Having an involvement in the car audio industry I see some interesting, and lofty, demands from time to time. Some people want their systems loud, some want soft, some want bright, some want dull; seen it all. The most interesting challenge to date came via an enthusiast who’s married to a professionally trained mezzo-soprano. The desire here would be seemingly impossible to achieve; when listening with his eyes closed he didn’t want to be able to discern whether it was the car’s system or his bride performing. On the surface, this may seem like a basic premise, yet it’s one that remains perhaps the hardest to attain when talking car audio; the ability to sound so lifelike so as to mistake the reproduction for the real thing. This challenge, attempted time and again by so may, now sees the audacious Focal tackling the quest head-on once more.
SCHOOL OF LIFE
Based in Saint-Étienne in France and founded in 1979; Focal is anything but an amateur. Nor is it unaccustomed to working with exotic materials, often in the worst of conditions. But in attempting to recreate reality has it bitten off more than it can chew? Could it really develop a component set that sounds quite literally life like, indeed one that could outdo even Focal’s highly enviable and extensive curriculum vitae?
The Ultima component set is somewhat of a departure from the norm in that while it’s a full range active set your princely sum of 24 large ones actually gets you two tweeters, two midranges and two subwoofers. They’re not just any components either my friends, oh no. Not only are they among the best sounding in the world, visually they make a Monet pale in comparison thanks to their stunning comeliness.
With all the eagerness of a four year old at a candy store… I just didn’t know where to start. Hands trembling and heart racing, I cracked open the anything-but-typical outer case. Impressive… it’s constructed from timber and finished in a delectable black satin coating. Gravity demands such a case in order to support the weight of the drivers. Both it and the inner hard-foam packing are embossed with the Focal logo and opening it reveals a literal treasure chest of audio goodness.
The tweeter is based on those found in the Grande Utopia EM and features Focal’s trademark inverted Beryllium dome, which itself is a stunning result of years of painstaking metallurgical research and development.
Favoured over materials like Titanium because of its intrinsic qualities of lightness, rigidity and damping, the beryllium dome is three times harder despite being two and half times less dense. If science isn’t your strong point look at it this way; for the same mass the Beryllium dome on the Ultima is seven times more rigid than one similarly made of Titanium. Married to the dome is a specially-profiled Poron surround, with the 93dB sensitive IAL2 motor living beneath featuring a 6-ohms copper voice coil wrapped on a 20mm aluminium former, all of which is encased in a neodymium magnet.
These components are secured by a laser finished black aluminum frame which is quite deep, standing at 38mm tall. Within this is the labyrinth chamber charged with keeping troublesome back waves away from the underside of the dome, along with the various components of the cooling system which afford it a continuous power handling ability of 50 watts or maximum of 200 watts. I’ll go on record now and state that the midrange is the single best looking speaker I’ve ever seen. This is largely thanks to the bright red multi-ferrite magnet stack which Focal call the ‘Power Flower’. It’s neatly attached to the rear of the black powder coated and aerodynamically transparent Zamak basket, the latter chosen for its inherent magnetic properties. It’s a tall affair, standing at just shy of 82mm in height.
The diaphragm is extremely rigid, constructed from Focal’s composite “W” sandwich material. The ‘W’ designation is derived from ‘verre’ which basically means ‘glass’, as the layer utilises two fi ne tissues of woven glass with a softer foam material in between.
The glass layers are lighter and thinner than aramid fibres commonly found in other speakers while the molecular bond between the foam and the glass tissue is also far superior. The resulting cone is physically superior in both strength and damping and is far less prone to distorting and disfiguring during high speed transients. The internal damping in the diaphragm remains controlled by varying the thickness of the foam, with the thicker foam equating to a higher damping factor. The theory behind this design is that the relationship between the glass and foam thickness allows the speaker the ability to output an optimised, transparent sound across its entire frequency range.
