Focal Utopia

General Information

Manufacturer's Description:

Utopia are THE reference high-fidelity headphones manufactured in France by Focal. They are the result of 35 years of innovation, development and manufacturing of high-end speaker drivers and loudspeakers. Equipped with exclusive technology, they offer striking realism, neutrality, dynamics and clarity, for sound with unrivalled purity. Utopia are unique they are the world’s first audiophile headphones to be equipped with totally open-backed full-range speaker drivers with pure Beryllium ’M’-shaped domes. They meet all the requirements expected of high-end headphones due to their sophisticated and elegant design and to purposeful materiality, such as the carbon fibre yoke and true lambskin leather ear cushions.

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Pros: Overall Balance, Transient Response and Dynamism, Midrange Seperation and Layering.
Cons: Small Soundstage, Weird Midrange-to-Treble Transition, Price.
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So, this pair is actually not my own, but I had a chance to listen to it on my own system at a meet at my place. On hand, I had my LCD-3, AH-D7200, HD800, HD650 and MH-40. I have heard the Utopia several times before at shows and in-store, but I think this occasion has finally allowed me to refine and solidify my thoughts on them.

I will make this more of a comparison, as describing the Utopia as having ‘fast bass and smooth mids’ doesn’t really tell you much. The test tracks used are all on my Modern Audiophile and Electronic Audiophile playlists. Some specific reference tracks are:

- Skylar Spence - Fall Harder
- Lenno - Collect My Love
- Jarreau Vandal - Rabbit Hole
- Billie Marten – La Lune
- Jonah Nilsson – Coffee Break

Bass Texture and Impact:

Really quite fantastic here. The texture is better and the bass hits harder than the HD800, which I thought was the gold standard for Dynamic headphones with regard to bass. It still doesn’t hit quite as hard as something like the D7200, which approaches bass-head levels of slam, but it is much more textured and resolving. The speed is also fantastic, akin to the LCD-3. I found the LCD-3 to have more realistic kick sounds however, due to the perfect sub-bass extension. This is apparent on Coffee Break, where the acoustic drums show more realism and body on the LCD-3 due to the more solid lower registers.

Bass Quantity:

Hmmm, this is interesting. On some tracks, such as Rabbit Hole, I found the bass quantity slightly lacking on the Utopia. On the other hand, I found the bass on something like La Lune more than enough to give the song the body and depth it needs. I guess this has to do with the fine resolve and excellent distortion characteristics of the Utopia’s bass, which makes it very transparent to the track, rather than artificially boosted or lean. Moreover, I did not detect an obtrusive mid-bass hump, like on the 650 for instance, but the mid-bass does appear to have greater quantity than the sub-bass. This is typically of open back dynamics. Overall, I would have maybe liked 2 dB more bass for harder hitting tracks, but these sound very neutral and balanced for acoustic tracks in this region.

Midrange Neutrality and Tonality:

Not surprisingly, really quite fantastic. The mids are more forward and intimate than the HD800, but not as forward (and boosted in the lower mids and dipped in the upper mids) as the LCD-3. In fact, listening to all the headphones in my collection, apart from my beloved HD650, makes the midrange timber issues of the other headphones very apparent. For instance, a dip in the lower mids of the MH40 and AH-D7200 became quite clear after switching from the Utopia. I still, however, stand by the 650 in that it presents the mids with a more satisfying timber than the Utopia. For instance, the vocals and guitar on La Lune, played on the Utopia, sound clean and coherent, but still somewhat dry in comparison to the 650, which has fuller tonality here. Yes, I know that the 650 does indeed have some additional warmth (arguably past neutrality), but I think this is necessary to give vocals and live instruments sufficient and realistic body.

Midrange Clarity and Separation:

Here is where the Utopia stands out. Whilst the overall sound is quite intimate and concentrated, the layering of instruments is phenomenal. Listening to Fall Harder, the wide-panned, reverb-heavy guitars and effects sit coherently and confidently in the mix. The 650, whilst having a similar stage width, sounds congested and slow in comparison. The somewhat drier nature of the Utopia, detailed above, helps with this. I also find the midrange separation and layering better than the HD800 here, which sometimes sounds too separated and diffuse. Listening to Collect My Love, the wide panned synths after the drop sound crispy, clean, textured, and more defined than any of the headphones in my collection.

Midrange-Treble Transition:

Hmmm, this is where things get a bit messy. Whilst many talk of the ‘razor-sharp 6K bite’, I did not think its elevation was the issue here. I can hear that it is definitely hotter and more aggressive in this region than something like the HD650, which is buttery smooth, but there’s something else that is bugging me. I found vocals and cymbals that lie around this region tonally weird. Listening to Skylar Spence’s vocals as he sings in Fall Harder, the ‘sss’ sounds don’t sound as crispy as I would like, and don’t sit into the mix as nicely as I was expecting. It’s not that there is an elevated or harsh sibilance to my ears, it’s not like the HD800, but it just sounds off. It reminds of the HE1000 in this region. That headphone was exceptionally soft and not sibilant, but the 6-8K region still sounded weird. To be honest, this is the first time I’ve been at a loss of descriptive words for this.

Treble Cleanliness and Quantity:

Truly TOTL and on par with something like the HD800. The extension is lovely and special effects and artefacts in tracks, such as the wide-panned hits in Rabbit Hole and the tremendous SFX in Fall Harder, come through clearly and with good balance. This is better than something like the LCD-3, which can be somewhat hard sounding due to a 10K peak and elevated ‘air’ above it. Really wonderful for acoustic tracks as the air of guitars and overtones of vocals shine through with confidence. For instance, the atmosphere presented in La Lune is portrayed clearly without any dullness or over-bearing resonance and reverb. The AH-D7200, for instance, can be a bit ‘over-sharpened’ here, forcing details and air out in an unnatural way.

