Focal Utopia

Focal Utopia

The dust has settled, in my opinion, a bit since the summer of 2016 – when the two new dynamic-driver headphones by Focal exploded onto the market. The Focal Elear and Utopia were the biggest draw of the show floor at Can Jam London 2016, and the latter was named the best headphone in the world by Tyll over at InnerFidelity.

Such a statement had been met with a small amount of backlash, with some in the headphones community calling the Utopia overpriced at $4000 and overhyped. More than this, to my eyes, the Utopia is being seen as the next step in dynamic-driver headphones, bringing renewed interest to the category after years of high-end offerings being dominated by planar magnetic headphones, mostly, and electrostatics. I was very impressed when I heard it myself at the London Can Jam 2016, but I wished for an opportunity to hear it in a quieter environment – the show room is no place to properly evaluate an open headphone.

Fast forward to February 2017, a hi-fi store in my area that I frequent (and bought my Elear from back in September) finally has a display unit of the Utopia. This was my chance to get a good sense of what made these such a hot topic.

I would like to extend my thanks to Audio Sanctuary/Unilet in London for letting me listen to these for long periods of time to gather impressions – and even letting me film the video component of the review in-store. They can be found at https://www.audiosanctuary.co.uk/.

 Specifications

Type Circum-aural open back headphones

Impedance 80 Ohms

Sensitivity 104dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz

THD <0.2% @ 1kHz / 100dB SPL

Frequency response 5Hz - 50kHz

Loudspeaker 137⁄64“ (40mm) pure Beryllium “M” shape dome

Weight 1.08lb (490g)

Cable length 13.1ft (4m) [reduced since]

Connectors 1 x Jack 01/4“ (6.35mm) stereo / 2 x 03⁄8“ (9.5mm) Lemo®

Carrying case 1253⁄64“x1015⁄64“x629⁄64“ (326x260x164mm)

 Build Quality, Comfort and Features

I’m glad to say that the excessive creakiness that was present in the review unit given to InnerFidelity is entirely missing from the one in-store. Made using a good amount of carbon fibre, I found the build quality to be quite sturdy. It isn’t built like a tank, like some headphones that I’ve come across in all price ranges - but it isn’t a flimsy affair either. There is quite some heft to these headphones too, as without the cable they weigh 490g, compared to the 450g of the Elear. Holding it up next to the likes of the LCD-3, LCD-X, LCD-XC (especially) and LCD-4 made it feel light by comparison – but this is no featherweight headphone.

However, the weight distribution is done very well – with the leather headband resting comfortably on the listener’s head with ample cushioning. The earpads are made of lambskin leather and differ quite a bit from the earpads of the Elear. They are softer and yet provide more cushioning to deal with long listening sessions. They are removed just as easily as the Elear’s as well, pulling off and snapping back into place in a simple manner. I found the clamp of the headphones to be very similar to my Elear, to which I’m quite used to after several months of near-daily usage. However, as with the Elear, this is not a headphone to use lying down as it puts a lot of pressure on the lower-back area of the ear - which can be fatiguing over time. Sitting upright, or at a slight lean or recline, the Utopia maintains its comfort quite well – given suitable neck strength.

The included features of both the Utopia and Elear are quite bare. They come in a very nice looking black box with the cable…and that is it folks. The cable is a very thick and solidly built affair, and I was pleasantly surprised that Focal shaved down the length from the one I received with the Elear – which was so long and cumbersome that I sought out an aftermarket cable for it. However, for the price that the Utopia retails at, I would greatly prefer if Focal included another cable as well – a balanced one terminated in a 4-pin XLR plug. It should be mentioned that the cable, despite its reduced length, is still a long and slightly heavy affair – but it is well built if nothing else. Unlike the Elear’s 2.5mm connectors, the Utopia uses LEMO connectors – which I found very sturdy and easily locked into place without the necessity of turning it to a side.

