Focal Elear and Utopia Review / Preview With Measurements - Head-Fi TV
Aug 14, 2016 at 2:49 PM Post #1,936 of 5,630

Hansotek

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  Very good writeup and thank you for the time you have taken doing this. I have never been crazy about the HD650 but balanced, I find them to be an excellent value to to me, they sound totally different getting rid of the overly warm sound and everything tightens up. But this is about the Elear and I wonder how they sound balanced. 
 
You are also going to right on impressions of the Utopia? 

 
Yep. Doing that right now. I would have loved to have heard them balanced, too. It would have been interesting to hear both Focals out of the Questyle Golden reference stack in dual mono mode.
 
Aug 14, 2016 at 3:24 PM Post #1,937 of 5,630

FLTWS

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Focal Elear Micro Review/Impressions
Have we met before?
... Mids – Thick and robust seem like the appropriate words here. Definitely bears a resemblance to that same syrupy sound as the HD650 throughout this range. I feel like I am in a rare, rare minority here, but there is something about the HD650’s mids that my ears find to be very fatiguing. It’s like a shoutyness with an emphasis on the lowest end of the “shouty” range. It honestly gives me an earache, and for that reason I cannot stand the HD650 or the Elear. That being said, I only know of a tiny handful of people who experience this issue. Most folks will probably find the Elear’s mids lush, romantic, relaxing and non-fatiguing.
...
 

 
"Shouty" in the midrange is the perfect descriptor of a kind of distortion I have a hard time living with any component. Especially as the volume goes up per the music. I can be forgiving of some deep bass issues and brightness or softness in the highs, but if the midrange ain't right nothing else matters. It can also be a very recording dependent characteristic as well as something that can be introduced in the electronic chain.
 
Aug 14, 2016 at 6:14 PM Post #1,939 of 5,630

Hansotek

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Focal Utopia Impressions
You magnificent, expensive bastard.
 
Look, there are no two ways about it, I’m absolutely in LOVE with this headphone. Really, I can’t stress enough how close Focal has come here to touching perfection. Of all the uber-priced flagships (HD800S, Ether Flow, HEK, SR-009, LCD-4, Abyss) this one might very well be my favorite. At the very least, it is less demanding in terms of getting optimal sound. A perfectly fitted, perfectly amped Abyss or an SR-009 through the Blue Hawaii can probably take it out, but that is a whole new level of investment, probably to the tune of $5k. It certainly gives you a lot to think about if you are forking out top dollar for the best of the best. But for now, let’s just focus on the magnificent package that is the Utopia.
 
 
Bass – This is where the rubber meets the road for me. As a long-time bassist myself, I cannot stand when the timbre, clarity, impact or rumble are off. I need fast, tight bass that will both engage me emotionally and give me lots of insight into the range. IMO, the Utopia delivers in spades. The bass was super clean with very nice impact and it delivered a very satisfying punch when called upon. I only listened to it through my Cavalli Liquid Crimson, which does veer a little on the warm side, so note that caveat, but I’d give it a perfect 10/10 based on my subjective preferences.*
 
*Note that I feel there is more than one way to earn a perfect “10/10” in bass presentation. It is not a cookie cutter sound. The Utopia is one of seven headphones I would consider a perfect 10 in bass. Others are: Abyss, HE-6, LCD-4, TH900, HD800 (very well amped) and the pre-fazor LCD-2.2.
 
 
Mids – The clarity here is absolutely top notch. Only well amped HD800’s and electrostatics offer this stunning level of resolution and articulation. I’m not even sure those other headphones get there. The Utopia offers supreme detail in every way shape and form, along with very strong dynamics. I heard separation on muti-part harmonies that I’ve only heard on the very best of the best.
 
My only area of criticism here would be that they lacked some of the emotion that you get sometimes out of some planars (and for me, a really well amped HD800). I (thankfully) did not feel the need to repress any man-tears while listening to the Utopia at the meet. This may change however, on a really emotionally expressive amp like the Stratus. Can’t say for certain, as I only heard it on my Liquid Crimson (which is still pretty darn expressive!).
 
Aside from that though, I felt the mids really did no wrong. No odd tonal colorations, very accurate timbre, good body in the lower mids, and great edge & crunch on guitars in the upper mids. The Utopia is definitely a benchmark performer. FWIW, the only headphone I have ever heard nail both the emotion and the aggressive guitar crunch was a well-amped HE-6. Overall, I’d say the mids are about a 9.8/10 in my book.
 
