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Focal Utopia, Sennheiser HD800S & Sennheiser HD800 - all here

Discussion in 'Headphones (full-size)' started by tassie devil, Apr 4, 2017.
  1. Tassie Devil
    Before I comment on them, some caveats:
    1. I'll be 82 later in the year and my hearing has deteriorated BUT I can still tell the difference between good and bad audio in the vital midrange and in the bass - high end treble is no longer appreciated. The hearing problem means music is no longer appreciated via speakers so headphone listening is the priority.
    2. My taste is basically for classical music with appreciation these days more on Chamber, Baroque and Early and less on full orchestral, opera etc but some jazz thrown into the mix.
    3. Music is via Roon, mostly in FLAC format with 96Khz/24 bit the highest resolution at the moment.
    4. The transmission chain is:  Roon -> Auralic Aries -> balanced digital out -> Primare DAC 30 -> HeadRoom Blockhead balanced amp ->  Headphones in balanced mode
    5. After market headphone cords are used.  For the Sennies it is cord purchased from a guy here, for the Focals it is black dragon cable.  Both use Futech 3 pin XLR connectors.
    So how do the three headphones compare?
    The Sennheiser HD800S are an improvement on the HD800 but I would not strongly recommend anyone to ditch the HD800 if there are any financial constraints. The AQ is smoother with the HD800S but whether or not it is worth the extra outlay is a personal decision.
    Comparing the Focals with the HD800S is difficult because the Focals are much more sensitive and this skews AQ interpretation.  Add to this the unreliability of auditory memory, one must be very careful about conclusions.
    But so far I've decided the following:
    1. The HD800S reproduces music which is more laid back with a more relaxed sound space.  The headphones are lighter than the Focals and comfortable.
    2. The Focal Utopias are heavier but still comfortable.  The music via them has a much more clearly defined bass and is more forward and "in your face" with greater resolution than the Sennies.  This reveals itself with a pleasing solid bass line on all types of music and as a more percussive sound with pianos,+ a more refined, less jangly sound with harpsichord.
    However I can see that some people might find the Focals too confronting and prefer the music reproduction to be more laid back so for them they should save their money on less expensive offerings. And the old GIGO applies with a vengeance as the Focals will faithfully reproduce warts and all so are a waste of money if not used with pristine input.  
    But the Focal Utopias get as thumbs up from me and I expect the HD800S will be relegated to other music outlets in the house and to portable play using Sony MP3 players (NW ZX-100, NW - 17, NW - 25, each with 200GB memory card).  I also have a HiFiMan 400S but have not been using it much lately so should put it up for sale.
    But in all this we must bear in mind we all have different brains with attached ears.  Those brains have developed from genetic guidance tempered with experience so no two people, even identical twins, will experience the same reaction to sound.  So what suits one person might not suit another.  It is therefore unintelligent to claim any audio product as the best for everyone.  That said, if the majority of opinion is positive for the likes of the Focal utopia headphones, the odds are most people will like them.  But that does not mean everyone will.  However I do :)
  2. All Day Breakfast
    One of the most intelligent write ups I've read on high end phones. As someone still interested in large orchestral works (Mahler, Bruckner, and their ilke) do the Utopias manage to accurately distinguish the individual musical instruments during complex passages? I'm somewhat frustrated by the inability of high end audio to recreate the concert experience. Thanks.
    Last edited: May 31, 2017
  3. Tassie Devil
    Thank you for the nice comment.

    My take is that the problem with reproducing orchestral sound often sheets back to the recording which is the result of multi microphones fed into mixers with adjustments made by engineers to balance out the sound. So I feel that the result can never be the same as that experienced at a live concert as it lacks both the aura of being part of an audience and can only reproduce a semblance of the ambience of a good hall. That said some recordings come across remarkably well but in general terms it is only smaller groups, particularly chamber, which can be reproduced with conviction. And it cannot be repeated too often that the end points, the headphones, can only reproduce what is fed into them so if there is any garbage from the original recording or any other item in the reproduction chain, then it will be heard very clearly by a high end headphone. GIGO with a vengeance :frowning2:

    However, with the above caveats I do feel that the Focal Utopias are very successful and the best I have experienced. But there is a downside to them which i'm not sure I mentioned before. They are heavier and less comfortable for me than the Sennheiser HD800S. No, I'm not sorry I bought the Focals and will continue to use them in my top end listening post but would advise anyone with limited budgets to approach buying them with care as the Sennies do 95% of the job and a visiting audiophile (who has odd tastes - meant in a nice way) actually preferred the Sennies. And BTW I have sold the HD800s, not because they were bad, but I felt they were not really being used so should go to a home where they would be more appreciated. And since posting earlier have received a balanced cable to use with the HD800S & the portable Pioneer 30R but cannot decide if balanced is an improvement. To me it is impossible to accurately compare subtle differences in sound when plugging and unplugging leads is required between listening.