Aesthetically, I really like how the Utopia looks – although I will admit that I prefer the Elear’s more subdued design on the cups more. It is because of the Utopia’s beryllium drivers that the cups look in the way that they do, and I have indeed heard many complaints from people who think it is an eyesore – but I disagree. The whole headphone has a look of class about it, all while being firmly entrenched in an industrial design – and it is only the Focal x Tournaire $100,000 gold and diamond version that is really trying to appeal to the hyper-upscale crowd by doing away with this.

Sound

The Utopia is an experience that can best be simplified as “anti-aliasing for your ears.” Tuned quite a bit brighter than the warm Elear, the headphone succeeds in making some of its competition seem veiled by comparison. Impact and dynamics are the strongest that I have heard yet from a headphone of any form factor, driver technology or use – besides electrostatics.

Despite having a soundstage range, based on feeling of distance of instruments and vocals, that is more intimate than many open-aire headphones that I have heard in the past – the Utopia manages to do more with its “space” than other offerings in its price range. Simple, almost amateurish, thoughts popped up while I was listening to this headphone – and this case the question was “how is it that there are more instruments clearly audible on the Utopia than on the Sennheiser HD800/800S. The one cymbal you never noticed before in a song that you’ve been listening to for years upon years is suddenly allowed its own place in the mix that didn’t seem possible before, and it doesn’t sound forced or unnaturally emphasized, which can be the case with the Sennheiser flagships – especially if we are talking about cymbal emphasis in a mix, if it lands right on the infamous 6k treble peak.

This feeling of the natural emphasis of instrument tracks was very apparent in the kick drum recorded by Lars Ulrich in Metallica’s Ride the Lightning album. Buried under layers of heavily distorted and reverb-soaked guitars, I had often heard the presence of the bass drum track – but never actually experienced it in a manner that felt live or even realistic. It might as well have been a drum machine on many setups. The Utopia managed to dig deep and find a way to present it so that it sounded more like it should.

The Utopia’s manner of doing this actually reminds me, in some way, of the Sennheiser HE-1 Orpheus. While the Utopia does not quite have the immediacy of the Sennheiser electrostat, both manage to add some “context” to what is being heard. By context, I mean the audible knowledge that there is a clear beginning and an end to any piece of recorded music. A kick drum strike has a hit and a decay, and too often in audio will it sound like you are just hearing the loudest milliseconds – the basic requirement of rendering it audible on any piece of audio gear. What the Utopia does is bring forth the moment of impact and the decay after in clarity, giving a strike that merely “clicked” before suddenly have the whole “thud” sound. Perhaps it is a bit excessive to dedicate a paragraph to this explanation, but I felt that it was needed.

Listening to Ottmar Liebert & Luna Negra’s binaural acoustic album Up Close on the Utopia, I did immediately feel a lack of distance between the instruments that I am used to with my HD800 at home. The separation of the instruments was stellar, however, and the imaging was quite good – but I really might have to give the edge in this regard to the HD800. I feel that there were a few pans that did not move as precisely as I am used to with this album. Adding to the earlier discussion about kick drums, a track on the album has a section that introduces hand clapping – and these sound far more realistic on the Utopia than on my Elear or HD800 due to a lingering sensation that follows each one and the dynamic impact of each.

The bass of the Utopia is punchy and quite fast, extending decently low. It possesses a “full” sound that I feel is lacking with the Sennheiser HD800/HD800S, to my ears, that lets it keep up with any genre of music that I throw at it – whether it be orchestral or EDM. That being said, the bass is not bloated nor loud in volume, and this headphone will definitely not satisfy the staunchest basshead – who might look to the Elear instead for that fix if they insist on buying from Focal. As with the HD800, the precise nature of bass guitars on the Utopia is stellar, except it is even more audible than on the Sennheiser by a significant amount. Once again, I turned to Metallica’s 1980s albums (which have the reputation of burying the bass in the mix) and found it more noticeable than I have ever heard before – without devolving into mid-bass and midrange bleed like on the Fostex TH-X00. For more electronic genres, the Utopia keeps up with tracks such as The Weeknd’s Starboy and Daft Punk’s creative output pre-2013. The sub-bass extension was not immense, but the impact of each hit was undoubtedly present and accounted for.

