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Headphones item created by jazzfan, Jul 29, 2016
Pros - Beautiful craftsmanship and build materials, innovative technology, easy to drive
Cons - Price, weight, sound, cable length too long
Focal Utopia By: Dillan Archer Photographs by: Regan Hulvey
I have spent the greater part of my evenings the last few days (and this morning) listening and comparing these gorgeous new flagships from Focal. I have been doing a lot of review programs lately and I was probably most excited for this opportunity above all the others. Why? Because this brand new release has generated an unbelievable amount of respect from almost everyone that hears them and there is so much buzz going around you almost can't help but water at the mouth for a bite of Focal pie.
Todd was nice enough to put me first on his list to try his Utopia and I am definitely grateful for the opportunity. His website (http://www.ttvjaudio.com/) is a warm inviting place for anyone to browse. I would definitely look at some of his unique tube amplifiers too. He was always really quick to answer any of my questions and if you were looking for a place to buy the new Utopia or Elear - I would look his way.
Box, Accessories & Build Quality
The box is a beautiful leather with red stitching. I definitely thought the experience of opening this was a notch above most, even for high-end flagship standards.
Focal definitely wanted the unboxing experience to be magical. The black foam engulfing the Utopia proves a protective environment when you want to move these $4000 headphones around. I feel the leather box with red splashing did a good job of both protecting the gear and creating a beautiful housing of representation. I wish all boxes were this pretty!
Inside of a hidden flap you'll find a very long cable. To me this is too long - I think there needs to be a happy medium somewhere in between in regards to cable sizes. In my opinion if you want something unnaturally small or long then you should buy those separately through a custom vendor. If I had to guess I think some people will be sitting far from their amplifier or rack, but most will not take advantage of this very lengthy 13ft cable.
The headphones themselves look very lovely. I feel like they have an aggressive masculinity with a modern technology-esque twist. Kind of hard to describe.. but beautiful to look at. Looking through the back you can see light right through them. These are incredibly open headphones. The grille is a mesh metal and a protective shinier metal sits right above the driver. You can see the red magnets at an angle looking inside.
A ventilated leather padding is used for the headband and earpads. These are actually very comfortable and have a memory comforming material underneath the leather. This wraps around lightweight carbon fiber which serves as the yoke. Overall these are comfortable and great to look at.
So lets get to the important stuff shall we? Let me start off by saying these headphones have generated so much hype that I didn't know whether I needed to put on a seatbelt and helmet before listening to these. If you were to go off reviews alone then you'd expect your toes to pop off when pressing play. I think this expectation bias actually served negatively in my experience, but I certainly didn't leave completely unimpressed by any stretch.
This is the first piece of audio equipment from Focal that I have had the pleasure of listening to. Focal is most known for their floor standing speakers which go up to six figures in pricing. Focal owners usually feel pride in what they buy from this French company as usually their products are both expensive and of high quality. Regardless of my impressions on sound - I do think the Utopia is beautifully made with a sound signature that a lot of people would enjoy.
Bass: The bass on these are good. Not pronounced, not audibly extended.. but just good. Listening to Master Blaster by Stevie Wonder gave me the impression that when the track calls for it, you hear it. I have read quite a few reviews so far and most impressions leave the listener slightly wanting in the bass department. Some tracks I got this impression, but for the most part I heard (not felt) their presence just fine. The sound through all frequenciy ranges on the Utopia is wide open. These are extremely airy and open sounding headphones and this definitely includes the bass. That open quality make for good transparency, but the grunt of the low end fell short consequently. Out of all of the excessive bass testing I did on these: Drums, deep voicing, low note cello playing and even some electronically produced tones - I enjoyed them all about the same. Nothing really stood out to me and that can be good or bad depending on the listener. I would say bass listening through all genres is pretty consistent which is good for those who have a wide range of musical preferences. The soft unexciting nature of the bass reproduction was overall quite accurate, but less detail than the SR009 or HD800s. Hearing drum solos showed me where the general direction of the drums were, but it almost sounded like a thin cloth separated the instrument from me and the player. The bass wasn't veiled - just soft with a low impact lushness.
Midrange: The mids on these were again good, but not the enveloping warmth that I am used to with my Audezes. As I pinpoint each individual variant of sound through the Utopia headphones I find a noticeable consistency. Nothing stands out whatsoever and almost everything I describe about one frequency range can somewhat be applied to the next. Maria Callas singing "Carmen" was very reminiscent of listening through an HD800S in certain characteristics. I personally enjoyed the HD800S' midrange especially in voicing. I think both have the same detailed, open and accurate "style" which lacks musicality, but promotes transparency. One good thing about the midrange was I felt like instruments and voices were present and absent when necessary. I don't feel comfortable describing this as "attack and decay", but I just was very pleased with how the mids didn't linger or bleed ever. The bad part was how thin they sounded. Overall the sound signature is partially thin so if you like listening to a sound that engulfs you with a warm, thick lushness then I would look the other way. The mids were like what you would find out of a modern (not the original veiled release version) HD650, but with more detail and accuracy.
Treble: The treble was quite nice for me when coming from some of the headphones I am used to. I always felt my (now sold) HD800's were too bright. I think the SR009 are one of the best reference headphones on the market, but to me they too are sightly bright. One of my favorite headphones to date are the LCD-4's, which oddly enough have both too much and too little treble. I think having an emphasized top end will give you better imaging and also help create a transparent sound. The higher frequencies are what help shape the sound of the entire range and can usually be the sole factor in what gives you a warm or cold signature. Focal really did an outstanding job here in the fact that the top end is definitely present, but at a sweet spot that allows great imaging without introducing fatigue or harshness. This is one of the best ways of handling this range that I think I have heard. The soft nature of this headphone probably helped with smoothing the treble/high frequencies. Personally I liked listening to the clashing of cymbals the most, but other things like the high end of piano and violin were enjoyable as well.
Transparency: Focal created a very transparent headphone. Do I think it is the most transparent? No. But it's pretty good. I noticed some complicated sounds such as Olafur Arnalds orchestral ensembles were a lot easier to follow with the Focal than it was with my LCD-4, albeit less enjoyable. This may sound harsh or hypocritical, but the transparency was about on par with my Grado RS2e. People will think "Oh so this flagship is on par in regards to transparency with a headphone that cost $3500 less?" .. Well yes it is, but I think the RS2e is very transparent. The Focals are like looking out of a window on a clear day while the SR009 is like not having a house between you and "it" at all. To me the dynamic softness help to hide some things which should be more clearly exaggerated. If you were to simply listen to a triangle being played you can understand. A simple tone has less transparency due to the nature of this signature.. while more complicated music has a separation and transparency due to the soft dynamism.
Accuracy/Detail: I would say the Utopia can be proudly called very accurate with an extension of detail rivaling most mid-level headphones and almost better than other flagships near its price range. I feel like the bouncy, dynamic softness should be quite forgiving of low quality recordings.. but that wasn't the case. I think this is a testament to how good it is at detail and transparency. I could hear every guitar note during a complicated "Muffin Man" by Frank Zappa. A recording that also showed the flaws in the quality of the album. I was not blown away by the detail compared to some of the best headphones in the world. I was also not disappointed.
Soundstage/Instrument Separation: I think the separation of instruments were impressive, but at the very least it was expected. It's very hard to describe the way instruments and voicing are placed around you while listening.. so to me it is necessary to describe the Utopias soundstage as confusing. It isn't large, but isn't small. I could tell you the direction of what was playing, but not pin point it like I can with most other flagship out there.
Overall sound signature and comparisons: Switching between various headphones gave me a much better understanding and opinion overall.
It honestly is pretty hard to describe the sound of these because they're bouncy and dynamic, but still sort of boring and the opposite of "in your face" (is there a word for that?) No matter how loud I played the Focal Utopias, I still felt like they were too "quiet". I would say these have a very rare quality in that they do not put their own spin on the music as much as they just spit out what you play. Nothing more nothing less. The Utopia is not cold, but definitely not warm. I say they actually have a good neutrality and allow hours of unfatigued listening.
I can't stress enough how open these sound. Although the separation between voices and instruments weren't mind blowing - it definitely was there. The astonishing quality is the audibility of the separation which might sound confusing, but must be brought up. You can almost feel the air between the different instruments which actually makes for a unique listening experience.
Compared to the HD800S I personally overall was left respecting Sennheisers headphone more. I was more objectively impressed with the sound and I could not hear at any point in time the reason for Focal charging a lot more than double the price. Comparing to the 800S just begged the question of what can the Utopia do better than others out there? If I wanted a detailed and accurate sound then I would reach for a Sennheiser HD800 or an electrostat. If I wanted heartfelt vocals and a grunting bottom end then I would grab the LCD-4. The list goes on..
The thought process I kept having was "If I wanted a soft musicality then I would spend a lot less and get a more enjoyable experience from Hifiman's HE1000." I thought the HE1000 was about the same comfort level and had the same soft, dynamic signature to them. The Utopia was not leaps and bounds ahead of the HE1000 in any category so why bother?
Compared to my RS2e was admittedly a slight favorable response to the Utopia, but with the difference of price/build quality/RND how could it not be? But keep in mind it was only a slight preference to the Utopia. The Grado was more raw and articulate, especially on the top end. The bass was about the same and the mids were about the same. If I nitpicked each frequency I might actually prefer the RS2e, but I felt the overall package of the Utopia was better. I liked the uniqueness of Focal having punchy AND "reference" sound.
My LCD-4 will definitely stay in my inventory after this review. The LCD-4 has more of almost everything. Changing back and forth left me quite bored with Focal's Utopia which is surprising. I would actually describe the LCD-4 as boring in and of itself, but for different reasons. I think the LCD-4 has a warm, laid back signature while the Utopia doesn't necessarily have a "signature" at all. The Utopia has no prominent twist on songs other than maybe add some noticeable attack/decay.. they just "play music". Which for some people could be a great thing.. For me I like the euphonics of different signatures. I like matching headphones to genres and amplifiers and with the Utopia I couldn't really have fun doing that. The only thing I would like to take from the Utopia and give to my LCD-4 would be the treble. The Utopia beat the LCD-4 in high frequencies.