Transient Response and Dynamism:

I think it’s the exceptional dynamism and TOTL transient response that give this headphone its character. The transient response is still not as surreal as the HD800, which can make instruments pop, float, and snap around you, but it is close. The dynamism also adds great presence to acoustic tracks, such as the strumming of guitars, but it could sometimes be too much for electronic tracks, where synths could cut through too aggressively. You might be thinking, ‘surely EDM benefits from good dynamism?’, but I promise it could get tiring real quick, even at moderate volume. I actually find bass impact to be more important to the enjoyment of EDM, rather than the slam of synths, which can already be quite compressed and aggressive.

Soundstage:

Intimate and small for an open back. It is actually very similar to the 650, with that same height and width. This is good for the midrange definition, as mentioned previously, in comparison to something like the HD800, but a bit more width would still be nice. Not a big deal really, but I was expecting better at the price.

Final thoughts:

The Utopia definitely competes at the TOTL. It is a TOTL piece after all, with a price above many other flagships. I still have a problem with a headphone at this price, though. I understand that in this territory, £1000 may only get you minor increments in performance. Hell, look at my own collection of gear and you’ll see that I am willing to make such an investment, but not for the Utopia. I simply feel that, while it does have strengths over the HD800, its other aspects, like soundstage and the mid-to-treble weirdness can still be improved, objectively. Sure, you might say that no headphone is perfect, irrespective of price, but pricing something this high should make me come away with a product that doesn’t make me go ‘hmmm, this needs a decent improvement in this aspect’. The HD800 also leaves me with this thought, but it’s special qualities like incredible transients are truly unmatched, and you can buy one for far, far less than the Utopia. In conclusion, I would still take an HD800 and LCD-3 combo over one Utopia, and still have some spare change. At least I will have two different sound signatures to keep me interested in different genres, with unique strengths and problems to match.
Pros: Excellent build quality
Superb resolution
Smooth midrange, outstanding treble
Cohesive and refined
Cons: Too expensive at full retail price
Lacks the punch of other headphones
A touch too polite
Needs expensive sources to make the most of its abilities
summitview.jpg


It’s not often that one gets to meet a real celebrity; someone whose fame cuts right across cultures and households. In the real world, names like George Clooney and Julia Roberts come to mind. In the head-fi world, few are more famous than Utopia.

Focal’s flagship dynamic headphone has only existed for about two years, and yet ask most headphone devotees to name the headphone that sits right at the top of the tree and many, if not most, would say Utopia. That’s partly a consequence of the hype train that rolled into town when the French audio maker unveiled the double-whammy of its high-end dynamics, the ‘mainsteam’ Elear and flagship Utopia, and partly because of Utopia’s eye watering price tag of $4,000 at a time when most statement headphones were still selling for half that, or less.

Fast forward to today, and the Utopia is still the headphone I associate with the exclusive ‘summit-fi’ tier of head-fi audio equipment that only a select few enthusiasts can afford, let alone experience. As an enthusiast myself, I could never have imagined my climb up to the higher echelons of this devastatingly expensive but supremely enjoyable hobby would be so swift, and yet the headphone gear I now use and consider my ‘endgame’ is probably sat at Camp 2 or 3 compared to Utopia’s Everest summit.

The Utopia in person

As an Elear owner I am intimately familiar with Focal’s headphone design and ergonomics, so seeing the Utopia for the first time was pleasantly unsurprising. I’ve read reams of reviews and participated in many discussions with Utopia users, but there was still a feeling of privilege handling and opening the large display-style box the Utopia was housed in. Not dissimilar to the Elear’s box, it was black and bulky, but finished with a matte black skin and red trim that imparted an understated sense of prestige.

The Utopia itself was, as expected, very Elear-like, though it felt slightly lighter in the hand. The leather finish of the headband and earpads is uber-soft, clearly made of a much finer grade of leather than the excellent Dekoni Elite sheepskin pads I use with my Elear. The memory foam is also much softer, though not as soft to the touch as the suede-like Elex pads I use as an Elear alternative (more on that later). The Utopia’s carbon fibre yokes have enough flex to sit the cups comfortably on your ears, but unlike the Elear the yokes and headband don’t creak when twisted.

The latter isn’t an issue for me personally - there’s no creaking when the Elear is worn - but it does show the extra level of detail and build quality that went into the Utopia’s design, despite the similarities of look and feel with the Elear, that bestow it with its flagship status.

On the head, the softness of the Utopia’s leather translated to added comfort, and despite not having a suspension strap (an oversight in heavier headphone designs), the headband didn’t immediately leave any hotspots on top of my usually sensitive scalp. It doesn’t exactly ‘disappear’ when worn, but it also doesn’t feel like you’re wearing a motorbike helmet, a-la the Audeze LCD-3.

First impressions

I’ve been anticipating Geoff’s visit all week, and so diligently prepared a list of test tracks I was hoping to hear through Utopia, running the gamut of my musical preferences from girl with guitar to male crooners, modern pop, classic rock and electronica.

First up was Heidi Talbot’s intimately beautiful ‘If You Stay’ (watch here) from her Love+Light album, a track I’ve listened to countless times with almost every headphone I’ve owned and auditioned. Heidi’s innocently sensual voice and breathless delivery lend the song an ethereal quality that can sound edgy with the wrong headphone and compressed when the source is too digital. There was never any risk of that happening with Audio-gd’s exemplary R-28 all-in-one ladder dac and headphone amplifier, and even though the Utopia was using the amp’s single-ended output (I unfortunately did not have balanced Utopia cables to experiment with), the analog-like qualities of the source were immediately apparent.