It was a Daft Punk song that showed me the strength of the lower midrange as well – which is not overbearing but very precise once again. The song in question is Da Funk and it consists of a driving beat that continues throughout most of the song with added instrumentation piling on top of it – very much in the vein of the 1990s French House era that it came from. How the instruments pile on top of one another is an important way for me to decipher the capability of a headphone’s reproduction of audio and detail. Some headphones do well with the bass and drum aspect of the track, such as the Fostex x Massdrop TH-X00, but fail to bring out the detail in the rest of it. Some do an incredible job with the fine detail, such as the HD800, but struggle to provide a full enough bass thump to give the song its fullest drive and groove. I find that most headphones are somewhere in between these two examples, but none has balanced the two quite as well as the Utopia.

I am, thanks to owning a HD800, used to hearing the “air” around stringed instruments and horns in music – upper range frequencies. However, I am not quite used to hearing the air around very synthetic bass-synths. When those entered in Da Funk, I must admit that I was quite astonished. Every note had such bombast, and would announce its arrival and departure without making the overall transition of the beat muddy or overdone. I can’t imagine just how much of a balancing act tuning something to sound like this must be, it’s honestly quite astonishing.

The midrange itself is quite a departure from a limitation that the Elear has, a dip in the upper mids that can make female vocals sound distant. I found that female vocals had a lot more body than I am used to than with my HD800 and Elear. The separation of vocal harmonies and layering was also very well done, with each new entry into the mix being effortlessly audible. Guitars, both electric and acoustic, sounded as they should in a live setting. Due to the dynamics of the Utopia, softly played guitars sounded as laid back as they should while more aggressively strummed power chords sounded as impactful as they should. I would not characterise the midrange as being especially “liquid,” a word I have used to describe the presentation of Hifiman’s now-discontinued HE-500. The experience of the Utopia is what you make of it with the music playing, because it is not especially smooth or relaxing – it can hit hard so come prepared.

The treble is probably my favourite of the three in this situation, which is the opposite of what I usually come to enjoy in headphones. Yes, I would very much prefer that there wasn’t a stiflingly rolled-off treble in all that I demo, but I often pay more attention to a fun and “bassy” experience along with a rich midrange. This is why I enjoy the Meze 99 Classic as my portable setup headphones if I ever want more than IEMs or earbuds outdoors. A detailed treble extension can do wonders for more intricately recorded music, as my time with the HD800 has taught me, but the Utopia does more without any painful peaks – to my ears. It is still a rather bright headphone, but not one that is gutted in the low end at all. I can safely say that the detail that is shown with instruments such as strings, horns, cymbals, snare drums and others shows that the Utopia is fearless in how it approaches anything that has the tendency to be buried in the mix on lesser headphones – given that the source is high enough bitrate (CD quality ideally). As mentioned before, it brings out immense detail in just about any recording and has a sound that can best be described as “awake.” Outside of electrostatic headphones, I have not heard music being presented in such a dynamic fashion before – and it does it in a better way than what I previously had this sense from, the Focal Elear.

Comparisons

Focal Elear:

A/b-ing between the two, I can hear the difference in technology and implementation quite well. My daily driver since September, the Elear has a very dynamic sound – even more so than my HD800 and other headphones that I have owned/reviewed before. This is best shown in songs with a piano track, there is just so much depth to each note and the attack is sudden and impactful.

However, the Utopia does what the Elear does in a far better manner – reminding a listener of the price difference. It is frankly incredible how listening to the same song on either can render the Elear as dull and the Utopia as the clear victor in dynamics and impact. A snare hit in a song might sound complete and fulfilling on the Elear, but compared to the immense crash that the Utopia drags out of the same recording – it thuds in comparison. The dynamics of the Elear, and the potential to surprise you in songs, pales in comparison to the Utopia – which has “no chill” when it comes to the reproduction of audio. This headphone will not back down from a recording, and always sounds like it is giving it its absolute all.