I actually rushed this review and was only given a week with the Utopia so perhaps my opinion could have changed with more than 4 or 5 days of listening, but these were already broken in so that was not a factor. I would post a much more detailed review such as my LCD-4 review - but this was a very short trial to see if I were interested in buying these and if I looked at the $4000 price tag and compared it to headphones I own and have heard.. they just aren't worth it. The Utopia is certainly the flavor of the month (year) and many people are pretending like it is the second coming of Jesus, which could be part of the reason I was left so unimpressed. If I were just handed these and told to give them a listen with no previous acknowledgement then perhaps I would've been more pleasantly surprised. This isn't to say that bias was a key influence however - because I completely listened critically with no emotion and almost no subjectivity.
Gear used was wildly changed in order to give a more even playing field. I wanted to review the headphones not the amp or the DAC. I listened with my Vi DAC Infinity, PSAudio Directstream, AmpsandSounds (a pre production, unveiled amp) and the Agartha. Also even swapped out the Lessloss Echos End DAC here and there. (look for a future review of all of these units)
Again, this is not a full review - just impressions. If you want to ask me anything please do and I will do my best. I will not be buying the Utopia, but if I were I would definitely be going through Todd for his honesty and professionalism. For only having a week to listen and a few hours to write this quick write-up, I definitely didn't explain some of the details I wanted to.. but I feel like you guys can still get a good idea of my impressions.
Considering price I would give the Utopia a 2.9/5 and without price in the equation I would give a 3.7.
Thanks for reading!
Pros - Incredibly resolving of music and upstream components. Incredible driver speed and ability to perceive width, depth and the movements of sounds.
Cons - Incredibly resolving of music and upstream components. Sound a bit closed-in if not used with a top system. Bass a bit weak.
I first had the chance to audition these at the Wikia meet in San Francisco, taking them around and trying them in different rigs. For $4000, they had a lot to live up to.
While on the outside, the Utopias look like fairly conventional headphones, up close the quality and precision of the parts and assembly are very apparent, down to the hexagonal-shaped holes of the plate in front of the driver and the carbon fibre yokes.
The cable uses high-quality Lemo connectors which click in with precision. The yokes extend in a manner that ensures an equal pressure on one's ears despite one's head size, important as changing the pad shape or contact can negatively affect the sound. The head pad and ear pads themselves are soft and comfortable and good for long listening sessions.
They are very much open-backed headphones to the degree that light easily shines through them. Included is a very long cable -- likely so for 2-channel system owners for whom their amp may be some distance from their chair. For the most of this review I used them with a Moon Audio Silver Dragon or Black Dragon kindly lent to me by Drew for this review, partly because the stock cable is too long, and partly because it made it easier to compare other headphones.
My first impressions at the meet were that the Utopias accurately portrayed the nature of both the music and upstream components. The tonal presentation is a bit bright of neutral, the upper mids and treble coming through a bit strongly for preference, not helped by comparing them with the more bass-strong Sony MDR-Z1R. This lead me later to experiment with a +4dB shelf boost below 100 Hz. Now that people have tested them with Elear pads, which give a bit of a boost down low. If I ever buy a pair, I will definitely go with this mod.
Out of most equipment the Utopias sound a bit closed-in, yet very fast. There were only two set-ups that I used them with where I didn't feel this. First was out of a Cavalli Audio Liquid Tungsten prototype at the meet. From that set-up, the amp had delivered a sense of huge space and it was very easy to make out the character of the Astell & Kern server that was feeding it. Very clear, but definitely with a slight Sabre DAC character.
The second was my own system. When I first plugged them in, the Studio Six and Yggdrasil had only been switched on a few hours. Initially, I had the same, somewhat closed-in impression of the Utopias, but this disappeared after my system had been on for a day. Strongest was the feeling that the Utopias deliver music with such effortless speed that every other pair of headphones I had on hand -- Sennheiser HD800, HiFiMan HE1000, MrSpeakers Ether Flow and Sony MDR-Z1R -- were veiled in comparison. It was such that after listening with the Utopia, the HD800 felt like it was only delivering a wall of sound.
The Utopias delivered such precise and deep layering of sound at all distances that with excellent 2-mic recordings, it was possible to hear an instrument play a note, and the sound of that note travel across the soundstage. If the recording had sufficient bass, the whole experience was profoundly wonderful, a sense of the headphones getting out of the way of the music. Not just "a window to the music", but smashing the window altogether and nothing in between. A good parallel might be the way an Audio-gd amp seems to disappear, imposing no signature of its own.
With my favourite psychedelic electronica, Shpongle, I could hear all the way into the mix, as individual samples started and stopped. It was in many respects, too good, too much detail. Modern binaural recordings from Chesky records I could hear so much further into the space that was only bested by a Chord DAVE/HiFiMan Shangri-La system I'd listened with in Tokyo, which made the instruments sound genuinely like they were in the room, outside the headphones.
The downside to this was that any harshness present in the music was delivered, albeit politely, to one's ears. The slight tilt towards the upper ranges, like the HD800, emphasises harshness in a way that isn't the most pleasant, and pushes one towards better recordings. I listen to Radio Paradise in the car and often select music I'd like to try later on TIDAL. Getting home, I very often find a great track was recorded or mastered poorly or unsuitable for high-end listening.
Compared to other headphones, apart from the HiFiMan HE1000 V2, which has an electrostatic-like delicate delivery character, while it can deliver uncanny realism to low notes such as drums, and equally seems to require a TOTL system, it didn't have quite the ability to deliver layering the Utopia could. What is more the Utopias can deliver the full punch of notes like a dynamic driver, yet without the low bass distortion.
Sony's MDR-Z1R is a different beast altogether. Darker, with strong bass and yet a somewhat forward midrange, it is very detailed, yet quite coloured. It's very good at bringing the music to you, spacious when required, up-front when you want to rock out, but is outclassed by the Utopias in the purest sense, even if excellent in its own right.
MrSpeakers' Ether Flow has the bit more bass to be the better all-rounder, yet not the clarity, even if it has the similar trait of sounding like what it is plugged in to. If anything it might be challenged by the Elear.
Some time ago I imagined that planar driver headphones would eventually catch up with electrostatic and deliver the kind of effortless detail they do, yet with the punch of a dynamic driver. Little did I imagine that Focal would come out with something different, effectively a speaker driver inside a pair of headphones and that it would seem to best both. The Utopias are uncannily close to the "perfect" headphones -- ultra-resolving, yet able to deliver the spirit of the music even out of a portable rig (if not at its most capable).
Someone recently asked if the Utopias were really worth $4000. Considering that the legendary Sony R10 cost the equivalent of more than that in 1989, and the Stax SR-009 costs around that now, given their incredible resolution, I think they are most worthy of their price.
Thanks to Anakchan for lending me his pair for a couple of weeks.
Pros - Extreme clarity and detail, easily driven, good build quality, not lacking in any frequency, dynamic and impactful sound, weight distribution
Cons - Price, only a 1/4 terminated stock cable included, stock cable heavy and unwieldy, bit on the heavier side overall
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/.
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.
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.
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.
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’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’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.
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.
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.
Pros - The sound
Cons - After many hours they can get somewhat uncomfortable
Three weeks ago I walked into my local headphone store when I heard they had gotten in some Utopias, because I was curious to give them a listen. I walked out owning a pair. This was not at all my intention. I just wanted to hear them, educate myself, and maybe dream about someday owning them. The Utopias are simply different from any other headphone I’ve heard. They’re closer to perfect. In fact, for the first time, it is hard for me to picture how the headphone-listening experience could improve beyond what these provide.
The Utopias are full, sweet, and clear. Music is immediate and present. They make it easy to ride the crests and descend the valleys, and see every detail along the way. They command your attention - it is difficult to multitask (reading, working, or anything else) when they’re on. And, the more you pay attention, the more they reveal to you.
The Utopias are standout headphones in dynamics, detail, tonal balance, and imaging.
Dynamics. These headphones punch like nothing I’ve heard. There is an immediacy and a swing from subtle to powerful that I have not experienced anywhere other than the best speaker systems.
Detail. I have heard the cliche, “brings you closer to the artist’s intentions” to describe everything from remastered recordings to cables. With the Utopias, I feel I know what that expression means. When an artist is making tiny decisions, they are very close to their instrument, hearing everything in a way that their audience might not even detect. The vibrato on a sustained note, one extra quiet strum on a guitar, a vocalist moving in closer to her mic for a syllable or two, I hear these things again and again on the Utopias, even in songs I thought I knew inside and out.
Dan Clark of MrSpeakers made the comment that he judges the quality of gear by listening for cymbal hits. Is it just a haze, or can you actually distinguish one cymbal from the next? Is the sound natural, with no etched glare? I’ve heard others say that they listen for the applause in live recordings. Can you hear individual hands clapping, or is it undifferentiated, like raindrops? For both cymbals and applause, the Utopias capture the nuances and distinctions.
Another aspect of detail: I love being able to precisely pick out what the other musicians are doing when they think nobody is paying attention to them. Other transducers ignore them, but the Utopias don’t let them hide.
Finally, for me, detail means being able to make out lyrics. With the Utopias I can follow the words better than I have with any other transducer. They articulate so well, it is more like I am listening to conversational speech than I’ve ever heard.
Tonal balance. Are these bass-light? Are they too bright? I had both of those concerns in the shop. The Utopias were so clear in the upper registers that I feared they could tip into being sibilant. Forward-sounding gear elicits a “wow” factor in the showroom, but it can fatigue once you spend hours with it at home. Any hint of sibilance I was picking up on at the shop has vanished at home with my own amp. The shop had them plugged in to a current-mode amp, and I already knew I don’t like current amps. My own amp is a traditional voltage amp (Violectric V281, balanced cable), and there’s no hint of sibilance here, just a wonderfully forward presentation without any fatigue after loong listening sessions.
Also, I am very happy to report that the bass in the Utopias is beautifully rendered. It does not dominate the music, but bass notes can be distinguished from each other better than on any other headphone I’ve heard. There is an integration along the entire frequency spectrum that makes music more involving. Bass-heavy headphones can impress at first, but the bass boost added by headphone designers, even in top gear, is usually unfaithful to the recording, and then you can't escape the bass even in music where it was intended to be subtle.