‘If You Stay’ starts off with a series of lower register guitar plucks that should, ideally, reverberate and resonate around your head, and give the simple intro a sense of palpable weight and warmth. That’s exactly how Utopia delivered it, with every nuance of the guitar clearly and crisply articulated. Heidi’s opening verse was perfectly separated from the instruments that continue to play around her, and I could immediately get a sense of both depth and intimacy, as if she were sitting in the same room, singing her song to me.

Having said that, the Elex is no slouch, and so having ‘calibrated my brain’ by first playing the track through the Elex, I was left a little underwhelmed when the Utopia hardly deviated from what I’d just heard, minutes before. In a blind test I would be hard pressed to tell which headphone was which, other than the obviously cooler Utopia pads around my ears.

Similarities aside, the reason I keep going back to this expertly-mastered track is because good gear will almost always render it correctly, and any deviation is a solid strike against. So far, so good, but the first view from the summit was one I’d already seen before. Also, you may have noticed I used Elex to describe the Elear above, because having switched to Elex pads, that’s exactly what the Elear becomes. Since the Elex has a very similar FR graph to Utopia - and is often described as a ‘baby Utopia’ - I wanted to compare apples with apples, rather than use the more strident, dynamic and punchy Elear.

Change of pace

Strident, dynamic and punchy was exactly what I was looking for from the second test track, AC/DC’s seminal ‘Thunderstuck’ (watch here). Again a gorgeously mastered track, with good gear you should be able to get a real sense of stage width and space as the iconic guitar riff slowly builds up and around you, followed by the ‘kick’ of the kick drums - even before Brian Johnson’s unique delivery is heard over the backing vocals. Being treble sensitive, I use this track to test for glare in the higher notes of the screeching guitars, and as a bass aficionado, I want to feel the drums in the mix, not just hear them. This isn’t always an easy trick to pull off with headphones, but the really good ones will find just the right balance, even at higher volumes, without causing fatigue.

The three most obvious qualities immediately apparent in Utopia’s presentation of the track was its remarkably clean highs, superb instrument separation and ink black background. The sound appeared ‘out of nowhere’ and disappeared from the stage with equally stealth-like speed. I’d read all about the Utopia’s fabled ‘speed’, but didn’t really understand what that meant until I heard this track. You could almost slice the details with a scalpel, but at such speed that it would be humanly impossible to do so. The fastest headphones I’d heard prior to this was a higher-end Stax electrostatic, and this was every bit as fast if not faster.

Speed isn’t the only trait the Utopia seems to share with electrostatics. Not known for moving much air, ‘stats specialise in the delivery of tight, clean and detailed bass that often lacks the weight of real instruments or the rumble of electronic drums. This was a disappointment when hearing my first Stax, and likewise when hearing Thunderstruck through the Utopia. While not specifically a bass-driven track, I’ve heard the kick drums in the intro and the cacophony of drums in the body of the track conveyed with a real visceral impact on the likes of ZMF’s Atticus and the LCD-3, and even the Elear has a certain dynamic punch that makes Thunderstruck’s kicks stand out in the mix. The Utopia, while perfectly articulate, just didn’t do that for me. It was almost a sanitised rendition of bass, like one might expected from the likes of a Sennheiser HD600 or HD650, albeit a touch fuller than Sennheiser’s midrange models, and certainly more detailed.

But where you sometimes want to let your hair down and rock out to a track like Thunderstruck - or similarly styled tracks like Joe ‘Satch’ Satriani’s ‘Always With Me, Always With You’ (watch here) off his ’Surfing With The Alien’ album - you’re more likely to sit and clap to the beat while tethered to the ‘oh so polite’ Utopia. And that’s ok; the Utopia is not, as far as I can tell, a balls-to-the-wall headphone, and that’s by design. There’s just too much detail, nuance, and subtlety in its approach to really bring on the grunge. For many audiophiles that’s a plus, and my penchant for tastefully elevated bass isn’t something these folks will lose much sleep over.

It all comes together

Normally when I audition a headphone, lack of impact is one of the first things I notice, at which point I generally lose interest. But the Utopia was doing too many things too well for me not to pay attention - including the way it described rather than viscerally delivered the bass in the mix. Owl City’s electronically layered ‘Saltwater Room’ literally invited me to walk in and explore the different points of sound emanating all around the space Utopia created. Every layer was separated like an onionskin at the hands of a master chef, and expertly arranged so that the parts were never removed from the whole. On brighter headphones that lack a sense of nuance or control, the sweetness of Breanne Duren’s supporting vocals - which really steal the show from lead singer Adam Young - can be lost in the mix. Instead, the Utopia let me meander through the treble-laden track as if it were lush and rolling midlands, with Adam and Breanne walking with me and around me. It was quite magical really, and prompted me to write in my notes: “best treble I’ve heard in a headphone.”

Cohesiveness is probably the defining character of this headphone. Whether your leaning is more synthesised like Owl City and Daft Punk, or soft rock like Def Leppard, the Utopia presents you with a sound that is both richly detailed and highly musical, without favouring any parts at the expense of others. It’s impossibly smooth, lush and clinical all at once; and unwaveringly musical to my ears. Unlike other high-end headphones that specialise in doing some things well - the space and resolution of the HD800, the speed and transparency of the Stax, the warmth and weight of the LCD-3, the natural realism of the Auteur - the Utopia takes all these elements and melds them together into its own unique sound.

Of course it’s not without its faults, small as they may seem at these dizzying heights. Daft Punk’s ‘Contact’ (listen here) from their masterpiece album ‘Random Access Memories’ is a typical slow-burning, quickly building piece of artful electronica that goes from spartan emptiness to crazy mayhem in a few short minutes. There’s a frantic energy conveyed by the sudden advance and attack of the ‘aliens’ that Utopia’s measured approach somehow fails to grasp. With all the elements neatly intertwined, it almost holds itself back from giving any of the crazy effects prominence over another, but that’s exactly what you want to hear, and many less poised headphones will give you just that.