 
Treble – As much praise as I’ve heaped on to the headphone so far, the treble is, without a doubt, my favorite single part of the frequency range. I wouldn’t change a single thing about the treble. I am the type of person who likes a little sparkle and a lot of air in my treble. I don’t want sibilance or stridence, but if a headphone plays it too safe, I just can’t engage with the headphone emotionally. I just can’t do it. I’ll say it flat out: the Utopia nails this balance better than any headphone I have heard to date. It takes you right up to the cusp before it gets to be too much and then stops at that line dead in its tracks. Like, 99.99999% of the way to the line.
 
Treble presentation is a very personal thing, and for some people, maybe the Utopia will be too much. I don’t know, but I haven’t heard anybody complain about it being harsh yet. It just seems to resolve all of those ugly distortions into music before they are able to cross the line. I apologize if I am starting to gush, but this was my favorite part of the Utopia, and if I were to point out one single aspect that I believe it does better than any other headphone it would be the treble (well, that and the overall frequency balance, which I’ll talk about more at the end). 10/10 easily. This is the new benchmark for treble, in my very humble opinion. Please note the above caveat that I only listened to it on one amplifier, which tends to be a little warm (The Cavalli Liquid Crimson) and everybody has different treble sensitivity, so YMMV.
 
 
Soundstage & Imaging – This is one area where I have a little bit of criticism, however, please note that the headphone was basically right out of the box and did not have the benefit of much burn-in. Soundstage, in my experience, always changes with burn-in, so take my comments with a grain of salt here.
 
I did feel that the soundstage was a bit “in your head”, lacking some frontal depth, especially. It seemed to reach a little farther forward out to the left and right hand side than it did in the center. Center stage felt a bit closer in terms of depth. This is probably something that clears up with burn-in, as I’ve heard the same oddity before from a brand-new-out-of-the-box Abyss and it went away completely after 30 or 40 hours. Still, without confirmation otherwise, I’ll just note it here and potential buyers reading this can conduct their own research on the topic.
 
Soundstage width was pretty decent. Above average without being elite. As I said before with the Elear, I don’t think it is something you’ll hear many people complaining about. I’d be perfectly satisfied with it personally. Overall, I’d probably rate it a 7/10 or so.
 
Imaging was very sharp left to right and up and down. This is helped out even further by the obnoxiously good instrument separation. There is no obfuscation of any kind. Everything is clear as a bell, and the best part is that it is all delivered with supreme musicality. I never got the feeling of things coming across in an “analytical” sense, which can happen occasionally with the HD800 and SR009. While most headphones are either music first or analysis first, the Utopia delivers both simultaneously with equal aplomb. I did note the issue with depth above, and without knowing for sure whether that is an inherent issue or a burn-in artifact, I’ll call the imaging about an 8/10 overall.
 
In terms of overall performance in spatial categories, I’d say it is well above average and certainly flagship worthy, but a little short of falling into the elite category with headphones like the HD800, Abyss, LCD-4, etc.
 
 
Build Quality – This has been said time and time again by everyone who has reviewed this headphone, so I’m not going to beat it into the ground again. The build quality, fit, finish, comfort and aesthetic design of the headphone are best-in-class. When many of the flagship headphones are awkward, odd-fitting, or even downright alien looking, Focal really crafted something here that is elegant, sophisticated and ergonomic. The build is tough and solid and the look is just downright beautiful.
 
I will make a remark on the weight, since that seems to be a big question. Yes, they are heavy, but as many have said before, the weight is extremely well distributed. I did not get any hot spots, and while I certainly didn’t forget it was on my head, I never felt uncomfortable or awkward with it. Everybody has been heaping praise on the build, and I’m not going to tell you any different. This is one really nice headphone.
 
 
Value – Boy, this is a tough one, isn’t it? $4,000. Ouch. Am I annoyed that this headphone is so freakin’ amazing and costs so dang much? Of course! But that is an unfair position, to a degree. The only way to fairly evaluate it is to answer if it is a good value relative to other high-priced headphone options in the market, so that’s what I’m going to do.
 
Please note that the following section is completely subjective and written to reflect my humble personal opinion only. Your mileage and personal values may vary greatly. Please know that I am just trying to provide you with the most honest insight possible so you can decide whether or not it is worth your time to try the Utopia. Also, note I own two headphones on this list, so don’t flame me if your headphone is on here. :)
 
Which is the better value?
 
Vs. Abyss ($5,450) – The Utopia is the better value here. The Abyss has the ability to sound better and scale higher, but requires a perfect fit and an expensive chain to do so. The Utopia wins major points on ergonomics and ease of use.
 