With vinyl in particular, the Utopias are winners. Vinyl has such articulate and strong bass, and at least on my gear, an overall laid-back sound signature. On good equipment, these are strengths, but on entry-level playback gear, vinyl can sound wooly and dull. The Utopias play well with vinyl’s inherent characteristics - rendering the bass wonderfully while making the presentation a little more forward in the upper registers - to yield the most engrossing and satisfying listening experience I’ve had in my own home.
Imaging. On the Utopias, every instrument is at one specific location, and it does not budge. I have not experienced such tight localization before, and it is a thing of wonder. True, the whole soundstage is between my ears, but the imaging is remarkably distinct and tight. (Imaging, in my opinion, is different from soundstage. If you want a big soundstage, get a pair of decent speakers. If you want imaging - the localization of instruments within a spatial field, no matter how large or small that field might be, then headphones are at least as good as decent speakers in this regard.)
In all, I consider the Utopias very well-priced at $4000, because they are meaningfully better than headphones that are priced in that ballpark, and because to get this level of sound quality would require a top-of-the-line speaker setup, which will cost significantly more than $4K.
By way of illustrating how much the Utopias mean to me personally, I want to compare them to the other headphones I own. What follows is part comparative review, part personal narrative, because for (almost) anybody buying a $4K pair of headphones, it is a significant life decision, which comes at the cost of other uses for that money, and it is the culmination of a long search. For me, the other headphones I’ve owned are the rungs of a ladder that led me to headphone Utopia. From top to bottom, here is my particular ladder:
Top rung: Audeze LCD-3F and Sennheiser HD 800.
Two years ago, I auditioned both at my local shop. After much dithering, I bought the LCD-3. There was such a tangible immediacy to the music that I could not let it go. I could perceive how the HD800 was more balanced across the spectrum, but it felt aloof to me.
Well, a couple months later, I also purchased the HD800. I felt that the LCD-3 and the HD800 each gave a different perspective on the music, and for me it has been a great joy to replay favorite songs or albums back-to-back through both cans. Ideal audio gear should impart no character of its own (right?), but I decided that that was not actually attainable - the best you could hope for was a presentation that was to your liking. And, in the absence of perfect gear, we should delight in the different perspectives on our music that are provided by different equipment. Audio gear is a mixture of engineering and artistry, and like we do for the music itself, we can appreciate the design choices that go into crafting a headphone’s sound.
For me, the Utopias are so balanced and coherent, they don’t leave me wanting to hear music through any other headphones. They have the snarl of the LCD-3’s and the air of the HD800’s. I am about to put my other cans up for sale - I just won't be using them much anymore.
The most effective gear assessments are comparative. Almost anything is going to let you get lost in your music, and at the same time, almost any gear can leave you aching for more, wondering if there is a way to get even more enveloped in your favorite music. If you really want to see how good a piece of gear is, listen down. Start with the better thing, then listen to the almost-as-good thing. I find this makes the differences more apparent than listening up (from good gear to better gear). Going from the Utopias to the HD800s, it is stunning to me how much musical information is lost. The 800s blunt the peaks of the dynamics, and they also allow the quiet details to fade into the fuzz. Imagine standing on the beach at the edge of the ocean. You experience the crash of a wave followed by the hiss of the sand around you as the tide recedes. That’s the Utopias. Now imagine standing up amidst the blankets and umbrellas. The ocean is still there, with the crash and hiss, and it’s magnificent. That’s the 800’s. You don’t perceive it could get any better, until it does.
And in comparison to the LCD-3F’s, when you switch from the Utopias to them, you perceive that there is a hole in the middle, which you were unaware of prior to the switch. The Audezes have amazing bass, so tight and impactful, and highs that pop right out at you. It isn’t until you hear better cans that you realize that the LCD’s the are lacking integration across the frequency spectrum.
I prefer the LCD-3F to the HD800, and yet my recommendation for anybody at this stage of their quest should buy the HD800, simply because it is more musically versatile and accurate, and because its comfort is the best I have ever experienced, short of custom iems, and even better than the Utopias.
Sidestep 1: Good speakers (Bowers and Wilkins 805D2 driven by a McIntosh MC152).
In my quest for audio nirvana, I decided that two-channel reproduction was where it’s at. I visited Tyll for Big Sound 2015, and I spent a marvelous day delighting in the absolute-best headphones and gear in the world. I greatly enjoyed appreciating the nuances in presentation among the world’s best headphones: Stax, Abyss, Hifiman HE-1000, Anax-modded HD800s, Audeze, Ether Flow, Enigmacoustics, etc etc. They each had strengths and tradeoffs, and I delighted in the differences. It was a wonderful experience, but at the end of the day, I left feeling that Bob Katz’s assertion was spot-on: no headphones are perfect.
The next day, I called up Todd the Vinyl Junkie, and asked if I could pay him a visit. He was such a gracious host, and to this day, my afternoon with him was the pinnacle of my music-listening experience. Todd’s setup consisted of Vivid speakers driven by Luxman monoblocks, a VPI turntable, and the rattiest and most comfortable sofa in the world. I sunk in, while Todd cued up album after album of music I thought I knew well. I had never experienced musical reproduction like this. In fact, I had never experienced music like that. The immediacy and the dynamic range were breathtaking. The soundstage was enormous and three-dimensional. The imaging was almost visual.
We are told that the ultimate goal of musical reproduction is to be indistinguishable from live, unamplified music. (The “absolute sound”.) Speakers should sound like live music, and headphones should sound like good speakers. But I’ve come to completely disagree. First of all, it is very rare that we hear live, unamplified music. When I’m at a classical or rock concert, my sense for soundstage and imaging is visual, not auditory. If I close my eyes, it falls apart, because after all, the sound is coming from towers of speakers. The soundstage and imaging present in audio reproduction are studio artifacts, and that’s fine with me - it is still an engrossing illusion and a pleasant aspect of musical reproduction. This is nothing new - artists and engineers have always sculpted music with the playback mode in mind. Bach composed so that his music would sound good in the salons and churches where it would be performed. The 3 1/2-minute-long song convention is a result of the duration of one side of a 78. Music does not exist in some pure form regardless of how it will be reproduced, and it never has. We are not so much trying to capture the original event, but rather, we are trying to create a beautiful illusion.
Should headphones sound like speakers? I don’t think they ever will, and I don’t think they should. They have very different strengths, and some unavoidable disadvantages. Our body does so much to the sound we hear before it reaches our ears, that unless you mimic those effects with signal processing customized to your own body, you’re never going to get headphones to trick you into thinking the music is rendered in front of you. But, that doesn’t matter to me; I believe the very best way to experience reproduced music is on a phenomenal two-channel system, and getting there is a long-term goal of mine. But, as we already know, dollar-for-dollar, you can do much better with headphones - unless soundstage is what matters the most for you in music. So, although I love my good speakers, at least in my price bracket, speakers cannot provide the immediacy and detail that good headphones offer.
Third rung: JH-13 custom in-ear monitors.
I purchased these waay back in 2009. I was convinced they would be the only headphones I would ever need, and for several years, that was true. They still receive more listening time than any other transducers I have, since they are in my ears sometimes all day long at work, and always on my bus commute, or while getting the dishes done. They are a simply gorgeous rendition of sound. There is so much detail and clarity, and they are so comfortable. Jerry Harvey’s company is terrific to work with: when I dropped them and blew out a driver, out of warranty, they repaired them for a price I considered more than reasonable. (I am not sure they still have the capacity to do that, given their growth, but I know this company will do everything they can to keep their customers satisfied, and I respect that greatly.)
However, IEMs will lack a feeling of embodiment, and now that I’ve heard lots more audio gear, I can recognize that the JH-13’s are not neutral - instead they are tuned to make music satisfying. The best gear should not need to have a voicing of its own. Nowadays I mostly listen to my 13’s when I need to be mobile.
Second rung: Sennheiser HD650 and HiFiMan HE-500.
I purchased the 650’s in 2008, and the 500’s in 2012. They occupy the same rung on my ladder because for me the sound is about equally engrossing from both, but they are VERY different-sounding transducers. The 650s have drive, and they are involving, but at the same time, I feel like there is a distance between me and my music. (I think “veiled” captures it.) I think the engineers’ intentions were to make headphones that sounded like good speakers - laid-back, but with growl. That made perfect sense, given the dominance of speakers at the time these were originally released.
The HE-500s are clearer, but they sound too polite to me. I would say they are more tonally balanced than the 650s, but they are also less fun. For classical and electronic, I wanted the 500s, and for rock, I wanted the 650s. A great comparison between these headphones is listening to both during live sporting events. With the 500s, it’s uninvolving and distant; too clean. With the 650s, you are in the stadium, close to the action, and the applause surrounds you.
Sidestep 2: LFF Paradox, AKG Q701 / K7xx.
The price/performance relationship in audio gear is an asymptotic curve. It rises quickly, but then levels off. I have learned that you’ve got to pay 5-10x more to pull out that next level of detail, nuance, and subtlety. Still though, it is always fun to find those special pieces of gear that offer great audio value at their price-point.
I bought each of these three headphones because I was trying to beat the curve of diminishing returns, and I would say I did. The LFF Paradoxes are a modded Fostex T50RP. I was very curious what a skilled modder could accomplish with a $70 headphone, and I was pleasantly delighted. Even as I sell off my other gear, I will be keeping these, in part because I love them for the technical marvel they are, but also because they are the only closed headphones I own (not counting iems). They sound open, it’s really quite an amazing feat. I prefer their sound to that of the HE-500, even though I would say the HE-500 is more technically accurate.
I own the AKGs because I had the pleasure of hearing the HD800 soon after they were released, and at the time I could not afford them. The gentlemen at Stereo Exchange in NYC (a wonderful store that my father used to take me into, nearly 40 years ago) let me audition a pair. He unlocked a glass cabinet and used a stepstool to reach them down from a high shelf. I was transfixed by the clarity and air of the 800’s, and the defined bass, that sounded like the music was playing somewhere in the room around me. Later on, when I read that the Q701s were like “little 800s”, I ordered a pair from Amazon. Sure enough, the air was there. The way the 701’s rendered female vocals, and picked apart complex musical material (My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” began to make sense to me on the Q701s.) However, I returned them to Amazon, because I knew I would not listen to them instead of my HE-500s. I just needed some bass.