Utopia is also too fast, in my opinion, at conveying decay, which can make it sound a little dry at times. The droning decay of the deep drums that softly underlie Katie Melua’s ‘Red Balloons’ is a case in point, as are the big, bold booms in Dadawa’s ’Sister Drum’. In both cases Utopia lets you know what you’re hearing - heck it’s so detailed you can probably read the label on the backing material of the drums used in the track - but the size is all wrong. Perhaps it is Utopia’s expensive and exotic Beryllium drivers at play; the Elear and its equally sized drivers doesn’t seem to have too much trouble with the drums in those tracks. It could just be that a buttery smooth rather than hard edged articulation is exactly the sound Focal was seeking, in which case they’ve nailed it.

Back on terra firma

Later that day, after my climb down from the summit, I was reflecting on the experience with my brother, who’d extensively listened to the Utopia in days gone by. In his own words, “the Utopia’s refinement has an incredible way of dissecting the music yet presenting it in an incredibly musical way, so it is articulate all the while being delicate and pleasing, and not sanitised like so many ‘audiophile’ headphones.”

I couldn’t have said that better myself, so I didn’t. What I will say is that, combined with the right system, the Utopia earns its praise and position among the very best of the best. While I consider my system to be of a very high standard, there’s no question a headphone like Utopia will benefit more - and give you more - from a system more commensurate with its price tag. That’s not to say the system I’m using was necessarily a limiting factor, but that there are more gears to be shifted if you have the means to do so. Add to that the mysterious effect that synergy may yield with different components, which Utopia is undoubtedly transparent enough to respond to.

Closing thoughts

Which brings me to the reason I decided, in the end, to take leave of the summit, regardless of how stunning I found the view. Truth be told, the difference between high-end and summit-fi is not nearly as large as you’d imagine based purely on how much it will cost you to walk those extra few steps to the top. If, like me, you’re willing to spread your listening between two or more headphones, each of which does something different or better than the other and is therefore more suited to different types of music, then putting all your eggs in one very expensive basket like Utopia is not necessarily the best way to spend your money.

Then again, if money is no object, and the price of Utopia doesn’t make your palms sweat and eyes twitch, then few headphones I’m aware of can elevate your music to extreme levels of fidelity like Utopia can. It may not get you up and dancing, but it will make you cry - and not because you had to sell your car to buy it.
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Pros: detailed, revealing, outstanding depth and instrument separation, punchy engaging listen, speedy like a coked up F1 driver
Cons: compact soundstage for a flagship (small width/height), poor accessories, long-term comfort, listening fatigue, $$$$, sensitive to accessory cables (you’ll probably buy at least one)
List Price: £3499 (UK, Audio Sanctuary), $4000 globally

Product Website: https://www.focal.com/uk/headphones/home/utopia

Acknowledgment
Thank you Matt, at SCV distribution, for supplying a Utopia on loan. I really wanted to compare this to the Susvara, you made it happen. The opinions expressed in this review are my own and in no way influenced by SCV distribution or anyone else.

This review was originally published on Audio Primate.

Introduction
The Focal Utopia is widely regarded as one of the best headphones on the planet for technical capability and sound quality. I’ve reviewed what I believe is the best headphone on the planet under $50k, the HiFiMAN Susvara, but I hadn’t spent any time outside of shows listening to the Focal Utopia. At shows, I’d found that I didn’t like it out of everything I listening to. I thought it paired well with the Naim amp I first heard it on, and badly with the Dragon Inspire IHA-1 tube headphone amp. Next time I heard it, it was another Naim amp, and it sounded different once again, with north of neutral bass and a bit of lift in the lower treble.

I’ve got a good relationship with SCV distribution, so I was able to get a loan of the Focal Utopia for some time.

Useability: Form & Function
Unboxing


The box looks fancy, nice leather display box with excellent padding throughout and compartments for each component, but no case, and only one Manute Bol (he was 7'7") sized cable. Where is all the good stuff that comes with the Clear? I’m of the opinion that after releasing the Clear with a travel case, one normal sized cable, and two over-sized cables (including a balanced cable), all the other Focal headphones should have immediately got the same treatment, but this did not happen. The $1500 Focal Clear has better accessories than $4000 Utopia. Fix it Focal.

Again, the presentation and packaging are excellent, but the functionality of what’s in the box is kind of nonsense. The included cable is 3 meters long. Did they actually talk to headphone users, or did they just assume that the Utopia would be used in the same position as their 2 channel speakers (which are really nice by the way)? Focal went to the trouble of making it so the Utopia can be adequately powered off most decently endowed DAPs, but then they didn’t include a 3.5mm terminated cable or for that matter a cable made for humans. I’m imagining Wun Wun wearing this cable and thinking it’s perfect length and girth (expressed as a deep rumble). There is also not a balanced cable included. Sometimes, it’s the little things that kill.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]
The 3 meter cable would make a nice sports cable for Wun Wun.[/caption]

More unboxing pictures can be found here.

Build, Aesthetics and ergonomics
The cable is a good thickness cable with excellent conductors and it is built balanced, just without a balanced amp connection (why!?). It’s a high quality cable, just not pitched to the audience this headphone is really for: headphone audiophiles. I don’t think that the Utopia is really pitched for music producers, and balanced connectors are basically ubiquitous in top tier cans for audiophiles. I kind of understand why they don’t have two cables with the Utopia, Lemo connectors are expensive ($70 to add them to a Double Helix Cable Prion 4). Lemo connectors are of extremely good build quality, there’s a reason why the connectors cost so darn much. They have well-built moving parts and are basically impossible to remove without intent. Lemo connectors are sturdy with a very secure and a good contact surface area.