Vs. LCD-4 ($3,999) – Subjective. This depends heavily on the sound you are looking for and the dreaded production variation that Audeze is known for. The Utopia again wins big points on ergonomics, and I think many people would prefer it.
 
Vs. SR-009 ($3,849) – Utopia, IMHO, unless you already own a high-end electrostatic amp. It’s very difficult to beat the SR-009/Blue Hawaii combo, but that is double the investment of the Utopia/Crimson combo I listened to yesterday, and at the end of the day, it will still be pretty subjective.
 
Vs. HE1000 ($2,999) – Utopia, all day. It has been pretty well documented that I’m not a big HEK fan, so YMMV, but I don’t think these two are even close.
 
Vs. Ether Flow ($1,799) – Ether Flow. I think we’ve all accepted by now that 2x the price will never equal 2x the performance, but the Ether Flow has a very high price to performance ratio even at $1,799. If you’re looking for dollar for dollar value, it will give you more for your money, even though the Utopia is a bit better overall.
 
Vs. HD800/HD800S ($999 & $1,799, respectively) – Subjective. The Sennheisers can be scaled up to reach a suitably competitive level, but you are looking at a $5k-$6k investment in premium amps and DACs to do so. You can likely get better (and more predictable) results with a Utopia and a slightly more modest rig. In the end, the savings of investing in the Sennheisers will probably be way less than you think.
 
In terms of the final value judgment, I leave it up to you to decide.
 
 
Overall – The entire review so far has really been leading up to this next point I’m about to make here. Every other headphone I have ever heard has at least some kind of tonal weakness. Some kind of sacrifice for the greater good. Treble that’s a little to sharp or dull. Bass that’s a little too light or thick. There is always something, right?
 
This is where the Utopia has broken the mold. In terms of tonal balance, in my humble opinion, the Utopia is the first one to get it truly, truly right. This is the reference. The benchmark. The real deal. It receives top marks from me in every frequency range and they are blended together seamlessly into a masterfully cohesive package. I absolutely love it.
 
Now, I will say the new Ether Flow does offer very, very near top performance across all of these categories as well, and may be a more palatable option for those of us with more earthly budgets. I know I certainly can’t afford to go buy a Utopia at the moment. But I am not here to wave a finger of scorn at the pricing of flagship headphones. I am just here to offer my honest opinion. Relative to other top performers, it absolutely holds its own in terms of value in the flagship category.
 
I did have a few odd quibbles about the soundstage, and I’d like to hear one that is fully burned-in to judge for sure, but in the end, that unbelievable musical tone wins out above all else for me. If you have the opportunity to audition the Utopia for yourself, I’d highly recommend giving it a listen. 
 
Cheers!
beerchug.gif


 
Aug 14, 2016 at 6:21 PM Post #1,940 of 5,630

grizzlybeast

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Thanks for the impressions!!!
 
I agree on a lot of fronts
 
The only thing is that the Utopia has more upper mids than the Elear so balance wise it will be more shouty. I am surprised you like the Utopia mids when it actually has a balance in the midrange closer to the 650 than the Elear does. 
 
Upper midrange presence 650>Utopia>Elear
 
Also the Utopia has a lot more emotion in the midrange than a well amped 800 because it is more present and dynamic. 
 
Aug 14, 2016 at 6:28 PM Post #1,941 of 5,630

Hansotek

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  The only thing is that the Utopia has more upper mids than the Elear so balance wise it will be more shouty. I am surprised you like the Utopia mids when it actually has a balance in the midrange closer to the 650 than the Elear does. 
 
Upper midrange presence 650>Utopia>Elear

 
Just in regard to further enlightening my own comment for you, I haven't identified the specific frequency that causes the irritation. "Shouty" as a negative is being used in the context above to denote a qualitative aspect of the headphone, not a quantitative one. Something in the midrange of the HD650 and the Elear makes my ears hurt. It is likely tied to the unique physiological shape of my ear.
 
Aug 14, 2016 at 6:35 PM Post #1,942 of 5,630

grizzlybeast

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  The only thing is that the Utopia has more upper mids than the Elear so balance wise it will be more shouty. I am surprised you like the Utopia mids when it actually has a balance in the midrange closer to the 650 than the Elear does. 
 