I missed the Q701s, so when Massdrop offered the K7XX, I hopped right on board. I now own both again, so I can directly compare them. These are lovely headphones, and I use them to show my friends what can be gained by climbing the headphone ladder. When you start with either of these, it is hard to say there’s anything missing. The K7XX does indeed have more bass than the Q701s, but I actually feel that the added bass detracts from the clarity in the upper registers, somehow. I fear this may be happening again with the Sennheiser HD800S. Consumers will always ask for more bass, and manufacturers will be wise to respond to the demands of their customers. However, a well-designed sound signature is a carefully-balanced thing, which reveals itself through extensive listening. Adding in moar bass will have obvious immediate appeal, but it may actually diminish long-term enjoyability.
First rung: Shure SE-535 / E-530 in-ear monitors.
My sister gave me an iPod for Christmas in 2003. I really didn’t think I needed one. At that time in my life, music was background - something to do while you did other things. Car stereo, a countertop stereo while I cooked, some headphones from Best Buy while I worked in a crowded cubicle office. I still cared about quality music and sound quality, but I would put a favorite CD on repeat, and not interact much with it after that. It didn’t make any sense to me to just sit and listen. And now, that is one of my life’s greatest pleasures. I thank Apple’s Steve and Johnny and their wonderful iPod for getting music back to where it belongs in my life.
I knew right away that the earbuds that came with the iPod would not be enough. I farted around with some better earbuds at the Apple store, until I stumbled across head-fi, in 2004 (“sorry about your wallet”). There, I read raves about the Shure E-530 in-ear monitors, and I made my first major audio purchase. I can still remember unboxing them when they arrived (gorgeous brushed aluminum box), and plugging them in to listen to my favorite album at the time, the White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan. I don’t know how to describe the experience - disappointment initially, but then a transition to something more satisfying. I think I was expecting the music to sound fundamentally transformed, like the closeness of the musicians or the tone of the music would somehow change. Of course, it didn’t, and in those moments I began to understand that there are really no “night-and-day” differences between audio gear. Rather, there is gradually getting closer to how the music must have sounded to the studio engineers, mixing it on the best equipment money can buy. Good gear is all about clarity, subtlety, nuance, but even crummy earbuds, or music playing on a car stereo with the windows down, can still render for you the melody, instrumentation, and emotional tone of music.
But, oh how I struggled with the 530’s. Although they were better than anything else I had listened to at that time, I could just tell there was something missing. First, I went through a bunch of foam tips (comply, etc), looking for the richness I could get when I pushed them deeper into my ears with my fingers. I tried Etymotic custom ear molds from an audiologist. I tried different amplifiers (RSA Hornet; Headamp Pico), but there was always something missing. Also, they kept breaking. Shure even replaced them once or twice after they were out-of-warranty, but at last, I received a curt letter from them saying this was the last time they would replace them. It was time to move on, and that’s when I took what felt like a once-and-forever plunge, and ordered the JH-13’s.
Ground level: Bose Quiet Comfort, a car stereo, and my dad’s speakers.
Why do I care about good-quality music reproduction in the first place? Everybody here has a moment when music captivated them, and to an extent, we’re all chasing that experience. It seems to us that better and better gear can make those breathtaking moments more reliable. For me, there are three experiences I can recall that created within me the desire to always have well-reproduced music. First, when I was a child, maybe 11 or 12, it occurred to me to sit very close ton one of my dad’s speakers. It was probably Willie Nelson’s Stardust, or maybe Ella and Louis, on the turntable. I was amazed to discover a whole other world in there. I could hear the crackles of a voice, and the mechanics of playing a guitar, or the levers on a trumpet, things that just weren’t audible from the sofa. I was transfixed, and I’d often repeat the experience of sitting with my ear pressed against the grilles, with the music playing very quietly. Second, when Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out, my girlfriend and I listened to it over and over. On the first track, “I am trying to break your heart”, around 40 seconds into the song, there are two strums on a guitar to kick things off. Once, as we drove down a California freeway, windows open, stereo cranked, those chords leapt out at me, shimmering in free space. The experience transported me, and I have never been able to re-create it. Third, my boss loaned me his Bose QuietComfort headphones for a trip I took in 2005 or so. I was into the Black Eyed Peas’ album Monkey Business at that time. When the bass hit in My Humps, I was stunned. I did not know headphones could make a sound so big and full. I wanted a pair of my own, but some online research led me to head-fi, which warned me away from Bose. (I’ve come to feel that Bose does not deserve the backlash they receive from us. They may be overpriced, but their stuff usually sounds perfectly fine.) Instead, I went with the Shures, and I’m glad for that, because it began a journey that has culminated somewhere truly wonderful.
So there you have it - from ground up, my own 15-year climb to headphone Utopia. It is hard for me to imagine a better headphone coming along, at least not for quite some time, and it is hard for me to imagine coming to feel there is anything missing in my experience of music, as provided by the Utopias. I may upgrade my two-channel system someday, but of course I’ll start off by auditioning some Focal speakers. I can make a strong “buy” recommendation for the Utopia. If you have the means to do it, just get them. They are underpriced for the sound quality they deliver. Alternatively, if you want to work your way up to them, then enjoy your own particular ladder (and let us know what you find along the way!) And who knows, by the time you are ready to climb to that last step, maybe there will be something even better available to you.
A final thought: The era of the $4000 headphone.
Some people are choosing between the LCD-4 and the Utopia. I look forward to hearing the LCD-4, but until then, I can offer no comments on that choice, except to say that I welcome the fact that $4K headphones are now available to us, and not only that, but we actually have options at that price point. Just ten years ago, I dithered for months on whether or not to spend $500 on Shure IEMs, but a purchase of Utopias took me less than an hour to decide on. This is true for many of us - obviously, because there is a market now for $4K headphones. Here’s why this is a good thing. First of all, speaker makers, like Focal, are taking notice of the headphone marketplace. More and more of them are bound to move in. These are major players whose TOTL gear is in the $100K+ range. Their knowhow and facilities will transform what’s possible with headphones. Second, there will always be technology trickle-down, and $500 headphones are only going to sound better and better as time goes on. I for one welcome the continual improvement in the personal audio that we have the privilege of living through. And, to state the obvious, none of this would be happening if it weren’t for head-fi.
Music: Electronic (Radiohead, Nicolas Jaar, DJ Shadow, etc.), Jazz (Madeline Peyroux, Bill Frissell, John Coltrane, etc.), Rock (Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Fleetwood Mac, etc.), Classical (Alfred Brendel’s Beethoven sonatas, Monteverdi madrigals, etc).
Amplifier: Violectric V281. Balanced cables for Utopia (Nordost), HD800 (Cardas), LCD-3 (stock). Single-ended for HE-500, LFF Paradox, HD-650, AKGs, JH-13.
Sources: Violectric V800 DAC for FLAC, running Audirvana on a Macintosh. For analog: clearaudio concept turntable / Violectric V600 phono stage.
Pros - Fast, dynamic, musical and very balanced.
Cons - pricey yet worth it, stock cable is too long.
Thanks to samma3a.com, @Mazen4samma3a for ordering this headphone, because its hard to get if you are not in USA (around the time i ordered it)
fast and world class service as usual.
i am not the best reviewer out there, yet i try my best to describe what i hear and i try to be honest and clear.
i bough the Utopia with the intention of getting the best Dynamics and bass/treble quantity/quality while being greedy for musical mids that on par with LCD or HE1000.
i passed on other cans like HE1000 and LCD-4 because it wasn't as dynamic and fun as HE-6 or TH900 although they held a way better musical mids which i hoped i would see a similar headphone to HE-6 would do in the future.
then i heard about Focal Utopia and decided to give it a shot hoping to get something that will be closer to my dream sound signature.
AMP: Cavali Audio Liquid Gold
DAC: Chord Hugo TT.
Headphones: TH900 ,HE-6 and Focal Utopia
Cables: Toxic Cable SW22 on TH900, Toxic Cable BW on HE-6, Stock cable on Utopia.
This yet to be the best headphone package i have ever touched, its so well made, feels heavy and nice like a luxury package indeed.
i didn't expect to see that level on a headphone package but i guess Focal take the smallest details so seriously.
Materials & Fit:
The materials like the yoke carbon make these look so good, the leather doesn't make my ears sweat and its super comfortable.
while these seems to be heavy at the start, it took me like no time to forget that Utopia was on my head to begin with, thanks to its superb ergonomics.
People at focal sure nailed this part, i used to have an LCD-2 Fazor and i can tell you that i would go with Utopia anytime for even longer sessions.
i would like to mention that the headband leather was also super and super comfortable, more than any headphone i have ever owned.
Utopia is very easy to drive, even on Hugo TT alone, which is a very good thing for a TOTL headphone when compared with other cans like LCD-4 or HE1000.
and it didn't sound bad or way behind what it can do on a TOTL amp like my LAu. i didn't have to increase the volume and it was able to deliver a superb sound on low volumes.
such scalability encouraged me to go with cheaper and different options in the future like Woo Audio WA8 knowing that Utopia won't disappoint me.
Micro Details & overall Details retrieval:
i never wrote about Details or Micro Details in a review before because i wasn't shocked as much i was with Focal Utopia.
i was able to hear so many new things that even my HD800 didn't pick, and the best part it was thicker, denser and easier to spot in the song, so visible and enjoyable
like a Tiny Treble sparkle in the recording or how the artist breath before the song stats, it was jaw dropping that i decided to write a section about it.
Overall sound sig:
Utopia is fast, dynamic, balanced and musical in the same time, nothing is boosted and it so faithful to the recording.
the bass is punchy, the treble is extended and sparkly and never on the harsh side. both bass/treble will never let you feel fatigued after a long session.
the mids are so perfect even though Utopia is this dynamic which is hard to achieve without trying to make the overall sound sig on the warm side of neutral sometimes.
the sound stage is smaller than HD800 and slightly more in your face, which is something that won't suit the people who love the laid back sound sig (depending on your setup)
over all its a superb dynamic sound sig mixed with the best mids possible, tying to achieve perfectness.