Forming the suspension top and bottom respectively is a butyl rubber surround and fl at rolled black-textile spider while, in the centre of the cone, is an extended rigid aluminium center pole piece. This works in conjunction with a strategically-located 40mm Kapton voice coil former below to concentrate the densest portion of the magnetic flux onto the 4-ohms aluminium voice coil, ensuring it remains controlled during the longest transients and awarding it a sensitivity of 90.5dB.
Although renowned for its overengineering of all things cooling, even this midrange is impressive. It starts with four large perimeter vents between each of the fingers, allowing massive amounts of air to enter the motor as it reciprocates. In order to evacuate warm air the downwards stroke simply pushes it out between the strontium stacks, meaning you can push 120 watts continuously through it. You’ll note the pole vent on the rear is actually sealed as it forms parts of the extended back plate, meaning you won’t bellmouth the former if you start approaching its peak of 240 watts.
Last and anything but least; the third components are the subwoofers. Derived from the signature SM9 drivers and designed to run in stereo with the other two components, the 118mm deep drivers are also adorned with the smart looking grey composite ‘W’ sandwich cone, albeit it’s somewhat thicker than the midrange driver’s in order to withstand a lot more physical punishment. Despite the additional girth the diaphragm still retains the ability to continue providing optimal acceleration and deceleration characteristics.
This is achieved without decay and, because of the resulting damping, it provides a very neutral and colour-free performance delivering unmatched linearity over the entire subsonic frequency range with very little physical distortion.
Greatly assisting this graceful movement and giving the driver a sensitivity of 90.2dB is the top portion of the suspension – the UVtreated foam surround. In the centre of the cone is a large dust cap which also doubles as part of the cooling system as it allows air to enter into the area below it. This air then flows directly into the top of the voice coil gap from the underside of the cone rather than having to follow the snake like path of traditional designs. Lurking beneath is a cast alloy powder coated black basket adorned with the Focal logo on the webs. This holds a precision machined alloy motor that starts with a raised black-textile spider holding everything concentric and on axis. Bolted to the frame concealing the heart of the driver is a titanic double stacked 5.5kg ferrite magnet which exerts an extreme force over the 50mm Kapton former encircled by a 6-ohms aluminium voice coil.
With the omission of the power flower some may be lead to hazard the supposition of potential inferior cooling, however Focal is way ahead of you. Besides the direct air injection due to the aforementioned perforated cone, it also incorporates six large perimeter vents located between the web fingers and all this warm air can then exit via the fully functioning 15mm pole vent. Overall power handling is 300 watts continuous and over double that for peak bursts.
MOUNTING & MULTI-CHANNELS
Installation of the Ultima components is not straightforward for two primary reasons. Firstly, because of the enormous mounting depth of all three components. Sure, we expect subwoofers to possess substantial mounting depths, however even the other two are somewhat disconcerting. Then there’s the little issue of power; yes, you’ll need six channels of amplification to get them humming!
For testing we ran the four satellite speakers with a 4-channel Tru-Technology B41-S while the subwoofers were driven courtesy of a B22-S. Running-in consumes a not insubstantial time but once done they nestle quite nicely into the role they were developed for; to sound quite simply superb.
And do they what! You could insert just about any colloquialism here; astounding, astonishing, bewildering, stunning, dazzling, call it what you will they’re all of it and a bag of skittles! Quite simply the Ultima set is brilliant in every sense of the word.
The glorious tweeters are crystal clear, offering precise highs with no decay nor a hint of internal reverberation. The midrange drivers play with effortless authority from the upper subsonic regions right through to the middle treble frequencies and the subwoofers are one of the few I’ve heard now, as opposed to simply feeling.
Not to say they cannot thump, quite the contrary. It’s just that you can actually enjoy listening to their sublime and accurate subsonic performance with your ears rather than your loins.
Upon confronting the Ultima component set we have heard of many skeptics henceforth raise the specter of their merit – are they really that good, do they really expound realism? There is only one answer to such questioning and it’s only one listen away. And while some will say it’s not possible for any speaker to reach outright transcendence this, fellow music lovers and audio enthusiasts, is as close to aural perfection as you’re likely to get. Sublime!