The Focal Utopia comes in all the colours you want if you want black, but it is stylishly done, with nice silver accents on several nicely placed bevelled edges, steel screws holding the carbon fibre gimbals to the drivers, and a precision stamped silver grille exposing the eye of the beast—the driver looks like a beast eye looking out at you with a grey centre and red spider for the 40mm solid beryllium driver. The pads are made with a high quality leather with perforations for ventilation and sound tuning. The cups have a small pivot built into the headband (probably 20⁰ front and back). I found this pivot inadequate to get the full surface of the cups flush with my head. The head pad is also perforated and nicely cushioned. The left and right side of the headphones are labelled on the headband, and faintly noted by the Lemo jacks. I would have very much liked if they used red colour coding to signify right. Much of the cup assembly is made of high quality plastic, which is probably necessary due to the weight of the magnets in these.



I found the Utopia to cause pressure points on my jaw where the clamp force is focused due to my inability to get the cups to sit completely flush due to the limited range on the cup swivelling. I can’t just put the headphones on and forget about them like the HiFiMAN HE-1000 v2, HiFiMAN Susvara, or the Sennheiser HD600. These are comfortable enough for a normal listening session (couple hours), but we are audiophiles, we aren’t normal. We listen for stupid lengths of time. I’m on hour 5 at 2AM as I write this.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="1024"]
These two stands are nearly identical, note HiFiMAN Susvara sits flush, while Utopia applies more pressure at the bottom.[/caption]
Audio quality
The desktop setup:

  • Dell Inspiron running JRiver (source)
  • Vertere Acoustics D-Fi DD 2 wire USB cable (split power and signal)
  • iFi Micro iUSB3.0
  • LH Labs Lightspeed 2G (split power and signal)
  • Questyle CMA600i or Aune S6
  • Vertere Acoustics D-Fi XLR to RCA interconnect
  • XIAUDIO Formula S (Eleven Audio) or Aune S6 (no interconnect) or Questyle CMA600i (no interconnect)
  • Headphone cables: all Atlas Zeno.
I started my listening using the Wire-on-Wire Experience 680 RCA interconnects and switched to the Vertere Acoustics DFi after I was noting a hardness in the upper mids/lower treble of the Utopia. I was getting fatigued quickly. I think the Utopia has a little bit of emphasis in this area, and the added emphasis of the bright Wire-on-Wire cable was too much. The Vertere Acoustics DFi cable is less bright, while still maintaining excellent detail resolution. I could have also tried the Wire-on-Wire spacers (they lower treble output), but I didn’t do that.

For listening with the Focal Utopia low gain was always used. I never had to take the volume past about 30%. The Focal Utopia is easy to drive as flagships go. The HifiMAN cans were played on High Gain (on the Formula S only). As volume matching open cans is hard to do via measurement, I did it by ear. Feel free to take my observations with a grain of salt, but I recommend you try using only an SPL meter to volume match open cans with different dispersion patterns. I think that you’ll probably find that you'd do the same as me.



Amplifier/DAC Pairings
All amplifier pairings were done using the balanced output on each amplifier, except for the Questyle QP2R. The cable used with the Utopia was the Atlas Zeno cable with termination in two 3-pin XLR with a dual 3-pin XLR to 4-pin XLR Vertere Acoustics Pulse HB adaptor, except on the pairing with the Questyle QP2R. Even though the dual 3-pin to 4-pin XLR conversion is unnecessary on the XI Audio Formula S, I maintained this connection for consistency. For the Questyle QP2R pairing, the stock cable was used with a Sennheiser 6.3mm to 3.5mm adaptor. I used white noise to volume match, holding an SPL meter in one hand and the Utopia in the other, being careful to try to replicate microphone position on the SPL meter and grip on the Utopia to try to make the measurements as consistent as possible. Here is the volume match table for all sources, so that you can at least attempt to replicate my observations should you have a similar set-up.

Source Gain Volume SPL
XIAUDIO Formula S Low 1/3 78.1
Questyle CMA600i -- 6.75 78.2
Aune S6 -- 59 78.3
Questyle CMA600i -- 8 78.2
Questyle QP2R High 102 78.3


Aune S6
Listening to 2Pac – God Bless the Dead, the bass has great richness on the S6. Deep and bold. Nice. The S6 drives the Focal Utopia with plenty of headroom. Compared to the Questyle CMA600i, the stage is more forward with less depth on the S6. The S6 still allows picking apart the image, with the excellent resolution characteristics still showing. The S6 isn’t quite refined enough for the Utopia. The CMA600i is better.

Questyle CMA600i
The mids are a bit clearer on the CMA600i on God Bless the Dead, but the lows don’t have as much body as the S6. On Leonard Cohen – Leaving the Table, the bass has more texture and the separation in the mids is greater with better detail. The CMA600i drives the Utopia effortlessly with great space in the stage. On Outkast – Ms. Jackson, the details pop beautifully on the track with excellent separation in the tightly layered mids. Dog barks, laughing, layered guitars and percussion are all nicely separated. I love the funky bass guitar line here. Instruments have remarkable spacing, better than the S6.

Compared to the XIAUDIO Formula S, the Questyle CMA600i is more forward. Kate Bush’s vocals are thrust upon you in Cloudbusting more than on the XIAUDIO Formula S, where they are a touch further back. Bass is nice and chooglin’ on The Beach Boys – Sloop John B (DSD64). Because the stage depth is less than the XIAUDIO Formula S, it the reproduction sounds more forward.

When listening to Why? – Sod in the Seed there is little difference between the presentation of the CMA600i and the QP2R, which leads me to believe that both drive the Utopia equally well.