The bass of the utopia is fast and punchy. i can hear the bass notes in a spindled way thanks to the superb bass texture, and its so layered too making the bass sound like i never heard it before.
it hit like a smashing Hulk when called for it, and never goes beyond what the recording tend to sound like, its so fun and never bleed into the mids even with sounding so punchy.
the bass manage to give you the most of what you seek without sacrificing anything else, like the mids or overall balance, which is hard to find on a headphone that does the bass in a punchy and dynamics way like this.
again the bass never got me tired after a long session, which tend to happen with certain cans on certain setups after a long session.
Perfect, is what i would be describing Utopia's mids if i was ever asked about it. its not laid back nor forward and faithful to the recording. depending on your setup the mids will try to sound as musical your setup can do.
never i enjoyed the upper mids on a headphone like i did with the Utopia. its so rich, full and dense. with a super musicality to die for. coming from dynamic headphones like HE-6 and TH900 or even my former cans HD800 and LCD-2 which do the mids good , Utopia still have the best and most enjoyable mids of them all.
they are so good and the most frequency that shined on this headphone, its easily 10/10 and a reference level mids IMO.
as a Treble head i had my HE-6 on open grill mod and i never complained about TH900's Treble. yet i can tell you tha Utopia's Treble made me hear what i never though i will hear Treble wise.
it was extended like no tomorrow and so sparkly yet never felt harsh at all. it was more energetic than any other can i ever hard and the Treble quantity is the highest quality and quantity wise.
even on one of the songs i had, i heard a tiny treble sparkle for few seconds that sounded nice yet so vivid and over shadowed by the bass when i was using both TH900 and HE-6
yet on Utopia this tiny sparkle was more vivid, sparkly and screamed i am here, it was enjoyable and more clear with more energy that what the other headphones delivered.
surprisingly enough its smoother and never had any sort of harshness in comparison. and i think this depend on the setup ofc,
Utopia is so neutral IMO, and i am still shocked by how can it show you the sound sig of your setup. changing the amp or dac will be spotted with Utopia.
Even that i was able to point out the LAu's sound sig with my HE-6 and TH900, Utopia managed to show me the maximum potential and made it even easier to spot the characteristics of my setup.
like how the mids sounded sweeter on the LAu + Utopia. at first i though that this was how Utopia's mids are. then i tried it on Hugo TT alone and the hint of tube like mids wasn't there, since these coloration belonged to LAu.
i am saying Utopia's mids are not musical but i am saying that Utopia is really able to deliver what is your amp or setup trying to do. since both TH900 and HE-6 wasn't able to deliver LAu's mids the way Utopia did.
so when i was on the TT i was able to tell how the mids sounded on TT compared to LAu + TT or how much of Bass / Treble quantity i gained or even coloration.
its just as Utopia went Sherlock Holmes on my setup and wrote me a splendid report on the case.
one of the best part of Utopia is the separation, no frequency bleeds into the other one.
and you can spot the place of each bass/treble note and the mids/vocals are in the right place without being overlapped by anything else.
and all of this is maintained even with the power of the bass, treble energy and fast dynamics.
i also wanted to point out that the clarity is second to non compared to any previous headphone i tested or owned. it made my other headphones sound muddy in comparison and made the listening experience more enjoyable.
EDM wise TH900 is always in any setup to fulfill the EDM needs. yet with utopia in the house i can feel like TH900 isn't needed anymore. not that EDM sound better but Utopia still manage to make me enjoy EDM and J-pop yet this time with superb mids and vocals.
the Bass is punchier on the TH900 and boosted yes, which sound fun and when listening to EDM without vocals the TH900 is a clear winner. but anything else in comparison is what Utopia will nail down without trying so hard.
HE-6 when fully driven, is my favorite former headphone that even LCD-4 and HE1000 wasn't enough for my taste to shake the HE-6 even a little. i was waiting for the TOTL headphone that will make me upgrade from HE-6. i was dead worried that Utopia's bass quantity and quality will even come close to what HE-6 can do. i even bought it thinking that i will sacrifice some bass epicness for the price of Utopia's legendary mids since its the only TOTL option for my sound sig preference to upgrade too.
but i was dead wrong here, Utopia was able to convince me in less than a week of testing that it got the upper hand here, from Bass to Treble + the superb mids. HE-6's mids on open grill mod tend to sound slightly thin that what i like it to be. not TH900 thin but for a headphone that i considered my favorite i was still hoping for better yet no option was there to let me replace it,.
so i decided to live with it and get LAu which made me enjoy both TH900 and HE-6. so Focal Utopia was able to top my mids needs with flying colors and also made me call this new bass and treble an upgrade from HE-6. so if you love HE-6 and want an upgrade that is easier to drive then Utopia is the way to go.
Utopia's bass got better texture and layered even more. its faster and punchier. the Treble is more extended and sparkly too but with more quantity and energy. its smoother as well which is a win win for some people who can't stand HE-6 treble on open grill mod.
Utopia sound cleaner and got better separation and have a slightly larger sound stage. and the mids between both sound like a huge gab because its so musical and perfect on Utopia.
Utopia is a headphone that made me decide to use them forever or until a new king appear on the market. in my case i was waiting for something like Utopia to appear because no other option was able to suit my preference to set a sail and call it an upgrade.
if you are looking for a headphone that will sound as as dynamic and fun as possible while staying both balanced and musical, then look no further than getting Utopia.
IMO its hard to find a headphone that will have a superb fun on both Treble/Bass without having mids issues like being slightly dry or lacking musicality when compared with other headphones while still struggling with achieving over all good balance.
Utopia is the answer for you needs if you have been looking for something similar to me. and you can't go wrong with it. i find them to be the perfect TOTL headphone and they set a new bar for how should the TOTL headphone be like. by lacking nothing and never over doing something, indeed its a perfection, its Utopia.
Pros - Tight bass, smooth mids, perfect treble
Cons - uncomfortable over time
Well, my time with the Utopia is coming to a end
I certainly enjoyed it immensely. I was able to compare it to my PMx2, HD800 (SDR mod), T1, and Ether C, and others, although most of my comparisons are with the PMx2 and the HD800. I also had a number of friends compare, and all (including my wife) thought the Utopia was better (mostly than the PMx2).
I also didn't have the best amp to test with. I'm between amps, so I was using a Modi Multibit and a Magni. I tried with my Sony UDA-1 and the Utopia sound absolutely horrible with the UDA-1. I also tried an iCan Nano and the Crack, and the utopia sounds OK with those two. The crack is not the best mix with the Utopia as the Utopia sounded quite bloomy with the Crack. That said, that is not the amp anyone would pair with anything other than HD600-800 or beyerdynamics headphones. I also used a Jotunheim for a few days (with the Mimby), and that was a good match.
As for the build, it's rock solid.
As for the fit, it's too heavy for me. The headband puts too much pressure on the point of my head. I could move the headband around, but eventually after 10-15 minutes I felt pressure. Of course YMMV
As for the sound, damn. I mean DAMN. Everything sounded better on the Utopia.
First thing that hit me with the Utopia is the bass. It's full, tight, and beautiful. None of my other headphones could touch the bass of the Utopia. Actually, the Grado RS2e and the Sony MDR-V6 had similar signatures, but every time I went back to the Utopia, I could find nothing wrong with the bass -- or the mid, or the treble. It was just "right" throughout he frequency response.
The timbre of classical music, especially trumpets and violins, was just better on the Utopia. It sounds more like the actual instruments. It was also more enjoyable.
A few notes from some tracks I listened to:
The Planets, Op. 32: IV. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
Holst: The Planets / Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance, Military March No. 1 (New York Philharmonic feat. conductor Leonard Bernstein)
DAMN! The utopia makes the HD800 sound little congested. Everything is a clearer on the Utopia
Various Cat Stevens classics
Slight sibilance from HD800
Better defined bass (more bass) on the Utopia.
Symphony No.10 In E Minor, Opus 93-Ii, Allegro
McIntosh Demonstration Reference Disc
Lots of brass and kettle drums (and of course the rest of the orchestra).
Stage is much wider with the HD800
Volume matching is hard
Brass sound much more convincing with the Utopia. Drums have more impact.
This piece may really be exposing the weakness of the amp with the HD800
I just tried my T1, first gen. With a little bass boost via eq, the T1 is pretty dang good. Still, the utopia is much more dynamic. Each note just has more detail. And then, of course, there is the bass. The utopia just has gobs of it compared to the T1.
Brokedown Palace (Remastered Version)
Truckin' (Remastered Version)
Grateful Dead: American Beauty
Can barely hear the sub-bass with T1, but it’s very impactful with the Utopia. The bass line on the T1 is very easily distinguished and possibly a little clearer than the utopia, but with the utopia you can almost feel the bass line. It’s certainly more punchy (dynamic?) Now using the T1 with my Crack amp, the T1 is much better. The sub-bass comes out better and highs are smoother (as expected), but the utopia still sound cleaner.
Toccata and Fugue in A minor, after Bach BWV 565
24-bits of Christmas 2014 (24/192)
Note: this is a violin solo
The timbre of the violin is better, fuller, on the Utopia over both the HD800 and the T1
Comfort: (HD800 = T1) > Utopia
Sound: Utopia beats them all
I had the opportunity to listen to many end end headphones and amps/DACs as the recent LA meet (sponsored by another site), but it was meet conditions. I did compare the Utopia to an Elear, and there is no comparison; the Utopia is better, unless you like really really warm cans. The utopia scales, but a $5000 rig isn't needed. The Utopia sounded very good from he Jotunheim, which I had on loan for a few days overlapping the Utopia. A Mimby, Jotunheim and Utopia would be a killer rig. Scale up on the amp and DAC later, if needed.
My bottomline is that I was sorely tempted to get it. I can afford it, but I still ask myself if the Utopia is 4 times better than the HD800, and the answer is no. It's probably twice as good, which is saying a lot! I just cannot get over the physical fit the Utopia on my head. For $4000 it has to sound incredible (it does) and it has to fit perfectly. I will soon automation the Grado GS2000e and maybe that is the right one for me.
