My week with the Utopia just ended, and I am missing them! A big thank you to Todd for this loaner program.
Since I also participated in Todd's Elear loaner program, I am going to cheat, and have you read my review of the Focal Elear before you continue. It covers my system, my musical tastes, and my conclusion about the Focal sound. Cosmetics, fit, and finish wise - all my impressions from the Elear still apply. Like everybody else on the planet, I found the cable length ridiculous.
From that review, I concluded that for my needs, a duo of the HD800 and the Elear would cover my listening preferences very well. So why did I ask Todd to be on the Utopia loaner rotation? I approached this evaluation with a very targeted purpose. Could the Utopia be a single-headphone solution to my needs? And could it do so by significantly outperforming both the HD800 and Elear to justify the substantially higher cost? Which I could offset by selling the HD800 and Elear.
Utopia Sonic Impressions
The Utopia is an amazing headphone. The first thing that strikes you is how incredibly detailed they sound. Then there's the bass. It is deep, but not fat, or overblown. And finally, the overall tonal balance is quite neutral. I'll talk about this more in the comparisons section below.
These are also the most dynamic headphones I've ever heard. Whatever the inherent dynamic range on the recording, you are guaranteed to hear it. Articulation and speed are effortless. Tyll on Inner Fidelity wasn't kidding when he called these punchy. They are.
Imaging was very good, and rock solid. However, it wasn't quite at the level of the HD800.
Comparison with the Elear
The Utopia blows away the Elear. As they should, at 4x the price. But it's not that simple. Listening to the Elear, here's what I noticed when I swapped them for the Utopia:
- An amazing increase in clarity! Details that were hinted at on the Elear become immediately audible. It's like things snapped into focus.
- A very tight controlled bass. But the Elear does seem to have a slight edge on bass, which may be an illusion.
- The Utopia definitely sounds brighter. And this is where it gets complicated. On bright, harsh, less than perfect recordings, the Utopia can be unforgiving. The Elear, on the other hand, is darker, warmer, and thicker sounding, and therefore are much more forgiving.
Comparison with the HD800
This was the crux of my review. I love my HD800's! For the kind of big, orchestral, symphonic classical music I like to listen to - think Mahler, Sibelius, etc in DSD - I've never heard anything that can top them. Well, the Utopia didn't either.
Tonally, they are somewhat similar, although undoubtedly the HD800 is still a bit brighter and thinner sounding than the Utopia. But to my ears, and specifically on classical music, the mids seemed just a tad more engaging on my HD800.
But the deciding factor ultimately, was the imaging. While, in and of themselves, the Utopia has excellent imaging, it is still no match for the HD800. On music that demands the portrayal of a large concert hall, with the instruments spaced out, the HD800 just killed it. On the other hand, for music played in smaller spaces like jazz, or for rock and pop music, the Utopia's superior bass and more neutral treble won out.
In his review for InnerFidelity, Tyll talked about how good the Utopia sounded with the Elear earpads. In the interests of science, I tried the same swap in both directions - Utopia with Elear pads, and vice versa. Note - I did this very carefully, with no damage to anything. the pads just snap off and on.
Utopia with Elear pads: Yup, this definitely boosts the bass by a pleasing degree. But, to my ears, it also saps the Utopia of some of its clarity. Still, I can see this being a useful option when listening to particularly harsh music or recording. For $150, this would be a no-brainer to get if buying the Utopia.
Elear with Utopia pads: This did not impress me at all. It made the Elear sound thin and unexciting. Plus, these pads at $250 make very little sense on the Elear.
To answer the question I posed at the outset - could the Utopia outperform and satisfy me better than the HD800/Elear duo? No. If money were no object, I would want an HD800/Utopia duo. And I'd buy the Elear earpads as a companion.
But for an HD800 lover like me, without an additional $4k to spend, I am perfectly content with my HD800 and Elear duo.
Edited by austinpop - 1/21/17 at 8:47pm