Questyle QP2R
Why? – Sod in the Seed comes off a bit sharp in the high guitar notes. The detail is spectacular, as with every other pairing. Fleetwood Mac – Dreams has a bit forward sounding cymbals, and the decay is a bit quick, leading to a bit of a tinny sound, this is replicated on the CMA600i in single-ended operation. I think these probably benefit from an upgrade to the included cable, as the Utopia with Atlas Zeno sounded better on the CMA600i.

XIAUDIO Formula S


The XIAUDIO Formula S, fed by the Questyle CMA600i as DAC (unity gain), is smoother and less punchy than the CMA600i as the DAC and amplifier. Stage depth is a bit greater on the XIAUDIO Formula S. The stage width is also greater on the XIAUDIO Formula S compared to the CMA600i when listening to Kate Bush – Cloudbusting. Likewise, the stage width and separation are more impressive on the XIAUDIO Formula S. Tonally both the Formula S and CMA600i produce a similar presentation. I think the difference are primarily due to better stage performance on the Formula S, though if I had to state any tonal difference I would say that the sound is more forward on the CMA600i. Rush – The Spirit of the Radio further highlights the differences in stage depth between the two amplifiers. Neil Peart’s drum kit is further back in the stage with much more separation from Geddy Lee’s vocals and the ambuscade of drums has more resolution and spacing. On Pixies – Where Is My Mind, the stage is bigger and more clearly defined on the Formula S than the CMA600i. The observation was replicated when listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album. The Utopia does benefit from a better amp, in spite of not being incredibly demanding as flagships go.

Headphone Comparisons
All headphone comparisons were done on the Formula S using Atlas Zeno cables. The Focal Utopia was hooked up with dual 3-pin XLRs (appeared to be silver pins). The HiFiMAN HE-1000 v2 and the HiFiMAN Susvara were connected via 4-pin XLR (brass pins). It would have been nice to have the same connector, but you work with what you got. Thanks for the loaner cables SCV and Atlas Cables.

HiFiMAN HE-1000 v2
First up, some non-sonic stuff. The HE-1000 v2 are way more comfortable than the Utopia. The larger swivel radius of the cups on the HE-1000 v2 means there are no pressure points, the cups sit flush even pressure distribution. The larger pad surface area and grill surface area also means that weight and heat are better distributed. The HE-1000 v2 are lighter, with a better distributed load due to the design of the strap. They don’t look as tough or prestigious as the Utopias, but they are more functionally minded in their design.

Overall sound impressions. The HiFiMAN HE-1000 v2 is smoother and more natural sounding than the Utopia. It has a more open sound with a wider and taller soundstage. It has a very real feeling. The Utopia has a deeper soundstage than the HE-1000 v2. The small size of the soundstage gives a clear disconnect from the feeling of reality over headphone simulation. The Utopia has a remarkably black background. When listening to the Tom Waits – The One That Got Away the silence between instruments and notes is impressive. So clean and clear. Love the stand-up bass accuracy and separation between the instruments. The whole album has a live feel to it and it’s especially apparent on this track. The HE-1000 v2 has a little lighter touch on the mids. On the Utopia, the decay is stand-up bass is more natural, it’s a touch fast on the HE-1000 v2. Saxophone sounds a little rougher and reedier on the HE-1000 v2, the Utopia is smoother through the mids with a bit more body. There’s a bit more texture in Tom Wait’s voice on the HE-1000 v2.



Listening to Slayer – Necrophobic the mids are a bit thicker and less textured on the Utopia. The decreased width of the soundstage reduces the ability to resolve the band in space. With Talking Heads – Psycho killer the Utopias have a bit of thickness in the vocals that deadens a little bit of the dynamics in David Byrne’s voice. The HE-1000 v2 are more natural and timbrally accurate. They also have a wide stage.

Listening to Shostakovich Symphony No. 1, the Utopia does a beautiful job of rendering the depth of instrumentation. Instruments are clearly separated in y-axis (moving from the listener perpendicular to the face), but the width (x-axis) is not sufficient to get a good idea of the scale of the orchestra, the stage height (z-axis) is also not exceptional. The HiFiMAN HE-1000 v2 has better stage dimensions. There is a nice sweetness to the violins. Strings in general sound beautiful with just the right amount of weight given to each part of plucked and struck notes.

Roger Waters’ album Amused to Death is one of my all-time favourite albums for sound quality. When listening to the album I found that the 40mm dynamic driver gave my ears a pretty good thrashing at similar volume to comfortable listening on the HE-1000 v2. I think that because the driver area disperses the sound more on the HE-1000 v2 that there is less pressure on any given area of the ear, while the Utopia is a piston driving pressure directly at my ear-drum. The HE-1000 v2 also imparts more breathiness into Roger Waters – Three Wishes. However, it should be noted that the Utopia sounds more impactful on Three Wishes.

Overall, I think that in most areas, the HE-1000 v2 is more to my liking than the Utopia. It has a bigger stage, it is more comfortable, it causes less listening fatigue. It is also less expensive. Matched with essentially the same aftermarket cable, the Atlas Zeno, the HE-1000 v2 is the better buy at $2999 and, to my ears, the better sounding headphone. Some will prefer the more impactful and intimate sound of the Utopia. Both headphones are very detailed but the HE-1000 v2 sounds more natural to me.



HiFiMAN Susvara
This isn’t likely to go well for the Utopia, as the HE-1000 v2, which isn’t as stellar as the Susvara just beat the Utopia. I’ve given this a couple days rest to wipe clear my memory. The amp is on, warmed up, and my ears are ready to make the attempt at volume matching by ear—I don’t have the set-up to match two different open cans, dispersion differences change measurements.