The Elear is a bassier headphone however, with a lot more bass thump to its sound along with a heightened mid-bass presence that extends a bit into the lower mids – making it clearly warmer than the Utopia. When I listened to an acoustic guitar track that I recorded myself, I found that the Elear made it sound more earthy and bloomy – but the Utopia made it sound precise and brought out any flaws in my playing, exposing all. Another notable difference is the Utopia’s ability to present clean and undistorted audio at even really high volume, whereas the Elear is better suited for moderate to moderately-high listening volume – becoming a bit too shouty and harsh in its upper region if pushed.

I am told that some prefer the Utopia with the Elear’s pads. I have yet to try this myself, and I will do so in a future visit to Audio Sanctuary to hear for myself. Basically, the argument is that the Elear’s pads inject more bass thump into the Utopia without taking away much or any detail and dynamics.

Sennheiser HD800/HD800S

I would make the argument that these were the most technically proficient dynamic-driver headphones on the market before the Utopia showed up. I, personally, prefer a Superdupont-modded HD800 to the HD800S. The reason for this is that I believe that the bass is more precise on the original, with it being a bit more wooly in the HD800S – possibly to make the overall headphone warmer and more palatable to a more mainstream audience. It should be noted the large price difference between the Sennheisers and the Utopia, making the former a lot more affordable to the masses – as much as you can expect in this hobby.

Switching between the two, the HD800/S is the clear winner in soundstage range and imaging – continuing its reign in this regard (from what I have personally tried), as it even beat the Sennheiser HE-1. The two are the most holophonic headphones that I have heard yet, making binaural audio sound lifelike and precise. The Utopia, on the range front, is far more intimate between the two options – but it manages to utilise the space really well. At no point, even in the most “hectic” of songs, did I find that there was overlap of instruments and vocals in a manner that sounded congested. The Sennheisers have a wide canvas on which to paint, but the Utopia’s brushwork is more finely detailed.

The Utopia is also not all that picky about source, and is easily amped. I plugged it into my Samsung Galaxy S6 and it still, shockingly, sounded pretty damn good. Out of my portable setup, an Aune M1s plugged into a VE RunAbout Plus, it was driven entirely with only 9-10 ‘o clock on the volume dial. It both scales enormously well, but can sound like itself from a basic setup. Compare this to the notoriously picky HD800, which can sound way too harsh and treble-glaring on some amplifiers and sources – leading many to seek out warmer solid state or tube amplifiers to tame its natural state.

It would not be a surprise to me if the Utopia’s unveiling last year galvanized Sennheiser’s research and development department to get started on a true successor to the HD800 – which the 800S absolutely was not. I believe that increased competition in the high-end audio market will drive innovation and technology, even if it does not drive down prices necessarily. I will be keeping my eye on Sennheiser, who are still the biggest and most respected name in dynamic-driver headphones – but the Utopia takes the overall gold medal at this point in time.

Audeze LCD-4

Audeze’s flagship is a curious headphone for me, as based on the description of its sound signature it should be ideal for my preferences. It focuses on bass and midrange, but sports a large soundstage and detail in its upper-range.

However, the Utopia may not have the same focus but is far more of a hi-fi experience to my ears. The LCD-4 feels bogged down by comparison, a lot more hazy in presentation and lacking the micro-details that the Utopia sports effortlessly. A/b-ing between the two left no doubt in my mind which headphone was the victor, because both are priced the same and I expect a lot more “wow factor” at $4000 – not just an extension of the LCD-3.

Hifiman HE-1000

Hifiman’s soon-to-be-former consumer flagship (now that the Edition 6 has been announced) is a very nice mixture of deep bass extension, soft and pleasing midrange and comfortably extended treble. Retailing for $3000, the HE-1000 is called by some as the headphone they could listen to during a migraine – and I see why. It is far more relaxed and pillowy compared to the Utopia’s trailblazing “take no prisoners” nature. I would liken the sound to an evening on the couch listening to your favourite live jazz recordings with a glass of wine – near a fireplace for good measure.

