When the Maestro Evos first arrived, I started by placing them roughly where the Wilson Alexxs generally live, working from there. With several days to let the speakers warm up and settle down before the arrival of Nicolas Debard from Focal, I was frustrated by their reluctance to come alive. No matter how I shoved and shunted them, tilted or tipped them, adjusted the three position level controls for each of the drivers, they always sounded flat and lifeless – until Nicolas suggested a radical change, shifting the speakers fully four feet further into the room, positioning their front baffles according to the classic rule of thirds. The transformation was immediate, with a massive leap in dynamic range and speed of response. But even so, for all the extra energy, it still took a lot of care to bring things under control, with microscopic shifts in fore and aft location, precise adjustment of listening distance, toe-in and height for each speaker before the full power and depth - and more importantly - the full communicative qualities of the bass were revealed.
So even if the Maestros aren’t just physically and visually large (even if their smooth contours are less imposing than the anthropoid identity of the bigger Wilsons or the bluff brutalism of a Magico) they need space as well if you are going to release their potent bass performance and the sheer musical impact that goes with it. With a dedicated listening space and no fixed furniture, I’m lucky enough to be able to place speakers wherever they sound their best. Putting the Maestros into a more domestically constrained space, you might not need to place them a third of the way down the room, but you will need to give them air to breathe. Do so and they’ll deliver genuinely chest pummelling weight and impact when it’s called for, along with breadth, depth, and scale in the soundstage to match. Allowing it space releases the Maestro Evo’s bottom end from the constraints of the cabinets. The music stands apart, an independent source of energy, so that when you play the first movement of the Kertesz New World[Decca CD 478 3179] those potent low-frequencies allow the timpani rolls to detonate in the listening room. And more than that, the gentle but beautifully paced opening fills the space, the air around and above the orchestra quivering in anticipation, the conductor’s control absolute. That measured tempo is everything, the tension it creates shattered by brass tuttis that are multi-faceted and full of ripping, flaring colour, just as the double basses throb with texture, plucked or bowed, and the timpanis have volume and a taut quality to their skins. All that positional precision might be about getting the Maestros’ bass right, but getting the bass right is all about the clarity and purpose it brings to the mid-band – and I do mean clarity and purpose.
The midrange driver used in the Evo generation of Utopia speakers benefits from both the TMD (Tuned Mass Damped suspension) and NIC (Neutral Inductance Circuit) technologies developed for the Sopra series, developments that, according to Focal, deliver improved linearity and lower distortion. Together with the earlier changes made to the bass driver and the addition of magnetic damping on the lowest-frequencies, there are improvements in both seamless continuity and evenness of the broad energy spectrum. When you hear notes, whether it’s the subdued strings that open the Dvorak or Martin Chamber’s pile-driver drumming mating with Pete Farndon’s motive bass on the Pretenders’ ‘Mystery Achievement’, there’s no missing the human agency, the precisely directed physical effort that generates and shapes the sound. Listening to the Maestros is a tactile, unmistakably human and, at times, almost physical experience. Forget toe-tapping: this is serious arm-waving, virtual baton, air-guitar and sing along territory.
Of course meaty, beaty, big and bouncy is all very entertaining, but what makes the Maestros genuinely special is that this immediacy, the ability to project presence and serious energy, translates to the other end of the dynamic spectrum too. Play Natalie Merchant’s hauntingly intimate ‘San Andreas Fault’ and the big Focals come over all small, up close and personal, capturing the fragility of the vocal line against the deft backing, without compromising the diction and articulation in the singing, or the substance in the drums and bass guitar. It’s a neat trick that few speakers can pull off, combining presence and delicacy in a really convincing fashion, but it’s also a trick that depends to some extent on the driving amplifier. As critical as the Maestro is of precise positioning and bass balance, it’s just as revealing of the amplifier it’s hooked up to. At 93dB, it’s not difficult to kick into life, but that doesn’t make it an easy load and matching are critical, especially if you stray towards the lower end of the power range. I used the CH Precision I1 solid-state integrated, the powerful VTL S400-II and the 40 Watt Class A Engstrom Lars mono-blocs, each to great effect. But – and it’s a big but – this was no simple case of swapping in and out the different amps. Each change in driving amplifier demanded an adjustment in bass balance (achieved by lifting or lowering the speakers on their spikes) while producing significant changes in the character, strengths, and weaknesses of the system – more significant than I’d generally expect. Tune the Maestro’s balance to the driving amp and you’ll almost certainly hear more of that amp than you did with a previous speaker. The Focals’ ability to let the music breathe extends the expressive envelope considerably, bringing out not just the sense and sensibilities in the recording and performance on the disc, but the performance of the amplifier too. The VTL’s incredible power-reserves and dynamic range were a seriously impressive match for the French floor-stander, while the I1 brought it’s own innate sense of balance, control and easy, even-handed progression to proceedings. But for sheer connection and intimacy, phrasing and flow, the 300B Engstroms took some beating. There was no way they could match the sheer scale or majesty of the big VTL, but they delivered special magic all of their own, with a ‘they are here’ sense of proportion, presence and realism, especially on vocals – vocals as varied as Patti Smith and Patricia Petibon.