MANY MANY thanks to Todd the Vinyl Junkie for the chance to audition this wonderful gear.
Update: I could no longer resist. I got me a pair. I'm still a little concerned about the weight for long listening sessions, and I experimenting with headband options. Overall, I love the Utopias. If you can swing them and have decent gear, get 'em.
Pros - An extemely resolving and well balanced sound signature. The best dynamic driver headphone I've heard to date
Cons - A little closed sounding compared to some other open headphones. Loan unit's midrange has peculiarity that sounds like internal reflection
The Focal Utopia doesn't need an introduction as it's already very well known and probably one of the most popular headphones amongst the audiophiles and audio enthusiasts. I have to thank Focal and Rocky International, Focal's Japan distributor, for lending me the Utopia and the Elear for a few days. They are as popular on the internet as they are in shows, exhibits, and audio events. Rocky International were kind enough lend them to me for a week despite their busy schedule for upcoming shows, and magazine reviewers.
Despite the retail price of the Focal Utopia, the model remains highly sought after with only a few initial production runs trickling into consumer hands. Most recently Focal has been expanding their operations in the headphone dept which is improving the production output of the Utopias and the Elear to meet customer demands.
Design and Construction
I won't get into the details much as there's been many other reviews already about how and what materials were used to construct the headphones. However I would like to write about how it feels on my head at least. The headphones are the heaviest of what I own (HD800S, TH-900, SR-007Mk1, and SR-009). Granted the length/weight of the cable probably makes the headphone feel heavier than it really is. The weight is definitely noticeable especially if one is used to lighter aforementioned headphone, but for LCD-x owners, the Focal Utopia would probably be light by comparison.
At least for me, despite its weight, it does sit comfortably on my head thanks to its padded lambskin leather headband. Clamping force of the phones are also easy going on the head due to the supple earpads. They so far haven't felt warm although I am testing these in approaching winter weather.
The Focal Utopia sound as appetizing as its reputation on the internet. At least to my standards, it's lived up to its hype and I can understand what the fuss is all about. To my ears and my limited experience of headphones, these are probably the most resolving dynamic driver headphones I've heard to date, further more the sound signature is very balanced. There are details I hear I didn't take notice of on my HD800S and TH-900. It comes close to the level of finesse of the Stax SR-007Mk1 and SR-009 I own.
Instead of writing about how the Utopia sound as other reviews have already well covered, I'd probably like to share a comparison to other headphones I've owned. In the cases below, the dynamic drivers are driven by the Eddie Current Zana Deux (Mullard ECC35 input tube) with a self-customed low/high gain switch with specs provided by Craig Uthus. The Stax are driven by the Eddie Current Eelctra (Mullard ECC32, STC CV1988/6SN7, EL34 XF2) - with both Eddie Current amps connected to the Resonessence Labs Invicta v1.0.
Utopia & Fostex TH-900 In terms of tonal neutrality, clarity and accuracy, the Utopia produces the more sophisticated and detailed sound of the two. To me the TH-900 didn't have the resolution the Utopia was capable of. However, not all is lost for the TH-900 as if one had a tonal preference for a more fun sounding bass thumping signature, the TH-900 would probably be more engaging in that perspective especially when listening to dance or EDM. The Utopia focuses more on being sophisticated and accurate.
Utopia & Sennheiser HD800S Now at least to me, here's a little bit more of a challenge for the Utopia. Whilst to my ears the Utopia still has the edge on resolution over the HD800S, the soundstage of the HD800S make the Utopia sound somewhat more closed. To be fair though, I think the HD800S would make any other headphones sound somewhat closed. The HD800S feels the music has room to breath outward breadth-wise whilst the Utopia seems to have the depth. The difference in the presentation does make the Utopia sound more aggressive than the HD800S.
One other observation is at least with the Utopia unit on loan to me, comparatively to the HD800S, seems to have some kind of peculiarity with the midrange region most noticeable with vocals that sounds like some kind of internal reflection or a little "echo" effect. Being more accustomed to the HD800S' presentation, I was a little taken back by what I heard. I did not notice this before with the earlier Utopia demos I had at shows, however I didn't have my HD800S to compare side by side. Over extended periods of listening time with the Utopias, that peculiarity didn't bother me as much as I got used to it.
Utopia & Stax SR-009 This is where I feel the Utopia has met its match at least to my expectations. The Stax SR range are known for their ethereal qualities and at least in my opinion, the Utopia comes really close to the Stax level but there's something about the SR-009 that just has that little added shimmer/and glimmer around the edges of the notes giving it a nice finish. The SR-009 does seem somewhat lighter on the bass compared to the Utopia. The SR-009 seems to sound a little more clinical by comparison. As such from a tonal balance perspective, the Utopia sound more like the all rounder. The Utopia still sound more energetic and more aggressive than the SR-009.
In terms of staging though, like the HD800S, the Utopia sound more closed compared to the SR-009. Like the HD800S (although not as spacious), the SR-009 seems to allow the music to breath more outward.
Utopia & Stax SR-007Mk1 This is where I feel the Utopia is bested by the SR-007Mk1. Like the SR-009, the SR-007Mk1 retains the Stax ethereal qualities however also has the fuller signature of the lower end. Arguably the Utopia may still pack a bigger punch in the bass region than the SR-007Mk1 but the SR-007Mk1 is no slouch. The mids of the SR-007Mk1 seems to have the edge in overall tonal balance in the midrange seems is a little mellower (note I don't mean recessed). Where the Utopia sounds aggressive, the SR-007Mk1 sound more neutral yet engaging.
As with the SR-009, the SR-007Mk1 seems to give the music the room to breath outward compared to the Utopia.
Final Thoughts Is there room for the Utopia in my personal headphone collection? Despite my preferences for the Staxes, I feel the Utopia is a strong candidate to replace, budget willing, my TH-900 at least and possibly my HD800S too, to provide a little compare/contrast between my dynamic driver and electrostats collection. Although not ready to replace my electrostat collection, to me at least the Utopia is the pinnacle of the dynamic driver headphones I've heard to date. The Utopia come as close as possible to electrostats without being electrostats.
Furthermore, although, I haven't mentioned above, I've been listening to the Utopia with my Woo Audio WA8 and the paring is excellent making it a potential transportable setup - something I would never be able to do with my Stax setup. In some ways the pairing with the WA8 may be better than the Zana Deux in treble space where the Zana Deux could be a little "hot" at times.
Focal has done a wonderful job with the Utopia and the headphones deserve the reputation and attention it's been receiving.
Pros - Very Dynamic, Resolute and Balanced Headphones
Cons - PRICE!!! Extremely Long Cable, Can Be Too Revealing of Poor Sources
FOCAL UTOPIA REVIEW
Intro: First I just wanted to start by saying thanks to Todd over @ TTVJ for letting me demo the Focal Utopia's. I had meant to post this review sooner, but my wife has had some medical issues and we ended up spending the better part of last week in the hospital so this review went on the back burner. Fortunately she is doing better now and I've had a chance to reflect on my week with the Utopia's. My review will include comparisons of the headphones I tested them against (HE1000, LCD-3F, TH-900 & Ether C) and the gear I used was an Auralic Mini feeding hi-res music into a Schiit Yggdrasil DAC and my amp was the Studio Six. I will say having the Studio Six really made my job easier as I made good use of the 4 headphone outputs, switching between headphones very easily in mid-song to help make better comparisons.
Design: For the first part of this review, I want to say a few words about the design of the headphone, because it really is it the best designed headphone I've ever experienced in almost all aspects. First, it's a stunner. Hands down, best looking headphone I've ever seen in person. Pictures don't really do it justice, but everything about it feels premium, including the carbon fiber headband. And that's good because it's what you would expect for a $4000 headphone. That being said, it's not always the case, as my HE1000 feels anything but uber premium despite costing a slightly less, but still very expensive $3000. Besides just looking and feeling the part, the headphone is also very comfortable. It fit my head perfectly and there was no looseness like there can be with my HE1000, and no extreme weight and hot ears that comes with the LCD-3. The only knock I would have on the Utopia's design is the 13 foot long cable. For my listening room this was just way more cable than I needed but after reading someone's comments about how well this headphone does with movies I kind of wish I thought to try it in my living room. Maybe that's what Focal was thinking as most people sit around 9 feet or so from the TV, it would have been great to try it late at night when I'm watching TV and my wife is asleep. But since I didn't think to try it I can only guess and say I think it would work splendidly with movies and TV also.
Sound Impressions: So this is no doubt the part you've scrolled down to while eyeing the pictures along the way, right? It's always difficult trying to put into words how a headphone sounds, but for me the things that stood out with the Utopia were how Dynamic it was, how much Resolution into the music it offered and how Balanced it's sound signature was. It is quite simply the best imaging headphone I've ever heard, and honestly after hearing the details it was picking out of the music, my HE1000 and LCD-3 in particular sounded muddy by comparison. Despite reading some impressions stating that it was a bright headphone, I have to state that I disagree. Perhaps with a brighter source, but with a tube amp like the Studio Six and an analog sounding DAC, like the Yggy, it didn't give me any brightness issues like I've had with other headphones (namely the HD-800). I actually kind of thought it was similar to the HE1000 in terms of balance, but offered a slightly more closed in sound or smaller soundstage while improving on the bass and attack that the HE1000 needs. In terms of soundstage, it's not huge but it offers a different experience that's more akin to speakers in that the imaging is so excellent you can really hear every aspect of the music. A cymbal crash stands out from piano being pounded where on other headphones (even TOTL ones) similar sounds like those may often blur together. And the dynamics really are spectacular too, you're able to really feel the force the musician puts into their playing aside from just being able to separate out the individual instruments. Let's move on to some comparisons now:
Utopia vs. TH-900: Really not a fair comparison. Two totally different headphones and the Utopia is eminently better than the TH-900 across almost all genres, except Electronica/EDM where the TH-900 still reigns supreme. The V-shaped sound signature just lends itself better to music that needs bass/treble but lacks the midrange. I also like a more closed-in sounding headphone for EDM to give it the "club music" appeal and the TH-900 also has that so I will still hang on to them for those genres but otherwise the Utopia pretty much outclasses the TH-900 in every way, as it should for the price.
