so on. That might seem counterintuitive, but think about the way that the different aspects of speaker performance interact, the way that changes in the treble extension or response can be heard in the bass, and it all starts to make some kind of sense.

Because the changes are those of balance or character rather than simple extent, the resulting yo-yo in performance isn’t just a case of more, then less, then more again, but of the speaker gelling or coming into and out of focus. The good news is that in as much as you can generalize, and certainly in the case of the Scala V2, the scale of the fluctuations decreases over time and the period between them elongates until an even, stable performance emerges. One practical implication of all this is that final positioning needs to be left until the speaker has finally settled.

How long do speakers take to run in? In some cases (and for some reason ceramic drivers are particular offenders) it can run into thousands of hours. So don’t just assume that speaker setup is a one-time thing. It’s not just a case of reassessing your speaker placement each time you make a change anywhere in the system (see the RMAF/TAVES seminar blog for more on this); appreciate that the speaker itself can evolve and change long term. Two months in and the Scala V2s are sounding pretty stable. But if this pair came back a year from now and I hooked them up to exactly the same system, I’m betting they wouldn’t sound best in exactly the same place that they do now.

-Roy Gregory

Associated Equipment

Analog: VPI Classic 4 turntable with SDS; VPI JMW 12.7 and Tri-Planar Mk VII UII tonearms; Lyra Titan i, Scala, Dorian and Dorian Mono cartridges; Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement cartridge; van den Hul Condor cartridge; Allnic Puritas and Puritas Mono cartridges; Nordost Odin tonearm lead; Connoisseur 4.2PLE phono stage.

Digital: CEC TL-3N CD transport, Wadia S7i CD player, dCS Paganini and Vivaldi transports, Wadax Pre 1 digital control unit.

Preamps: Aesthetix Janus Signature, Connoisseur 4.2.

Power amp: Aesthetix Atlas Signature Stereo, Jeff Rowland Design Group Continuum S2 integrated amp, Naim NAP 300 stereo amp, VTL MB-185 Signature Series III monoblocks.

Interconnects and speaker cables: Complete looms of Nordost Odin, Crystal Cable Absolute Dream or Ultra from AC socket to speaker terminals. Power distribution was via Quantum QRT QB8s or Crystal Cable Power Strip Diamonds, with a mix of Quantum Qx2 and Qx4 power purifiers and Qv2 AC harmonizers.

Supports: Racks are Hutter Racktime or Quadraspire SVT Bamboo. These are used with Nordost SortKone equipment couplers throughout. Cables are elevated on Ayre myrtle-wood blocks or HECC Panda Feet. Nordost Sort Füt units were used under the speakers.

Acoustic treatments: As well as the broadband absorption placed behind the listening seat, I employ a combination of the LeadingEdge D Panel and Flat Panel microperforated acoustic devices. These remarkably simple yet incredibly effective acoustic panels have become absolutely indispensible when it comes to hearing what the system is actually doing.

Accessories: Essential accessories include the Feickert protractor, a USB microscope and Aesthetix cartridge demagnetizer, a precision spirit level and laser, a really long tape measure and plenty of masking tape. I also make extensive use of the Furutech anti-static and demagnetizing devices and the VPI Typhoon record-cleaning machine. The Dr. Feikert PlatterSpeed app has to be the best ever case of digital aiding analog.

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