Upper midrange presence 650>Utopia>Elear

 
Just in regard to further enlightening my own comment for you, I haven't identified the specific frequency that causes the irritation. "Shouty" as a negative is being used in the context above to denote a qualitative aspect of the headphone, not a quantitative one. Something in the midrange of the HD650 and the Elear makes my ears hurt. It is likely tied to the unique physiological shape of my ear.

ahh cool. Got it. I have had this experience as well with the 650 and the Utopia did as well to a lesser extent and my vali does. But the 650 gives me the most fatigue there. My hand was always on the dial with it but at the same time I loved its balance the most and the quantity sounds right to me so I listen at lower volumes on the 650.
 
Aug 14, 2016 at 6:40 PM Post #1,943 of 5,630

FLTWS

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@Hansotek
 
Move over Tyll...  Excellent read, well structured and to the point(s). I'm more than anxious now to hear the Utopia. I still love the 800 I auditioned for a week and will probably get one just because of the every now and then magic tricks it performs with my ears with my classical CD's.
 
I still want to audition the 800S, and HE1000 just so I can say to myself I did give them a listen after I (probably) plunk down my money on the Utopia.
 
Sennheiser (HD800) meets Focal, Valhalla meets Utopia.
 
Thanks for a job well done on a difficult assignment with both Focal's.
 
Aug 14, 2016 at 6:47 PM Post #1,944 of 5,630

Hansotek

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@Hansotek


Move over Tyll...  Excellent read, well structured and to the point(s). I'm more than anxious now to hear the Utopia. I still love the 800 I auditioned for a week and will probably get one just because of the every now and then magic tricks it performs with my ears with my classical CD's.

I still want to audition the 800S, and HE1000 just so I can say to myself I did give them a listen after I (probably) plunk down my money on the Utopia.

Senn HD800 meets Focal, Valhalla meets Utopia.

Thanks for a job well done on a difficult assignment with both Focal's.


Haha, thanks dude. I appreciate the high praise! Just trying to help where I can. :)
 
Aug 14, 2016 at 8:14 PM Post #1,945 of 5,630

mithrandir38

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Thanks for the impressions!!!

I agree on a lot of fronts

The only thing is that the Utopia has more upper mids than the Elear so balance wise it will be more shouty. I am surprised you like the Utopia mids when it actually has a balance in the midrange closer to the 650 than the Elear does. 

Upper midrange presence 650>Utopia>Elear

Also the Utopia has a lot more emotion in the midrange than a well amped 800 because it is more present and dynamic. 
have you heard either one yet? The Utopia most definitely is a less "Shouty" then the Elear. The utopia is virtually never in your face, FR-wise. I think this is one case where going just by the measurements can be very misleading unless you actually heard them.
 
Aug 14, 2016 at 8:36 PM Post #1,946 of 5,630

grizzlybeast

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Thanks for the impressions!!!

I agree on a lot of fronts

The only thing is that the Utopia has more upper mids than the Elear so balance wise it will be more shouty. I am surprised you like the Utopia mids when it actually has a balance in the midrange closer to the 650 than the Elear does. 

Upper midrange presence 650>Utopia>Elear

Also the Utopia has a lot more emotion in the midrange than a well amped 800 because it is more present and dynamic. 

have you heard either one yet? The Utopia most definitely is a less "Shouty" then the Elear. The utopia is virtually never in your face, FR-wise. I think this is one case where going just by the measurements can be very misleading unless you actually heard them.

I have had both in house and at a meet thanks to Jason at the Source
 
The Utopia has more upper mids. The Elear is not shouty based on frequency balance. What I hear goes along with measurements. I am by the way not calling the Utopia shouty. Nor am I calling the HD650 shouty. But if someone is calling the Elear shouty then the Utopia would in theory be more shouty. 
 
He clarified though that its not quantity but quality. 
 
Aug 14, 2016 at 9:49 PM Post #1,947 of 5,630

deafdoorknob

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for those looking to DIY or purchase aftermarket cables for Elear:
 
Assuming that Tyll's measurements are correct (NO REASON to doubt Tyll) :
 
this should fit comfortably into the socket http://www.viablue.de/com/phono_plugs_3_5_t6s_small.shtml
 
For a relatively cost effective and reliable ready made SHORTER cable OR a balanced one there are the beyerdynamic cables meant for the T1.2 and T5p2
 
http://europe.beyerdynamic.com/shop/audiophile-connection-cable-1-40-m.html 
http://europe.beyerdynamic.com/shop/connection-cable-audiophile-3m-balanced.html
 
Aug 15, 2016 at 6:34 AM Post #1,949 of 5,630

AxelCloris

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