    But I did make one comparison which might be of interest. I cued up the same piece of chamber music on the main listening post with the focals and on the Pioneer 30R using the Sennies. The difference was not a chalk and cheese one. Yes I still preferred the focals but it was surprising to find just how far music reproduction on portable players has progressed.
    Hoegaardener70 and Alu like this.
  4. All Day Breakfast
    As a somewhat frequent attendee at concerts I think your analysis of the difficulties recording large orchestras makes total sense. My main driver for an audiophile solution to frequent concert attendance is to avoid the one major problem of concerts which happens all to frequently to me at least; frustratingly noisy seat neighbors. 2 weeks ago I sat next to someone whose breathing was not only audible to me but people several seats away, or a few concerts back the family of excited visitors to the big city at their first concert continually whispering thinking that was good enough in a concert hall, or the guy who kept tapping his hand on his leg during Mahler's more spirited moments without recognising he was making hearable noise. I could go on...

    It occurs to me after reading your post that I might value the dimensionality of my senns more than I might value any extra detail however that is expressed. I think I'm going to put off auditioning the Utopia while I do some tube rolling with my Isabellina. Thanks for your insights.
  5. phaeton70
    I don't have so much classical music culture, but I love to listen once in a while to Mahler and the like. I do love for example the 8th symphony directed by Boulez (Staatskapelle Berlin , DG), and the realism of Utopia is impressive, you can literally see all the chorus. only minor drawback, the virtual soundstage is smaller than for example HEK or HD800, and closer (say 4th or 5th row instead of 10th or 15th raw)
  6. All Day Breakfast
    Well this may be the most depressing post ever on Head-Fi. Ttwo things have made me alter my slow go approach to spending so much on the Focals, neither of them aural. Last evening in my research on the Utopias I read a post by Tassie Devil in which he describes his life situation and though I'm twelve years younger I'm in more or less the same boat, ie no dependendents, no children, grandchildren etc., no debts, a great flat in a hip neighbourhood of central London and enough money to see out my days quite comfortably. Then last night literally while listening to the above recommended version of Mahler 8 (a good recording!) I heard the constant drone of helicopters above my flat and the constant screaming of the sirens of emergency vehicles. So I pulled up twitter and learned about the terrorist attack on London Bridge, a short 5 minute walk from my home, where I was just hours earlier and Borough Market where I go almost every day. Having grown up without much I still have a certain stinginess about spending on things which aren't essential (and as you can see in my signature, more audio equipment is not essential) but having made some lucky investments I now have ample funds to buy expensive toys for the rest of my days. So last night as the coptors did their thing and the sirens screamed I thought, life is so fragile and fate so mysteriously capricious I enjoy music so much, what am I being so stingy about?

    So I guess that willl be a yes to listening to the Utopias and any necessary electronics to make them sing.

    It's a somber cool gray day in London and I am confused and saddened by the senseless violence that happened last night and continues to happen in places not so immediately close to home. Mahler was 49 years old when he got the inspiration for his 8th symphony and he wrote it in an unusually short amount of time. A bit more than a year later he died of a heart condition. He knew it was coming. His 9th symphony, which I heard only last week by the LSO conducted by a very old Bernard Haitink is an amazing aural tour de force about the human condition. As my mother always reminded me, Carpe Diem!
    Matro5 and Wildcatsare1 like this.
  7. phaeton70
    this is an insanely mad world. we should live our life at max every single day, in whatever condition we are. and music is one of my personal "max".
  8. Hoegaardener70
    I appreciate your interesting contributions on the Utopia, and high-end audio in general. I read them all several times .... deep inside I am not sure what I want to read. I actually have the HD800S and am very happy with them. They are super comfortable and I have nice cables for them(which I believe, do NOT make a difference in sound but just feel better and lighter) ... but ever since I tested the Utopia in a shop I am thinking if the would add some “punch” to my favorite music which are classical piano concertos. The mind is going black and forth despite budget limitations. Your post makes me feel happy again,,,, by keeping the HD800S and stop thinking about it. Thank you!
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2018
  9. Tassie Devil
    Sigh. This audiophilia is a challenging affliction.

    I was without my Focal Urop[ia's for over 6 month while they went back to France to be repaired. [Incidentally, it was done at no cost to myself :) ] and I enjoyed the music with the Sennheiser HD800S. When the Focals came back I did not experience a "Ureka" moment but used them as the primary cans for several months. Then friends visited cand we played around with various headphones for a bit with one guy admitting the Focals might be more revealing, but he preferred the Sennies.

    After they were gone I did a digital extraction to again compare the two and was taken back at the difference - the Focals really did lift another veil off the music sound and yes, they were clearly better. That genuinely surprised me as I had not experienced that when the Focals first came back. Of course what had happened, as does with many transducers, is that the Focals had bedded in and had changed for the better.