Listening to Why? – Waterlines the bass is a bit less punchy on the Susvara. The overall ambience of the Susvara is bigger. The harp strings pluck in space with delicious delicacy, whilst wood blocks have a rounder impact, and snare snaps have more air dispersion around them. The opening strings are in a more compact space listening to the Utopia, whilst strings are more enveloping on the Susvara. Tambourines are more present on the Utopia and Yoni Wolf’s vocals are also more forward. Wood block hits are more compact and snappy. Overall the sound is sharper and more compact on the Utopia, and more expansive and inviting on the Susvara.

Stepping into Dave Brubeck – Take Five, the Utopia is tighter with greater impact on drums, but a bit hard sounding compared to the Susvara. The Susvara presents similar detail and shape but the thunderous drum solo in the middle of the track doesn’t have the same violence that the Utopia displays. The Utopia fires off the drum riff like a volley of machine gun fire in a thunderstorm. These are alternative tonal presentations of the same sounds, and both headphones call up the same detail and maintain the same speed. When listening to cymbals the Utopia is a bit more forward with shorter attack and decay. As with the previous track, the stage width and depth are superior on the Susvara.

Diana Krall’s voice smacks with tiny details as her dry mouth draws breath between notes on the Susvara. Little clicks of her tongue percolate to the surface on The Girl In The Other Room. Those same little clicks are there too, on the Utopia. The soundstage is smaller and Diana Krall’s voice is more forward on the Utopia. Cymbals on the Susvara sound soft and smooth compared to the Utopia, whilst not being particularly soft. Upper mid and lower treble percussion is more snappy on the Utopia. Both headphones have a realistic feel.

Outkast – Ms. Jackson has some surprisingly complex mixing, and the Utopia does a modestly better job keeping everything in the complex scene organised and clear. The track can get confusing, and the Focal Utopia keeps up a bit better with the dispersed signal.

Bass test time. Kick it Pac. Bass on the Utopia is tight and controlled on Troublesome ’96. Such a groovy bassline. Never gets old, especially when listening on such stellar headphones. The snare drum retains the violence observed on other tracks. There’s a touch more texture in the bass on the Susvara. It’s actually revealing some unpleasant distortion artifacts in the bass. It’s harder to listen to than the Utopia. The bass is cleaner, without distortion showing up as much in the bass on the Utopia. The bass line has more weight. The distortion is still there, but it isn’t as clear on the Utopia. Piano has nice delicacy on the Susvara. On Max Richter – Dream 1 (before the wind blows it all away) the Utopia goes impressively deep and handles the power of the bass piano notes, including the low sub-bass notes with nice gravity. The Susvara is richer with more developed bass texture. It goes just as deep but gives more texture and amplitude in the lower sub-bass while being a bit less impactful in the upper sub-bass. The sub-bass on the Susvara has more rumble than the Utopia. I don’t have measurements, but I would guess that the Susvara has more energy between 10Hz and 40Hz than the Utopia, but the Utopia has more energy between 40Hz and 60Hz. The structure of the bass notes is just a bit different. The Utopia has a more clean and precise sound, while the Susvara is deep with natural sounding linearity. I think while the Susvara has more rumble, the clarity of the Utopia bass puts it on par.

When I reviewed the Susvara, I found that a bright interconnect, the Wire On Wire Experience 680, gave the Susvara that bit more detail throughout the spectrum, but added a touch of fatigue. The Experience 680 made the Utopia sound harder with some tones entering into harsh territory, it was not an ideal pairing. I think that both headphones have quite a bit of potential for synergy with different set-ups. I think if I put the Wire On Wire Experience 680 back in with the Utopia, the distance between the two headphones will be larger as the synergy with the Susvara of the Experience 680 is excellent (and can be tuned to drop out the tiny bit of fatigue on the pairing). As is, with the Vertere Acoustics D-Fi XLR to RCA interconnects they are fairly close. The Vertere Acoustics softens the Utopia somewhat, and I think it is doing the same to the Susvara. When I put the Wire on Wire Experience 680 back in with the Susvara, the Susvara burns up the quarter mile and takes those pink slips. Instrument separation is on par or better, complex passages are handled with the same intricacy as the Utopia. The sound is more natural than the Utopia. The bass detail is substantially better than the Utopia with some serious rumble. The soundstage is still superior on the Susvara.


For long-term listening, the Susvara is more comfortable from an ergonomic and listening fatigue perspective. The more impactful sound of the Utopia, whilst engaging, can also be fatiguing. It will get your toes tapping like mad and your head banging or grooving (as is appropriate to your choice of music), but not for as long as the Susvara. I think the Utopia has a hair more detailed and precise sound, but the Susvara has more linearly extended bass and a significantly larger sound stage. I find the sonic portraiture of the Utopia to be vibrantly engaging, whilst the Susvara is more neutral and absorbing. The Susvara lets you melt into the sound a bit more than the Utopia, which demands your ears stand at attention for the next spat of violence.

Cable Pairings
Headphone cables
The stock cable is a good heavy-duty cable. It’s just too darn long. It has right and left sides, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing as the markers are in faintly imprinted small impressions on the rubber strain relief of the Lemo connectors. There is no colour coding for right and left and no physical cues. Focal clearly didn’t expect that people would disconnect the cable often. That’s actually a pretty reasonable assumption. How reviewers interact with gear is not at all normal.

Cables were volume matched using an SPL meter. Volume matching on the same open headphone between amps and cables is consistent. The amp was the XIAUDIO Formula S. There was no volume difference between the Atlas Zeno (£250-£300, couldn’t find price with Lemo connectors) and the Vertere Acoustics Pulse HB (£1400). Both the Zeno and the Pulse HB used dual 3-pin XLR connectors. The connectors on the Zeno appear to be silver, whilst the Pulse HB uses gold-plated brass.