Utopia vs. Ether C: Again, these two headphones are in a different league so this also isn't really a fair comparison. I will say the Ether C actually has a somewhat similar flavor to the Utopia as it's a very balanced sounding headphones (with some tuning to boost the bass anyway) but that's about where the similarities end. The imaging, dynamics and clarity are a mile aboveon the Utopia. I will say that if you're a fan of the Ether C, chances are you'll like the Utopia's flavor. Balanced sound is on offer with both.
Utopia vs. LCD-3F: These two on the other hand couldn't be more different. Chances are you all know the Audeze "House Sound" by now if you're reading a review for a $4000 dollar headphone so I'll just say this headphone goes in the opposite direction. Audeze has that boosted midrange and bass that creates that lovely warm sound signature of theirs but it pays the price in having rolled off treble and a more closed in and less resolute headphone. Switching from the Utopia to the LCD-3 in mid song was actually a bit shocking and kind of sounded like someone dropped the headphones in mud. I finally get that "lifting the veil" cliche audiophiles are always using, this was exactly that. The Utopia were a much more well rounded headphone and so again the Utopia is the winner here, but I still love the LCD-3's also for when you want that kind of sound signature that they do so well so they won't be going anywhere.
Utopia vs. HE1000: Lastly I will compare them with my current favorite headphone, the HE1000. For me, until now, the HE1000 were the most well balanced headphones I'd ever heard. They have good bass, good midrange, good treble, wide soundstage and are very dynamic and have great resolution. The Utopia takes all of that and improves the bass, dynamics and resolution while sacrificing only a bit in the soundstage department. They don't blow the HE1000 out of the water, but they are definately the new standard for TOTL headphones IMO.
Conclusion: So to conclude I think Focal has just moved the yardstick a little bit further and have produced a new TOTL headphone that takes the cake as best headphone I've currently heard to date. Granted I haven't heard some big ones yet (SR-009, Abyss, LCD-4, Orpheus) but all of those have things that turn me off from them based on what I've read about them, Abyss is too bass heavy, SR-009 is probably too bright for my tastes, LCD-4 still has the nice, but ultimately unbalanced "Audeze House Sound" and the Orpheus is just way too expensive, just to name a few. The HE1000 was my favorite because I felt it offered a very balanced sound which is usually what I lean towards, or slightly warmer than neutral. I will say that whoever thought it was bright should try some different gear because if anything it leaned to the warmer side on my setup. The only complaints I would lodge are the cable is a bit long (though maybe it would work in the living room for movies), that it can reveal poor sources (but any good headphone will really) and for me, the big one is the price. I think the headphone industry seems to be going the way of the speaker industry in that every new darling of the moment feels the need to raise the price. Not that long ago people were upset that the HE1000 cost $3000, and here already it's gone up to $4000 for a new TOTL headphone can. Because of that I won't be buying them at this time, despite how much I enjoyed them. For me it's just a personal decision because to sell my HE1000's and then buy these would probably mean sinking another $2000 into this hobby and honestly they are not $2000 dollars better. So I will stick with my HE1000's as my go-to can for now, but no doubt I will covet the Utopia until one day we can meet again. Anyway, sorry if I rambled too much, hope you enjoyed the review, feel free so shoot me any questions if you want. Also, thanks again to Todd for making the demo available to me, it was a pleasure getting to listen to these wonderful headphones!
-Very Well Balanced Headphone
-Reference Quality Imaging
-Best Overall Headphone I've Heard to Date
-Super Long Cable
-Reveals Poor Sources for what they are!
Pros - Very well balanced frequency response - Extremely detailed - Extremely dynamic - Very comfortable - Easy to drive
Cons - Some may not like the long cable - A little heavy but very well distributed weight
Focal Utopia Review
Utopia - definition: An imagined state of things in which everything is perfect.
My initial intention was just to write some detailed impressions, but throughout that process I found it difficult to keep the length down to an 'impressions length' post, so it's turned in to a review. I apologize if I ramble on about these headphones but I just feel they offer an incredible listening experience. Spoiler - I love this headphone and want to talk about it.
I purchased these headphones at retail price and I'm simply sharing my experience and perspective with other Head Fi members. I'm not going in to any value assessments nor am I going to touch on the use of solid Beryllium for the very unique drivers. jude has covered the technical areas very well in his announcement video, and I suggest everyone watch it to know more about the engineering behind these headphones. I am only going to share my own listening impressions of the Focal Utopia headphone. I don't have the same extensive experience with Summit Fi headphones as many members on Head Fi, but I do know when I hear something that's special. I'll say it now... I may gush a little here.
Background / Perspective
In the past - far too long ago - I've enjoyed using electrodynamic headphones regularly, as well as regularly using speakers, but as soon as I tried the LCD-2 (rev2, pre-fazor) I was smitten with the planar magnetic sound. The other headphones I owned at the time just didn't have the same impact and clarity, to me, as the LCD-2. I've since purchased the LCD-XC, JH Angie Universal, Noble K10 Custom, and the ETHER C (now 1.1) as my stable of headphones and IEMs.
I've been drawn to a very detailed sound, but not detail in the form of an exaggerated treble response. I value all parts of the frequency spectrum for a sound that I perceive as balanced and realistic. I listen to most genres, but I'm currently particularly fond of live recordings and classical, but also really groove to music from Pink Floyd all the way to ASURA (highly recommended). I'm a strong believer that detail can be had with a balanced frequency response and that source gear plays just as large a role in retrieving detail as the headphones. Quite simply, if the source gear can't portray the music with enough transparency then the headphones can't render it. On the flip side, if the headphones are not rendering the capabilities of the source gear then one isn't getting the best from their system in my opinion.
Over the last couple of years I've toured some portable gear and purchased a few good DACs and amps, but I never had the desire to own more headphones as I was already happy with what I had. So, after having tested the waters with many different pieces of upstream gear I thought it was time to upgrade my headphones. The trigger for this was my purchase of the Chord DAVE. I felt the DAVE was being held back by my full size headphones, not being able to shine with them. I wanted to upgrade to a Summit Fi headphone to be able to play on the same level as the DAVE, and I had many TOTL headphones under consideration. With the announcement of the Focal Utopia, and their unique electrodynamic driver design, I had a feeling I couldn't resist and the other headphones that I was interested in would have to take a back seat for a while. The reports were very good from people I trust. The measurements were very good from different sources. The excitement was building. I purchased the Focal Utopia blind as soon as I saw it available in Canada.
The first Focal Utopia headphone available in Canada.
Build Quality and Fit
Much has been said already about the build quality of the Utopia but I thought I might as well briefly contribute my thoughts as well. The Focal Utopia is built, to my eyes, with the same kind of quality and style I'd expect in an exotic sports car. Carbon fiber yokes, shiny bits of trim, bold yet subtle branding, luxurious leather. This is a smart looking headphone that makes me feel like I'm 10 years old again looking at a Lamborghini Countach for the first time. The ear cups are deep and I have no issues fitting my giant ears in to them. The leather and memory foam is extremely soft and very comfortable on the headband as well as the ear cups. I feel no overheating from the ear cups and they are very, very open. They are slightly heavy, yes, but the clamping pressure from the cups is perfect for me, and the headband weight distribution is pretty much perfect in my opinion. Every bit of the Utopia is solid and it gives me the confidence of looking forward to years of use.
As a small side note, the sound from the Utopia reacts much stronger to a slight inward pressure exerted on the ear cups than most headphones that I've heard. When I slightly press the ear cups toward my head while wearing them I hear a large elevation in the mid range. Most headphones will give this effect to some degree, but with the Utopia it's very pronounced with as little as a 1-2mm difference toward the ear.
The black Focal logo on the black carbon fiber yoke. Nice subtle detail.
From the Pittard leather to the metal mesh on the ear cups, it all makes
for a beautiful headphone to my eyes.
The driver has a very fine screen on both the front and back of the ear cup,
just barely seen here under the larger metal mesh (click to enlarge).
Listening Impressions - Technical Ability
Dynamics - HDR for audio
My first thoughts when I listened to the Utopia was "I need to take notes". This is because I personally haven't heard anything like this before in a headphone. For an analogy with our visual senses, we see with our eyes in true 'HDR', that is - High Dynamic Range. Our eyes can resolve low light levels at the same time as bright light levels without being over or under exposed. The Utopia has a similar effect to me for audio, being able to render the softest tones along side the most punchy and impactful ones at the same time. The Utopia is by far the most dynamic headphone I've ever heard and probably one of the areas that I feel needs some time to truly be appreciated. I realize I may be repeating what has already been said here on Head Fi, and elsewhere, but the punch and dynamics from these headphones is incredible. When I say dynamics I'm talking about the impact from instruments. Wailing on a guitar vs gently strumming. Pounding a drum kit vs lightly brushing it. Piano key hits played feverishly vs delicately. It all comes through as large as life to me. Not only that but the dynamics are very nuanced and textured as well. It's unusual for me to hear both impact and such subtlety at the same time with very low levels of distortion. I can hear more emotion in the performance with the Utopia than I've ever heard before through a headphone.
When I first put them on I set my volume somewhat lower than what I felt they would require for my normal listening level based on their impedance and sensitivity specifications (my normal listening level is in the ballpark of 80-85 dB). To my surprise they felt much louder than I imagined they would at that volume so I turned down the volume further. I continued to listen this way for some time but thought the sound was somewhat slightly reserved. It was then that I decided to roughly measure the output level with my smartphone speaker level app with the mic between my fingers sealing the ear cup with my hand (I realize the app is not 100% accurate, but I do know it is in the ballpark). Shockingly I was listening at 55-60 dB when I felt I was around 75-80 dB. That's not a small difference. Again, I am aware that my measuring is not entirely accurate, but the point is to illustrate the relative differences. I briefly spent some time measuring them and adjusting the volume until I achieved 75-80 dB output, and let me just say that the sound is incredibly dynamic at these volumes. When Tyll Herstens said in his Elear review about getting the volume 'just right' he wasn't kidding! For comparison, I adjusted the volume for the LCD-2 and ETHER C to output the same dB level and both sounded more like what I was used to hearing as far as their output levels were showing. Just amazing dynamics from the Utopia, and the other headphones sound somewhat flat in direct comparison (more later).