    So the bottom line comes back to the budget and associated gear. Yes, it is worth buying Focal Utopias (second hand like mine) IF you can afford it and IF you have a top ranking DAC and everying else is lined up. And I cannot underline enough how important the DAC is (LGS 004 recommended), and even the cabling used both sides (Canare recommended). With all the ducks lined up, go for the Focals. BUT, if there is any doubt at all, stay with the Sennies as they are super comfortable and do a superb job of music reproduction.
    Hoegaardener70 likes this.
  10. Hoegaardener70
    Sigh .... now listening to my Sennis will be once more ... asking myself if I should get them .... but that is really a very nice problem to have. In fact I had put in a bid for the Utopia on ebay and decided not to further raise it.., it could be mine by now. BUT I HAVE TO ... RESIST.

    By the way, one reason not to buy them was a certain worry of driver failure for a second hand purchase. How did you manage to get them repaired with no cost? Focal being nicer than their reputation ? Best regards, and enjoy your newly regained Utopias ....
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2018
  11. Tassie Devil
    I really do not know the reason I was not charged but guess mine were an early release which later was found to have as fault. So, to buy used or not is a gamble, one in which I was lucvky because Focal do not have a generous reputation. Faced with buying used again I would make sure the seller was the original owner, and would back me up if later problems emerged. It emerges now that what I did was super risky, I bought used from overseas and it turns out I was owner no 3!!! Not recommended anyone follow suit!. I'll be 83 next month so you would think that after 60+ years messing around with audio I had learned a lesson two. But then, this is a prime example of where audiophilia smothers all common sense.
    Hoegaardener70 likes this.
  12. Hoegaardener70

    Yes, you were really lucky there! I must admit learning to be owner number 3 is not what one expects (I saw that you got the Utopia here on Head-if, even more concerning)... and I feel now the people who bought from me were lucky because I always gave a 100% accurate description. Seems you also accruedheadphone 2nd hand Karma, since Focal has actually a really bad customer reputation :). Well, I try to take your advice on paperwork, Or even better, take the advice not to get Utopia at all ... Until I listened to them, I was very happy with my HD800S.
  13. up late
    the utopia comes with a non-transferable warranty, which isn't unusual and is not an indication of poor customer service. poor customer service would be a failure by focal to honour the warranty.
  14. MozartMan1201
    Guys, allow me to chime in on this old thread. As someone who has auditioned both Utopia, HD800S, as well as the vastly underrated AKG K812, and who regularly attends the Los Angeles Philharmonic (30+ concerts each season for the past fifteen years), here are my impressions in a nutshell --

    HD800S - Wide sound stage the size of the Met, Feels like sitting in row 15-20 orchestra or mezzanine. Ideal for large-scale orchestral /choral works and Romantic grand operas. Not so good for chamber music or lieder or the Classical piano concertos, which sound too distant (Just picture Cecilia Bartoli singing at the Met!)

    K812 - Same wide stage, acoustics more alive and less warm than the Sennheiser. Feels like sitting in row 1-5. Ideal for chamber music, lieder and operas/symphonies where you want to study microscopic details in total clarity.

    Utopia - Smallest stage of the three. Feels like sitting in row 1-5 at a small Italian opera house (I'm thinking Teatro Rossini of Pesaro or Teatro La Fenice of Venice). Ideal for ALL classical music genres. The acoustics also most closely replicates my live concert experience, mainly the sensation of rich smooth balanced bass gently flooding the entire hall (too much in the Sennheiser, too little in the AKG). The Utopia combines the microscopic details of AKG *and* the gorgeous warmth of Sennheiser -- albeit from a smaller stage.

    Hope this helps.
    Merry Christmas!
  15. Tassie Devil
    Interesting post Mozart Man.

    Me chiming in again, now 83 and embarrassed to see the gear I posted about last year has now been changed:gs1000smile:. But it has been for the better. I now sport a LKS DA-004 modified by Ric Schultz as the DAC and have just replaced the Aries with an Auralic G1 and have been downloading hi-rez files. The Focal Utopias are still in use although now connected with balanced MIT cabling. All these recent "upgrades" have widened the soundstage to near that of the Sennies.

    A visiting friend recently proclaimed he preferred the Sennie 800S to the Focals. Yes they are more comfortable but to these tired old ears the Focals do reproduce classical music better.

    Surely I'm now at the end of the road? Roon feeding by direct LAN cabling to the Auralic G1 -> balanced Canare digital cabling (much more important than previously recognised) -> LKS -> Violectric 281 -> Focal Utopias via MIT cable. The last few changes have definitely improved the reproduced classical music quality, not dramatically, but subtlety . And that of course is the price of chasing Audio Nirvana - the price increase is exponential for small linear sound improvements.

    I cannot enjoy the concerts that Mozart Man is so priveliged to attend but do enjoy the next best thing in a comfortable chair at home.:dt880smile:
    Matro5 likes this.

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