Focal Utopia - not a fan, am I nuts or missing something?
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theMillerdave

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Update: I was wrong

In my search for endgame cans, I recently picked up a pair of Focal Utopia from a local Head-Fi'er - having seen the glowing reviews of them being touted as a top contended for the finest pair of headphones, I was quite confident I would be in for an other-worldly listening experience... at the very least, I would have expected there to be a noticeable improvement over the other phones I have in my collection (currently: ZMF Atticus with mag chassis, Audeze LCD-2 Closed Backs, Campfire Andromeda v2, Campfire Orion CK, Campfire Nova, HiFiMan HE4XX (with a pair of HE560s on the way), MrSpeakers Aeon Flow Closed, and a few others not worth mentioning). If my title wasn't enough of a giveaway, I am underwhelmed, disappointed, and baffled - as it seems I am alone would choose any of the aforementioned cans over these in every (sonic) aspect.

I'm sure those more educated in the nuances of sound and equipment will have loads of follow-up questions and suggestions if I stopped there, and I wholly expect a ton of scathing comments criticizing my sophomoric acumen and inability to use the proper terminology and/or completeness in describing what I feel to be obvious shortcomings of these top-of-the-line headphones by arguably one of the best companies in the game.... but I will do my best - please be gentle.

First off - how am I driving these, and what am I listening to?
Audio: FLAC lossless 2ch audio from my Macs (2019 15" MBP, 2018 Mac Mini) running Pure Music as well as on my DX200. My test track recently has been "Time" on the latest album "03.15.20" by Childish Gambino, but I have also listened to some Caravan Palace (the Robot album), Goldfish, Justice, Rage Against the Machine, Pearl Jam, Sam Cooke, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Kendrick Lamar, Biggie Smalls, Mark Ronson, Adele, Trombone Shorty, Rebirth Brass band, Mingus, Monk, Coltrane - music from basically every genre I listen to (which is almost everything except Country and Classical)​
DAC: I have tried both my relatively new Schiit Modius (dual 3-pin XLR balanced connection out) as well as a Music Streamer III (RCA out) on my Macs, and the iBasso DX200 built-in DAC​
Amp: I've got a Drop x Cavalli Liquid Carbon X (with the balanced dual XLR coming from he Modius), and a Schiit Asgard 2 (being fed over RCA from the Music Streamer III)​
Cable: Cardas Audio 1/4" SE with genuine LEMO FGG.0B.302 connectors (the cable alone goes for what "normal" people would consider spending on an entire rig)​
Ok, so what don't I like about the Utopia
I can't at all complain about build quality, comfort, or aesthetics (given I don't complain about the gargantuan anchors that are the LCD-2 Closed Backs, comfort is unlikely) - so my focus will solely be on sound.​
The Utopia claim to have a flat / reference response. If that is the case, there is something wrong with my ears, as I do not hear enough low end, and the high-end sounds shrill, distorted, and entirely too pronounced.​
Sure, I understand these are high-impedance headphones that demand a beefy amp, but with the high-gain setting on both of my (arguably capable) amps - I hear what I can only describe as clipping / distorted peaking in the mid-to-high treble frequencies at every volume level, and the low-end just seems to be lacking in presence (worth mentioning, and this might be indicative that I need a better amp: the Liquid Carbon X **** itself and turns off if I turn the dial past the half-way point - the Asgard doesn't struggle, but has the same sonic flaws).​
Putting on even the entry-level HE4XX gives me what I feel to be a more even treatment across the spectrum (perhaps I'm a bass-head, but that doesn't account for the cringe-worthy highs)​

Yeah, so, what do I want to know?
Am I alone in my distaste for the Focal sound? (I am assuming it is intentional and characteristic of these Francocans)​
Are my ears just shot to the point that I am missing subtlety, crave more bass because I can't hear, and/or listen to my tunes too loud?​
I use balanced cables almost exclusively for my other headphones, and have yet to get/make one for the Utopia - don't tell me it could possibly be THAT simple of a fix. Could it?​
Am I just a moron for thinking top-of-the-line Z-rated tires will never get the same performance on a Buick as on a Porsche (even if I'm driving them both the same way using the least-common denominator)? This of course is an analogy in reference to my relatively pedestrian (Buick) amps​
Is this merely a subjective assessment / opinion of the "Focal Sound" where I happen to deviate from the majority?​
Thanks folks, I am really looking forward to the discussion that follows (regardless of whether I take action to become happier with them or happier without them)
 
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Focux

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Hated them and much preferred Auteur a few years back

Tried them again earlier this year and now they are my number one ranked performer (excluding comfort which is subjective)

then again, this entire hobby along with most are typically subjective..

most importantly, prioritise what you like hearing and enjoy; happy listening :)
 
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theMillerdave

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Hated them and much preferred Auteur a few years back

Tried them again earlier this year and now they are my number one ranked performer (excluding comfort which is subjective)

then again, this entire hobby along with most are typically subjective..

most importantly, prioritise what you like hearing and enjoy; happy listening :)
So far, I am struggling to find something I like better than the ZMF soundstage, clarity, and warmth. I was more shocked at my distaste for them given the caliber/price point and general consensus on performance (which I think you've echoed in your second assesment) than anything else. Perhaps my expectations were unrealistic?
 