Quite simply, the dynamics feel like I've cranked the volume to 'rock out' when, in fact, I am listening at reasonable listening levels. Yes, they're dynamic. Mind blown.
Space - Soundstage and Imaging
Others have commented that the Utopia's soundstage is too small. Personally, I find the sound to be deep with incredible imaging and placement. Long before Tyll recently started to associate a recessed presence region with a wider, deeper, larger soundstage, I was feeling that most reports of a large soundstage in headphones (and source gear) were the result of frequency response and tonality over anything else if distortion and transients are good, and I've posted as much on Head Fi in the past. How much of the above statement is accurate and how much is 'just my feeling' I'm not sure I'll ever really know, but that's what I'm sticking to. Please, feel free to disagree.
What I will point out is that with the Mojo feeding the Utopia I find the soundstage to be less than with the DAVE. The Utopia are easy to drive, easier than the ETHER C, so it isn't a drive ability difference. I feel that the Utopia / DAVE combo is creating a better representation of depth and space than what I might get from a perceived sense of depth and space from a certain frequency response balance. I realize this will be a hotly debated topic about this headphone and I'll stop here. Just know that my thoughts are that the soundstage may be slightly small compared to other headphones like the HD800, but I don't feel like I'm really missing any sense of space or imaging. I do feel that boosting the 3kHz and up region does help increase the perception of a larger soundstage though. More on that later.
Edit (September 1, 2016): For clarity, I would like to point out that I feel that tonal balance does affect perceived soundstage significantly, but I feel it isn't the single factor at play. Also, after further listening tests and comparisons, I can confidently say that I find the Utopia's soundstage to be very realistic to my ears.
I like the imaging from the Utopia. Placing instruments is easy and they occupy their own space well. I don't hear instruments overlapping each other when they shouldn't and they feel as big or as small as they should IMO, especially with the incredible dynamism. The instruments are well and accurately separated within the space to me.
Agile. Nuanced. Revealing. The detail retrieval on tap is incredible to my ears. Easily more than any headphone I've owned or auditioned before. There is so little grain from the Utopia and the excellent speed and decay of the drivers reveal the smallest of details and texture, the real low level stuff. Things like the warble of the skins on the drum after the initial hit. The sense of reverberation through the air from a guitar strum. The very subtle inflections from a singers voice that draws me further in to their performance. The miscellaneous cues like feet shuffling on the floor, lips smacking as they open, performers shuffling in their chair during an acoustic guitar session. The smallest of details also add to the sense of recording space. This is actually what my brain locks on to when listening for soundstage. The room reflections and reverberations that portray space are rendered very well with the Utopia, subtle as they are.
I find many headphones that have a bright tonal balance are easy to perceive as being able to retrieve more detail. This is not something I'm looking for in a headphone. What I want is a balanced sound with the technical ability to reveal the smallest details in the recording while still sounding balanced to my ears. The Utopia and DAVE pairing does this for me, and my goal of finding a headphone that can keep up with the DAVE in detail retrieval has been met to my ears. As I mentioned earlier, I have not heard that many Summit Fi headphones but the Utopia leaves me wanting for nothing with regard to detail retrieval. There really isn't much more to say about it. Technically, this headphone is very capable.
An extremely detailed and enjoyable pairing.
Listening Impressions - Tonal Balance
My pair have about 140 hours on them and I feel comfortable talking about their sound signature. Overall, I find the Focal Utopia to be one of the most balanced and realistic headphones I've ever heard. For reference I've tried the HD800 many times and found them to be too thin for my tastes. Conversely, I've owned the Sennheiser Momentum(v1.0) and found them to be too muddy for me. When I first heard the Utopia I was so taken back by the realistic dynamics that it has taken a while for me to dig in to the frequency response balance. The overwhelming theme with the Utopia, to me, is simply cohesive balance between the entire frequency range. My only quibble, coming from my other headphones, is that I did feel the treble region above 3kHz felt slightly reduced. Looking at the measurements would also indicate this to be the case based on the Harmon target response curve. Tyll mentioned the same thing in his measurements from his excellent review of the Utopia. Because of this I find the Utopia to be very very slightly mid forward. Very slightly. Compared to anything else I've heard I'd still prefer the balance of the Utopia.
The bass on the Utopia is much more present than I would have thought based on some earlier comments saying the Utopia is slightly bright. I'm happy to report that I find the bass is very present and extremely clean. I'm picking up textures in the bass that easily puts it in the front of the pack compared to what I own or have auditioned. I don't hear any bleed into the mids and the impact is simply unreal (or super real). I do hear a slight roll off below 40Hz. Listening to Hans Zimmer's Interstellar OST - Mountains - at 02:06 in the track, when the lowest sub bass notes kick in, I feel the Utopia could use about 2-3dB more in volume below 40Hz compared to the LCD-2, for my tastes, but it really doesn't feel like it is lacking in bass at all. Overall I'd give it a 9.5/10.
This is where the Utopia REALLY shines. I literally wrote in my notes for mids: "Perfect - Done". I simply can't fault any part of the mids for vocals or instruments. Of special note is the way the Utopia renders guitars. Whether it's the growl and distortion of an electric guitar, or the pleasant strumming of an acoustical piece, guitars sound awesome on the Utopia. Easy 10/10.
The treble from the Utopia surprised me. I was slightly worried that it would be a bright sounding headphone, but that just isn't the case from what I'm hearing. Again, the treble is incredibly clean and articulate. The treble sparkles, for sure, but I also hear the treble as being more dense than I've heard before. Not as thin. More subtle tonal variety than I've heard before. More breadth of frequency range within the treble. A real world example is how a cymbal hit sounds deep as well as has sheen in real life. It has space and foundation at the same time. It seems as though I can hear the cymbal's deformation after the hit. Incredible nuance and depth of tone rendered easily.
As I mentioned earlier I might prefer to have the treble increased by a couple dB above 3kHz, but only when comparing to my other headphones. In Pink Floyd's The Wall - Mother- I feel like I'm slightly missing some of the treble presence throughout the song, and especially after 02:52 in the track when the drums and electric guitar kick in. Without EQ, and on its own, the Utopia sounds fine. Perfectly fine. But, when comparing to the other headphones that I have I feel as though I'm missing a bit of sheen here. A minor bump to the entire range above 3kHz solves this completely for me. That said, again, I only feel this way when comparing headphones so in the end I don't use the EQ at all. What I did notice right away was that the very slight increase in the treble region brought out a larger sense of space to me, which is something I've observed before. From me the treble gets a 9.5/10.
In the end I'd say the tonal balance is incredibly cohesive, and only when comparing to other headphones' frequency response that one might find the Utopia needs a slight boost in the lowest bass and treble region. Or, am I just used to a slightly mids recessed sound. Hmmmmm, food for thought. I'm sure source gear will also play a very large roll here.
This may be the shortest section of my impressions, but I feel it's going to be the most profound. I'm not going to go in to detailed comparisons of each headphone I own. I can't really compare to other headphones that I've briefly heard. I will say that compared to what I own the Utopia sounds so much more dynamic and realistic to my ears that my other headphones simply sound FLAT. I'm a visual person, it's my job day to day. The best way I can describe the stand out difference that I get compared to other headphones is to use a visual analogy. Look at the two images below that I took while on a recent road trip. The first image represents my previous headphones, and the second image represents the Focal Utopia. Both images have the exact same amount of detail and exposure from the camera. It's the same image, just presented differently.
Headphone listening - pre Utopia. Click to enlarge.
Headphone listening - post Utopia. Click to enlarge.
In the first image there is the exact same amount of detail as in the second image, but it's more difficult to see. The depth is flat and it's more difficult to distinguish the mountain as being deep in the background, and the colour tonality is washed out. In the second image you get a much better sense of real depth in the scene. The mountain feels like it's further back looking through the atmosphere in the background, which helps make it feel (accurately) more large. The contrast of the foreground shadows makes the trees clearly more forward in the image compared to the first image, while not clamping any of the detail. The detail is more readily visible and the color tonality is accurate to real life. I did not boost any sharpness, or enhance any specific range in the second image. It looks the way it does simply because its levels are balanced, that's it.
These are the analogous differences I hear moving to the Utopia from my other headphones, and it's this lack of flatness in comparison that really sets the Utopia apart, driven by its technical abilities and tonal balance. Quite simply it's the real deal.
Looking back at my notes I see scribbles along the lines of:
- "OMFG!!! Richard Tompson, Tim & the Bears: Space! Detail! Timbre! WOW!!"
- "Stone Temple Pilots, Dead and Bloated: Just grinning ear to ear!!"
- "Melissa Menago, Little Crimes: So much sense of space and delicacy! Beautiful!! and the rain outside actually sounds like rain, lol!!"
- "Classical: Completely captivating and easily renders orchestral complexity!''
I actually wrote at one point, "My heart is racing! No joke!". I think that about sums it up. The Utopia is an extremely exciting headphone to listen to because it can be delicate or incredibly impactful, or both at the same time. I haven't heard anything through the Utopia that didn't play well. I feel that if a headphone is balanced and technically capable then it will be a genre master. Well, I can confidently say the Utopia headphone is a genre master. Actually, I would say the Utopia is a master of all things and quite simply is the best headphone I've ever heard, and at the same time unlike any headphone I've ever heard.
I had a lot of other TOTL headphones in my sights before I purchased the Utopia. Now I don't feel the need to try them out (for now, lol). I know I will purchase other headphones because trying different gear in this hobby makes me happy. I actually currently have the ETHER Flow on order. However, no matter what other headphones I own in the future I think I'm always going to look back to this time when I first tried the Focal Utopia with great fondness (for a long, long time). It just sounds so good... So. Incredibly. Good.
Thanks for reading!
Manufacturer specs and information can be found here - Focal Utopia -
jude's measurements on Head Fi - HERE -
Tyll Hertsens's measurements on Innerfidelity - HERE -