However, as with the LCD-4, preferring the HE-1000 to the Utopia is purely a matter of personal preference – because it pales in comparison on a technical and detail reproduction manner. It does put up more of a fight than the Audeze flagship however, utilising its larger soundstage and punchy character. When I first saw the HE-1000 and its price, I did not think a day would come where it would be the clear underdog to another headphone that wasn’t an electrostatic, or the Sennheiser Orpheus. It just sounds veiled and too soft (in terms of dynamics) compared to the Utopia – better than the LCD-4 however.

Source & Amping

As mentioned above, the Utopia is not very picky with its sources. The best way to sum up what you choose to plug the headphones into is “just make sure it doesn’t suck.” Any halfway decent option should be enough to make the Utopia sound like the headphone it was designed to be.

I spent a large amount of time at Audio Sanctuary pairing the Utopia with the Chord Dave. This absolutely bonkers top-of-the-line system provided an immensely detailed, nuanced and pleasing sound – but you really are throwing price-to-performance out of the window to be hit by ongoing traffic and trampled into the asphalt. Make no mistake, I am not downplaying the magic of the pairing – I am just pointing out that it is not needed to make the Utopia sound like itself. I also acknowledge the irony of bringing price-to-performance ratios in a review of a headphone that costs $4000 by itself, but I believe that the headphones make the biggest overall impact in a listening experience. The Chord Dave + Focal Utopia will sound like the Utopia, but the Chord Dave + The HD800S won’t sound like the Utopia – if that makes sense.

To further prove this point, to myself before anyone else, I spent an even longer amount of time with the Utopia plugged into an Aune M1s digital-audio-player which was connected via line-out mode into the Venture Electronics RunAbout Plus portable headphone amplifier – a combo that is around $350 in total.

Not only was the Utopia fully driven, with only 9-10 o’ clock on the dial being nearly too loud for me, but it brought out all the characteristics that being amped should. This, just like the Focal Elear, is a very easily driven headphone.

Pricing

It is my firm belief that, in this hobby specifically, once you cross the $1000 threshold – the law of diminishing returns goes into overdrive, with the amount spent above this yielding reduced impact than it did before.

I fully realize that these are $4000, the price of four brand-new Sennheiser HD800s, or the price of a Sennheiser HD800 + Hifiman HE1000 and so on – but while I will not be able to afford the Utopia myself, I can absolutely see what justifies its price. I am not great with science, and many technical conversations of high-fidelity audio can go over my head – but I do know what I hear.

What I hear is an experience that is head and shoulders above its competition in the open-aire headphone market. I will remove myself from the “is it worth it?” question by reminding you that, to the overwhelming majority of people out there, spending anything over whatever Beats by Dre cost on headphones is mind-boggling and without merit.

That being said, if the Utopia sounded anything lesser than it did then I would have been quite harsh on them in this review (kind of like how I see the LCD-4) – but there are clear differences between it and the competition. Whether or not it’s because of beryllium drivers or whatnot, I cannot say for sure – but it’s there and it has moved possibilities forward for the market as a whole.

If you feel that you could build a setup with several headphones, each competing with the Utopia on some level (if not superseding it in the case of bass thump and soundstage) for the same price while being able to pay for an amplifier and DAC – I could definitely see that. But, I don’t see an allrounder in the high-end open-aire market that competes on all fronts quite as much.

Conclusion

 Audio Sanctuary finally had a model available for display all the way in February, after these had started being sold in September. According to them, whenever stock arrived – it was picked up or mailed out the same day due to the demand being so high and the waitlist being so populated. Handmade by Focal in France, the stock didn’t seem to be able to keep up with demand quite as much until 2017.

This is a headphone that is a worthy recipient of its acclaim. If you have the cash handy, it will provide you with an experience that is synonymous with the appeal of high-fidelity audio in headphones – before making the leap to speakers if you haven’t already. On the topic of speakers, it still surprises me that Focal is known primarily as a speaker manufacturer. They went from being just that to throwing down the gauntlet at Sennheiser and others – and the audio world became a lot more interesting.

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