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loregnum

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I have not heard them but you're not the only one that doesn't like them or Focals in general. We're all different and we hear different, so you're not nuts, especially since audio is very subjective.
 
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Lucky87

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Awesome explanation and I agree to a certain point. When I first received my pair I was using the current Schiit Yggy and a Audio gD Master 9 amp and I hated them. I felt that they were very shouty small sound stage just too much of everything coming at you in sound so I was ready to sell them asap but waited . About a week later my new HoloAudio Spring LVL 2 KTE came in along with the Feliks Euforia OTL AMP, and Violectric V281. And all I can say is my opinion changed within a couple hours after the new gear. They went from a in your face headphone to a never want to put them down one. What I noticed with some AMPS & DACS when listening to the song you can hear many instruments in the song playing but when you start to A&B them you will hear instruments sound flat and boring like a basic piano strike can ruin the song. Not with the V281 or Euforia all instruments come through with authority giving you a more realistic or live sound. To me this is what I saw in the overall sound stage of the Utopias, it gave them a way better placement of the song. Then I finally found the “HOLY GRAIL” to my Utopias which is Chord Dave > Euforia 4 x Gold Lion KT88 > Utopias with Norne Audio 8 silver wire = HEAVEN and I listen to almost everything you listed above Notorious B.I.G. the sound wraps around your head like you have your own private concert in front of you. The instruments are perfectly placed and each of them come through with authority now with the singer right in front of you.
So basically like all audio gear they need to have a good energy with other components to make them shine. Like you said
 
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You didnot like it doesnot mean the others doesnot like it too, yeah you're not crazy, in this hobby pricier and well reviewed doesnot mean better too and guarantee that youre gonna like it.

Dont get too salty on hype and praise, as for myself, i dont like zmf sound at all, i preffered another cheaper cans instead, however ZMF built quality and service is so good, maybe someday i will give them another chance.

I can understand why you like zmf sound more, just enjoy what you like and best for you.
 
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Terriero

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Awesome explanation and I agree to a certain point. When I first received my pair I was using the current Schiit Yggy and a Audio gD Master 9 amp and I hated them. I felt that they were very shouty small sound stage just too much of everything coming at you in sound so I was ready to sell them asap but waited . About a week later my new HoloAudio Spring LVL 2 KTE came in along with the Feliks Euforia OTL AMP, and Violectric V281. And all I can say is my opinion changed within a couple hours after the new gear. They went from a in your face headphone to a never want to put them down one. What I noticed with some AMPS & DACS when listening to the song you can hear many instruments in the song playing but when you start to A&B them you will hear instruments sound flat and boring like a basic piano strike can ruin the song. Not with the V281 or Euforia all instruments come through with authority giving you a more realistic or live sound. To me this is what I saw in the overall sound stage of the Utopias, it gave them a way better placement of the song. Then I finally found the “HOLY GRAIL” to my Utopias which is Chord Dave > Euforia 4 x Gold Lion KT88 > Utopias with Norne Audio 8 silver wire = HEAVEN and I listen to almost everything you listed above Notorious B.I.G. the sound wraps around your head like you have your own private concert in front of you. The instruments are perfectly placed and each of them come through with authority now with the singer right in front of you.
So basically like all audio gear they need to have a good energy with other components to make them shine. Like you said
Your post remembered me something that the forum member MacedonianHero wrote in T1 v3 thread:

https://www.head-fi.org/threads/beyerdynamic-t1-3rd-gen-out-now.938562/page-28#post-15846859

" Flagship headphones should be considered the start of a journey...not the end as they will more than likely reveal issues in your setup. But they should reward you as well as you improve your upfront setup."
 
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So far, I am struggling to find something I like better than the ZMF soundstage, clarity, and warmth. I was more shocked at my distaste for them given the caliber/price point and general consensus on performance (which I think you've echoed in your second assesment) than anything else. Perhaps my expectations were unrealistic?
You can try something like HEKSE if you like wide and expansive stage, Abyss is probably able to provide more clarity and stage as well
 
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The Utopia claim to have a flat / reference response. If that is the case, there is something wrong with my ears, as I do not hear enough low end, and the high-end sounds shrill, distorted, and entirely too pronounced.
To some, it is a reference response that's neutral (Crinacle is one example of this). For others, they find the Utopia's tuning is too bright and is thin on bass impact. It seems you're in the latter camp and that is perfectly fine since people vary in treble sensitivity.