The switching time was substantial as the Lemo connectors are right bastards to deal with if you want to switch between setups quickly. They need to be flawlessly aligned and they have little spring-loaded rings that are a bit finicky. I didn’t have two Focal Utopias on hand, so I did the best that I could switching between them, but the time lag means that you have to trust my hearing and hearing memory over my process, so take any observations salted to taste.

To be honest, given the cables that I’m working with, I just don’t have confidence that my memory is good enough. I did repeated switches back and forth between the Zeno and the Pulse HB, but my observations were inconsistent, which in the absence of any other evidence is reason to conclude that it is likely that the sonic difference between the cables is either non-existent, or tiny. If I had to say anything about sonic differences with low confidence it would be that the Pulse HB sounds a bit drier.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]
Atlas Zeno, Utopia cable champion in this review[/caption]

From a build quality standpoint, both the cables are beefy, with very nice looking build quality. The Pulse HB is a bit tougher looking, and has chunky-super-heavy-why-am-I-so-damned-heavy-because-it-screams-premium XLR connectors. They are stupidly heavy. They do not need to be this heavy. This is silly. The Atlas Zeno has normal weight 3-pin XLRs, which is to say lightweight. The Vertere Acoustics XLRs use the right and left labelling on the strain reliefs to tell you which way is up on the 3-pin XLR connectors, while the Atlas Zeno uses the screw to show you which side is up. I found that the Vertere Acoustics way of marking was harder to use than the Atlas method. The right and left indicators are potentially covered by your hand when you are inserting the XLR, while the screw on the Atlas connectors is not. I like ergonomic and well thought out designs. Neutrik XLRs use imprinted branding to show which way is up on their jacks. Clearly, the best place to mark which way is up on an XLR is to do so on the upper half of the connector, the part you are looking at when you insert it.



The Pulse HB has beefier wires, but this probably doesn’t matter too much to the Utopia, as it is relatively easy to drive, so doesn’t need a bigger highway, so to speak. I think that this might not be the case with the Susvara if I were try the Pulse HB for it. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a Pulse HB terminated for the Susvara on hand. As is, I’m not hearing a significant enough difference between the Pulse HB and the Atlas Zeno to put forth any substantial claims with the Vertere Acoustics DFi interconnects running in-between the CMA600i and the Formula S. This would mean that spending £1400 for the Vertere Acoustics Pulse HB cable is likely not justified for the Focal Utopia. The Atlas Zeno does an excellent job at substantially less money and doesn’t have paperweights at the end of each wire.

Interconnects
But what about with the aforementioned Wire on Wire Experience 680 interconnect? I found that the sound was more revealing and more bright with this pairing, on any headphone cable connected. Listening to Kate Bush – Running up that Hill the sound was immediately much more detailed and impactful than the Vertere Acoustics DFi. When the thunderous drums come in, the Vertere Acoustics DFi sounds more distant while also having less overall depth. The noise floor of the recording is also more apparent on the Wire on Wire Experience 680. The Experience 680 also makes the Utopia more fatiguing, so with the Utopia, I prefer the Vertere Acoustics DFi interconnect over the Experience 680 in default setting. It should be noted that the Experience 680 can be tuned by adding spacers and that the spacers basically tune treble presence (see impressions from Indulgence Show 2017), but without having two of the cable, I wouldn’t be able to make reliable comparisons at home.

Specifications
Specifications
Price $4000
Driver type 40mm pure Beryllium dynamic driver
Impedance 80Ω
Sensitivity 104dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz
THD <0.2% @ 1kHz / 100dB SPL
Frequency Response 5Hz – 50kHz
Weight 490g (17.28oz)
Accessories 3M 6.35mm single-ended OFC cable terminated with Lemo connectors (balanced wire configuration, single ended termination), padded display box, manual and warranty cards


Acknowledgment
Thank you Matt, at SCV distribution, for supplying a Utopia on loan. I really wanted to compare this to the Susvara, you made it happen. The opinions expressed in this review are my own and in no way influenced by SCV distribution or anyone else.

Conclusions
The Utopia has outstanding instrument separation and stage depth, but limited stage width and height. The Utopia has excellent frequency extension with sub-bass notes driving deep, and highs well extended. The bass extension on the Utopia, while impressive is not as linear as the HiFiMAN Susvara. The Utopia falls a bit short of the Susvara in technical performance (stage, frequency linearity) and signature neutrality. The Utopia is less natural sounding than the HiFiMAN HE-1000 v2. Both HiFiMAN sets are more comfortable than the Utopia.

I found that the Utopia was sensitive to interconnect changes in my set-up. The Wire On Wire Experience 680 made the Utopia sound hard and a bit harsh, leading to relatively quick fatigue. This same pairing with the Susvara is bright, but not overly fatiguing and gives more resolution and texture throughout the frequency spectrum. With a softer, smoother interconnect like the Vertere Acoustics D-Fi, the Utopias more emphatic tendencies were tamed somewhat.

The Utopia is a technically proficient headphone that gets deep into details on tracks and is very engaging to listen to. Sometimes it borders on too engaging. While I enjoy the Susvara and the HE-1000 v2 more, as I prefer a more organic neutral sound, I could easily see preference going the other way. I don’t think the Utopia is the best headphone under $50k for me, but it is a spectacular headphone that will put a smile on your face and keep your toes tapping.



Rating Disclaimer: ratings are subjective. Audio quality and value do not mean the same thing across all prices. A headphone with a 5 rating on audio at $5 does not have equivalent sound quality as a 5 rating at $500. Likewise, value at $5 is not the same as value at $5000 dollars.

Comments

Utopia has great hifi quality, but it sounds some how "thick" to my taste. Any one has the same feeling?
 
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