Sure, I understand these are high-impedance headphones that demand a beefy amp, but with the high-gain setting on both of my (arguably capable) amps - I hear what I can only describe as clipping / distorted peaking in the mid-to-high treble frequencies at every volume level, and the low-end just seems to be lacking in presence (worth mentioning, and this might be indicative that I need a better amp: the Liquid Carbon X **** itself and turns off if I turn the dial past the half-way point - the Asgard doesn't struggle, but has the same sonic flaws).
I suspect this is the Liquid Carbon X contributing to what you hear as clipping or distorted peaks in the midrange and treble frequencies. Either that, or there is something possibly faulty with the drivers your Utopia has as I have not seen such reports of clipping or distortion for these frequencies. I mainly see the bass clipping design issue, but at extremely loud volume levels and not on normal listening levels.

Am I alone in my distaste for the Focal sound? (I am assuming it is intentional and characteristic of these Francocans)
I would say no. There are others who dislike the Focal house sound and describe them as 'metallic'. I'm not one of them though.

On the other hand, there are also those who dislike the Utopia, but like the Clear. So really, it varies from person to person.

I use balanced cables almost exclusively for my other headphones, and have yet to get/make one for the Utopia - don't tell me it could possibly be THAT simple of a fix. Could it?
Unlikely IMO.

What you've discovered with this post is that the Utopia is not one headphone you enjoy. It doesn't necessarily mean you'd dislike their other offerings (Stellia, Clear, Elegia, Elear/Elex), nor dislike the Focal 'house sound'. Since you already like different models from Hifiman, Audeze and MrSpeakers (DCA), you could explore their higher-end offerings and you might find them closer to meeting your preferred tuning and technicalities.

TOTL gear is really the highest form of subjectivity, mixed with the furthest point in the law of diminishing returns curve.
 
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I've never heard the Utopia, but I decided to buy the Clears because much of what I read basically drew the same conclusions as you. The Utopia is extremely resolving, but its sound is extremely analytical as a result. They make for an excellent audiophile experience listening to music in a way you have never heard before, but the sound can become too much after a while. The Clear, while not quite as resolving, tames the harsh treble response and provides a more balanced listening experience.
 
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I've never heard Focal's Utopia and probably never will. Someone who owns headphones like the ZMF Atticus and LCD-2 closed enters a completely different environment from these bass enhanced hard slam headphones. The Utopia follows the usual frequency response for flagships: flat (as possible for a dynamic) bass/mid-range with an increase in treble about 2-3kHz. So coming from your other headphones this is going to sound bass light and trebly which initially doesn't please. The aim of the Utopia will be via advanced driver tech/acoustics to get out of the way (and resolve alot) so you're hearing your recordings good or bad. Whereas this is not the aim with the Atticus etc, they want to enhance and colour the recordings ultimately resulting in lower overall sound quality which this is the exchange for elevated bass 'fun' type of sound signature. Spend a week listening to only the Utopias. All the intrigue, spectacle is in (or not) the recording. After that listen to your ZMF/LCD 2, they will seem like bass only headphones. It's a choice between high grade boredom or lower grade 'fun'.
 
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My only experience with the Focal house sound so far has been with the Elegia.

They build a beautiful headphone; world class industrial design and engineering. The single best unboxing experience I've ever had with a headphone. Literally oozing quality.

Sadly, the tuning is terrible, the cable is worse, and it seems the higher up the range you go it's just more of the same. I want to love them; they're beautiful and comfortable, but my pair are likely just one in a huge incoming glut of used going back to Adorama in the next couple weeks.
 
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The Liquid Carbon is meant to be used with the Balanced output, the Single Ended output is there for convenience. You get double or more power from the Balanced connector, hence the auto shutoff when pushed too hard in Single Ended mode.

You can hear clipping when pushing headphones too far on Single Ended mode, that won’t be there when using the Balanced output.
 
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Sure, I understand these are high-impedance headphones that demand a beefy amp, but with the high-gain setting on both of my (arguably capable) amps - I hear what I can only describe as clipping / distorted peaking in the mid-to-high treble frequencies at every volume level, and the low-end just seems to be lacking in presence (worth mentioning, and this might be indicative that I need a better amp:
Utopia is pretty picky with sources/amps despite it being "easy" to drive. Best amp I've heard the Utopia with was with tube amps like the Woo WA33 Elite or the 2A3 SET amp like the DNA Stellaris Special
 
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Many thanks for everyone's input - it has definitely reinforced what I was assuming is the case: with better amplification (and it sounds like I gotta reach for the stars), I'll come to appreciate the intricacies of these cans - but that's not to say I won't still find them "metallic" or prefer the lower end "fun" of my bass-thumpers over the high-end "boredom" in the reference sound that comes from the Utopia.

I must say, I have learned much reading everyone's comments, and I probably have more questions for you all individually (and damn, there are some great quotes here from you folks - I knew I could count on you Head-Fi'ers to school me without making me feel like an idiot - dig it). All-in all, I have a couple of interesting trade offers, but I am now leaning towards upping my amp game and giving them another chance before I write them off as not my cup of tea.
 
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